Wednesday, August 22, 2018

It was enjoyable to read the Racing Post piece this week about apprentice Scott McCullagh doing so well since leaving Ireland to begin working for Mick Channon. I have been there, done it and got the tee-shirt - and for that reason I was delighted to recommend Scott follow my lead.

Scott is the son of one of my best friends, Niall McCullagh, a real stalwart of the Irish weighing room. Niall and I started out around the same time and has always been a top man.

I have particularly fond memories of Niall babysitting Johnny Murtagh and myself when we spent a three-month stint riding in Australia from the end of December 1989. He really took on a father figure role.

We all learnt a huge amount, and we certainly had a good time, but we were also made to work very hard by our seriously strict boss Peter Miers and his head lad Tony. We got our wages on a Friday and by Monday were broke, although that wasn't helped by the fact we had to each pay Peter five dollars to ring home once a week.

A few years after that trip it became obvious to me I had to leave Ireland. I was largely picking up scraps, quite simply because you had to hold a position with one of the country's top trainers to have any chance of competing at the highest level. Dad agreed with me. I had a meeting with Richard Hannon and was told I could start riding out for him. I did exactly that but also forged a link with Mick, who gave me my first British winner at Wolverhampton on the Saturday evening of King George day in July 1994.

Scott was in a similar situation back home to the one I had been in almost a quarter of a century ago.

Like me, he is fairly tall and so needs to be riding pretty much every day to control his weight. He was finding it hard in Ireland and I'm not surprised. However tough it was for me in Ireland in the old days, it is now ten times harder, with three stables dominating the sport.

Niall rang me, explained how things were and asked for advice on where I thought Scott should go. My answer was Mick Channon.

Mick is a great guy to have as your boss. He knows that young fellas want to have fun because he was once in the same position when starting out as a professional footballer. There is plenty of fun to be had working for Mick, and while he is hard he is also fair. He could tear strips off you at 10am. At 11am he would have his arm around you. That's lovely.

Scott has fabulous parents in Niall and Helen, both of whom are keen to see their son have the best chance of fulfilling his potential as a jockey. The early signs are he is now beginning to do just that. He left Ireland with a record of one win from 60 rides. Since moving to Britain earlier this year he has already reached six winners.

I always found there was a real difference between Britain and Ireland, one that connects Scott's story and mine.

In Britain, if you have a real work ethic you usually get rewarded. In Ireland I'm not convinced the same is true. You can go here, there and everywhere in the mornings, riding out countless horses and never pick up a ride. In Britain commitment on the gallops tends to be noticed more. Perhaps the difference between the two countries is simply a cultural thing.

Scott has his claim, which is a huge asset, he is enjoying the job and is riding well. That's all great but he'll know full well that in this sport consistency is so important, plus you do need a bit of luck as well. I hope he gets it but I'm certain that by teaming up with the Channons he made the right move.

The news Chelmsford is considering emulating Lingfield by staging barrier trials is to be welcomed.

The trials at Lingfield, overseen by starting stalls expert Gary Witheford and his son, Craig, have been an enormous success and are used regularly by many trainers, featuring two-year-olds and older horses who do not enjoy the loading process.

Unraced horses get as much from a barrier trial as they would a run. They learn an enormous amount. They see things and they hear things. They will misbehave going around the paddock, play a little heading down to the stalls and then benefit from coming back amongst a small field of other horses. The trials allow babies to get stuff out of their system - including the boys whinnying at the girls - and pick up lots of experience without a run being wasted. The horses I send to the trials, which pan out like slowly-run races, are the ones I consider would benefit from that experience most.

The trials have been a particularly fine innovation for small trainers who don't have many two-year-olds.

If you're someone like Richard Hannon with loads of juveniles, you can work them together, gallop them together and also put them through stalls together.

If you're a much smaller yard, or perhaps a jumps trainer with a single two-year-old, that horse has to go through stalls on his own, which can be an arduous experience. An animal like that will learn slower than horses in bigger operations. The trials help speed up the learning process.

In Australia horses have to take barrier trials before they first run, with the times and finishing positions all documented for punters to see. You also see the top Aussie horses, such as Winx, having trials before returning off a break. That's necessary because, unlike in this part of the world, they don't train up hills. Racehorses work on the tracks, which are invariably flat and require the horses to go faster when exercising. We have the beauty of hills, which allow horses to climb and also go slower.

It would be great to see horses who have been given yellow cards at the stalls having to prove themselves at a barrier trial before returning to racing. It would also be great for those of us in Lambourn if trials were introduced at Kempton. It would spare us having to send horses off on their way very early in the morning in order to avoid traffic jams on the M25.

Kempton, if you can help us, please do!

We won't be heavily represented, if we're represented at all, at York's Ebor festival.

As much as York is a fabulous racecourse, and I was fortunate to enjoy some marvellous wins there, it was never really a happy hunting ground for me.

You only ever do as well as your stable does, and Richard Hannon never targeted York or the Ebor festival. It's a funny thing but Mark Johnston doesn't seem to have as much success there as you would expect, either.

I believe the reason for that is both Mark and the Hannons love Glorious Goodwood. They want to have winners there, so they send plenty of their good horses. York starts only two weeks after Goodwood, so it stands to reason they probably can't and won't do as well there. Conversely, Richard Fahey and Kevin Ryan both love York, so they tend to give Goodwood a miss and concentrate on the Knavesmire.

For jockeys, York is ever so easy to ride. That said, they do tend to get racing too early. What they also tend to do in races on the round course is come up the centre of the home straight, which to my eyes looks terrible. It still baffles me why it happens. I fail to understand why they don't go the shortest way, namely up the far rail, except that they feel by fanning out across the track they are less likely to end up with suspensions.

Sunsprite, who has now brought up a hat-trick of wins for us, is a possible runner in the Gimcrack on Friday, but his participation is dependent on the ground. He is rated 93, so he would be behind a few of his rivals, but if the conditions are soft that might just even things up for him.
As for Wednesday's Juddmonte International, I would side with Roaring Lion, mainly because he was impressive in the Dante. I always like to be with horses who have proven form on a particular track. That's especially true with York, as not every horse acts there.

The weather is causing us a few headaches at the moment.

First it was dry and hot. That caused dust, which takes its toll. Horses have very sensitive airways and through the extended dry period quite a lot will have had sore throats. For the same reason my son Dessie suddenly picked up a chesty cough.

We are now having very changeable weather. There was one morning last week when it was really chilly first thing. It almost felt frosty. It might have been as much as 7C or 8C but that was a massive drop from something like 30C the evening before. These rapid changes can bring on chills and coughs in horses. You're never sure whether rugs should be on - which can cause too much sweating - or off.

I ran a horse in a nursery at Kempton on Wednesday called Kenoughty who I felt stopped a bit quick. That may have been down to one of these weather-related issues.

When I walked into his box on the morning of the race he hadn't eaten all his breakfast. He is a horse who normally cleans his bowl but this time he had left half.

Was that enough not to run him? I pondered the question and pointed out to the owners he hadn't finished his food. In the end I decided to run him but was then left annoyed with myself for doing so when he underperformed. However, he had scoped clean two days before, his temperature was fine and he was drinking all his water, so on the balance of probability we let him race. If you didn't run any horse who failed to eat up you would have a colossal number of non-runners. You often have to take a gut decision. Sometimes you'll be right. Sometimes you'll be wrong.

The comforting aspect of this if he was indeed not quite 100 per cent on Wednesday it won't have done him any harm.

Were he a jumper who had been asked to cover three miles over fences, he would have been pulled up and damage would have been done. It would take a trainer six weeks to get a horse like that back to being cherry ripe. Flat trainers like me are far luckier than our jumps counterparts. Flat horses are off the bridle for just three furlongs and, as such, it is much easier to get back to their A-game again.