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Saturday 10 December 2016

Three decades of tending to the champions - Pat O'Donovan

Pat O'Donovan reflects on a career that has seen him work his way up from stable groom to assistant trainer with Jim Bolger

Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30

Pat O'Donovan with St Jovite after he won the Irish Derby in 1992.
Pat O'Donovan with St Jovite after he won the Irish Derby in 1992.
Pat O'Donovan returning from exercising Turret Rocks in the snow of Jim Bolger's Glebe House, Coolcullen, Co Carlow.

Grooms, stable hands and exercise riders are truly the backbone of the racing industry, but sometimes, unconsciously, they can be the forgotten heroes in a successful racing yard celebrating a major win.

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At the recent Cheltenham Festival, however, many of our top trainers were quick to pay tribute to the dozens of men and women working behind the scenes in a week which saw 14 Irish-trained winners at Prestbury Park.

It was a momentous occasion for trainers, owners, jockeys and breeders, but an equally emotional few days for the people who spend most of their day with these champions of the turf.

Take the formidable team of women who led in the Gold Cup winner Don Cossack for Gordon Elliott. Their beaming smiles on the final day said it all.

Thanked personally by their employer for their contribution, it showed his appreciation for the hours of dedication shown and sacrifices made in order to have these horses in peak condition for the biggest National Hunt meeting of the year.

A highly experienced horseman, Pat O'Donovan has himself been in this position on numerous occasions as a long-time employee with Jim Bolger, and his efforts were richly rewarded last year when scooping the top accolades at the Goldolphin Irish Stud and Stable Staff Awards.

Assistant trainer to Jim Bolger at Glebe House near Carlow, the Cork native has been associated with such 'Champions of the Flat' as St Jovite, Teofilo and New Approach in a career with racehorses which has spanned some 30 years.

"I have lots of great memories over the years," Mr O'Donovan said, "but one special one has to be when St Jovite won the Irish Derby in 1992. I practically lived with that horse so it really meant a lot to me."

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Such was their bond that he then travelled to the States with the colt for six weeks at the end of his racing career.

American-bred, St Jovite was retired from stud in 2014 and died earlier this year at the age of 27. Remarkably he still holds the record for the fastest time - 2:25.6 - in the Irish Derby.

Having spent his childhood on a dairy farm near Bandon, Mr O'Donovan never envisaged a career in horses until his English teacher Paddy Kehoe suggested a summer job with Jim Bolger.

"I loved horses but had only ever ridden in a few pony races and had no intention of becoming a jockey," he said. "Paddy was a good friend of Jim's and got me a job there, but I was only 16 at the time - a kid really. My mother wasn't too impressed at me leaving after my Junior Certificate, but I thought I'd won the lotto."

For those in the know, life as a stable groom is far from luxurious, with long hours all par for the course. "Jim had only been here a few years but by then had close to 100 horses in training, so it was a busy place from the start," he commented.

"The horses Flame of Tara and Give Thanks were here at the time but we also had an incredible team of riders which included Dean Gallagher, Robbie Supple, Paul Hegarty and Kevin Manning, who is now married to Una Bolger."

Aidan O'Brien was also cutting his teeth at Glebe House in the mid 1980s.

"Back then everyone rode four lots each, but things have changed since then and the system is much easier with horse walkers," Mr O'Donovan said.

Within 12 months of settling into his new role as groom, the autumn of 1986 saw Mr O'Donovan on a flight to California with Park Express.

"I really was only a child so I was very fortunate to get the trip to Santa Anita with her for the Breeders' Cup meeting. Sadly she never ran though as she got sick on arrival, but I remember it well."

Winner of the Irish Champion Stakes earlier that year, Park Express was later retired to Jim Bolger's private stud and went on to be an equally successfully broodmare, producing her 11th and final foal, by Galileo, at the age of 22.

The Bolgers' home-bred colt was later named New Approach, winner of the Epsom Derby in 2008 and sire of Dawn Approach, victorious in the Newmarket 2000 Guineas, amongst other Classic races.

Not surprisingly, over the years Mr O'Donovan made his way up the staff ladder to head lad, a position which he held for 11 years before handing the mantle to Brian O'Connor seven years ago. "Even after I got married to Marion (the couple have two children, Gerry and Méabh) I was still able to travel abroad with such horses as Trading Leather, winner of the Irish Derby in 2013.

Special

"He was also a bit special as he was bred here and both his sire Teofilo and dam Night Visit had been here too.

"But it was a very sad day for the yard when he was euthanized after suffering a leg fracture while running in the Japan Cup."

With horses come many highs, and many lows but Mr O'Donovan is now eagerly looking forward to the season ahead. "We have so many nice horses here at the moment," he said. "And I am particularly excited about Turret Rocks who is a proper Guineas candidate.

"From the pick of the fillies there's also Glamorous Approach, Pleascach and Lucida, while the colt Smash Williams is a contender for the Guineas and Moonlight Magic is a real Derby horse."

"The key now is to keep them right and keep them sound," he concluded, optimistic that he will be in the winner's enclosure on more than one or two occasions in the coming months.

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