Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eye of the hurricane

By Stephen Dwyer

Like most people I remember very well the first time I saw Hurricane Fly. It was in the Future Champions Hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting of 2008. Although he was still only a four year old he blitzed a high class field which included a future Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner. Coming into the straight at Leopardstown that day Paul Townend looked under pressure trying to contain the fury underneath his reins. Hurricane Fly forged clear on the run-in as if a turbo-boost had kicked in, it was absolutely stunning. He won by ten lengths and you just knew this horse could win a Champion Hurdle.

Hurricane Fly would miss the next two Cheltenham meetings through suspensory ligament problems but last year he fulfilled his potential when winning the Champion Hurdle in impressive style. Hurricane Fly was bred in Ireland by Agricola del Parco and sold as a yearling at Goffs for €65,000. He was sent to France and subsequently bought out of the Jean-Luc Pelletan yard for an undisclosed sum on the advice of bloodstock agent Richard Hobson. The acquisition by Hobson (who is also responsible for the purchase of Golden Silver and Pomme Tiepy) was on behalf of retired Belfast construction businessman George Creighton and Rose Boyd who runs an equestrian centre in Co. Down.

The horse previously won three times in France where he also finished ahead of subsequent Champion Stakes winner Literato. From France he was sent to trainer Wille Mullins. Hurricane Fly won at the first time of asking in May 2008 at Punchestown. Since then, he has been beaten only once in 12 starts and now as an eight year old, is the perfect age for another Champion Hurdle win.

Where Hurricane Fly gets his speed from is no real secret. He is out of the winning Kenmare mare Scandisk, making him a half-brother to triple 7f-1m winner Thunderwing, He was sired by Montjeu, himself a world champion. Montjeu is of the top sires in the world for flat horses, his progeny has produced two Irish and two English Derby winners as well as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and St. Leger. Montjeu’s speed has been passed on to Hurricane Fly and he is by far his most successful son on the National Hunt circuit.

The imperious Istabraq was six when he won the first of his three Champion Hurdles, Hurricane Fly is a best priced 6/4 chance for repeating his Cheltenham win next month. His high cruising speed, fluency over hurdles and his crushing  turn of foot should see him home.  Praise too from Ruby Walsh who said of the horse “He’d win a Group One on the Flat, too, if you wanted”.

 When running at Cheltenham last year, Hurricane Fly had already won seven Grade 1 races; this was more than all of his Champion Hurdle rivals put together. He became the first horse since Hardy Eustace in 2004 to complete the Champion Hurdle double at Cheltenham and Punchestown. His win at the Cheltenham Festival under Ruby Walsh was particularly special. This victory means that Ruby is now one of only four jockeys in the past four decades to have completed the treble of Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National.

If anything this year, Hurricane Fly has improved. His run last month on deteriorating ground he cantered around Leopardstown. In doing so he won the Irish Champion Hurdle in a canter, barely breaking sweat. It is hard to pick holes in his form, Binocular and Zarkandar are worthy adversaries but all things being equal Hurricane Fly is a step above these two and you feel that he has the extra gears to take him to where he needs to be. In the past it has often taken two people to lead him around the parade ring. Hurricane Fly can be highly strung but this season he is a more settled horse. This may be the perfect year for a repeat of last year’s win as since 1951 only three winners of the Champion Hurdle have been aged older than eight.

He is reported by his trainer to be in excellent condition, after the Irish Champion Hurdle Willie Mullins declared "There is no stiffness or soreness at all. We couldn't be happier with him." With the Hurricane Fly camp upbeat about the chances of their star, it is all systems go for Cheltenham.

On a final note, Hurricane Fly’s groom, Gail Carlisle, says his guilty pleasure is carrots, one might think that after Cheltenham, there will be no shortage of them around Closutton.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Dubai World Cup
By Stephen Dwyer

January is over, the warmest in years, but the traditional February cold snap has begun. Frost covers have been deployed for days on end and meetings are being cancelled up and down the country. At times like this it is hard not to think of sunnier climates and few compare to the United Arab Emirates.
 About 6,000 kilometres away the city of Dubai sits south of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. It was inhabited a millennium ago and was once an ancient mangrove swamp. Directly positioned within the Arabian desert the temperature is blisteringly hot and arid all year round. Yet within this empire of sand lies perhaps the most modern horse race course in the world, Meydan.
 Meydan racecourse officially opened early in March 2010. It is the most expensive track in history and took over 34 months to build. The original construction firm were dismissed when the work fell behind plan. The final cost? About $1.25 Billion. Twenty times the price of redeveloping Croke Park in Dublin and far more expensive than the new Wembley stadium. It also replaced Nad Al Sheba Racecourse which formerly occupied the same site.
 That amount of money built not one but a collection of world-class facilities. Apart from a mile-long grandstand, the racecourse can hold 60,000 spectators. Meydan Racecourse includes Meydan Marina, a 5 star hotel (the world’s first 5-star trackside hotel) an IMAX cinema and of course a 2,400 metre left-handed turf race track and a left-handed 8.75-furlong (1,750 metres) Tapeta synthetic dirt course. The scale is immense, spread out over 7.5 million square metres of what was once coral-white sand.
 Meydan opens for about five months of the year. 21 race meetings are held from November to March and these feature the Winter Racing Challenge, Dubai International Racing Carnival and the Dubai World Cup Night.
 The highlight of the year at Meydan is the Dubai World Cup at the end of March. With prize money nearing $30 million, the Dubai World Cup is the single richest day of Thoroughbred racing in the world. The last race of the night is the Dubai World Cup, which carries an arresting prize fund of $10 million. Locals are admitted free of charge and the spectacle is crowned with a colossal fireworks display by the Grucci brothers of New York (those of The Bellagio Hotel fame).
 But on a business scale what sets Meydan apart from other racecourses like Aintree, Epsom and Cheltenham is the vision of its creators. The chief architect noted “The vision was always that Meydan would be used 365 days a year, which is why there is so much adding that can be used outside racing times”.
 One of the challenges Meydan faces is its location. Flights to Dubai are expensive, a round trip would cost a couple of grand, all but the most dedicated or luckiest racing fans will see Meydan but it is a sight to behold. The grandstand itself is crowned by a dramatic, cantilevered crescent roof that features curved solar and titanium panels. In spite of the grandeur however, the horses take centre stage.
 The founder of Meydan is one of the greatest benefactors of horse racing. As a boy he would share his breakfast with his horse on his way to school. Today, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is  UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. His love for the sport and the horse is legendary and his stud farms around the world are afforded every resource.
 The 2012 Dubai World Cup takes place on March 31st. Excitingly, the world’s highest-ranked mare, the undefeated Black Caviar may make the 33 hour trip for the $2 million Golden Shaheen race.
 The Dubai World Cup also features considerable Irish interest. Last year’s Tattersall’s Gold Cup and Irish Champion Stakes winner, So You Think is currently the 7/2 favourite for the race. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, who saddled Cape Blanco to be fourth in last year’s World Cup, So You Think was last seen finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, having won three Group One races since being transferred to the Ballydoyle operation from Australia for his 2011 campaign.
 The Dubai World cup is a unique race not alone for its prestige, glamour and prize money but for the diversity of the field it attracts. Last year there was an emotional win in the wake of the Japanese disaster and tsunami as the two Japanese runners finished first and second. It is the uniqueness of the race which draws a huge audience year on year.

Black Caviar may be the star attraction but if So You Think can win the Dubai World Cup, Irish eyes will be smiling like emeralds in the Arabian desert.
Sizing Europe
By Stephen Dwyer
Cast your mind back four years ago to the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.  Can you remember Sizing Europe being a very skinny 2/1 favourite for the 2008 renewal ?  The season was going to plan, he had won the Greatwood Hurdle at the course a few short months beforehand. This was followed up with an 8 length defeat of Hardy Eustace in AIG Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. Remember too that Sizing Europe had also been trained for the Supreme Novices hurdle a year before but did not line up. This time he was ready.
In the Champion Hurdle, Sizing Europe looked a class apart. It was not a strong renewal, Harchibald and Osana looked best on paper. Coming down Cleeve hill for the last time, Andrew McNamara had Sizing Europe well in contention. It just seemed that all the six year old had to do was climb that hill for an assured victory. It was not to be. After the second last hurdle, Sizing Europe stopped to nothing. He was virtually pulled and finished fourteenth out of the fifteen runners. The gelding had strained a joint in his pelvis and his season was over.
The injury was a minor one, disappointment all around for Sizing Europe’s connections’ as Katchit, under Robert Thorton became the first five year old winner of the Champion Hurdle since the triple-winning See You Then in 1985. Two things happened after that race. Sizing Europe would never again win a hurdle race, instead he went on to become one of the most progressive, gifted two mile chasers in years.
Eighteen days after finishing fourth in the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown, Sizing Europe began his first season back at Punchestown with his first victory as a novice chaser. He then won a Grade 3 chase, then a Grade 2, then the Grade 1 Irish Arkle, all in succession. He had arrived.
Following this progression, Alan Potts, his millionaire owner clearly wanted to make Sizing Europe a Gold Cup horse out of him but simply does not stay three miles. He is by Pistolet Bleu, a sire not renowned for staying chasers. He finished second to China Rock and Kauto Star over extended trips before being dropped back in distance.  In last year’s Champion Chase, Sizing Europe was at his very best. He was ridden aggressively by Andrew Lynch and made virtually all the running. Such was his class that he had the field on the stretch at the top of the hill. Big Zeb, Master Minded and Somersby, all Group 1 horses could not keep into the long, electric stride of the eventual 10/1 winner.
Since last year’s win in the Champion Chase, Sizing Europe’s form reads 21211. He put in a commanding performance in this year’s Tingle Creek where he was a runaway winner and demolished Big Zeb in the Tied Cottage chase earlier this month at Punchestown. Unknowingly firming up the odds for the Champion Chase after the race his trainer Henry De Bromhead noted “That was a savage performance. He seems a much stronger horse this year”. No question about it, when Sizing Europe is ridden positively over two miles on decent ground, he is the best two mile chaser in the world.
Now a 10 year old, age is not against him, Skymas won the Champion Chase at a 12. He has the speed and ability over fences to turn the screw on his younger rivals. His win ratio is equally impressive. A winner of 14 of his 29 races, had you put €100 on him each time he ran you would be in profit to the tune of €3,247.
Only once has Sizing Europe disappointed his trainer. On his second ever start he finished fifth in a Limerick bumper. To this day, Henry De Bromhead blames himself for not instructing his jockey to use more aggressive tactics. In 2006 he was a  big unexposed  four-year-old and his trainer, not knowing what he had stated modestly ”You learn in your ignorance." In retrospect all involved have learned, maybe it’s a good thing this happened.
In the Champion Chase in a few weeks’ time, I expect Sizing Europe to make a strong gallop of it. With his class, his long, loping stride and his fluency over fences, he will be very hard to beat. You get the feeling that very soon there will be another double-winning Champion Chaser on the roll of honour. Better still that he’s doing what he does best.


By Stephen Dwyer

With three weeks left to Cheltenham, most of the leading fancies have had their warm-up runs by now. Hurricane Fly was outstanding, Big Buck’s his usual enigmatic self but Long Run still has his doubters. He opened his account at the third time of asking last weekend with an uninspiring victory in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury. This race is a Grade 2 event, he fell under the sword of Kauto Star in his previous two runs in The King George and Betfair Chase, both Grade 1’s. By all accounts, the manner of Saturday’s win did not look visually impressive and bookmakers did not shorten his price for the Gold Cup where he remains a 5/2 chance.

In Friday’s Denman (can we call it that ?) he beat stable mate Burton Port by half a length. Burton Port was having his first run since he finished second in the 2010 Hennessy and is no slouch. He is a high class sort, as a novice he won the Grade 2 Reynoldstown and Mildmay races and was also second in a Hennessy. In receipt of a hefty 10lbs from Long Run, there was no shortage of confidence in Burton Port from the Henderson yard. But Long Run prevailed and his class saw him through. To his credit, he did jump much sharper than his two previous starts but still, there was no Kauto Star in the race to dictate matters.

Long Run has raced eleven times, his two early wins in France were quickly followed up with a string of high-class victories in the UK. Never out of the top three in any of his races, Long Run’s only other placed efforts were in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and the RSA. Last season when he won the King George and Gold Cup, Kauto Star was not the force of old. This year however, Kauto took no prisoners and exploited the chink in Long Run’s armour, his jumping.

Remember too that Weapon’s Amnesty beat Long Run in the RSA under an aggressive ride by Davy Russell. Little Josh made all in the Paddy Power to beat Long Run who had too much to do. In that race he was giving over a stone to Sam Twiston-Davis and Little Josh, a horse who has not won since. The fact is that Long Run is vulnerable when the pace is forced by a strong galloping type such as Weapon’s Amnesty or Kauto Star. He needs to settle early in races and establish a good rhythm to be at his best. He did this in last year’s Gold Cup when he became the first six year old to win the race since Mill House in 1963.

Apart from his two winning starts in France under BenoĆ®t Gicquel, the only jockey to ride Long Run is Sam Waley-Cohen. This in itself is a topic of much debate. Some say Waley-Cohen knows the horse intricately whereas others feel Long Run would be more adept under stable jockey  Barry Geraghty. I believe the latter to be true, all credit to Waley-Cohen but to me this is like a student pilot trying to fly a 747, he does so on a wing and a prayer.

Sam Waley-Cohen, the son of Long Run’s owner, millionaire Robert Waley-Cohen, is a businessman first and an amateur jockey second. He runs a string of dental surgeries and is a well-renowned man-about-town.  Aside from riding Gold Cup horses, he lists hang-gliding, parachuting, bungee jumping and white-water rafting as his muses. In the saddle he has led a less-than accomplished life, his only win this season from 16 rides was last weekend. He has also received multiple bans recently;  12 days in December  for taking the wrong course at Fakenham, three days for failing to give his horse time to respond to the whip at Taunton and another three-day suspension for careless riding on Long Run when causing interference to Somersby in the King George at Kempton. There are a lot of bans for a rider with so few mounts.

Of course it is any owner’s prerogative to decide who rides their horses. Willie Mullins picks his son Patrick, Ted Walsh chose Ruby in his early days, this is to give the chaps the best possible start in their career as a professional jockey. For the Waley-Cohen’s however it seems that Robert is indulging his son’s fantasies about taking on Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty on the big days. It certainly is an unusual scenario, Sam Waley-Cohen regularly rides at Point to Points but this is a world apart from a Gold Cup. The questions is of course with Ruby Walsh in the Saddle, Long Run would not be 5/2 for the Gold Cup; more like even money or shorter, given his ability.

I still believe that Long Run will win the Gold Cup in March, the extra distance in the race will suit and he is definitely on an upward curve. Kauto Star will not go down without a fight however and if he is again foot-perfect, Waley-Cohen will have to pull out all the stops.

In mathematics, the horizontal line in long division is called a vinculum. Long Run is that line, he divides the purists from the occasional racegoer and there is no middle ground. Despite his Gold Cup and King George wins, many feel he still has a lot to prove and greater potential to fulfil.  Granted he has not captured the public imagination in the way Kauto Star or Denman have in recent years but he is still very, very good.

Come Gold Cup day, Long Run will be the one to deliver, if his jockey can settle him early, the race should be at his mercy. At the end of the day, even a 747 can land on autopilot.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Four early each way bets for Cheltenham

By Stephen Dwyer

With the Cheltenham Festival only five weeks away, we are on the lookout for some value each-way bets. Below are four selections that can be considered for the festival. If you are having a small each way bet, be sure and opt for “no runner no bet”.

Mikael D'haguenet – World Hurdle 

Not many horses have the versatility and class to be entered in both the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle at Cheltenham. Mikael D'haguenet is far more likely to race over the longer trip and at 14/1 for the World Hurdle he is a value bet. The main question to ask is will he stay 3m. There is every indication that he will. It is worth looking at both times that Mikael D'haguenet ran over the 3m trip in greater detail. He fell three fences from home in last year’s RSA chase when travelling well within himself. The second time Mikael D'haguenet attempted 3m was at the Punchestown festival in the Ladbroke’s World Series Hurdle. He beat only one finisher home that day but that was at the end of a dreadful season and he finished a tired horse. 

So far this season Mikael D'haguenet has won three out of four hurdle races including an impressive victory over 2m 4f at Punchestown. Willie Mullins reports that the 8yo gelding has recaptured his sparkle and he clearly is a different prospect over his preferred hurdles. Big Buck’s is the one they all have to aim at but Mikael D'haguenet is a real cruiser and a thick set stayer. A previous Cheltenham winner, there is every indication he will give you a big run for your money.

Cinders and Ashes - Supreme Novice's Hurdle

Trained by Donald McCain, Cinders and Ashes is a general 14/1 chance (from 33/1) for the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle. He finished fifth in last year’s Cheltenham Champion Bumper and looks a very useful prospect over hurdles. He comprehensively beat Keys, a really classy sort, at Aintree and recently won a Supreme Novices Hurdle Trial race at Haydock where he was eased down at the finish.
Connections believe he will relish better ground and his jumping has improved with every race. Out of a Rainbow Quest mare and by Arlington Million winning sire, Beat Hollow, Cinders and Ashes possesses a high cruising speed and a natural turn of foot. If he handles the quicker ground, he may have the class to turn in a big performance under Jason Maguire.

Last Instalment - RSA Chase

A winner of six from eight starts, Last Instalment continued his winning ways when beating First Lieutenant in the Grade 1 Fort Laney Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. He is a true stayer and noticeably gathers ground on every jump. It is also worth noting that the Fort Laney Chase has provided the last two RSA Chase winners in Weapon's Amnesty and Boston's Angel.

Last Instalment has lost only twice, both on good ground but he has always been held in very high regard, even as a point-to-pointer. He is a seven-year-old, the right age for the race as the last five winners and 10 of the last 12 winners have been seven. He was not a very highly rated hurdler and at 10/1 is definite value, his odds in the fast few weeks having been cut from 20/1 for the RSA. Grand Crus, as good as is, remains no price in one is the toughest championship renewals of the Cheltenham festival.

Venture Capital -Champion Bumper

Trained by Philip Fenton, Venture Capital is still just a 5yo with one start to his name. There is lots of 12/1 available for this horse which is short considering his sole race. This price however is based on the form of his bumper working out really well. At Fairyhouse, Venture Capital beat Tony Martin’s Thomas Edison as he liked. Thomas Edison has since beaten subsequent winners Champagne Agent and The Mighty Milan who are all top bumper horses.

Philip Fenton will forever be associated a long career riding bumper winners as well as training Dunguib but he believes Venture Capital to be a very useful prospect. After winning at Fairyhouse his trainer noted "I think he's pretty smart. we've always really liked him and we're very sweet on him beforehand" .
Venture Capital is a very nicely bred son of Presenting and it is thought he will have a preparatory run at Naas next week. 

Watch this space.
Looking forward at Leopardstown
By Stephen Dwyer

January is an important month at Leopardstown.

It is a time for looking back and a time for looking forward. Indeed the very of month of January is named after Janus, a Roman God depicted with two faces. One face looked to the past, the other to the future. Pat Keogh, the new CEO of Leopardstown racecourse is a man who understands the value of getting this balancing act just right.

Pat Keogh grew up in Rathfarnham and Leopardstown was his local track. The connection to horse racing was formed at an early age when Pat’s father brought him to Leopardstown. As a young boy, his family were avid racegoers and this instilled a love for the sport . Recalling these times brings back many fond memories and he has seen first-hand the changes at Leopardstown over the past forty years. Educated by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street in Dublin, Pat joined AIB bank in 1974. A stellar career would follow. He worked in all divisions of AIB before heading the bank's treasury operations in both London and New York. A twenty five year tenure within the bank saw him travel the world before being appointed as Director of Corporate Banking.

The changes rang in 1999 when Coolmore Stud were recruiting for a Finance Director. He joined the team in Tipperary and remained there for almost 8 years. Looking back at his time there Pat recalls “what Coolmore have achieved is fantastic, their success is wonderful to see and this is true of so many bloodstock and horse racing entities in Ireland where we are truly world leaders”. Aside from a sharp financial mind, Pat’s Barton Bloodstock showed considerable breeding acumen in partnership with the Villiers syndicate. Some years ago they purchased an unraced Sure Blade mare who was out of Moyglare winner Flamenco Wave. The mare was Leaping Water and her last foal was European champion two year old, multiple Group 1 winner and last year's Breeder's Cup Turf winner, St Nicholas Abbey. Due to changing family circumstances Keogh returned to Dublin in 2007 when he joined the Cosgrave Property Group. He stayed there for four years until last September before formally taking up office on October 1st as the new Leopardstown CEO.

Taking over the reins from Tom Burke as the man in charge of Leopardstown is no easy task. At the time of his retirement, Tom Burke had worked within the horse racing industry for 42 years and was with Leopardstown since 1986. Brian Kavanagh, CEO of HRI publicly noted that Tom “will be greatly missed and a very hard act to follow”.

Taking charge of Leopardstown may be Pat Keogh’s biggest challenge to date. As the only racecourse in Dublin it attracts around 140,000 racegoers each year. It is a Grade 1 track and the logistics of running 23 meeting a year, amounting to some 163 races, takes careful planning. Aside from the racing, the facilities at Leopardstown include a state of the art driving range and a GUI affiliated golf course upon which 35,000 rounds of golf were played last year. The market is difficult at present and the sport and entertainment business areas are notoriously competitive. Pat Keogh however sees these challenges as opportunities and one of his first goals is to bring more people inside his doors. “We have a significant catchment area both in Dublin and nationally and many people have never gone racing. For us it’s a case of opening their minds and showing what racing has to offer”.

Leopardstown has an definite advantage in its location, just six miles from the nation’s capital. By contrast, Kempton contract is sixteen miles away from London city centre. About 1.5 million of Ireland’s population live within commuting distance of Leopardstown, an audience Pat intends on tapping into. With such a potential market on their doorstep, a strategic plan has been set in place at Leopardstown to attract new racegoers. The potential is there, the Christmas Festival drew crowds of 55,000; the most on a single day topping 16,500 was the highest in many years. Notably this is not far from attendances at the King George meeting in Kempton such was the quality of fare on offer. Sometimes though, the racing is not enough.

Aside from the championship meetings of Christmas and the Hennessy, Leopardstown will hold a Students Day for the first time on the 28th of March. This is an initiative to attract racing societies from third level institutions and echoes similar success stories at Limerick and Sligo. Children will take centre stage also as two family days are scheduled for later in the year in April and May. Pat believes these will be a success; “people want to be entertained as families, we have to have a better offering on all days so it’s more conducive for families to come. We are bringing in activities for children who are the future of our sport to ensure their first experience at Leopardstown is a good one” Catering for a diverse audience is also crucial. The successful summer evening meetings drew an average of 5,000 each last year and are a success story all of their own. Pat agreed; “we believe that the Bulmers Live series is now like a mini music festival, it attracts the younger people in Dublin with its music, food and craic and with an increase in attendance we are confident it’s going the right way”.

There is a significant annual spend on attracting racegoers to Leopardstown, to Pat this is an investment. The figures reveal themselves, €22 million spent on betting and prize money exceeding €6.5 million. Leopardstown is also the first racecourse in Ireland to announce development plans for 2012/2013. €5 million will be spent upgrading and installing new facilities and there will be an additional spend of €2 million on other improvements.

This revenue will be supported by Horse Racing Ireland’s racecourse development fund. A new weigh room is planned along with a retail and children’s area. A new permanent structure to replace the marquee is similar in concept to the Centaur event centre at Cheltenham racecourse. Pat acknowledged the contribution from the industry “HRI’s racecourse development fund, enables racecourse to develop facilities, improve our offering and ultimately improves the whole industry. We’ve been improving the facilities such as the new food and tote hall but now it’s time to make a big leap forward which we intend on doing over the next two years”. Racing is core to Leopardstown, it always will be.

What is planned for the development there are structures that will enhance the racegoers experience. As Pat admits; “The more people have to do at the races the better. We plan to build a permanent structure, a spine that can be reshaped to fit our needs. For example it will allow us to hold a fashion show at Hennessy day or music nights during the summer. It will allow us the flexibility to cater for different race days and events”. The team in Leopardstown take a holistic view of their business. They notice how the Galway festival keeps improving and evolving each year. They also notice what Leinster rugby have achieved, a lot of people without prior knowledge of rugby attend matches for the atmosphere.

Events like these gather their own inertia but still require monumental planning. The same is true of weekends like the Christmas Festival and the January Jumps weekend. “Over Christmas we worked very hard and the team tried a few things like the festival marquee that went down a treat. With the focus now on the January Jumps, we are looking forward with great anticipation to a top class weekend of racing” admitted Pat.

As with any organisation, you cannot achieve results without the backing of your team. Pat holds a Master’s degree in Management from Trinity College Dublin and is quick to praise the staff at Leopardstown. “We are very fortunate to have Willie Gibbons as course manager. Everyone speaks very highly of the condition of the course. On the commercial side Ciaran Conroy works with our sponsors. Jane Davis has recently left to manage Tipperary Racecourse which is a big gain for them but Nessa Joyce has come back to us as racing and operations manager. We have a good team who will harness opportunities”.

From his commercial background, Pat understand economies of scale and how to plan and execute complex projects. He is the ideal match for a position that involves time, dedication and the capacity to think ahead. Leopardstown is also quick to embrace technology.

With a large following on Twitter and Facebook Pat notes; “technology is a great way of getting your message out but you have to keep up on top of your game, if people have a bad experience, they will let it be known. We are fortunate with racing that it is so strong at the moment we have a great product to sell.” In addition to serving as CEO of Leopardstown, Pat on the advisory committee for the Tote. He is on the board of the Ronald McDonald House in Crumlin Children’s Hospital, an involvement he admits he gets a lot more from than he puts in. With the crucial first 100 days in office now behind him , Pat Keogh and his team are looking forward to the future at Leopardstown.

I believe it will go from strength to strength.

Copyright - The Irish Field - January 2012.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Blue Cross

The Blue Cross

By Stephen Dwyer

They are the unsung heroes.

Dedicated professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to provide support and welfare for every racehorse at every racecourse in Ireland. From the start of this year to date the Irish Blue Cross have provided welfare services at 391 race meetings, both north and south. Many racegoers may not notice the large horse ambulances that are inconspicuously and carefully stationed at racetracks. This does not detract from their presence on race day but rather epitomizes it. Out of sight but not out of mind.

“Quiet professionals” is how Chris Connelly, manager of the Irish Blue Cross likes to describe the team. Consisting of a small band of volunteers, three members of the Blue Cross usually attend each race meeting. They are supplemented by local volunteers, a veterinary team and clerk of the course to provide an essential equine service. A horse ambulance is constantly on standby during every race. Containing start of the art equipment, the ambulance is called into play when a horse is injured. Each ambulance is fitted out by Stanley Trailers in County Kilkenny with a range of medical supplies including oxygen, slings and hoists. From a critical care perspective they are not unlike the ambulances which follow the jockeys.

The Blue Cross team carefully view each race through a pair of binoculars, often times they are aware of an injury to a horse before anyone else. First on the scene to an accident, the care and attention they provide to an injured animal is often the difference between life and death. As with any sport there are occasional injuries, a horse jumping a 2ft hurdle lands with 12,000 pounds of pressure. There are falls and cuts to deal with but throughout 2011 mortalities have consistently fallen. Chris Connelly cites internal figures from the Blue Cross; “Thankfully the rate of fatalities are down by 33% on last year”. In the event of an incident involving a horse, the ambulance is hastily dispatched. The team are directed by the on-course vet and assist in the transfer of the horse to a location for the appropriate treatment and care.

The safe and swift removal of injured horses ensures a safer environment for all. This task is a necessary but complex service that requires much skill and attention. As with any injured or frightened animal, a horse can be unpredictable but the equine handling skills of the Blue Cross are among the best in the country. Indeed the horse ambulance is successful only because the Blue Cross works as a unit with the racecourse staff to provide the required care. They also serve in an advisory capacity, working closely with the management of each racecourse to provide feedback which might benefit the welfare of the horse. Crucially they were also one of the groups involved with the Turf Club while researching the use of the whip in racing. They are experts in their field giving generously of their time.

Aside from the horse ambulance service, the Blue Cross provides a drop in centre for small animals at Inchicore in Dublin. Additionally there is a mobile veterinary treatment practice spread over ten locations. 2011 is their busiest year on record; over 25,000 cases were handled by the charity. These included x-rays, surgeries, vaccinations and micro chipping The Blue Cross mobile clinic and drop in centre caters for financially-strapped pet owners who are unable to afford veterinary fees. Private veterinary practices who assist the Blue Cross discount their fees by one-third. Their goodwill is matched with a contribution of one-third by the charity, leaving the pet owner with a manageable one-third to pay.

Surprisingly, The Blue Cross comprises of just fourteen staff but their workload is immense. Delivering a raft of welfare services and the horse ambulance costs in the region of €1 million each year. Put into context, that figure exceeds €19,000 each week.

Horse Racing Ireland bequeaths a flat rate of €346 per race meeting for the horse ambulance service. Out of this must come all of the necessary expenses such as fuel costs, tolls and other charges. The rate was reduced by 10% this year, a reduction of about €20,000 in operating costs. There is no doubt that the Blue Cross is under-resourced and it is staggering the volume of work they carry out given their resources. Yet carry it out they do, quietly and diligently.

HRI also provide a grant to the Blue Cross to assist with the running costs of the horse ambulance. In addition to this, a small percentage of prize money is allocated to the charity in conjunction with the Irish Racehorse Trainer’s Association. Despite this revenue, a shortage of funds remains their biggest challenge.

Fundraising events such as the raffles, dog walks and cash collections are necessary to ensure the survival of the service. Corporate sponsorship is rare although Betfair responded to a donation drive last March by making €10,000 available in sponsorship for a new ambulance unit. Betfair spokesperson Barry Orr summed up the sentiment felt by many when stating “we were delighted to be in a position to help a charity that supplies such a magnificent service to the Irish horse”.

Aside from race meetings, the horse ambulance service is present at the RDS horse show, international horse trials and the pet expo each year. Close ties with the Blue Cross in the UK are also critical as both organisations share a common goal. Indeed half of the trustees of the Irish board are also UK trustees, including the chairman. Their latest trustee, Kerstin Alford, is a director of Equine Welfare and ensures a constant focus at sport horse events.

Founded in 1945, the blue cross is blessed with talented volunteers who receive a plethora of skills in return for their time and input. Chris Connelly, a native of Galway and manager of the Blue Cross has worked with the charity since the early 1990’s. At that time the horse ambulance did not attend every race meeting. Now that it attends each fixture, this change of practise can be considered a triumph. Chris understands the importance of the ambulance service; “it is a resource that we provide to ensure that the best welfare to the horse can be called into action and delivered on the day”

The ambulance fleet is driven by Commercial Land Rovers, it comprises of three active units and one backup unit. Although stretched at times, they also respond to occasional roadside assistance emergency calls for horse boxes carrying animals involved in accidents. The Blue Cross does not have the same facilities at the Irish Horse Welfare Trust whereupon it rehomes horses and ponies but they share the same concerns. In their view, equine welfare is neither a rural or urban issue but a combination of both. The deterrent of stronger prosecutions for organised offenders would serve as a warning to those elements involved in the practise of animal neglect and cruelty.

Looking at the workload of 2011, the forthcoming year promises to be exceptionally busy for the Blue Cross. In this week’s budget, HRI have announced 70 additional racing fixtures despite a drop in income of 1.7%. This means 70 extra times that the horse ambulance will be in service. Grants to the Blue Cross are also likely to be sustained at their present level. This leaves little room for manoeuvre for necessary capital projects; for instance the headquarters of the charity requires a new roof which will cost €90,000. HRI also announced that €6 million will be made available for racecourse development so perhaps a slice of this can go towards developing further the excellent service carried out by the Blue Cross.
By their own self admission the Blue Cross would much prefer if they were never called upon during a race day. The industry can rest assured that the highest standards of care and welfare are provided at all times. That this is carried out by a small number of volunteers working on a shoestring budget makes it all the more impressive.

Hidden at times they may be, but we could not get by without them.

In numbers:
• 5386 the registered charity number of The Irish Blue Cross
• 1897 the year in which the British Blue Cross was founded (to care for working horses on the streets of London)
• 1945 the year in which the Irish Blue Cross was founded
• 391 the total amount of race meetings served by the Blue Cross this year
• 26 the amount of racecourses covered by The Blue Cross
• 14 the total number of Blue Cross staff (including two part time resources)
• 14% the increase in racecourse meetings attended by The Blue Cross in 2011
• 3 the size of the ambulance team (comprising of David Cahill, Laura Birt, Aidan Bailey)

Copyright: The Irish Field

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