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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019

'We all love getting up in the morning hoping we are going to see something special'

Legendary trainer John Oxx ready for the new flat racing season after joining forces with Patrick Prendergast.

John Oxx and Skitter Scatter: “She was constantly underrated by people last year and kept improving.
John Oxx and Skitter Scatter: “She was constantly underrated by people last year and kept improving."
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHEN IT WAS announced that Patrick Prendergast would be handing in his licence to join forces with neighbour John Oxx, it took many by surprise.

He had just enjoyed his best season in terms of winners, prizemoney and securing that coveted breakthrough Group One success with Skitter Scatter, who would be a candidate to propel him to potential classic glory.

But of course Prendergast had been considering his options for some time and considered all the evidence, not just that which might suit him. It would have been easy to have been swayed by what happened last year but history suggests that at the scale he could operate in Melitta Lodge, repeating 2018 would be very difficult. Building on it, almost impossible.

So he stuck to his guns and approached Oxx, a man who had the facility to operate at a more significant level numbers-wise, but for some reason, had found those numbers dwindling significantly in recent years, with fortunes declining as a result.

So it was that a smiling Prendergast looked on as Oxx dealt with the media at Currabeg for the official launch of the flat season, which gets under way in Naas next Sunday, where the plan is that they will have two runners in three-year-old fillies Ho Ho Bird, who ran twice for Prendergast last season, and the unraced Rue De Russie.

Oxx is the name, his is the premises, but even as he referred to “Patrick’s horses”, relating to those that have made the crossover including Skitter Scatter, who is being prepared for a tilt at the 1000 Guineas in Newmarket, it was very clear that Prendergast maintained a major role in the operation and was in no way taking a step back.

While some staff made the transfer to Currabeg with the horses, Melitta Lodge is now housed by babies, who Prendergast pre-trains, a process he enjoyed tremendous success with when returning to Ireland initially from his position as assistant to Michael Stoute in England.

Training came afterwards, and he clearly carried on the genes of his legendary grandfather ‘Darkie’, his Royal Ascot- and NH Grade One-winning father ‘Long Paddy’, and his multiple classic-winning Uncle Kevin, who at 86, has a bright classic prospect among the colts in the year ahead in Madhmoon.

Oxx was someone he had always gotten on with and in truth, they are very similar operators, happier to let their horses do the talking.

John Oxx being interviewed by Kevin O'Ryan as seen in a reflection on a reporters' phone Oxx speaks to the media at Currabeg on Wednesday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Oxx has seen it and done it all, registered nearly 300 group and listed races, including 11 classics. Ridgewood Pearl, Sinndar, Alamshar, Azamour and the sensational Sea The Stars were just some of those that benefited from his patient stewardship.

“I’d nearly forgotten what you looked like,” he quipped, as the media gathered around him. He might not be one to shout from the rooftops, but not having cause to answer question is the surest indicator of the quality of your string.

“Last year I counted up, when we’d got into the season, that we had only seven horses that might possibly win a race. I think we won eight so were proved right. But this year thank God we’re not in that boat – at this stage anyway!”

The string is now at around 75, with many of the new owners who supported him in leaner times still there, while Godolphin continue to provide patronage. The Boys in Blue have 15 at Currabeg this year, including some sharp juveniles.

It is the link with Prendergast that has changed the game for him though.

“Patrick is a man I have always got on well with and I’ve known him all his life. I like the way he does things and we get on very well together. It was a very straightforward decision to make to join up – it was very easy for me, I’m sure a bit more difficult for him to decide he wasn’t going to have a trainer’s licence anymore. I was very pleased and it came at the right time for us.

“He has brought some more horses which we needed and a couple of good ones, in particular Skitter Scatter.

It was on his mind for a while before he approached me. It’s been coming for a good while before it was announced. It was difficult, when he’d just had his best year to say, ‘I’m at a crossroads.’ His place wasn’t big enough, he couldn’t expand and decided he wanted a different path. He’s full of enthusiasm and is going to get me more horses.

“Patrick still has horses in Melitta that he is pre-training. He takes some in, we do quarantine on them there and he gets them going. He still has a little string there, and is out with me for all the fast work. He’s in and out of the place. It’s a nice arrangement.

“Nothing has changed here, we still have the same staff and still Jimmy ‘Slim’ (O’Neill) is my assistant. Patrick has sent a few lads to me. It’s working well. He’s easy to work with. I hope I am too! It’s not a complicated arrangement.”

The likelihood is that if the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board allowed dual licence-holders as is the case in Australia, that Oxx and Prendergast would have gone that route. It is only because it is not allowed that Prendergast handed his in to row in with his new partner.

“That should come. Somebody brought it up with the Turf Club (IHRB) a few years ago and the Trainers’ Association said there was no call for it but I don’t know if they canvassed too many people.

“I think the Turf Club need to be open to it. Sure why not? Somebody in the Turf Club said, if there were two on the licence, who would be responsible if there was a transgression, (such as) doping. Well the two of them would be responsible! It’s straightforward. Not complicated at all.”

Skitter Scatter Skitter Scatter: set to go straight to Newmarket. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Oxx revealed that Skitter Scatter will go directly to Newmarket on 5 May, all going smoothly.

“She’s a sweet filly, not too big, she’s not a hefty lass but Patrick says she has grown a bit since last year. She has a very good temperament, eats her head off and is very uncomplicated in her work. We haven’t pressed her hard yet. Patrick says she doesn’t need much work and we hope to have her ready for the 1000 Guineas in Newmarket. She should be easy enough to get fit for that barring accidents along the way.

“She was constantly underrated by people last year and kept improving. She improved again when she was stretched out in distance, and it remains to be seen how she will train on.

“In the Moyglare, she looked beat at half-way on soft ground, but in the end won easily. Her relaxed style will help her get a mile, and you wouldn’t expect her to get any more than that.”

No wonder there is a spring in his step.

It’s an exciting time of the year. We are all eternal optimists, and we all love getting up in the morning hoping we are going to see something special.

“The past five or six years has been very frustrating. You are always philosophical about these things. The world never stays the same, there are always changes and you have to keep your head down and battle along.

“We have managed that, and when we weren’t in the limelight every year nice people came along and sent us horses. There are plenty of new owners now which I didn’t have six or eight years ago.

“Hopefully we are in a position now to start having better results and try to reward people that are kind enough to send you horses.”

He revealed that while he would have no retained jockey, Ronan Whelan would maintain his relationship with Skitter Scatter and most of the former Prendergast charges such as the potentially progressive Could Be King at the request of the owners, while Colm O’Donoghue would be used now that his fruitful partnership with Jessica Harrington has come to an end. Niall McCullagh and Ross Coakley are others whose services will be in demand.

It would be hard to find anyone in racing that wouldn’t wish this new arrangement to be a resounding success.

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About the author:

Daragh Ó'Conchúir

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