Thursday 14 December 2017

'All you want is to be going with a chance and we think we are'

Paul Deegan believes his filly Avenue Gabriel has got scope for improvement in today's 1,000 Guineas, as he tells Aisling Crowe

Racehorse trainer Paul Deegan with Avenue Gabriel at his stables on The Curragh
Racehorse trainer Paul Deegan with Avenue Gabriel at his stables on The Curragh

Aisling Crowe

The summer sunshine highlights the coat of the filly standing impassively in the paddock, the contours of her muscles captured in the morning light. Ears pricked, Avenue Gabriel poses for the camera, aware she is at the heart of a special occasion but warmly welcoming the fuss.

Beside her stands trainer Paul Deegan, his face composed but beneath the calm, anticipation and anxiety bubble. For he knows the horse beside him could blossom at the Curragh this afternoon, like the brilliant horse chestnut behind her.

Eight years ago, Deegan, his wife Kate and their baby son Jack returned to Ireland. After six years working with Mick Channon, first as pupil assistant and then assistant to the former England footballer turned trainer, Deegan came back for a job which fell through just a few months later. Faced with stark choices – travel to Dubai or America, where Deegan had previously spent time prepping yearlings in Kentucky, or try and find a job in a country which was about to hit the skids – he and Kate made the decision that has led them here, to the Irish 1,000 Guineas and Avenue Gabriel.

At just 27, daunting only scratches the surface of the challenge they faced.

"Yeah," he laughs. "It sure was daunting. It almost was out of necessity, we didn't really know what we were going to do, but we were keen, we wanted to train, I wanted to train and we had to make a living. We found a lovely yard over in Pollardstown, a 25-box yard and we had four horses and started from there. It's gone well since then, thank God."

Four years ago, they moved into their current yard. Success meant they had more horses than their boxes could take. They rent Clifton Lodge, within earshot of the Defence Forces' firing range, from Frances Crowley and Pat Smullen. Visitors may register the sound of artillery fire in the distance but it is background noise only for the horses, and the soundtrack to success over the years. Nine years ago, Crowley became the first woman to train an Irish Classic winner when Saoire made the short trip across the Curragh plains and returned with the 1,000 Guineas.

For Kate and Paul Deegan, both children of farmers who learned their craft at the hands of some of the greats, it is very much a team effort. Kate spotted Avenue Gabriel at the Tattersalls yearling sales in 2012 and purchased the daughter of Champs Elysees for just €5,000. Two years later, she runs in a Classic worth €300,000. The trainer is realistically optimistic about the stable sweetheart's prospects.

"It looks an open Irish 1,000 Guineas, especially with Rizeena out. I think she has a good each-way chance. She is very straightforward, very tough, loves racing, loves being competitive and has it all figured out in her head. She is fit and well, has come on since Leopardstown, is fairly versatile as regards ground and she is one you would want in your corner. She'll give you a run for your money, for sure."

It's easy to see why the Lady O'Reilly-owned filly has become such a favourite in the yard. Not only beautiful to look at but with a sweet nature too, Gabby loves people and they respond to her. Now all she has to do is add the accolades to her talent. Deegan is excited, anxious, just wants it to be raceday when Chris Hayes will canter to the start and the waiting will end.

"We are going there knowing that we have to improve. She has already and can come on again. All you want is to be going there with a chance and we think we are. It is great that Lady O'Reilly is such a sporting lady, there might have been easier options but they were keen to let her take her chance."

The possibility of a first Group One victory is not something on which he dwells. In this tough and competitive sport, to win any race, let alone an Irish Classic, so many variables need to fall right.

"It would be amazing, but you can't even think about that. These things might never even happen to you and if you're lucky enough that they do it could take decades for all

the stars to align, so to speak. You might have two or three horses good enough to go and win a Group One or a Classic in any year or in several different years but the ground might go against you or you might be slow away from the stalls and get boxed in or they might wake up that morning with a little bit of a head cold. To win those type of races you could be decades trying I think, decades. We are very realistic about the task facing Gabby but we are very happy to be going there with a fighting chance."

At four o'clock this afternoon, if the stars align and Gabby and Chris Hayes are posing by the Curragh's winning post in triumph, the filly's bay coat illuminated by the flashbulbs capturing the moment, both Deegan and Avenue Gabriel will be in full bloom.

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