“My grandfather, who was Paddy as well, was as good a judge as there ever was of a horse. He was a dealer. I remember one evening he came home with 22 donkeys from Castledermot and he had a market for them in Manchester – 22 asses and we up all night. They were running into ditches, running up and down the road and only Kevin and myself in our bare feet trying to manage the f***kers!” – Paddy Prendergast Jnr, Irish Racing Yearbook 2019
JUNIOR’S account of the Prendergast boys’ youth might have a chaotic feel to it but it was of its time. It reveals a total immersion in horses and how the pair of them would have learned without knowing they were doing so. Horsemanship came naturally.
“My grandfather was a great horseman,” recalls Kevin. “So was his brother, who worked for ‘Boss’ Croker in Glencairn, when he came over from (running) Tammany Hall (in New York). We were bred with horses.”
Kevin himself was born in Australia, 87 years ago next July 5th, because his father, Paddy ‘Darkie’ Prendergast went there to ride.
The young Prendergast returned to the land of his birth as a 17-year-old in 1949 and spent five years as an assistant to Frank Dalton in Randwick. The legendary Tommy Smith was just beginning to make his mark at that time.
When he came back to Kildare, it was to fulfil a similar role with his father, who was also making a considerable impact with the likes of Windy City and The Pie King. Indeed Paddy’s wholesale success across the water did not go down well with everyone however, and the consensus since has been that the establishment had no intention of putting up with it.
After Blue Sail was narrowly beaten in York, having admittedly shown improvement from previous runs in Ireland over an unsuitably shorter trip, the stewards warned him off, though it was notable that the Irish Turf Club did not impose the ban here, so ridiculous was it.
When the British lifted their suspension after almost a year, just in time for York, Prendergast won the first two races at the Knavesmire, and finished the week with a number of major prizes including the Nunthorpe and Great Voltigeur.
He continued to take his revent, becoming the first Irish trainer to be champion in Britain in 1963.
“Three years in a row – it’ll never be done again,” says Kevin. That Vincent O’Brien’s two titles arrived 11 years apart and Aidan O’Brien has failed to transform two into three on three separate occasions puts the achievement into perspective.
It was in 1963 that the apprentice, still riding successfully as an amateur jockey, decided that it was time to travel his own path.
“I just left him. We agreed to disagree.”
In time, father and both sons were training fairly close to one another and all doing well. Paddy’s place in the annals was long assured. Junior – also known as Long Paddy – won Grade 1s over jumps and also secured Royal Ascot success, while producing the likes of future Oaks heroine Blue Wind as a juvenile.
Kevin is a prolific classic winner, who crossed the 2000 barrier for winners with Tell The Wind in Dundalk at the beginning of the decade. The first of those came courtesy of a tasty plot landed with Zara at Phoenix Park in May of his opening season.
“I rode him. I’ve a picture of being led in on him. He was backed from 5/2 to evens I think. He was owned by the former Lord Mayor of Cork, Michael Sheehan, who was the biggest coal man in Ireland at the time. He was very pally with John A Woods, the owner of Roadstone. They made him favourite.
“He was a good horse. I got him off my father. He’d run a heap of times as a two and a three-year-old. He was a bit of a monkey so I got him, castrated him and schooled him all the winter. I was great friends with Paddy Norris, I used to ride all his bumper horses at the time. I rode this fella with a good bumper horse of Paddy’s I was after winning on, giving him I think 16lbs. Mine was a four-year-old and his was a six-year-old. Ah sure I ran away from him.
“So I did help to make him favourite too!”
Pidget supplied the first of eight Irish classics in the 1000 Guineas nine years later, Nebbiolo his sole English classic in the 2000 Guineas in 1977. Arctique Royale, Northern Treasure, Oscar Schindler and Conor Pass were just some others that flourished in his care.
When Awtaad garnered the Irish 2000 Guineas in 2016, 40 years after Northern Treasure had given him his previous triumph in the race, it was to universal acclaim.
Paddy Junior won the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot with Cooliney Prince when Paddy Senior passed away on June 20th, 1980, just a matter of weeks after claiming his final classic, the Irish 2000 Guineas with Nikoli.
“We were both there that day. I saddled Ardross (for my father). He got beat a neck in the Gold Cup.”
Ardross had been bred by Senior at Meadow Court. Kevin took over the training but the horse had to be sold to pay the death duties and went on to become one the best stayers of his generation for Henry Cecil.
“At school I saw a fella called
Darcy. We reckoned at the time that if anyone was going to get an Ireland cap he’d be the one. He was a wing-forward, a real classy player. He got a final trial for Ireland but that was as far as he got. He went to Canada after and died young. A lot of fellas look the part but don’t go on. It’s like having a good two-year-old. There are no guarantees.” – Kevin Prendergast, Sunday Independent – August 28th, 2011
AS a former hooker and flanker who won Leinster medals at Newbridge College and added Munster equivalents when switching to Rockwell, Kevin Prendergast knows a lot about rugby. He knows a hell of a lot more about horses but the comparison he made between potential and achievement, and the difficulty in predicting greatness, holds true in any sport.
Whether Madhmoon will turn out to be Darcy or O’Driscoll will be revealed in the coming months but having beefed up under his trainer’s gaze throughout the winter, the initial signs are positive.
“He couldn’t be better. Hopefully he’ll run on the sixth of April in the Guineas Trial at Leopardstown. Awtaad had a run in the Free (Madrid) Handicap off a rating of 95 before he won his Guineas.”
He has no concerns about whether or not the son of Dawn Approach has trained on. “He’d no racing. He only had two runs, the first in August and then three weeks later at Irish Champions Weekend. It’s the horses that have six and eight and 10 runs, they’re the ones you worry about training on. There’s absolutely no reason in the world why he wouldn’t train on.
“He has a bit of temperament, which Awtaad didn’t have, but he’s easily managed. He’s a good ride and does everything right. He’s a very good working horse. You could set your clock by the way he works.
“He’s a nice horse, a good grubber. Sleeps a good bit, which is great. Like meself. I trained the dam, the grandam. I trained them all.” Unlike a lot of major patrons, Sheikh Hamdan does not take his charges away.
“At least you know where you’re going then. He’s never been out of here since he’s been a two-year-old. I see him every day.”
Trainer and owner go back 32 years.
“I met him through Tom Jones, who was a trainer at Newmarket and was a great friend of my dad’s. Dad used to train for Mrs Vereker. She was an owner of Tom Jones’ as well. If they got a horse here that went too high in the handicap, he went to England because he was easier placed in England. Tom Jones was one of the first trainers for Hamdan in England and I’m the first trainer for Hamdan in Ireland.
“He’s a very good friend, and a brilliant man. He’s great for the game. He’s very enthusiastic and he knows his horses.
It is not set in stone which of the Guineas Madhmoon might go for. Leopardstown and whether a tilt at a Derby might be realistic could be a factor.
“I don’t know. The way the programme is now, if you run in the Irish Guineas and you wanted to run in the Derby, it’s six days later. That’s mad.
“There’s nothing to say he wouldn’t get any trip. Red Rum was bred to get five furlongs and he won three Nationals so there’s no law and order about that. If the fella knew before whether you’d get a trip, you’d be a very wealthy man.”
“I shook his hand and said ‘Well done.’ He shook my hand and said ‘You went too soon.’” – Chris Hayes, Irish Racing Yearbook 2017
THE list of jockeys to have learned the ropes at Friarstown Stables is almost as luminous as the catalogue of horses. Kieren Fallon, Declan McDonogh, Charlie Swan, current assistant Stephen Craine and Gabriel ‘Squibs’ Curran are just some of them.
Prendergast keeps an eye on them too and is “delighted” to see them do well. Take Brian Hughes, habitually in the top three of the British jump jockeys’ table these days, who came home to win what was then the Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown for his former boss on Katie T in 2015.
“He’s flying. He’s running third in the list now. He has 143 winners this year.”
Chris Hayes has been Prendergast’s man since he walked into the yard as a 15-year-old. He isn’t going to shower him with garlands and Hayes illustrated that point very humorously when discussing the first exchange between them after Awtaad’s Guineas, but the warmth of their embrace said enough. So does the fact he is still there.
“He’s apprenticed to me since he’s a kid. He’s a good lad.”
There was a time when like his father, Prendergast employed Australian jockeys. Laurie Johnson and Rod Griffiths were just two.
“Most of the good jockeys were retained by Vincent and my father, John Oxx and all the big trainers. So the best thing to do for the owners was to get a named jockey.”
Did they have to adapt to our racing?
“No, we had to adapt to them. They’re the best riders in the world, those Aussies. By a mile. The tracks are very tight there. You deviate there, go off a straight line, you don’t get a month, you get two months, three months. The riders are brilliant as a result.”
“I’ve been up front with Kevin. I’m telling Kevin ‘You wanna keep going now because if you give up now I’m the oldest flat trainer.’ John Kiely is hanging in there as well and I think John is only a matter of days younger than Kevin. There might have been a few in between them that might have been a bit short of stamina and that’s how I’m cropping up next.” – Jim Bolger, The Irish Field - October 7, 2017
JIM Bolger took a spin up to Erindale twice the week before last to watch Cheltenham in good company. They pair have strong traditions in the national hunt sphere of course. Bolger, who trained Madhmoon’s sire Dawn Approach, is a mere pup alongside his close pal.
“We’ve been friends for years. He’s a good lad. He’ll be 78 at Christmas. He’s as fit as a flea. He sat there for two days watching Cheltenham with me in that seat you’re sitting in. We love it.”
Many of his friends are no longer with us of course. Among the multitude of photos adorning his home is one with Mick O’Toole. The former brilliant trainer was racing manager for Joe Donnelly, owner of Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, prior to his death last August.
Prendergast pulls the photo up off the cabinet to reveal the caption.
Hey Spot, why tell a truth when a lie will do?
“Micko” he says simply.
Bolger, he tells you, is fond of saying that pressure is for tyres but he admits that he will certainly be nervous before Madhmoon’s racecourse reappearance
“I was watching Nicky Henderson the other day with that horse that won 18 (jumps races in a row), Altior. He was the colour of death. It’s like going out and playing in an All-Ireland football final. Of course you’re going to have nerves. If you don’t have nerves, you’re not at the races. Any fella tells me he doesn’t have nerves is telling lies.”
Prendergast was flabbergasted by the decision to impose a 10-day suspension on Declan Lavery for not turning his nose up at the £12,500 on offer to his owners in the Kim Muir and is adamant that the BHA overreacted to the discovery of Equine Flu across the water.
He isn’t over the moon about the decision taken here to require further vaccinations, which he says means he won’t have early runners.
“We immunised all our horses at Christmas, every horse in the place was done, and then we’re forced to get them done again. So our horses are gone back three weeks. You couldn’t do anything with them after the injection. We had booked in horses to go to Leopardstown to work, I couldn’t bring them because they weren’t well.
“It has a definite effect. Do you ever get the flu vac, you do?”
“Do you ever feel bad after it?”
You’d be shook after.
“I was shook this year after I got it and I got it last year and I was shook. They say you might still get the flu but it won’t be as bad as the one you would have got if you didn’t get the injection.
“Who knows? I know fellas who never had an injection in their lives but they never got a cold. Anyway.”
It isn’t that he is against change and modernity. Far from it. Indeed he is still able to put this writer onto an app that will most definitely prove very useful.
Talking about himself or the past isn’t a favourite pastime, less so now than ever, when the future is so valuable, but the twinkle and grin when discussing the likes of his first winner, Zara, reveals the satisfaction of a job well done.
He is a fine storyteller – the problem is that many of the yarns and opinions on officialdom are for the privacy of his sitting room, or maybe down at the golf club, on the fairway or in the bar.
There is a broad smile too when he speaks of his seven daughters with wife Lesley, and 11 grandchildren, ranging in ages from 23 down to 11. But he clearly has interest in enjoying a retirement?
“I’m fit and well. What else would I do? Walk around the corner? I like what I’m doing, it’s going alright for me, we have enough horses to keep us going, we have the same staff for a lot of years.”
He is fresh. Still plays golf. Loves shooting and fishing and travels the country in pursuit of those passions. Little wonder his nephew Patrick calls him an ironman.
“Getting a good horse is what it’s about– it’s like everything else, they’re like duck’s teeth, they’re hard to get.”
Harder for some than Kevin Prendergast.