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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 27 February, 2020

'Three grand is all he cost! Can you imagine?' It's a long way from Tipperary for unlikely Epsom Dash favourite Hathiq

Trainer Denis Hogan could be headline racing news in Britain this weekend.

Hathiq and Rory Cleary win the Curragh Official Opening Day Handicap last weekend.
Hathiq and Rory Cleary win the Curragh Official Opening Day Handicap last weekend.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THERE ARE DIFFERENT ways to look at the Derby Saturday, the majority of racing fans probably a little uneasy about it all.

On Thursday, I spent time doing a bit of interviews for Off The Ball, which was filming three young jockeys at Fairyhouse. We arrived hours before the first.

“This place will be nuts later on, right?”said one of the cameramen.


There might have been a dozen paying patrons. Fairyhouse for a Flat meeting is essentially industry fodder; ditto Gowran, Cork, Navan and so on. We have the best Flat horses in the world in this country but people do not care enough to go.

Some of this simply has to be down to the dominance of Aidan O’Brien, who supplies most of the runners in the Derby, and that of Coolmore, which owns them all. Let us look at the Curragh on Guineas weekend.

Our most historic and iconic racetrack, having undergone a redevelopment that cost not a great deal south of €100,000,000, hosted two Classic cards, as well as a cracking appetiser on Friday evening.

For whatever reason, CEO Derek McGrath refused to break down the attendance figures day-by-day, but even the aggregate number – 15,495 – is fairly shocking. Let us think about this for a moment.

Attendance figures at Irish race meets include everyone paying in with AIR cards, including trainers, owners, jockeys, bookmakers, employees of the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Body, journalists and so on. Multiply all of the above by three and the number of people who actually paid in to visit our most modern racetrack, which still is enjoying its honeymoon spell (albeit an uneasy one), last weekend must be pretty dismal.

And one cannot just blame the Curragh: people simply do not care enough. So in this world of everyone being subservient to Coolmore, to the genius that is Aidan O’Brien, to Galileo – he’s the daddy – we must marvel in the victory of the man around the corner.

Dubliner James McAuley, who has trained some nice horses in his time, went to the Goffs sales in January, intent on spending small. A five-year-old bay gelding walked around the ring, having not run since 2016, back when he was a two-year-old.

There was little or no interest in him, despite his having won a maiden. Acting on behalf of owner James Gough, McAuley bought little-remembered Hathiq for three lousy grand.

He sent him to young trainer Denis Hogan, a big Tipperary hurling fan and working hard to make a name for himself. He finished well-beaten in his first Irish start and it was hardly too inspiring that he was then beaten in a claimer on the all-weather.

Three runs later he is favourite for one of the most iconic sprint races in Europe, the £100,000 Epsom Dash, on Derby day. Oh and he took in a win at the Curragh on Guineas weekend – even if few were there to witness – on Guineas weekend.

I bumped into Gough at Fairyhouse and met a pensioner now a teenager at his first disco. “We were even looking into bringing a plane to Epsom for the fun of it but they were looking for £15,000 among six of us! We can’t be doing that!”

“Three grand is all he cost! Can you imagine? And he’s favourite for the Epsom Dash!”

Riding will be journeyman jockey Rory Cleary, from the back arse of nowhere when it comes to horses, near Athlone town. His dad, Tommy, trains from that location. Tommy lost his son, Sean, after a fall in a race in Galway in 2003. Ask anyone about the Clearys and you generally just get glowing tributes about their decency.

Rory Cleary steering a favourite on Derby day is a billion-to-one stuff. That he is trained by Denis Hogan and cost £3,000 earlier this year is another billion-to-one.

The race itself must be utterly exhilarating, like being chased by cheetahs downhill over five furlongs before a hundred thousand people. I asked Pat Smullen, one of the handful at Fairyhouse, what it was like. He never even rode in it.

“He’s travelled over very well,” Hogan says. “Lovely weight. Really looking forward to it.

“We never expected we were going to be going to Epsom on Derby day after buying him for three grand in January.”

The Derby (4.30) is the race after the Dash (3.45); one has visions of dutiful Epsom security ushering Gough and his party out of the ring lest the big race be delayed. In the third Classic of the season, the most powerful trio in racing – Coolmore, O’Brien and Ryan Moore – look to have by far the most likely winner in Sir Dragenot.

He is a little like Hathiq in that he did no racing last year and was on nobody’s radar for most of his life, only to bolt up in a maiden and then win a Chester trial like a monster. Go heavy.

Closer to home, Dermot Weld teams up with young apprentice Andrew Slattery and they can strike Sunday at Listowel with Frosty Beach (2.55).

According to Denis Hogan, “it helps to be high” – even if he were talking about the Epsom draw. When asked what is more likely, an Epsom win for Hathiq or an All-Ireland success for Tipperary, he replies: “Liam Sheedy has a better strike-rate than me!”

He may not be Dermot Weld, nor Aidan O’Brien – but Hogan could be headline racing news in Britain thanks to a horse acquired for less than 20 per cent what it costs to run in the Epsom Derby.

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