Mick O'Toole

Mick O'Toole

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


On Monday, at the Carmelite Church in Kildare, racing said goodbye to one of its greats and someone who played a big role in the life of me and my family. For that reason, I'll always remember Mick O'Toole fondly and with thanks.

When I first got to know him I would have addressed him as Mr O'Toole. My very earliest memory came from being sat on a horse in his yard on the outskirts of the Curragh. The memory is not really of a sight, although I do recall there being a big water trough, but a smell. I remember the smell of the horse and everything about the horse, things like the leather and saddle soap. I was probably hooked from that point.

In 1966 Dad suffered a nasty fall at Wolverhampton. When he came back it was a struggle but one of those who helped him most was Mick. Dad became his stable jockey and assistant trainer. A fantastic partnership was forged. They had some great days together - most famously when Davy Lad won the 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup - but we also had great days together as two families. Every year we would be over at the O'Tooles' place on Christmas Eve until 12 o'clock.

When I was aged 14, by which point Dad was training himself, I was sent over to Mick's place to work during the summer holidays. I used to cycle there every morning and spend the day doing whatever I was asked to do. Mick treated me like everyone else. He wasn't a particularly hard man. He would joke with you and make you laugh, that's for sure. He certainly wasn't one to shout and bawl.

Back when Dad was riding he would go into the parade ring and Mick would ask him how he planned to ride a horse. "I'll be dropping him in," Dad would say. "Ah, don't be dropping him in," would be Mick's answer because he would have had money on the horse and would be afraid of something going wrong. As everyone knows, Mick was a superb trainer and a superb punter.

I got to ride for Mick myself and learned to know when he had backed one. He became a bit twitchy. I also always received the same instructions: "If you can't win, finish last." Fortunately, I was able to forge a fabulous association with a horse Mick trained called Smoggy Spray. I won on him seven times, on the first occasion as a 7lb apprentice at Leopardstown in May 1989.

Seven days later we teamed up again at the Curragh. We were involved in a furious battle to the line with a horse ridden by no less than Mick Kinane. I had no idea which of us had won. Like everyone else I began waiting for the photo-finish result to be announced, which it still hadn't been when Smoggy Spray and I came back into the paddock. Jockeys tend to be extremely reluctant to dismount by the first-place marker unless they are absolutely sure they've won. Mick made my mind up for me. "Go into the first spot," he said, explaining: "I'm a good friend of the judge!"

Many years later I was in a York restaurant with Mick having a late dinner. He asked the waitress if he could have a little fillet steak. "Don't be getting me a big one," he said more than once. "I just want a nice small one, it's close to bedtime, don't be killing me." Then the steak arrived. Mick looked shocked and asked the waitress: "Where's the other half of the steak?"

Mick and Dad were very thick together. They had been through it all. It really was Mick who got Dad going and, for his part, Dad worked tooth and nail for Mick. They were tremendously close, and I know it hit Mick hard when Dad died. He used to say that Dessie was the healthy one, so he couldn't believe he went first.

The O'Tooles have been part and parcel of our family life. Mick's widow, Una, is a lovely, kind woman who adored the ground Mick walked on. Their son, Ciaran, was my first agent when I began riding in Ireland, while their daughter, Mags, is one of the finest bloodstock agents in the business with an incredible eye for a horse. It's obvious where she got that from.

Mr O'Toole was a wonderful man. He is now gone but he won't ever be forgotten.

If you're looking to buy a two-year-old for 2019 I know where you can find one.

I went shopping at Doncaster this week. The yearling sales season has started again and with it the stress that comes from buying on spec.

I bought seven horses by seven different stallions at the Premier Sale, their prices ranging from £15,000 to £55,000. I didn't have any orders for horses and I don't yet have any owners for the horses I bought. That was the always the way Richard Hannon senior worked, so it's the way I've been taught to work as well.

This particular sale is tough as it comes so early in the circuit. There are owners in the yard for whom I would love to buy a two-year-old for next year but I haven't yet run the two-year-old they've got for this year. That makes life difficult but it doesn't change the fact I have to start bringing home horses or I'll have nothing for next season.

I found the market to be strong. People had been saying prices would be impacted by the breeze-up guys having taken a hit in the spring. The truth is the really good ones did well, whereas it was he ones who tried to have a dabble who got stung.

A lot of this week's horses fetched more money than I expected. As always, there's a bunch of us trying to buy the same yearlings, which results in us making those yearlings a little more valuable than they really should be. On top of that you have the likes of Shadwell and King Power Racing being prepared to spend much more than we can. That sends the prices even higher.

If I'm buying a horse on spec it's very hard to go over £50,000. When I get a horse for £40,000 I can be pretty sure I can find four lads to put in ten grand each. If I pay £80,000 for a yearling there's a smaller pool of potential owners. I sold the last of my current two-year-olds in January - and I was happy with that. Some trainers still haven't sold their horses from last year.

I'm being completely honest when I say I probably won't sleep well until Christmas - and there will be many other trainers in exactly the same position. That's the reality of it. I have had £250,000 around my neck since the moment I drove away from Doncaster. On the other hand, I also have some lovely young horses to show for it, and I'm confident there will be people who will buy them.

When you're buying on spec you have to genuinely fall in love with the horses you're buying, otherwise you would find it hard to sell them. I can pass on my yearlings knowing I have a passion for them. For example, I thought I would have to go to £20,000 or £25,000 to get the G Force filly I bought, but the longer she went around the ring the more I decided I wasn't going home without her. She cost me £32,000 but she's a ready-made two-year-old and gorgeous.

As this sale comes before autumn has started Goffs tend to be realistic and won't be jumping down my throat for the money. They understand how the game works. The problem is as soon as I've bought a horse the costs start to mount up. I have to get the horse home, have his wind checked and then put him into a breaking yard. If I only sell him for what I paid I'm therefore immediately at a loss - and the truth is I'm not buying these horses for me but for future owners. Hopefully people understand that.

In an ideal world I would like to have these purchases sold before the next sale comes along. I can't guarantee that will happen, but our horses are running well, we're having a good year and enjoying plenty of winners. I can't do much more than that!

I know I've said this before in the column but there has to be more common sense applied to how racing is policed.

On Monday at Epsom Peter Hedger was fined £140 after a member of his team threw a bit water at a horse trained by Ian Williams when she was refusing to go down to the start.

That's just ridiculous. I've been around horses all my life. I know what is fair, what is safe and dangerous. There was nothing at all wrong with what the guy at Epsom did. Countless horsemen would have done the same.

You see this happening at the sales all the time. Every second horse gets squirted before going into the ring. They get bored and they're not sure what they're supposed to be doing. A splash of water tells them. If it wasn't allowed there would be barely a horse sold.

This is all becoming a joke. Lost common sense needs to be found.