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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 18 February, 2020

No escape from lure of horse ownership for me after Operation Houdini

Johnny Ward trots down memory lane and praises the humble claimer.

'Aye Aye Skipper cost buttons and won twice in a week, at Killarney and up the Curragh.'
'Aye Aye Skipper cost buttons and won twice in a week, at Killarney and up the Curragh.'
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

YOU CAN TELL plenty about someone by the calibre of sympathisers at his funeral.

Earlier this month, John Walsh – author of ‘Headcase’, a friend since I was a teenager and father of three children – surrendered unwillingly after a harrowingly long battle with illness. John was a guy with whom you clicked immediately, such that I met him in the bookmakers and was his flatmate within a matter of months.

His life was celebrated at a ceremony in Milltown, County Galway. Journalist Jim Carney, former football great Michael Donnellan, Galway hurling manager Micheál Donoghue – as well as his players, Joe Canning and David Burke – all paid their respects to John Walsh.

John was pivotal in getting me interested in horses. As one does, I sought the warmth of old photos on his passing and there was only one place to go: Operation Houdini.

John and I owned around half a leg each of Operation Houdini, though every time we posed for a winning photo new part-owners seemed to emerge from a hologram in the parade ring. My first stab at ownership had the worst possible outcome: the horse was good.

He finished second five times before a maiden victory but he ended up coming second in a Cork National and a Troytown, sent off short prices in the Paddy Power and the Welsh National. These are big races.

Like your first bet winning, you’re better off if your first horse is useless. Operation Houdini inspired me to look to the stars, usually from the gutter.

The Newbie did a tendon on his debut, was about to return a year later and did his tendon again, never again to be heard of.

Barrio cost a fortune and couldn’t move.

Murgan suffered a fatal injury two days after the conclusion of a syndicate I formed.

Not Touch was cheap, ran accordingly and got injured.

Pierre D’or did not mature like a fine wine and was worth the equivalent of one in Aldi after his last outing.

Another horse was so forgettable I can’t remember his name but he never ran.

Deeds Not Words cost a fortune, ran 21 times and did nothing but frustrate, only to return to England and win no less than nine races.

Undressed quickly went backwards after going long odds-on in running in on his debut for yours truly in a €50,000 race, seemingly in terminal decline.

It was not all bad. Johnny Levins’ Aye Aye Skipper cost buttons and won twice in a week, at Killarney and up the Curragh. Ask my journalist colleague Daniel McDonnell, part-owner, and he will put those memories right up there with his wedding day. And he enjoyed his wedding day.

Fuwairt, whilst frustrating, got his head in front and was sold on, albeit at a loss. This brings me to Sbraase and the actual point of this article: an ode to the humble claimer.

In the US, claiming races are nearly as common as a left-handed oval. They run them for huge purses; there is no stigma whatever.

In Ireland, the attitude to running a horse in a claimer was akin to the Bull McCabe and his field. A public auction may ensue but heaven forbid you claim a horse off another trainer, lest you seek the death of the Yank – or worse again, seek to become a racecourse pariah.

“Our mindset on claimers has changed in recent years and if we enter in one we are not afraid to lose it: in fact we embrace it,” says trainer Ger Lyons.

Sbraase was a horse I followed because of my connection with Johnny Levins, who was interviewed before a Sligo claimer in which Sbraase was running in June of last year. He was put in for €4,000, meaning he had bottom weight in the race (horses carry weight in claimers dependent on what price they are valued at by the trainer).

Moreover, any horse running in a claimer can be acquired at the stated price, regardless of how he or she performs.

Levins told At The Races viewers that Sbraase probably needed a change and so did he, but the little horse might be a bit of fun. He ran a blinder in the race, I claimed him (via Gavin Cromwell) and he spent exactly a year with us: his last run was in the very same claimer a year later, on Tuesday last at Sligo.

“There should be more – one every week in place of a 0-65 handicap,” Lyons goes on. “I supported most if not all last year and, if your horse is not claimed on the night, it is often purchased in the following days.

“It’s a great way to move horses on without having to wait months for sales, costing more money on keep and entries to sales. In the USA you can claim high-quality horses to have runners at certain big meets and when the meet is over you drop back into claimer and move on. A similar approach would be great here.”

The sea-change in Ireland has been stark. In 2002, we ran seven claimers in this country. Last year we ran 40. The only thing that has not really changed is the calibre or race: unlike in the States, Ireland is no country for a good claiming race.

In the 12 months that I owned Sbraase, he finished in the money 10 times. He won three races, seeing the track roughly every three weeks. My humble hero even landed gambles in two of the most iconic weeks of the calendar, that of Glorious Goodwood and Royal Ascot – even if his races took place at Wolverhampton and Sligo.

And here’s the other thing. Gavin Cromwell rang me the Wednesday before last Thursday’s meet at Leopardstown, suggesting to swerve it and focus on Sligo. As it turned out, the prize-money for both races was nearly identical; as it turned out, one race was desperately hard to win and the other about as weak as you’ll get.

There are mixed feelings after winning a claimer, as you are expecting to lose the horse (though you can attempt to claim him back). On Tuesday, Sbraase left from County Meath and ended up in County Derry at the yard of Noel Kelly, having won at Sligo in between. Good luck to Kelly and his new owner.

So there you have it: how to claim a horse and have him claimed in the same race 12 months later for the same amount, without any irritating expense of sending him to the sales (possibly without selling him). I did not even have to pay for his transport home from Sligo.

When it comes to ownership, I’m like the vast majority – mired in the red – but at least when it comes to claimers, I’m very much in the black.

There won’t be any claimers in Royal Ascot, which concludes tomorrow. One thing I love about Royal Ascot is the possibility of admiring a top-class steed go to war twice in the space of a few days.

Blue Point bids to make it two successes at the Royal meet in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (4.20) but each-way preference is for Le Brivido, dropping back in distance for Aidan O’Brien and 14-1 with Betway.

Misty Millie, whose rider Donagh O’Connor once boasted of having the honour of riding Sbraase, can take the Sean Graham Bookmakers Handicap at Down Royal (4.45) too.

And even if both of these are beaten, don’t listen to Maria Bailey.

Listen to Sbraase.

Making a claim can pay.

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