Battling on against the odds
As he nears his 80th birthday, retirement is not an option for Kevin Prendergast, as he tells John O'Brien
OVER the years reporters have called Kevin Prendergast and asked him about the day a callow teenager from Crusheen by the name of Kieren Fallon arrived in his yard, barely a millilitre of racing blood in his veins. They expect the trainer to regale them with stories of Fallon's wildness, the raw talent he had, how he was always destined for the top. Honest and stubborn to his core, Prendergast will always leave them disappointed.
Fallon stayed six years on The Curragh, became champion apprentice before leaving for the north of England. The ability was luminous. Beyond that, though, what more could you say? The heralding of genius, the anointing of champions before their time. Prendergast has always steadfastly refused to play that game. "When anybody gets to the top, it's always a surprise," he says. "When Brian O'Driscoll was in school, who could have said he'd become an icon of Irish rugby?"
The rugby analogy is no accident. Prendergast was a handy hooker and flanker in his day, winning Leinster medals at Newbridge College and Munster medals at Rockwell. At 18, he went to Sydney and spent five years as assistant to the legendary trainer Frank Dalton and, when he returned, he was surprised to see that his old Rockwell team-mate Mick English had broken into the Ireland team at outhalf.
"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."
He has held a licence for 48 years now and those two words have always underscored his philosophy: no guarantees. A year ago, Dunboyne Express sluiced home to win the Anglesey Stakes at The Curragh by eight lengths and was immediately touted as an Epsom Derby horse. This year the colt hasn't reached those lofty heights, but don't expect Prendergast to feel too despondent about it. He hadn't got carried away with the hype. He still has a good horse, just not a great one.
So you sit and wait for another good one to appear. This time it hasn't taken long. Three weeks ago, La Collina produced a blistering turn of foot to win the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes at The Curragh and a follow-up in the Moyglare Stud Stakes today will catapult her to the head of the ante-post market for the 1,000 Guineas. The handicapper rates her a pound superior to Maybe, her conqueror at Leopardstown last month, and while the vibes emanating from Ballydoyle are strong, Prendergast remains as optimistic as he's entitled to be. No guarantees, of course.
He bought La Collina at the Doncaster Yearling Sales for £42,000 and, even though she has already repaid her price many times over, Prendergast wouldn't try to claim that he had identified her as such a bargain at the time. The truth is he has always fished at the bottom end of the market, occasionally spearing one that the trawlers with their huge nets have missed.
"There was a race run at The Curragh the other day," he says. "A fillies race. [Aidan] O'Brien had three horses in it. They cost €2m between the three of them. The winner cost €1.2m and the others were the guts of €400,000 apiece. It's a battle to stay going. If you didn't like it, you wouldn't do it. But we love what we do and that's why we stay at it."
If La Collina manages to get her head in front this afternoon, it will be Prendergast's fifth Moyglare victory and, as sure as night follows day, his fine record with fillies will be referenced, as if long ago he discovered a magic formula that doesn't work the oracle with colts. He has seen other trainers lazily saddled with the same tag when the trend merely points to a more obvious conclusion.
"Colts are harder to buy than fillies. If you have a good colt with a good pedigree you can go to stud and earn a lot of money. With a filly you get one foal a year if you're lucky. That's the difference. It's not about fellas training fillies. That's just a myth. The truth of the matter is we can't afford the colts. You've a chance of buying a nice filly. You've no chance of buying a nice colt."
It has been so as long as he has trained horses. Vincent O'Brien's attention to detail was legendary but it helped that the yearlings being shipped to Ballydoyle -- Nijinsky and Sir Ivor among them -- were usually the highest-priced worldwide. O'Brien and his business partners created such a dominant racing empire that it made it impossible for his rivals to compete and a challenge just to survive.
Prendergast's father, Darkie, had been champion trainer in England three years in succession in the 1960s, but they were different times. During the war years the big English studs had sold their best stock and many of the horses ended up in top Irish stables like Prendergast's. And now? "Now the best stallions are here," says Prendergast. "And probably the best broodmares too. But they're all in the one corner."
It's important to note that Prendergast relates this history with no sense of bitterness or injustice. From the start he knew the odds. Against the might and firepower of Ballydoyle, you were destined to come out a poor second best. Not all the time, though. Occasionally the big hitters, however strong, could be taken down. Every now and again the small man would have his day.
He tells of the day in 1971 when his filly Pidget, his first Classic winner, came up against a fancied Ballydoyle runner at The Curragh. It was a 17-runner field over seven furlongs and, when Pidget was drawn No 1, Prendergast knew she faced an uphill task. At the time there was no suspicion of a draw bias over the mile track but he had seen enough racing there to know a far-side draw wasn't a good portent.
"Vincent's horse was drawn on the fence, we were what was No 1 in those days and his horse beat us a length and a half. I said to Vincent afterwards that with a better draw in the Guineas we'd beat him. He said how do you mean? I said we'd had a bad draw. The following day he brought a quantity surveyor with him and measured the distance. That evening he rang and said 'you were right'. And we did beat him in the Guineas afterwards."
He looks back on nearly 50 years now and knows there could have been more. More big winners. More English Classic victories since Nebbiolo won the 1977 2,000 Guineas. More Group Ones. More good horses like Pidget, Oscar Schindler, Rebelline and Miss Beatrix. Still, no point in getting too greedy, though. He didn't do too badly with what he had.
He thinks fondly of Ardross, the horse bred by his father and owned by himself and his brother, Paddy. In 1980, Ardross won the Jockey Club Cup at Newmarket but his father died soon afterwards and they had to sell the horse to pay the death duties. Over the following two years Ardross, trained by Henry Cecil, would win two Ascot Gold Cups and finish second in the Arc. "It was hard but it had to be done," Prendergast recalls. "And that was it."
Just leading the life has been reward enough, he thinks. The fresh mornings on The Curragh gallops. A yard buzzing contentedly around him. It was often said that Prendergast was a hard man to work for but he scoffs at the notion. "That's Kevin Deering," he says, as a man passes on a tractor. "He's 74 now. Worked for my father and came here when he died." His assistant, Damien Barry, worked for his brother Paddy and has been with him 22 years.
Although he is nearly 50 years in the game and approaching his 80th year, retirement is not on the agenda. "How long are you here Johnny?" he asks a man on a horse. "Thirty-five years," Johnny replies. "February 3rd, 1977." Johnny's father, Paddy Sullivan, was once stable jockey to John Oxx Senior. Prendergast smiles. "Sure what would I do anyway?" he wonders. "Lay down and die?"
He sees the young trainers starting out now and squirms at the hardship they will endure. His brother Paddy retired a few years ago, leaving the licence to his son Patrick, and Kevin wishes him nothing but luck for the years ahead. He bred only daughters himself and none of them expressed an interest in following him into the game and, for that, he is eternally relieved.
He sees the mess that has enveloped the country, the endemic corruption at all levels and the frightful state of racing's finances. He has often been critical of the manner in which racing is run in this country and, mindful of the happy years he spent in Australia, he thinks Irish racing officials would be well served by studying how professionally the game is run there and incorporating things that would improve the sport here.
All told he's happy with his lot, though. He trained his 2,000th winner at the back end of last year at Dundalk but barely tipped his cap to the milestone because, for Prendergast, it has never been a cold numbers game. At one time he kept over 70 horses. Now he has 60 and feels comfortable. He sees trainers continuously expanding, slogging 365 days a year, but it was never for him. He has a small band of loyal owners -- Sheikh Hamdan and Lady O'Reilly among them -- and they've kept him going.
Third lot finished now, La Collina resting in her box, he hitches a trailer to the back of his jeep, loads up the hounds and sets off for their daily swim in the Grand Canal. If the evening stays fine he might get a few holes in and, when the season is done and the horses put away, he'll just relax and count down the short evenings until the turn of the year when the first salmon and trout begin to bite again.
Sunday Indo Sport