You had an urge to train racehorses from a very early age. Can you recollect and explain what it was that drove your ambition?
Growing up with dad training, I found the whole business fascinating but realised how tough it was. He had a couple of lean years and it soon hit home what a competitive game it is. I used to know the form inside out, aged 12. I remember being on holiday with Jimmy FitzGerald’s daughter, Siobhan, and I used to reel off the form of all her father’s horses.
I was just passionate about the whole racing scene, but I have to admit there was a time when I set out on an accountancy course and could have followed another career. I think it’s the only thing I have in common with Jim Bolger, who is a failed accountant as well!
Before taking out a licence you spent time with Robert Alner, Sir Mark Prescott and your father Harry, while you worked for Coolmore in Australia and America. What lessons did you learn?
I started for Coolmore in Ireland at Kilsheelan Stud, a National Hunt farm. Then I went to Longfields, where we had a lot of the Magnier-Sangster horses. Demi O’Byrne was very good to me and took me to Saratoga Sales when I was 18. I was also selling nominations at Coolmore; it was so instructive seeing the breeding/business side of the operation.
From the training perspective you realised how many various methods got results; there wasn’t one fixed formula that worked. Attention to detail is the one thing that stands out everywhere; another is keeping your horses healthy.
With Robert and Sally [Alner] there was a lot of road and hill work; they were great at freshening up horses. Robert is such a horseman and Sally brilliant with the feeding. Here we focus on the health aspect; if they’re not healthy you can’t run them.
How big a part does your wife Heather play in the operation at Knockeen, Waterford, particularly at the sales and sourcing stock?
Heather is very involved in all aspects of the business. Like all good marriages, we discuss everything in depth, then we just do what she says! In fairness, she is wise enough to stay out of the day-to-day nitty-gritty with the horses, but she is always around and very good at seeing things I might not.
Heather can think outside the box and it is always good to have her more cerebral aspect of things; she has got a different perspective than me and I think we complement each other.
We always work together at the sales. It is quite telling when I ring any of the lads to say I’m coming to look at a few stores and they always ask, ‘Is Heather coming?’ I think they know who’s got the better eye!
Heather is very involved in all aspects of the business. Like all good marriages, we discuss everything in depth, then we just do what she says!
What changes would you like to see to improve Irish racing – and could Britain learn anything from Ireland?
In England you see how well the owners, the backbone of the sport, are looked after. From the stable staff, to the jockeys, through to the owners, it is very apparent that their needs are catered for to a higher standard than in Ireland. But there are changes taking place in Ireland, at Leopardstown, for instance, where there are great new facilities for owners and trainers.
The owners are the important people, funding so much of the sport; the more we can look after them the better. The bar is being raised all the time over here and the racing is becoming increasingly competitive, but there are more opportunities in England, where it is very professional, particularly from the marketing point of view at the Jockey Club racecourses like Cheltenham and Aintree.
I was also impressed on a visit to Stratford, where there was a big crowd at what must be considered one of your smaller courses.
You are best known for training Sizing Europe, the outstanding two-mile chaser who was still winning at the top level aged 12. Of all the big days you enjoyed with this horse, which stands out most?
It would have to be the 2010 Arkle because it was our first winner at the Cheltenham Festival after a few disappointments. Sizing Europe had been favourite for the Champion Hurdle and flopped, then I thought he was going to run real well in the Champion the following year but he got sick with transit fever.
So it was fantastic for him to let everyone know what a talented horse he was. I accept the Champion Chase, which he won the following year, is a more prestigious race, but in the Arkle he told everyone that he had finally arrived.
Can you explain the impact Sizing Europe had on the stable and your life in general?
He helped to establish the business and gave us a shove up the ladder. They always say you need a Saturday horse for recognition. He had a massive impact on my career and our life in general. He gave us all the exposure any stable needs when trying to get going.
In the days of Sizing Europe’s Cheltenham escapades you used to travel to the Festival in the back of the horsebox. Is this still your preferred mode of transport?
Yes, I travelled in the back of the lorry again last year. To be honest, it is quite relaxing after the hectic build-up to the meeting. It gives you a bit of time to yourself – you can read the papers, chill out and enjoy the journey. The reason I started joining Sizing Europe in the back was because he was such a bad traveller.
Once off the ferry on the way to the Arkle, we pulled into the side of the road, nipped into this field and gave him a drink and a good lead out. It was strange, really, these four horses having a walk round some field in Wales, but Sizing Europe arrived at Cheltenham in the right frame of mind and did the business.
Every year since then, Ffos Las have kindly let us break up each Cheltenham journey on the racecourse.
You are currently third in the Irish trainers’ championship behind Willie Mullins, whose domination at home and at the Cheltenham Festival has been a continuing headline story. Do you see such supremacy as a good or bad thing for racing?
I think that it’s a good thing. Fifteen years ago we were complaining about all the bumper winners and good young stock being sold and exported overseas. Now they are staying in Ireland. That has got to be encouraging. However, you are competing at the highest level and you guys in England are getting to see it with Willie going over most weekends. We all have to step up and take him on.
We can’t complain, now that we are keeping the best and getting more and more quality horses from France. Willie is doing his job to the best of his ability and that makes us raise our game. He is a brilliant trainer and a gentleman from an incredible family.
Can you ever see yourself being in a position to challenge for the title, and is this something you want?
You have to have the numbers and I am delighted to be training just under 60 horses. I don’t think a 60-box yard would enable us to compete for a trainers’ championship. In any case, I am a bit of a control freak, so I like to know what’s going on; as the string gets bigger and bigger, that gets harder and harder.
I am very happy with our numbers although, of course, we are trying to improve the quality all the time.
With the likes of Identity Thief and Special Tiara, you’re not afraid to run your best horses in Britain. Is this something you anticipate doing more of in future, perhaps even to avoid the Mullins runners?
Yes, why not? If I’ve got a horse that’s happy travelling, capable of competing for the good races and prefers the better ground generally found on English courses. We are fortunate to have a number of English-based owners who enjoy having runners there, as do our Irish owners. They are all so well looked after and it makes for a nice trip away.
There are plenty of opportunities and it’s not just a case of avoiding Willie Mullins because there are some fantastic English trainers to take on as well. It’s very tough wherever you race – I am just happy to be able to compete at that level.
This year’s Tingle Creek Chase saw Special Tiara lose out to Sire de Grugy having been badly hampered at the final fence, a result upheld by the stewards. How did you view it?
I made my view pretty clear at the time and feel the best horse on the day was not allowed to win the race. It was clever riding by Jamie Moore. Noel [Fehily] went to go up his right hand side after the second last and you could see Jamie manoeuvre across to force Noel on his left. Jamie had got him where he wanted. In my opinion we were completely taken out at the last. But, we went over there, those are the rules and that’s the way it unfolded, sadly.
It does seem somewhat bizarre if the best horse on the day isn’t allowed to win the race, and a lot of people have very strong opinions that the rule is wrong and needs revisiting. That’s my feeling as well. I am told we would have got the race in a lot of other jurisdictions. The ruling on interference has become quite an issue with English racing.
While you have attracted the likes of JP McManus and Gigginstown to your stable, Ann and Alan Potts are easily your biggest owners and clearly have huge faith in your abilities. Why does the relationship work so well?
The first season Alan came to me, I had three winners and was going through a bad patch. He arrived to look at a point-to-pointer, formed an opinion on us and took the view that we could do it together. To have a man that successful in business – his company Mining Machinery Development makes mining machines called Mineral Sizers, hence all the ‘Sizing’ names of their horses – was a fantastic boost for us. So Alan and Ann have been huge supporters from the very beginning and, like a lot of our owners, they enjoy having a chasing type and are very happy to give their horses time to develop.
Jonathan Burke is a very intelligent rider and it all comes very naturally to him; he is 19 and I believe he will be a champion jockey
Jonathan Burke, who took over as retained rider for the Potts, seems to be a wise head on young shoulders. What are his main attributes as a jump jockey and is he a future champion?
He’s a very hard worker, very intelligent rider and a lovely young guy. It all comes very naturally to him; he seems to be in the right place at the right time, he’s very good at judging pace and presents a horse at a fence so well. He is 19 and I believe he will be a champion jockey one day. His father Liam, who saddled My Murphy to win the Thyestes Chase, has moulded Johnny and Ruby Walsh and has also helped him along the way.
A lot of younger jockeys don’t get the opportunity to learn how tough this game can be, but Johnny knows, thanks to people like his dad. He appreciates everything he’s getting at the moment.
Are there plans to increase the current size of your 60-box yard and even develop a larger string of Flat horses?
You are always tweaking things and you always need to sex things up, but the number we have is just about right. If we can maintain our results for the rest of my career I’d be very happy. As a relatively new project, we have half a dozen Flat horses with a view to jumping.
I feel there are opportunities for three- and four-year-old hurdlers and in the past I haven’t really had the right horses for those races. Now I am addressing that situation.
You are well known for keeping your owners and followers informed via Twitter and Facebook. Have your daily communications resulted in any new owners or syndicates?
We have three syndicates – all with winners – that we run through Facebook. We have a very good man in Michael O’Callaghan, who organises it for us. The first syndicate we set up through Facebook was in 2008. And, as Michael points out, we got 20 people together we had never met before, all keen to be involved during the worst financial crisis Ireland has ever seen.
The members, who include English owners, are great supporters of racing and really enthusiastic. We find social media very useful, giving smaller owners a chance to be involved.
How much of your schedule is geared around getting your horses to peak at the Festival? Is it now too big, to the detriment of other meetings/races?
We try to gear ourselves to all the festivals. We work our way to Christmas at Leopardstown, perhaps with the odd runner at Kempton, and then back off the festival horses before aiming them towards the spring festivals at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown and Fairyhouse. I love Aintree, which is a superb festival and any owners we have brought there have really enjoyed the whole scene.
We all focus on Cheltenham but there are other festivals which are just as much fun. At times Cheltenham does take too much focus away from the rest of the season, but its position at the forefront of the overall sporting arena has got to be good for the exposure of National Hunt racing.
Though it can be a bit frustrating when you win a Grade 1 around Christmas time and immediately afterwards you find it’s not really about winning that particular race, as the focus invariably turns straight towards Cheltenham. That takes a bit of the shine off winning a Grade 1.
At this stage which are your main hopes for Cheltenham?
We’ll probably have a core group for some of the Grade 1 races: Supasundae in the Supreme; Sizing John in the Arkle or JLT; Identity Thief in the Champion Hurdle; Special Tiara in the Champion Chase; Smashing in the Ryanair.
Then hopefully Aupcharlie will qualify for the Foxhunter and Buckers Bridge may go for one of the Cheltenham handicaps before the Topham at Aintree. Alisier d’Irlande is a pretty good novice chaser who could join the party, but I wouldn’t attempt to say which is my best prospect. I would be putting everyone wrong!
Training racehorses is a full-on, 24/7 existence. How do you switch off?
If you ask Heather she would say I don’t switch off! I’m very lucky to work in racing – it’s my passion as well as my job. I enjoy watching the good horses and races, even when I don’t have a runner.
The twins Mia and Jack, 6, and Georgia, 4, all ride so we enjoy watching them at Pony Club and shows. Sometimes we’ll go and watch rugby together. They also like coming to the races with us.