What makes Enda Bolger the boss of the banks
Jonathan Mullin learns some of the secrets of success of Ireland's biggest Bruce Springsteen fan
WE'RE driving around in Enda Bolger's 4x4 with the tones of his favourite rock star on a CD doing his best to cut through the scent of recently smoked cigars. Down at the bottom of Bolger's stunning training facility 30 minutes south of Limerick city, the Morningstar River, with its belly full of freshly fallen rain, runs by at a ferocious pace and Bolger points out a whole chunk of his land recently reclaimed from flooding.
"We were lucky with our gallops but all that bottom section was part of the river the other week," he says.
Despite that incursion, Bolger's yard still amounts to a stunning fun park for horses. There are the usual gallops you see in every training establishment, but what overwhelms the eye are the dramatic banks and fences of every shape and size in a sprawling figure-of-eight. They keep Bolger as the undisputed king of cross-country races at Cheltenham and in Josies Orders and Quantitativeeasing, as well as St James's Place Foxhunter favourite On The Fringe, he has what you can justifiably call a team for The Festival.
"Every time we got a few quid over the years we'd try to make an improvement, put in more hedges, a bank or two. One of the locals called me over one day, a man who had farmed in the area all his life. He'd been watching over the wall at what was going on without saying a thing.
"But it all got too much and he got me one day and said 'Can I say something to you?' And I said, 'Of course'. 'You've gone and ruined a perfectly good farm there, you know'. I thought that was great!" says Bolger, laughing heartily.
The trainer is wonderful company, unusual in his trade for being a perfectionist without taking himself too seriously. Between Bolger and the equine playground over which he presides, it is little wonder that bounding merrily around these banks are horses with the kind of profiles that prompt many to conclude they have fallen out with the game. Bolger's renown as a horseman sees them 'referred' to him but, back in front of a roaring fire, it's an assessment he diplomatically challenges.
"If you go back through their form they're all Saturday horses who weren't good enough to keep progressing through the ranks," he says. "They found their level, and whether it's Ireland or England they've gone up the handicap and are struggling. JP [McManus] never sits me down and says 'you're getting this one and that one', these horses usually just arrive.
"I'd be familiar with a lot of them and I know the Martinstown horses because we'd have had them here as four- or five-year-olds. John Thomas McNamara rode Josies Orders in his point-to-point and the first thing he did when he got off was to tell the trainer he should have won on him. Going home in the car he told JP he thought he rode a nice horse, so they bought him from Liam Burke. He won at Aintree and Ascot, so he's no bad horse."
As we speak, Josies Orders is favourite to re-establish Bolger and jockey Nina Carberry's presence in The Festival's Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase after winning the handicap at The Open and following up with another cross-country victory at The International.
"The beauty about Josies is he's come here in what we hope is the middle of his career as he's only eight. After he won at Cheltenham in December, JP or Frank [Berry, McManus's racing manager] said to me, 'You'd imagine if we stayed lucky we could have him for another five years'. But it's not all about the horse," he says, casting a piece of wood on to the crackling fire, "the jockey is crucial too - and that's where Nina comes in."
In the afternoon, once her daily work at Ballydoyle is done, Nina will join others for schooling over the banks. Few sports stars go through their careers with such renown and affection as to not need their surname, which is a bit of a waste for Nina Carberry, who has one of the most famous family names in racing. Her dad Tommy was a champion; brother Paul is regarded as one of the finest riders of any generation; brother Philip won a Champion Hurdle on Sublimity and youngest brother Peterjon plies his trade with great success in Britain.
"No doubt the hunting I did at home helped, but it doesn't begin to prepare you for banks races," says Nina, before explaining the genesis of her association with Bolger. "I first got going with Enda through Shady Lad. He entered him at Kilfeacle and presumed it was a normal open when it was restricted to lady riders! So he booked me and we finished second. He left me on for Punchestown and I rode him twice there before finishing second in a cross country at Cheltenham. It was a great start for me and Shady Lad was a great schoolmaster."
"She's the top," says Bolger, later, when asked to rank Carberry among all the riders over Cheltenham's cross-country course. "She learned her trade from John Thomas because we'd always have two in the race and, wherever JT was, she'd be on his tail. So she learned how to judge those races and where to cut the corners.
"There's never a case of me filling her with instructions in the parade ring. There's no 'be there, do that'. My job is just to get the horse there sound and well. She has the track walked that morning, even the evening before, and her big-race temperament is massive.
"The biggest thrill I got last year was the ride she gave On The Fringe at Aintree after winning the Foxhunter. It was poetry in motion. At Cheltenham she just said to me, 'We won't hit the front too soon', and the next thing she pings the second-last, he's there, and the race is over."
Carberry is quick to pay tribute to her second schoolmaster, the inimitable John Thomas McNamara.
"I used to be in JT's shadow at Cheltenham," she says. "He was unbelievable to be around in a race. He wouldn't say a lot, but you'd just know . . . you'd know you could learn so much from watching him.
"We turned in together upsides in 2009, I was on Garde Champetre and he was on L'Ami, and there was great banter. I was just lucky to be on the winner, who was such a legend there."
In the downstairs bathroom of Howardstown House, the home of Bolger and wife Shanny, I spy a hand-drawn cartoon marking Bolger's 40th birthday and the artists' names - Bruce and Patti. For as well as being the banks-race boss, he is also Ireland's best-known Springsteen fan, naming countless horses after his songs and building up a friendship with the singer and his wife Patti Scialfa. So how did that happen?
"I bought an old car back in the early '80s and it had a radio/cassette player like most at the time, but the radio was broken and stuck in the cassette was Bruce's album The River," he explains.
"So everywhere I went The River was playing as soon as I turned the car on. I was working for a trainer in Sligo so it was a long drive home every day. It ended up that no-one would travel with me!
"I became a fan and followed him around the world. Then one night we got an introduction in the Beacon Theatre in New York and hit it off straight away. He wanted me to meet Patti because she was big into horses and it's meant we've had a great friendship since," he says.
And while Bolger will have dates for The Boss's gigs marked boldly on his calendar, first up is his own tour to Cheltenham and its banks course, a circuit his horses have dominated over the past decade. Bolger has trained the winner of four of the 11 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chases at The Festival, as well as plenty in banks races marking the road to March. That success has its roots from his time as a decorated amateur rider, regarded as one of the country's best, when he worked for PP Hogan, a noted trainer of banks horses.
"PP really got me into it," says Bolger. "Before I rode for him, Ted Walsh, Niall Madden and John Fowler were his jockeys. PP had them so well schooled. He was based two miles up the road and he bought this place for me and [PP's daughter] Sarah when we got married. Then when Sarah and I went our separate ways she didn't want it so I've been here ever since."
What Bolger has managed - together with Carberry in recent times - is to keep that conveyor belt of banks horses churning: from Spot Thedifference to Heads Onthe Ground, Garde Champetre and L'Ami, to Quantitativeeasing and Josies Orders.
Asked to detail the process of finding a new banks horse, Bolger says: "If you took 60 per cent of horses out on their own on a cross-country course they mightn't even jump.
"But the adrenaline, the crowds, the other horses, and their natural competitive spirit all help. Spot Thedifference wouldn't jump around on his own in a month of Sundays. He's stop at something and have a look.
"We have our replicas here to get them familiar with the jumps, but most important is to have a horse who can turn, and they have to be helping you - if they pull too hard, the game is over. That's to do with the work at home, but especially the jockey."
And the jockey, Nina, has had to decide whether to stick with the young Josies Orders, unbeaten in two Cheltenham cross countrys, or shift to Quantitativeeasing, who she thought was going like a winner last year before being carried out dramatically at the second-last.
"Josies has been great," she says. "He wasn't the highest-rated we've sent over banks but what he does is jump well and stay well."
A huge influence on Bolger has been the patronage of JP McManus, in whose colours all his Festival winners have run. McManus's love of a Cheltenham winner is well known, but does that increase the pressure?
"I'd say the opposite," says Bolger, "JP takes so much of the pressure off. He just leaves it to Frank and me and it's the same coming into Cheltenham.
"Maybe the night before," he begins with a smile. "The things he would cop would amaze you. And those bits of advice he offers would often make the difference. It's a hint and, before you ask, yes of course I'd act on it!"
As other trainers have reacted to Bolger's dominance in the race the standard has lifted appreciably.
"Now you see the likes of Balthazar King running, horses who have that bit extra so everyone has had to up their game. But you know what, it just increases the challenge and the satisfaction of competing and winning, doesn't it?"
Bolger on his biggest Cheltenham moments
The 1-2-3 of 2009
It was like a dream, with three of them together at the last and I didn’t really mind which won the battle. L’Ami was favourite and Drombeag ran on for third but neither had an answer for Garde Champetre, who turned out to be really classy over banks. You’d see Nina sitting motionless on him, just waiting, waiting.
Spot Thedifference’s win at Cheltenham in November 2007 was a highlight. He was 14 and we retired him afterwards. You could guarantee when he jumped the second-last he’d run up the hill because he was such a clever old fella and the stable yard is up there so it was like the song, he was running for home! He was a bit of a boyo, he was the boss. JT was riding out of his skin at the time and they really gelled together.