Friday 30 September 2016

Fitz’s hopes hinge on seaweed beds, holy goats and trainer’s love

Published 12/09/2015 | 02:30

Michael Winters
Michael Winters

Michael Winters stretches out on the old sofa with one hand propping up his head. He was up at seven galloping Rebel Fitz at Michael Hourigan’s wood chip straight near Rathkeale. This was a resting time before feeding time.

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In his Kanturk home, there is a patio with dummy ducks, tortoises and rabbits and the like, through the glass doors of the tiny living room.

“It’s a jacuzzi,” he says, “and a sauna for herself. Tricia – the wife – likes to go out there with her friends and drink a glass or two. Our brilliant vet Dan Hutch joked we should knock a hole in it to stick in the horses’ head if they had a cold.

“It’s the only place the animals aren’t left in, although when the priest was saying the station mass here a few weeks ago, my three goats were looking in at it from the sauna. They were holy goats.”

Michael brings me out to the pristine stables to meet Rebel Fitz, top weight in next week’s Guinness Kerry Grand National in Listowel. The prize money is big and the crowds too. As many as 30,000 race-goers will watch the big one.

Michael (58) has been getting Fitz ready winter and summer for this race. He performs minor miracles every day on just 12 acres, and every day he plots for the next big day.

There can be no let-up. Small businesses haven’t the luxury of a big tank to keep them going when times are tough. It’s month to month. Get the money in and give it out. Pay the bills and the wages and take a small bit for yourself.

Then just when you are a little bit ahead there’s a phantom bill, sneaking up on us like a thief in the night. But Michael’s horses are winning. The stable is in top form.

“It’s all about quality and trying to figure out the good ones from the bad ones. If they’re no use, I send them back to the owners rather than have them paying all that money for nothing,” he says.

We meet up with horse chiropractor Fran Stone. She says Fitz is very supple. Fran sings a song in praise of Fitz and heads off to give ukulele lessons in the rugged Ballyhoura Mountains.

Rebel Fitz is long and lean. His back is being lovingly massaged by Michelle Stack, a renowned equine neuro-muscular therapist.

Michael says Fitz is like The Gooch. “We have to train him different because he’s had a lot of injuries.”

Fitz is as placid as a fairground pony. He snuggles up to Michael. I’ve noticed this before. Horses love him. Even The Perfect Woman in the box next door. “She won last week but then The Perfect Woman took a bite out of one of her handlers,” he says.

Rebel Fitz is fancied for sure “but a lot has to go right”, says Michael.

There’s a set of timber steps opposite Fitz’s box. “It’s for Fitz’s hips, and he loves the goats milk and the goats too. The old people always had an old dog to rub and it kept them in good form.”

Michael tells of the life-changing day when he was working in Mallow Hospital as a nurse’s helper. “I had 70 patients to be looking after. I’d give them a cup of tea and prop them up in their beds with pillows to make it easier for them to drink,” he recalls.

One day Michael was so busy he was hasty in fixing up an old man, and on the way home in the car he worried that the old man might not be comfortable so he turned back and looked after his patient.

“After that day I looked after the people in the hospital like they were my own brothers. It dawned me on me that whatever you do , you must do it right,” he explains.

He certainly looks after his charges. Rebel Fitz spent January and February swimming in Kilrush and sleeping on seaweed under the care of Brian Baker .

“He goes to Beale for swims and my Kerry friends Finbarr Breen and Maurice Stack feed us and help us out,” says Michael.

So many people, mad about Michael, all on Team Winters.

I’m about to head for home and Michael says “don’t forgot to put in that if we win the Kerry National the win will be dedicated to Anne Fitzgibbon, who brought Brian Sweetman in to the yard to buy Rebel Fitz. There’s no better owner” says Michael.

Anne passed away in January of this year. Just as Michael is telling of Anne, who should walk in the door as if on cue for a tender scene in a play, only Mary’s husband John.

“They were stuck in everything together”, says Michael. I’d love to win it for Anne.”

Tricia comes in and reminds Michael to do some paperwork. She keeps him up to date and pays the bills. Tricia went back to college and has a degree in New Media, Radio and TV.

Read out what I said about her, says Michael. “Tricia,” I read, “is incredible in bed, the best lover ever.”

“What?” says Tricia in near enough to a scream. Then she realises it’s a wind-up and gets a fit of laughing. The two of them are very much in this together. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance training on a mere 12 acres.

 There’s a lovely smell from the kitchen. There’s a sizzling pot of stroganoff on the cooker. Tricia burned the backsides of a couple of saucepans in the making of the dinner. The house is like a railway station. There’s no time to spare and callers are welcomed every few minutes.

Autumn’s annual All-Ireland Championship for steeplechasers is wide open, but you’d never know. No horse will be better prepared. No horse will be more loved. And no trainer will get a bigger cheer if Michael Winters wins the Guinness Kerry National.r that day I looked after the people in the hospital like they were my own brothers. It dawned me on me that whatever you do , you must do it right,” he explains.

He certainly looks after his charges. Rebel Fitz spent January and February swimming in Kilrush and sleeping on seaweed under the care of Brian Baker .

“He goes to Beale for swims and my Kerry friends Finbarr Breen and Maurice Stack feed us and help us out,” says Michael.

So many people, mad about Michael, all on Team Winters.

I’m about to head for home and Michael says “don’t forgot to put in that if we win the Kerry National the win will be dedicated to Anne Fitzgibbon, who brought Brian Sweetman in to the yard to buy Rebel Fitz. There’s no better owner” says Michael.

Anne passed away in January of this year. Just as Michael is telling of Anne, who should walk in the door as if on cue for a tender scene in a play, only Mary’s husband John.

“They were stuck in everything together”, says Michael. I’d love to win it for Anne.”

Tricia comes in and reminds Michael to do some paperwork. She keeps him up to date and pays the bills. Tricia went back to college and has a degree in New Media, Radio and TV.

Read out what I said about her, says Michael. “Tricia,” I read, “is incredible in bed, the best lover ever.”

“What?” says Tricia in near enough to a scream. Then she realises it’s a wind-up and gets a fit of laughing. The two of them are very much in this together. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance training on a mere 12 acres.

 There’s a lovely smell from the kitchen. There’s a sizzling pot of stroganoff on the cooker. Tricia burned the backsides of a couple of saucepans in the making of the dinner. The house is like a railway station. There’s no time to spare and callers are welcomed every few minutes.

Autumn’s annual All-Ireland Championship for steeplechasers is wide open, but you’d never know. No horse will be better prepared. No horse will be more loved. And no trainer will get a bigger cheer if Michael Winters wins the Guinness Kerry National.

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