Box-walker to box-office
Dunguib is a tricky customer but Philip Fenton's patience has been rewarded so far, writes John O'Brien
IT was Johnny Cummins who dropped the first hint. They had taken Dunguib home from the sales and set about planning a racing career they hadn't foreseen. Johnny had spent 21 years working for Mouse Morris. Now he had branched out on his own, running his own pre-training and livery business. And it was Johnny's blessing to see the first stirrings of magic in Dunguib's feet. "Look after him," he said when he handed the horse back. "He could be something special."
Philip Fenton wouldn't have doubted Johnny's assessment. But he remembered the sinking feeling he'd felt when he'd first set eyes on the four-year-old gelding at the Derby Sales in June 2007. Dunguib, it had to be said, was no equine oil painting. And the word was that he was a box-walker . Horses that ceaselessly pace their stable floor do so out of boredom and anxiety. That suggested a panicky, high-maintenance animal a busy trainer could do without.
"Conformation-wise he wouldn't have been everybody's cup of tea," Fenton says. "When I first looked at him I saw he was a little bit upright on his front leg and I thought there could be a problem there. He was light of bone too, fairly light-framed. You could have cribbed him for that as well. And on top of all that he was a box-walker .
"So I met Lily Lawlor up there. I'd known Lily for years. She was selling three horses and asked me if I was buying. I said I was. She said you might buy the horse that's box walking. Naturally enough, I said that's the last one I'd be interested in buying. There were 500 horses for sale there. Why would I buy the one that's a box-walker?"
In the ring, Dunguib failed to meet his €19,000 reserve price and was led out unsold: Lily's to keep and now Fenton's to train. At the time Fenton didn't imagine Lily was doing him any favours. "She says 'listen you have him'," he smiles. "I suppose he had to go some place. My first reaction was 'Jesus how are we going to train this fellow?' With the front legs he has."
Three years on, they chat in the kitchen of Fenton's house on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border and survey the road they have travelled. Since finishing second on his debut at Punchestown in April 2008, Dunguib has raced seven times and hacked up on each occasion. Today he tackles seven rivals in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown and, barring mishaps, he will be considered a racing certainty when, as likely, he lines up for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.
The pressure of handling the most exciting young hurdler in training they wear lightly. On Tuesday, Lily heard a rumour that Ruby Walsh would be in the plate for today's race and scoffed at the utter implausibility of it. Jump racing isn't like Premiership football or a big-business corporation where the wealthiest siphoned off everything of value that entered their orbit. Occasionally a rare nugget appears that doesn't have its price.
Of course, all things being equal, they'd have sold Dunguib years ago, long before he'd shown the mark of a champion on the racecourse. Lawlor had bought the horse as a foal for €13,000 along with her business partner, Dan Hartnett. Buying and selling young horses had been their trade for decades. Now and again they would put one into training with Fenton, Tony Martin or another trusted contact. Mostly, however, they were in the business of selling.
Not Dunguib, though. Not after they had sent him to Cheltenham and he had routed a strong Champion Bumper field by a scarcely believable 10 lengths. On their way home, Lily and Dan discussed the situation at the airport and came to a quick decision that no amount of money could persuade them to sell. They were both at a stage of their lives when money mattered less than the dream. Now the mind-boggling offers have dried up. "People don't bother now," Lily says. "Anyone who could afford him knows he isn't for sale."
Before he was a trainer Fenton had kept himself busy riding as an amateur and, like Lawlor and Hartnett, dealing in horse flesh. By the time he finished riding in 2004, he'd bought David Wachman's old yard and filled it with enough smart young horses to give him a head-start in the business: Sher Beau, Shirley Casper, Vic Venturi, Arrive Sir Clive.
Arrive Sir Clive gave him his first notions of grandeur as a trainer and his first kick in the teeth too. Three years ago the horse ran in the same race Dunguib will contest today, finishing third behind Aran Concerto. Fenton thought he might have a potential Gold Cup horse on his hands. Then a year later, still learning his craft over fences, Arrive Sir Clive broke down during a novice chase at Fairyhouse and had to be destroyed. Fenton was devastated.
"I remember walking away, head down, when I bumped into Ted Walsh. 'Did you lose the horse?' he says. 'I did,' says I. 'Well, I was talking to Ruby this morning and he said Willie [Mullins] lost four that morning'. Just through accidents on the gallops or whatever. So you hear that and you just pick yourself up and away you go again. Keep firing, try to find the next Arrive Sir Clive."
He could scarcely have imagined finding better and so soon afterwards. As an amateur, Fenton rode some of the best horses of his time in bumpers: Montelado, Mucklemeg, Kicking King, Beef Or Salmon. But none better, he thinks, than Dunguib as a bumper horse. He knows Dunguib still has to prove himself over jumps. And every day he sees the improvement: his horse becoming smoother and slicker at his jumps, more professional in his work and, most of all, more contented with life.
Once he arrived from Cummins' they never doubted his potential. Fenton ran him in a schooling bumper in late 2007 and, when everything else had pulled up, it took Dunguib's rider two furlongs to restrain the horse. A month before Cheltenham last year, Fenton worked him with a decent horse which had won a bumper and, without his jockey moving an inch, Dunguib had forged a furlong clear by the end. "Jesus lads," Fenton remembers saying breathlessly, "we're getting there."
He knew the ability had to be minded, though. Those who watched him saunter to victory on the racecourse had no idea of what it took to get him race-fit. From the farrier who worked on his dodgy feet to the stable staff who had to watch diligently over him, Dunguib has kept the yard constantly alert and on tenterhooks. On the worst days Fenton would load him in a trailer and drive him to Carrick-on-Suir and back just to break up the routine. He ensures Dunguib spends at least two hours every day in a paddock and, gradually, the anxiety is wearing off.
"He's so used to his routine now and it's a lot easier these days. But there was a time he'd panic over the least thing. Now he's busy all the time. He's either racing or we're taking him away for a bit of half-speed or whatever. He's relaxed about it. He's grown up so much since last year. I think he'll handle whatever's thrown at him now. Experience is a great thing to have."
When it came to jumping, the drama continued. A week after Cheltenham, Dunguib saw a hurdle for the first time and Fenton couldn't believe how "clumsy and stupid" he was. "Jesus," I said to myself, "we've another battle on our hands here." He decided to run the horse in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown and, though Dunguib won easily, they lost the race following a positive drugs test. Fenton blames himself for the setback, the result of the horse in the adjoining stable infecting Dunguib with a worming product he was being given.
Still, Dunguib's poor jumping was of more concern. "He just seemed to disregard hurdles. He'd jump one okay, meet the next in the same stride and take the blasted thing out of the ground. So I was asking a few lads and one of them says have you ever tried tyres? So we had a frame made up and put tyres into it and that was the making of him. The tyres would give enough to command his respect but not enough to injure him."
The Punchestown misfortune aside, Fenton has played his hand immaculately so far. Dunguib has never been ridden by anyone other than Brian O'Connell despite pressure on connections to appoint a high-profile jockey. Before Cheltenham last year, Fenton was constantly courted by agents and jockeys who sensed the then young amateur was in a vulnerable position. Fenton's response was always the same. Dunguib was O'Connell's ride and, barring mishaps, nothing would alter the fact.
It is easy to assume that there was a sentimental undercurrent to his decision to stick with O'Connell at Cheltenham. Fenton had never turned professional and there was a thread of resentment running through the amateur ranks that the Festival Bumper was open to professional riders. The trainer insists it wasn't so, however. His loyalty to the jockey was no romantic sop to a corinthian ideal, but a determination to do what he thought was best for his horse.
"I wasn't trying to prove a point. I always thought allowing professionals compete in the Cheltenham Bumper was a good thing. If you'd 25 amateurs going round there, you'd have chaos. But I knew Brian would hold his own and I saw the work and dedication he has put into the horse. My view was that he knows the horse better than anyone so why take a chance on someone who isn't familiar? And Lily and Dan were happy to let Brian stay on. So that was that."
Those who scream for Dunguib to take on the cream of the hurdling crop in the Champion Hurdle miss the deft hand with which Fenton has handled the horse and the inclination towards patience that has served him well.
He has listened tirelessly to the arguments in favour of the more ambitious route and found none of them convincing. Yes, novices have won the Champion Hurdle before. But what, he wonders, did Royal Gait do afterwards? Or Make A Stand? Were they unlucky or did they have too much racing done? He knows which side of the line he'd prefer to err on.
So caution it will be. Dunguib is a late developer and hasn't been easy to train. The people who shout loudest forget that. The likes of Solwhit and Go Native have almost twice as many runs, mostly in better races, and are still improving. Would it not be madness to take them on when another prestigious race seems to be at his mercy?
"We'll stick with the novice route," says Fenton determinedly. "I feel myself novices should stay with novices and the way things are for us the Supreme is as good as the Champion Hurdle. If it so happens everything went well on Sunday and then at Cheltenham you'd probably see him go to Punchestown and take on the bigger one there. I'd see no reason why he couldn't take on the bigger boys there if we got the results along the way."
Don't expect him to be for turning. First the Deloitte and the Supreme. And, after, the hurdling world.