Downey takes stable approach to success in restricted market
Meath trainer Pat Downey has benefited from seeing the racing industry from many different perspectives, writes Ronan Groome
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
T hink of your common business ideas during recessionary times. Unemployment agencies, second-hand shops, and the like. Think of training thoroughbred racehorses as a practical idea. Can't work. A business that involves more costs than you can imagine. An industry in which the annual figures, which all ultimately depend on each other, are spiralling violently downwards.
They say, the economists, that luxury goods are defined as items that gain demand as income increases. They talk about how luxury goods have a high income elasticity of demand, basically meaning that when people get richer they buy more. However, it also means that should there be a decline in income, demand for luxury goods will also fall.
Think of a fancy car as a luxury item, or an expensive watch. In this country, in its time, the thoroughbred racehorse was a perfect example of a luxury item.
Meath man Pat Downey knows all about the luxuries associated with racing. He was only a young lad when his family were involved in the selling business. There was a horse, Light The Wad, that wouldn't sell for any price at the sales. So they kept it. Light The Wad went on to win three Grade Ones, including back-to-back Drogheda Chase victories at Punchestown.
People look to a lot of innovations during recessionary times, but training racehorses is not high on the list. By Downey's own admission, it wouldn't have been up there as his either, yet here he is, training horses at his base in Slane.
The number of trainers in the country has steadily decreased since 2007, but having only taken out his licence in December, Downey has scored twice already, and he looks set to strike again. He managed to get a loan from the bank in 2008, just before the credit crunch kicked in, and set off in pursuit of his ambition to train horses. "Yep, that could have been a real disaster," he says now. The number of horses he had then has more than trebled since -- 15 to 52 in two years. And his turnover is up 300 per cent. Phenomenal progress in trying times.
It was his neighbour and former attorney general, John Rogers, who told Downey to get going as a trainer. Downey broke and pre-trained Rogers' Dosco (a five-time winner) and College Daisy (a three-time winner). "It was John who said to me, 'would you ever stop doing the work for everyone else and go and do it for yourself'."
So he did. The next horse Rogers sent to Downey was not only to be broken and readied, but to be trained as well. That horse is Larkin, which won at Kilbeggan in April, providing Downey with a first success on the racetrack.
Another in Downey's care, Brega Queen, bred by his brother Ian for a local syndicate, led the field home in a handicap in Downpatrick last Sunday.
Having experienced the racing industry as an owner, breeder, breaker and now trainer, Downey has picked up a wealth of experience.
He tells the story of the family's Galway Plate winner, Chow Mein, and of how earlier in Chow Mein's career, Dessie Hughes rode him in the Royal and SunAlliance at Cheltenham. They had been going well until the fifth-last, where Chow Mein took a crashing fall, unseating Hughes onto his collarbone which subsequently ended his career as a jockey. "Dad said we kind of had to give him Chow Mein to train then," Downey says with a laugh. Hughes, who also trained Light The Wad, went on to saddle Chow Mein to win the Galway Plate in 1985.
The most recent success story to come out of Knowth House stables is the Tony Martin-trained Nearest The Pin. You can see by the glint in Downey's eye what he thinks of this lad. He was close to getting the chance to train it himself, but the horse had been readied by him to run in October and he couldn't take out his licence until December. But Downey is full of pride that Nearest The Pin could well go to Cheltenham and he'll have bred it.
A regular visitor to the Cheltenham himself, he dreams of training a Festival winner, or just having one "good enough" to go. But as a proud Meathman, Downey also dreams of training a winner at Navan, his home track.
Involved with horses all his life, and having done all the pre-trainer work in the original business he set up in 2005, Downey pinpoints the health of a horse as the key to success. "You've got to know when a horse needs to be let down, needs to relax. We get our horses blooded before every race and from past experiences I could tell the vet myself how the horse is," he says.
Aside from previous experience Downey has quickly learned one or two tricks of the trade. In his own words, "it's all about keeping the costs down".
He also points out all the things the Turf Club can "do ya for", like not having your tongue tie on before reaching the parade ring, not wearing the correct visor, not having vaccine records on the passport up to date. All these details are imperative.
When the vet comes, he'll work on six or seven horses for effective economies of scale. It's this sort of practice that is driving Downey's business on in the economic sense.
Then there is the "rock in the office," Downey's wife Karen, who has no previous experience with horses but is victim to a husband who talks about them morning, noon and night.
It kills him that he won't be able to attend Croke Park today, but Larkin is down to run in Kilbeggan and Mr Rogers "wouldn't be too happy" if his trainer is not in attendance. Downey gives Larkin another massive chance. And if indeed Larkin does go in again, it's odds-on there will be a few more luxuries heading out Downey's way.
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