Daring to dream
Trainer Philip Dempsey tells Vincent Hogan why he's hopeful Derrinross can pull off a big win for the little guy
He's trouble this one, a self-suiting reprobate who'll have no qualms about taking a swing if you get too close.
A hard-chaw with ugly legs and a head full of easy resentments. Philip Dempsey grins as he reveals the broad purple bruise oil-slicking down his right thigh, a week-old and still angry. "You'll get an odd, crabby lad!" he smiles impassively.
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"But this fella . . . "
A whole lifetime working with horses and, until now, never once on the wrong end of a kick. "T'was just like a counter-punch!" Dempsey says. As he talks, Derrinross stands watching, his expression a tangle of recalcitrant secrets. He's got a nebuliser strapped to his nose and there are small, fading circles of ringworm visible down his neck.
Not exactly what you'd call a looker then. Maybe killers seldom are.
But what he is, is a potential stable-star who could be the Cinderalla story of Cheltenham should the planets align for this small yard in Derrinturn, Co Kildare. That said, hope is a feathery concept in the world of National Hunt, a place where even giants can trip over grasshoppers and breezes come laden with curses.
All being well, Derrinross will run in Friday's Albert Bartlett. And that, in itself, is a gentle miracle.
Because there was a time Dempsey pretty much had a track worn with him on the road to Fethard and Ger Kelly's Equine Hospital.
"I'd be down in Ger's, thinking 'what did I buy this fella for?'" he admits now. The answer, let's say, was stubbornly slow in forming.
A potted history?
Derrinross caught his eye at Goffs Sales in June 2014. What did Philip see in him? His walk, primarily. He was big, had presence and, despite those "horrible" hind legs, something imperious about his movement. So they bought him for €28,000. A third each taken by Philip, his father Des and Tom Furlong.
Buying three-year-olds isn't a romantic venture for men like Philip Dempsey. It's a throw of the dice. You speculate to accumulate, hoping you can shape a horse into something that makes a profit. In Derrinross's case, he won his point-to-point first time out, Philip taking him straight to Cheltenham Sales in February 2016.
He takes up the story: "We'd already been over there the month before, but he went lame with his knee. Brought him home, straight down to Ger. He gets him right, he wins his point-to-point in Oldtown and then back over to the Sales. But, when something like that (lameness) happens, word gets round - 'oh that fella wasn't right!' Well if I had Saddam Hussein with me now, I'd say I'd have been more popular.
"The Sales were great, but there was no one interested in my lad (they'd pitched his price at £70,000 stg). So there we were, having gone to the expense of bringing him over twice, for nothing. There was nothing for it then only to go and run him in a Bumper."
And that's when this story really began to squeeze Philip Dempsey's faith.
In January 2017, Derrinross was just pipped by Willie Mullins's Next Destination at Fairyhouse. He finished third a month later at Punchestown and couldn't walk out of his box the following morning. The reason? A broken pelvis.
That was the end of his Bumper season then, Derrinross making his debut over hurdles the following October in Punchestown. By now he had Philip's son, Luke, on board and - first time out - they finished fourth, never quite getting the run of the race. One month later they were back at the same track, finishing second this time, half a length off Noel Meade's Minella Fair, Luke having somehow parted company with his whip.
They went to Down Royal on St Stephen's Day and, watching from the stand, Philip thought they'd finally cracked it.
"I was sure he'd won," he remembers now. "Everybody thought it. Noel Meade congratulated me as I was coming down out of the stand. I rang my father. 'He's after winning' I said. His reply was 'I'm not so sure'.
"Whatever the angle of the stand in Down Royal, you can't really see where the line is. Luke said to me after, 'I could see you jumping around like an eejit and I knew I was bet'." He was too - pipped, a nose, by Gordon Elliott's Minellafordollars.
"Next morning, crippled, lame again," recalls Dempsey. "Season over. Back down to Ger Kelly. The pelvis again. Don't know why. And I'm starting to think this just isn't going to happen. The lad is now seven and we still haven't won a race. He's only run five times and, every time he ran, there seemed to be a problem.
"Now he's gone for another year . . . "
Des Dempsey would never see Derrinross run again. In late summer last year he began feeling poorly and, though all initial tests proved clear, he was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. A self-made man who never drank or smoked, his decline from there was rapid.
The weekend before Des passed, Luke guided Spider Web to a dramatic win in the JT McNamara Munster National at Limerick for Tom Mullins and JP McManus. Des was in and out of consciousness now, but Luke had always been the apple of his grandad's eye and, somehow, the victory registered in an 89-year-old mind.
Later that week, at St Bridget's Hospice on the Curragh, he opened his eyes at Philip's mention of those two words, 'Munster National'. He knew.
And that week, young Luke promised: "I'll win on Derrinross for you grandad." The old man smiled "I know you will."
Des died on October 20. Exactly 50 days later, Derrinross won for the first time (a Grade Three novice hurdle) in Cork, ridden by grandson Luke, led up by granddaughter, Sarah.
Tom Furlong wasn't at the race, but rang Philip immediately.
"I wouldn't be the emotional type, but I was close enough to tears," Dempsey remembers. "Ah I had to get myself together a bit but, you know, you couldn't let the side down either."
If you believe in angels, maybe the rest won't seem remarkable. But this horse who was always broken came out of the race intact. Perfect actually. And the pessimist in Philip found himself wondering if the victory had been a swindle of sorts.
"I was wondering had the others just under-performed," he smiles now. "Like I'd be always looking at the negative side of it, playing things down. Oh God, Willie's probably just didn't turn up . . . maybe it was just an ordinary race. . . . "
But Mouse Morris told him something to the contrary that day in Cork, saying he'd thought a lot of his own horse - Sams Profile - that had been placed second. And, one month later, Sams Profile came home second again, only this time in a Grade One at Naas, behind Gordon Elliott's Battleoverdoyen.
By then, Derrinross had run (and won) again, in a Grade Two at Limerick.
Some ragged jumping almost cost him that day mind, Derrinross clattering the first hurdle down the back of the racecourse.
"I remember thinking 'Jesus, we're beaten now'," Philip recalls. "Just a long stride and the horse kind of changes his mind. It's like getting a thump. It knocks you back.
"But he's tough. There was no horse to make the running and, again, he had to do the donkey work. He's a very idle horse. If you rode him around, you wouldn't be getting off him, raving. He didn't jump as well in Limerick as he did in Cork. Luke said he was just idling, looking around."
Again, Derrinross came out of the race, incredibly, without a backward glance.
Philip wanted to run him again at Leopardstown last month, leaving him in until the final forfeit stage in the hope of a downpour, but it never came. With the ground too hard, they withdrew.
"No qualms," he says now. "It's frustrating because ideally I'd have loved to get another run into him before Cheltenham. But we bit the bullet and just moved on."
So it's straight to Cheltenham now, though he knows no horse has won the Albert Bartlett having had less than three runs over hurdles. But maybe it's simply time that history was rewritten.
Luke will ride him and for Philip and wife Regina, that will forever deepen the sense of intimacy to the growing story of Derrinross.
Regina admits her heart is in her mouth watching their son ply his trade. She was in Kilbeggan last year when he took a bad fall on their horse, Teacher's Pet, and ended up accompanying him to Tullamore hospital in an ambulance. Her recall of the day maybe captures the uniqueness of a National Hunt mindset.
"You could see the fall was bad," she says. "By the time I got down to him, he was unconscious. Ended up with three fractured vertebrae and concussed. He was barely able to walk that night, his eyes black and blue. He was on oxygen at nine that evening in hospital. But the following morning, he checks himself out and flies off to Ibiza with his friends. They're a different breed."
Philip concurs, smiling: "I mean for two ambulances to be following you, it's the only sport you have that. You have to be half mad to be at it."
Luke has ridden a Cheltenham winner before, getting Killultagh Vic up to win the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap hurdle in the last race of the 2015 Festival and thereby securing a record eighth victory of the meeting for Willie Mullins. He looked a shooting star at the time.
"Luke's a very talented fella, very laid back," his father says. "Got success early, went to his head a little. Sure, I might as well say it, went a bit wild. When he won in Cheltenham, he'd ridden five winners the week before. Got a little bit wild and moved out of here. Was down with Gordon Elliott.
"Plenty of money quick. He'd tell you himself now that he didn't realise it doesn't all just happen. Your career goes very quickly. It's a tough game this. But he's settled down well now in fairness. He's back living here. I think the thing that stands to him is nothing really fazes him."
Do they dare to dream?
"Sure, of course we do," says Philip emphatically. "Everyone dreams. Just dreaming it might happen to us, dreaming is maybe part of it all. How much does he need to step up to be in the frame? I don't know to tell you the truth. But his form looks pretty solid, so I'd say he's probably not got too much more to find.
"Look, I've never been in this situation before, but I think he's a fair horse. He's a horse who keeps a bit for himself and I think Cheltenham will suit him. Hopefully, the ground will be right because the three miles will suit him. The hill will suit him. The fast gallop will suit him.
"It would suit us to have someone else make the running, but normally they fly over there. That'll suit him too because he's a horse that races a bit behind the bridle. But I'm a realist too. Like there's so much that can go wrong over there they're going so fast, if he makes a mistake at Cheltenham, he'll be out of it."
A Festival win would change everything for this small yard and it's maybe sobering to think they might have sold Derrinross for £70,000 at those Cheltenham Sales three years back. Racing journalist Dave Keena recently suggested to Dempsey that they probably wouldn't sell the horse for a million now.
"I said to him, 'have you got a million Dave?'" the trainer chuckles. "Maybe the right answer would be, no I wouldn't sell him. And, yet, it's in me to say I'd sell most things. That's what I've always done and put the money back into the business. Look, I wouldn't like seeing him going out of the yard and I honestly don't know if I would sell. But if Mr McManus came knocking on the door . . . "
In the meantime he takes the time to watch his step with this "cross oul divil" in the yard. That recent kick came as Dempsey was scraping water off Derrinross.
"He went to bite me and I kind of flicked my hand at him, as if to say 'get up out of that'. And whack. Like I told you, he has these big, long, horrible hind legs on him. And they got me!
"That's his temperament. Of course, I'd never let on I was hurt in the yard. But I had to get down behind the wall and take my coat off, the sweat dripping off me. I was lucky he didn't catch me in the knee.
"If you go into the box with him, you need to watch yourself. I scrape him in the wash-bay now!"