Wednesday 23 August 2017

Griffin continuing to dream on Beacon Hill

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

As you veer right off the twisty cul-de-sac and pull up in front of the automatic gates that give way to Eoin Griffin's yard in Beacon Hill, there is little indication of the visual feast that lies around the corner.

Four tall yellow pillars either side of the imposing entrance walls add to a first impression of stateliness as you wait for the steel barrier to slowly crank open, an impression soon reaffirmed once you navigate your way up a driveway flanked by meticulous grass verges.

The yard and trainer's house quickly sweep into view. Immaculate and well thought out might best describe the layout and construction of an impressive establishment that hadn't even so much as a point of access when Griffin and his wife, Martina, purchased the site in the mid-1990s.

It is the breathtaking setting that ultimately seizes your attention. Griffin's house and yard look out onto a vast panorama of counties Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford, with the eye filled by a bay-like sight of the Barrow and Nore rivers uniting in the immediate foreground.

Behind the Barrow Bridge to the southwest, the Suir joins the party. Thanks to the beating sun and unseasonal temperatures that hover somewhere north of 20 degrees Celsius, it's hard to imagine a more pristine setting for training racehorses.

Of course, what the Lord giveth, the Lord might also one day take away. Still, you kind of hope He'll grant leave of such spectacular scenery for a while yet.

Understandably, Griffin can readily summon memories of less idyllic times in this rolling Kilkenny hinterland of Slieverue parish.

"You'd come out here on days in the middle of winter," he says, "in the wind and rain and you'd question your sanity. You really would. There are days like that, but you've got to put it to the back of your mind. Keep going. Move on."

The "it" to which the dual-purpose handler refers is not the foul Irish weather. To conjure such a bleak image on a defiantly glorious morning, only the parlous state of our economy could be to blame.

Notwithstanding the privileged few, racehorse trainers have been hit especially hard. Griffin is no exception. Last year, between the Flat and National Hunt, he trained just eight winners. That was down from a high of 25 in 2006 and it is the period to which he is referring when he speaks of questioning his sanity.

In October 2008, Griffin completed the final phase of the development of his yard, 30 new stables that doubled his capacity. Those stables remain empty, no horses to pay for them, but try telling that to the bank manager who provided the finance and expects repayments to be met. It has been quite a struggle.

The last few months, however, have been a little better. A combined tally of 11 winners has already been accumulated this term, as the ever-affable Griffin seeks to put all his energy into maximising the team he has at his disposal.

One horse in particular, Admiral Barry, has done great things to lift spirits. A frustrating son of Kalanisi that wasn't bought cheaply at Goffs four years ago, Admiral Barry failed to fulfil his potential, on the Flat or over hurdles, as a young horse.

He missed the whole of 2009 through injury and didn't look to be on any better terms with the game when he made his return over flights in the spring, his jumping frequently letting him down.

However, Griffin convinced Admiral Barry's Wexford-based owner John Brennan to allow him the summer months to solve the puzzle. Admiral Barry reverted to the Flat at Clonmel in May and, having looked reluctant early on, he finally conceded to Chris Hayes' urgings and kept on for second. It was a start.

At Tramore subsequently, 17 runs into his career, Admiral Barry obliged, and his star still rises. He landed the qualified riders' handicap on the opening day of the Galway Festival, before adding another valuable amateurs' race at The Curragh last month.

Ever since, he has vied for favouritism in this afternoon's Cesarewitch at Newmarket, one of the most prestigious handicaps of the entire Flat season. Griffin, whose primary focus would traditionally be on the National Hunt game, ironically suggests that Admiral Barry's success story might never have happened if the good times had prevailed.

He explains: "When things are the way they are, you have to knuckle down, work harder and watch your costs. And you have to get the best out of what you have. Take Admiral Barry, for example.

"Like, maybe when times were better, he'd have been written off and it does make you wonder how many slip through the system. He has won over €100,000 in prize money since June, which is serious money.

"To be honest, I don't really know the reason why it has turned around for him, but it has been a complete transformation. He has been a much happier, bouncier horse and he's still in great order. The Cesarewitch has been the plan since Galway. He has had a long season but he's as well now as he has ever been."

Victory today would put Griffin -- once a maintenance fitter at the Guinness brewery in Waterford who has come a long way since taking out a permit to train the offspring of his father Sean's broodmare in 1994 -- back in the headlines. Over the past decade, he made his way steadily through the training ranks to become a respected player on the grandest of stages with the likes of Kazal and Lounaos.

It was as those two faded out, though, and fatal misfortune befell the prodigious novice Academy Sir Harry, that the recession began to take hold. The new stables were just finished, business began to slow down and Griffin admits that there were times when he wondered if the game was finally up. Anyone would have.

"We really went through the doldrums for a couple of years," he concedes, matter-of-factly.

Itchy

"We had nothing that was capable of running in the better races and, when the recession hit, it was like a double whammy. Last year was really tough. If it had kept going like that, I don't know how long I'd have been able to keep going.

"Business was down anyway, but I'm sure even the owners that I had here would have started to get itchy feet.

"Even now, I wouldn't be cocky enough to say that I'll be okay. I think there are very few trainers in the country that could be sure enough to say they'd sustain this and come out the other side. But you can't lie down. You just have to take it season by season now, and hope."

To that end, Griffin seems to have the requisite qualities, as training racehorses in these times is certainly not for the fainthearted. Nor the pragmatic, for that matter.

"I am strong-minded enough to have faith in the way I do things even when things aren't going well," he declares, "but I am an eternal optimist as well. And to do this job, you probably have to be a bit of a dreamer.

"There's always the dream that the next horse to come into the yard could be the Champion Hurdle horse or the Gold Cup horse -- it could be anything. People say there'll never be another Arkle or whatever but, the way I look at it, the best horse hasn't been born yet. That way, the dream is always there that you could be the one who trains it."

The stuff of inspiration. Beacon Hill is that kind of place.

Irish Independent

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