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There's life in the old Dun yet

Subtle, small in stature and it seems little would phase him, but one of the rising figures from the grassroots of horse racing. Sam Curling is a name to chalk down because you will be hearing plenty more of it in years to come.

At the moment he has the best of every world. In the mornings he is a work-rider in Ballydoyle riding out some of the best horses in the world for Aidan O'Brien.

In the evening, he tricks around with a few horses in his home place. There are 14 or so there to keep him busy and, oh yes, one of them is a leading fancy at the Cheltenham Festival next week. Dun Doire is his name, one you will have heard many times before.

At one stage he knew nothing, only winning. In the space of four months, he won six on the trot for Tony Martin, the pinnacle coming at the Cheltenham Festival when Ruby Walsh gave Dun Doire one of the finest rides ever seen around the Cotwolds to land the William Hill Trophy.


The horse went on to finish fifth when favourite of the Irish National -- far from a mean feat -- but was pulled up when taking on the Aintree spectacular that is the English Grand National the following year.

It seemed the horse had reached a crossroads and taken a wrong turn. In the three or so years after his memorable Cheltenham success, Dun Doire won just once. The wheels seemed to come off the wagon or else they were close to punctured.

A meeting of his owners was called and it was time to call it a day. The horse had won 10 and owed nobody a single thing. However, of the eight knights sitting around the table at that meeting, two wanted to give the horse one last chance.

Kevin Brady and Kevin Dowd -- a brother of Meath footballer Tommy and himself a former Meath hurler -- had that loyal streak that often proves costly in this game but felt one of his final runs at Navan showed enough spark to not give up the ghost just yet. How right they could have been.

They say in racing that sometimes a change of scenery is as good as a rest and a mixture of both have meant that Dun Doire will next week return to the scene of his finest hour when lining up in the Foxhunters at Cheltenham.

"We had a meeting after he ran poorly at Naas one day and most of the syndicate wanted to call it a day, which was fair enough but myself and Kevin (Dowd) thought we saw enough at Navan prior to that to suggest he still had a bit of life in him yet," part owner Kevin Brady told the Herald.

"We wanted to hold on to him and give him a season in the point-to-point circuit and see how he got on and let there be no question about it, there was a lot of goodwill and the boys wished us well."

When hearing of the horse's near retirement, a former employee of Martin's (when Dun Doire was a resident), Seamus Brady -- who had returned to work for Aidan O'Brien -- requested a go at relinquishing the old flame.

"Seamus Brady went from Aidan O'Brien's to Tony's and was there when Dun Doire was winning his races. He got a job back in Ballydoyle again where he was looking after Rip Van Winkle and those horses and he just approached us to give him a crack at getting Dun Doire back to form when he heard we were calling it a day," Brady explained.


"Between work commitments he just couldn't give the time any more so he suggested that we give the horse to Sam to take care of and the change of scenery has seemed to work so far."

Form is temporary but class is permanent and Curling has seemed to rekindle some of the horse's old ability -- he's had two point-to-point wins to his name this season and has a prominent position in the betting for next week's Foxhunters Chase.

"I can't wait now to be honest. It's coming around fairly quick and I'm getting excited about it now," admitted the fledgling trainer Curling.

"To start off with it was Seamus Brady who had him and then for whatever reason he stopped training him and the lads left him with me then. I was delighted, he is a very high-class horse to have.

"His first run for me was a good run when he finished third and he probably would have won in another couple of strides. Then Derek O'Connor rode him the second day and the way the race worked out he probably got there a bit too soon and he pulled himself up a bit."

It wasn't long before he was back to winning ways however and the addition of cheekpieces helped work the oracle.

"He won his two races then after that and Derek was always very confident he would win and cheekpieces made a big difference," added Curling. "Tony Martin did a great job with him winning all those races and he would only have to retain some of his old ability to win the point to points he was winning but still, he seems to be in good old order. He has plenty of mileage on the clock but he still moves and rides like a young horse."

Curling is only a year training out of his father Peter's yard but things continue to go from strength to strength.

"At the start of the year I didn't envisage having anything running at Cheltenham, that's for sure," he said.

"There have been some good, open point-to-point horses around here this year and he has beaten them and run with them and I think he is the closest in the betting of the Irish horses. He beat On The Net and he has won since. Kilty Storm beat him and he won at Leopardstown so his form is there and it's rock solid."

The 26-year-old former jockey is conscious of how he currently enjoys the best of both worlds.

"In the mornings it's great," he said. "Aidan is brilliant to work for and he is very understanding if I am going galloping horses, but Ballydoyle is the main job and it's a great job to have with unreal horses there and facilities, and you would learn a lot there.

"Just watching Aidan, he is a genius. He is so exact, there is no stone left unturned and there is nothing ever left to chance.

"Going in to ride out the likes of St Nicholas Abbey -- it would get you up and out of bed in the mornings."


Despite being deep in the heart of the jumping season and while conducting an interview around Cheltenham, it was still impossible to resist the temptation of enquiring on Ballydoyle's finest, who Curling rides out every morning.

"St Nicholas Abbey is flying. He's only starting to wind him up there now," said Curling. "He was only steady away for the winter but he has grown and I would say he has improved since last year. It's very exciting alright. It will be very hard for him to try and do what Sea The Stars did but he looks very good at the moment anyway."

Now back to more pressing issues and Curling told the Herald he was grateful for the team around him and the horses he has at his disposal.

"I love doing the young horses and Dun Doire is the only older horse around the place," he said. "They are long days but the boys in the yard, Tadhg and Johnny King, are great and I wouldn't be able to do it without them. It all works well."

Curling added of Dun Doire: "The lads (Brady and Dowd) want to give him an entry for the Irish National in case it came up soft but we will see what happens. Cheltenham was the plan really and he will probably stick to the point to points and hunters' chases for this season as he doesn't owe anybody anything anyway."

Of course, a further boost for the Dun Doire connections is the booking of the lethal Nina Carberry. Carberry is sponsored by part-owner Brady's garage in Navan and they were delighted to snap her up.

Brady said: "She has been very loyal to me, and it was agreed that whenever she was available she would ride him through the sponsorship, but with her bumper arrangements it was always going to be tough to get her and we were delighted to be able to have someone as good as Derek O'Connor."

It's quite simply all systems go for a veteran horse, a new partnership and an up-and-coming trainer. But while the horse and his owners can relax regardless of what happens next week, Sam Curling has the day job to return to and on Sunday week he will be found on the Curragh riding St Nicholas Abbey in his first bit of work of what could be a Classic season for all concerned.

It's a tough life...