“Looking back at my first Festival winner, Mister Donovan in 1982, I often wonder whether I would have been able to have any of the others had he been beaten. I don’t remember quite how much we had on but it was important at the time anyway.”
J.P. McManus, Irish Independent, 2014
WHEN Priory Park ran out a comfortable winner of a two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, it was an all too familiar scene, and indeed a much welcomed one. An Edward O’Grady-trained, J.P. McManus-owned winner at one of the biggest meetings on the calendar, and the fact that he was a well backed horse beforehand wasn’t exactly out of sync either.
O’Grady and McManus go back decades. Think Jack Of Trumps, Deep Gale, Mister Donovan, Blitzkrieg, Go Roger Go, Time For A Run. Indeed Mister Donovan was McManus’s first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, winning the SunAlliance Hurdle in 1982, and by his own account above, a very important one.
O’Grady provided it and plenty more for the green and gold and for many others after that. Horses like Golden Cygnet, Sound Man, Nick Dundee, Ned Kelly, Ventana Canyon, Back In Front, Catch Me, Skys The Limit, Sacundai.
Priory Park has a lot to do, but he could be another big-name horse for big-name races coming out Killeens Stables. He goes for the three-mile handicap hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival next. It would be entirely fitting that he goes on to succeed in a big contest this season because on Thursday, Thyestes Chase day at Gowran Park, O’Grady will be training for half a century.
He says it feels like yesterday that he started. In January 1972, he was a veterinary student who harbored thoughts of travelling to Australia and America after his studies, but it all changed for him very quickly.
“I was married on the 3rd of January and then my father passed away on the 13th of January. I sort of went from being a student with a £300 student overdraft to being married, with a widowed mother and a host of employees, all in a blink of an eye. It was a bit of a shock to the system,” O’Grady recalls now.
“The Turf Club kindly gave me a temporary licence. It was just a case of kicking on from there. I was very lucky to have Tim Finn who was my dad’s head lad, and he became a wonderful head lad for me.
“I was also lucky enough to have Timmy Hyde there who had an awful lot of experience, and I also had Mouse Morris there as an amateur. We had the basis of a nice team to go forward.”
O’Grady’s father, Willie, champion jockey in 1934 and 1935, was a successful trainer himself, and left plenty of owners at Killeens but the presumption that it was a straightforward take over for a 23-year-old Edward is way wide of the mark.
“Owners didn’t really stick by me,” O’Grady says. “They were my dad’s owners really. By and large their interest, if that’s the word, went with my dad. I think in my first six weeks I trained six winners but then one of our broodmares got rhinopneumonitis.
“It cleaned out all the horses – some of them died and most of them never ran again. I had no horses at all then. I just had to try and regroup during the summer for the following autumn and with a lot of hard work and help, we managed to do that. It’s been downhill or uphill ever since.”
It took him just two years to train a Cheltenham Festival winner, Mr Midland in the 1974 National Hunt Chase, who coincidentally was owned by one of his father’s owners, Barney Naughton. That was an “enormous success”, the first of 18 Cheltenham winners for him, which until just over a decade ago was the most of any Irish trainer.
Cheltenham has changed since, the Festival now an all encompassing behemoth, but it was always a huge event, and you can easily make the case that 18 winners at the meeting before 2010 were harder got. O’Grady, for a long time, was the go-to man for Ireland in the middle of March.
But while Cheltenham has evolved, the general Irish racing scene has changed significantly more.
“I think we were running for £203 prize money for a race when I started,” O’Grady recalls. “And of course there was no percentage for trainers or jockeys. I think prize money and opportunity for better horses has certainly been the largest progressions.
“Nobody had much more than 40 or 50 horses. Jim Dreaper, who had taken over from his dad, might have taken over the big races, but there was nobody there to dominate those races, so there was a chance for everybody to compete and to make a living, which is basically what we did.
“I still think there’s room for everybody today. Most trainers now get a chance to win the odd battle but they certainly won’t win the war. But if winning the odd battle can keep them afloat then they’ll survive.
“I think this is the way the world has gone. Look at all the lovely shops on the high street in Thurles and Clonmel, they’re all in trouble because you’ve got all the multinationals like the Lidls, the Aldis, the Tescos, all with free car parks. I don’t think racing is any different. That’s the way it is and you just have to try and hope to have a good horse because there’s nothing like success.”
With over 1700 winners trained over jumps, on the flat and in point-to-points, whether it be in Ireland, Britain or France, O’Grady has found plenty of success.
His biggest names scaled the highest heights and yet like so many of the ruthlessly competitive in racing, his mind casts back to the one that got away, Golden Cygnet. He labels the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner as his favourite Cheltenham success and the best horse he’s trained.
“People were just in awe,” O’Grady reflects. “In those days, 99% of the Cheltenham crowd were racing aficionados and they were just in awe of what they’d seen. It was breathtaking. I’m biased but he was probably one of the greatest hurdlers of all time. To lose him in the Scottish Champion Hurdle that same season was just tragic really. He had two of the best hurdlers of all time in Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse, cooked stone cold before he fell at the last. It was a tragedy for the owners and everyone in the yard that he could never reach his potential.”
Fortunately, there have been so many big days. Yet you might be surprised to learn of the day O’Grady just about treasures the most – Drumlargan winning the Whitbread Gold Cup in 1983.
“I think Arkle was the only Irish horse to win the race before him,” he recalls. “It was just an enormous race at the end of the season, when the jumps and flat used to meet on the same day at Sandown. It was a great occasion and I got a lot of pleasure out of winning that.”
The early Cheltenham success for J.P. was clearly significant as well. Before Mister Donovan, there was Deep Gale and Jack Of Trumps. Both fell in separate National Hunt Chases, with the former particularly galling for the pair.
Quoted in the same Irish Independent piece at the top of this feature, O’Grady recalled: “I watched the race (Deep Gale in the National Hunt Chase 1979) with a friend and a bottle of champagne and we were more confident than ever as Deep Gale went out on the final circuit. All he did was a splay-legged Bambi-type slip at the fence after the water. Boots landed off him running but the horse got up just that bit quicker, otherwise he would have got straight back on him and won anyway.
“The sad part about it is that his fall drew the biggest cheer of that day’s racing. It was from the bookmakers. It was an enormous cheer I’ll never forget.”
Then came Mister Donovan. The horse famously failed the vet because he had a murmur in his heart but O’Grady, and later McManus, took their chances with him.
“Mister Donovan was a horse that I judged at a sale at Simmonscourt extension,” the trainer recalls. “We decided that this horse was the winner and I subsequently sold him to a good owner of mine but he failed the vet because he had a murmur in his heart and I ended up owning him.
“We ran him in a good hurdle race at Naas only two and a half weeks before Cheltenham and after that J.P. bought him, a maiden with a murmur.
“Being a very good judge, J.P. fancied him at Cheltenham and the rest is history. I think he backed him, he didn’t tell me but I was just very happy to have the horse sold. It was very exciting because J.P. is a good loser but a wonderful winner.”
Perhaps the most impressive facet of O’Grady’s career was his ability to successfully change codes from jumps to flat in the 1980s and then change back again and be even more successful at Cheltenham in the 1990s.
“The majority of my owners were farmers and farming took a frightful downturn towards the end of the 70s. The first thing to go was the horse. So I changed direction and went into the flat which I have to say, while I never had anything like the success I had over jumps, it was successful financially. We were one of the first to sell horses to Australia and America, and I learned a lot.
“It got a little bit boring I suppose. I missed the buzz of winning good races so we came back to the jumps and had a double at Cheltenham (1994 – Mucklemeg in the Champion Bumper and Time For A Run in the Coral Cup) which was wonderful but overawed by ‘the people’s horse’ Danoli for the late Tom Foley.”
While it’s right to reflect on the good days of the past as O’Grady moves towards a big career landmark, this is by no means a retirement piece. He is having a good season with 11 winners on the board over jumps with the promise of more to come from a nice group of young horses. He acknowledges the current environment is difficult without a significant financial backing but the competitive edge has never regressed and the ambition to have another Grade 1 and Cheltenham horse still burns as bright as ever.
“The larger trainers at the moment, one of the reasons they’re doing as well is they’re trawling and sweeping up the point-to-pointers which is the grassroots of the future. The last point-to-point horse I bought was Tranquil Sea. If I bought 15 or 20 Tranquil Seas a year, life would be different, that’s for sure.
“You’re buying the fruit rather than the seed and it does make life different. The last couple of years we’ve been coming through with young horses and I’ll be honest some of the young horses have been disappointing, but then they weren’t expensive horses.
“You could still buy a good horse for the money I was paying but your chances improve if you spend more. I think that the young horses we have at the moment have the potential to go forward and do very well.”
One of those horses is Making Country, who won a Turtulla point-to-point and impressed his trainer no end. So much so, he turned down £230,000 for him at the sales recently. He still hopes to have him sold but he’s more than happy to soldier on with him.
“I’ve got to take my chances with him. I was very impressed by his jumping at Templemore because he hadn’t done a huge amount of schooling. I think he has the makings of a high-class horse. I was so impressed by him that a new owner of mine bought the horse that was second in the race.”
It goes without saying that such a statement is worth noting. O’Grady has seen half a century of good horses and he’s not finished yet.
The Irish racing industry
I think that lots of people from Government down are trying to do their best but I think it’s unfortunate that there are a few individuals who are intent on being negative about our industry and if you set out in any walk of life to be negative about an industry or a political party or something like that, I think that it’s not terribly difficult to succeed. I think it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more people that will concentrate on the positive.
I have a position for an assistant trainer available. I’m hopeful that might appeal to someone young, looking to get some experience, as I feel I’d have something to offer them. With regard to general staffing, it’s been a struggle since the Government stopped the importation of foreign nationals after the Celtic Tiger died. I think the racing authorities need to put more pressure on the Government. I’ve had Brazilians working for me before – they’re gorgeous people, great horse people, very light and we’re doing them a favour by bringing them over here and they’re doing us a favour by looking after our horses.
On one hand I’ve been successful in that I bred a Group 1 winner on the flat (Law Enforcement), but then the mare promptly died.
While I managed to breed some good horses, either I’m not that good at it or not that lucky at it, I’m not quite sure. It’s a very difficult business and I think that you need to have either a very lucky mare or else quite a big spread and I missed on both. I’m still at it but it wouldn’t be my favourite part of the business.