Thursday 22 March 2018

A triumph of rhyme and reason

William Buick riding Gordon Lord Byron
William Buick riding Gordon Lord Byron

Tom Hogan's faith in Gordon Lord Byron has produced an equine fairytale, writes John O'Brien

THE plan seemed foolproof. Buy foal at the November sales in Goffs for the knock-down price of €2,000. Take foal home, prepare it for the yearling sales at the same venue and resell for a handsome profit. On the land they owned for generations near Roscrea in north Tipperary, the Cahalans were horse dealers. And that's what horse dealers did. Buy small, sell big: the classic pinhooker's dream.

In all his time around horses Morgan Cahalan couldn't remember an occasion when they'd taken a young horse to the sales and failed to attract a bid. This time, though, that awkward fate awaited them. The recession had kicked in. Buyers had become more discerning. The yearling colt by a first-season sire called Byron failed to turn any heads. Not one expression of interest. Not even a sniff.

So they tried the second option: the breeze-up sales where unraced horses are galloped in front of prospective buyers. For one reason or another, however, that route proved fruitless too. They were stuck with a horse they didn't want and Cahalan's friend, Tom Hogan, found himself unexpectedly with another inmate at his stables outside Nenagh. "Nothing else to do," says Cahalan, "but see how fast he could run."

The first time he'd laid eyes on Gordon Lord Byron, Hogan had suspected a certain level of ability. The disinterest of others didn't concern him. Hogan's father had bred the 1972 Gold Cup winner, Glencarraig Lady, and over the years as a trainer he'd developed a sharp eye for a bargain, spotting potential in others' cast-offs. At the lower end of the market that's how you survived and made the game pay.

Not that their ambitions were to shoot for the stars. The task for Hogan was to get Gordon Lord Byron to win a race, any race. "Try to get him sellable," says Cahalan. Six races and 18 months later, however, the horse remained a maiden. On his debut at Roscommon he'd fractured his pelvis leaving the stalls and spent four months recuperating. On his comeback he finished stone last at the Curragh. Hogan still sensed ability. Drawing it out was proving a delicate business.

They saw bits of promise. He'd finished second at Bellewstown when they'd backed him at 100/1. He was placed again at Listowel on terrible ground which they knew he hated. Then Hogan decided to give him a spin on the all-weather at Dundalk and he beat the Jim Bolger-trained Glor Na Mara which had finished third to Frankel in the Dewhurst and was officially rated 20lbs superior. Now they knew they had a proper racehorse on their hands.

And so Hogan – an "eternal optimist," according to Cahalan – began to think big. The year would end with three more runs at Dundalk, another handicap victory among them, but he knew Gordon Lord Byron would come back stronger as a four-year-old and with bigger fish to fry. The Wokingham Handicap over six furlongs at the Royal Ascot festival immediately caught Hogan's eye. That was the big summer target.

For Hogan, the Wokingham brought back fond memories. In 1984, he'd bought a seemingly washed-up three-year-old called Time Machine for £150 – "what I had in my pocket at the time" – and a year later Pat Hughes trained the horse to land a famous gamble in the Wokingham. "And no Irish horse had won it since," Hogan explains. "I thought this fella had a considerable amount in hand. As was proved later on."

At Ascot, history failed to repeat itself, though. Richard Hughes rode the horse, but met a troubled passage and was never able to strike a blow at those in front. They licked their wounds and carried on: an honourable third lumping 10st on bottomless ground at the Curragh, unlucky in running in a Listed contest at Fairyhouse, chinned on the line by Fire Lily back at the Curragh. Maybe it would be that kind of year again: luckless and heartbreaking.

But their luck would soon change spectacularly. Hogan entered the horse for a Listed race over seven furlongs at York and, with his regular Irish partners unavailable, the talented William Buick was booked for the ride. At York, everything came together and he won snugly by three lengths. "It was the day we finally got it right," says Hogan. "And it was the first time in ages he'd met half-decent ground."

Now they were beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the horse's potential. "That was the day we realised we had a proper racehorse," says Cahalan. "Tom had been talking all year about going for the Group One Sprint Cup at Haydock and I remember thinking he's gone mad. I was delighted just to see him win at Dundalk."

Buick's advice, though, had been against running in Haydock where he believed, correctly, that the easy six furlongs would prove an insufficient test, although the horse would run superbly to finish a close second to Society Rock. Buick urged Hogan to enter the horse for the Prix de la Foret in Longchamp on Arc day.

"If you haven't already entered him," the jockey said, "then supplement him now."

Buick's confidence impressed them, but there was one problem. Supplementing the horse cost €18,000 and, for small racing people, such a sum wasn't easily raised. "People were asking why isn't he entered," says Cahalan, "but for us that was big money. It wasn't just the entry fee. There were transport costs too and staff to pay. Tom asked if we'd consider doing a deal with somebody and that was fine by us."

So Hogan made enquiries and the path led him to a Swiss businessman by the name of Adolf Schneider who kept a few mares in Ireland. For a 25 per cent share in the horse for the day and the privilege of racing in his colours, Schneider stumped up the supplementary fee and everybody was happy. On the day Gordon Lord Byron produced a devastating turn of foot to win impressively on ground far softer than ideal. It was a mesmerising performance.

Nearly two months on now and still the glorious improbability of it all refuses to sink in. Cahalan had never imagined himself in Paris on Arc day, let alone having a favourite in a Group One race there. Hogan thought back to the day 30 years previously when the David O'Brien-trained Pas De Seul had won the same race. No Irish trainer – not Aidan O'Brien, not Dermot Weld, not Jim Bolger – had managed to win the race since. He was ploughing a new furrow. Almost beyond fairytale.

And fairytales, as we know, are as rare as hen's teeth in Flat racing. The notion of a €2,000 horse not just progressing to be a champion but doing so in the hands of the humble racing people who bought and trained it is outlandish to say the least. "You'd probably have a greater chance of winning the lotto than buying another horse for €2,000 and trying to repeat it," says Hogan. "This kind of thing isn't meant to happen."

For connections the timing couldn't have been better. Like many Irish trainers, Hogan has found the going tough over the past few years. His stable has dwindled to 18 horses, the winners harder to come by. He is a survivor by instinct but, still, a future without Gordon Lord Byron isn't something he's particularly keen to contemplate. "If he wasn't here," he concedes sombrely, "the situation would be pretty grim."

At Longchamp, O'Brien was the first to congratulate him on joining the privileged band of Irish Group One-winning trainers and now there are new frontiers to explore. On the back of winning at Longchamp, invitations arrived to run at the Breeders' Cup and in Hong Kong where, early next Sunday morning, Gordon Lord Byron will contest the Longines Hong Kong Mile at Sha Tin racecourse with an eye-popping €1.2m on offer for the winner.

Heady times. On Monday, the horse travelled to Manchester where a jet was waiting to take him the rest of the way. This week his connections will join him, everything paid for by the race organisers who will treat them like royalty for the duration of their stay. Gordon Lord Byron is the fourth highest-rated in the 12-horse field and Hogan is as confident as he could be. Buick thinks the mile trip on a sharp, galloping track will be ideal. From a maiden at Roscommon to the richest mile race in the world: it has been some journey.

And nowhere near done yet. Last week they finalised a deal with a wealthy Indian businessman to part-lease the horse for its next six races, but Cahalan insists the horse will remain mostly in his ownership. Those who missed the chance to buy him when he was available won't get another opportunity now. After Hong Kong they head for Dubai in January and February while another good season this side of the world beckons. Hogan can see the horse getting even better next year.

Not that he owes them anything, of course. To date Gordon Lord Byron has amassed €320,000 in prize money and a week from now that might easily be multiplied by five. It means more than money, though. For the past few years both Cahalan and his wife, Mary, have successfully battled serious illness and the tonic of a cherished racehorse arrived at a blessed time.

Cahalan remembers the day his daughter Jessica, who had picked out the foal, arrived home with the horse box and he snatched his first eager look. "A nice bay foal," he thought, but he didn't know what else to say. He just hoped they might move him on, quickly and profitably, never for once imagining the vain struggle to sell him and get him healthy was a mere prelude to a story beyond their wildest dreams.

Sunday Indo Sport

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