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Dublin: 11°C Wednesday 23 September 2020

Johnny Ward column: new alliances, new racetracks and Kevin Prendergast

There’s plenty to get excited about as the flat season gets going.

NOTHING PROMISES THE impending summer like the return of the Flat season.

It might not be the Curragh in two days’ time, Naas again standing in whilst Irish Flat headquarters’ redevelopment nears its conclusion, but there is something special about the return of racing on the level.

Even if many racing fans in this country remain curiously indifferent.

John Oxx with Skitter Scatter John Oxx with Skitter Scatter this week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It is an Irish anomaly in terms of the sport. We have among the best Flat trainers, jockeys and most importantly horses in the world – but point-to-point fixtures in the depths of winter perennially attract more of a crowd than the Curragh might on an average Sunday in June.

Perhaps people are bored of Aidan O’Brien being so powerful (allied to a Coolmore behemoth that is not easy to warm to) but the great man is not necessarily quite as dominant as he once was; indeed, remarkably, he has no horse at single figures in any of the Classic markets.

In the opening maiden Sunday, 11 different trainers are represented, most of the big names absent. The absentees include Ger Lyons (who nevertheless has around 50 juveniles this season), Dermot Weld, Joseph O’Brien (approximately 60 each) and his father Aidan – who will still have most of those coveted Galileos.

Note, too, that Jack Davison – one of our youngest trainers and who prepared meticulously to cut it at this level – has his stable star, Fresnel, tackling the big yards in the Park Express.

There are many other alluring aspects to the 2019 narrative. Here are three.

John Oxx and Patrick Prendergast

“I’d nearly forgotten what you looked like,” half-joked John Oxx at the launch of the Irish Flat season on Wednesday. In this case, statistics don’t lie.

The genial Oxx kicked off properly as a trainer with 46 winners in 1989. Thirty years later, he began the year having just suffered his worst season since, with a paltry nine winners – the first time he had dipped to single figures since 30 years previous.

If you were to ask the average Irish racegoer which Flat trainer would rate the most noble gentleman in the country, most of the vote would likely go to Oxx but pretty much everyone who meets Patrick Prendergast comments on how likeable he is. His maiden Group One victory with Skitter Scatter last year and also his winning an award at Horse Racing Ireland’s yearly gong warmed the heart in 2018.

When Prendergast accepted his award that night in Dublin, he had not noticed that his suit pants were tucked into his socks, which perhaps betrayed his anxiety at his table as he waited on the result. When I mentioned it to it afterwards, he laughed it off with characteristic humility.

And it is humility that seems to be key to this most unlikely of alliances. It is said that Prendergast, whose success last year offered no guarantee whatever of more horses, has looked around the vast Curragh plains on occasion, observing the most erudite of horsemen who had fallen on hard times. Perhaps he wanted security and the chance to work with one of Irish racing’s legends.

In terms of a Flat game that can get a bit sterile at times, any winner Oxx trains this season – and he is very much the boss – will be cheered home with particular enthusiasm.

Old Kevin Prendergast and young Madhmoon

Kevin Prendergast Trainer, Kevin Prendergast. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

They say you should never give up – unless we are talking about cigarettes. Kevin Prendergast was 50 when he did, advised so by his father Darkie, and 36 years later he is going strongly in a manner to make a mockery of his age.

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Prendergast loves a couple of pints in the evening, a spot of fishing when he gets chance – and Madhmoon. A winner of the the Group 2 juveniles’ race on Champions Weekend, Prendergast is brave enough to suggest that Hamdan Al Maktoum’s colt may be better than Awtaad, who provided the stable with an Irish 2000 Guineas winner 40 years after its first.

Perhaps we are prone to getting a little soppy about our elders but there is nothing soppy about Kevin Prendergast looking forward to potentially winning another Classic at the age of 86. Horsemen think little of riding out every morning into their late 70s – think John Kiely and Frank Oakes – whilst age, too, is but a figure to Kevin Prendergast.

He is lucky he gave up the fags.

Facelifts and makeovers

It may not be up there with the Children’s Hospital but questions need to be asked about how the Curragh’s redevelopment has cost so much more than it was expected to. The decision taken by Horse Racing Ireland to delay the start of the track’s 2019 programme to May was forgivable, yet that there is a rumoured budget overrun of up to €25 million on Irish racing’s biggest-ever capital development project.

In particular, there was the shambles that was the parade ring having to be done all over again as the original one was not big enough. However, Irish racegoers can finally enjoy a world-class facility come May and the new Curragh feels like a proper racetrack.

The challenge the designers had was to cater for Derby day, when you might get a crowd of 30,000, and every other meet, when it is usually a struggle to get 5,000. “I like that it’s compact. There are a lot of ordinary days as opposed to Derby day and they’re the days you want to create a little atmosphere. I think they’ve done a great job,” said Oxx.

The next challenge for the Curragh is to get people back racing there, many having given up over this century, partly because the place was so dilapidated.

Leopardstown’s redevelopment continues apace. Its saddling stalls are ready, the new south entrance will be ready for Derrinstown Day in May and the foundations for the new weighing room is underway.

Go racing.

  • Thankfully, Dundalk has kept Flat fans alert over the winter. Not an especially inspiring card commences tonight (Friday) with a claimer (5.10), in which County Cavan-based Steve Donohoe may strike with an overdue winner in the shape of Connemara Queen.

It looks worth chancing Alpha Indi for Gordon Elliott in the Molson Coors Handicap Hurdle (3.20) at Downpatrick Sunday too, while Tresorier (2.35 at Naas) could be a lively one for another young trainer in John Feane.

Young trainers, old trainers – all will harp back to days like Sunday when the return of the Flat tells you the summer is near.

Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne dissect Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations campaign, and discuss the pros and cons of rugby’s new law proposals in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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