Friday 19 January 2018

King of high summer will always be the man to follow

Dermot Weld is not dwelling on his past glories at Galway, writes Ronan Groome

Dermot Weld. Photo: Getty Images
Dermot Weld. Photo: Getty Images

Charlie Weld was faced with a problem before the Galway Festival of 1964. He had a horse, Ticonderoga, for the big amateur handicap, but he didn't have a jockey. Tony Cameron, Weld's retained amateur rider, had earlier received permission from the boss to get off Ticonderoga to ride the favourite, a horse of Dick Hoy's called Extra Stout.

Dermot Weld recalls the story well. Aged 15, he had his first ride around Ballinrobe two weeks prior to Galway. It was late in the day for his father to find another amateur and most of the top ones were already taken. Young Dermot pleaded for the ride.

Charlie Weld wasn't left with much of a choice. He phoned Ticonderoga's owner in New York, a man named Colonel Reed, to ask if his son could ride this horse.

There are moments in life that help shape certain aspects of the future and this was one of those days Dermot Weld will never forget. He duly won on Ticonderoga, beating two of the leading amateurs of the time in the finish. Bunny Cox was one of them, Kevin Prendergast the other.

The next day Weld turned 16. Earlier that summer, he had completed his matriculation exam to study to become a vet at UCD. But at 16, he was still too young to go to college. Buoyed by the wonderful victory on Ticonderoga, Weld decided to spend a year as an amateur jockey. The next year he started his course at UCD as the leading amateur jockey in Ireland. A star was born.

* * * * *

Weld now sits back and relaxes in his chair on Thursday afternoon. The cusp of a smile develops on his face in anticipation of the first question.

"It was just a fabulous week," he says, reminiscing on last year's Galway Festival. "We had 17 winners and most of the runners that didn't win were placed. Nice weather, big crowds, it was Galway at its best and a wonderful time for all of us."

The dining room of Rosewell House is a museum for a racing fan. Three sizeable paintings capture and absorb your eyesight. To the left is 1996 Irish Derby winner Zagreb, in the middle is 2004 Irish Derby hero Grey Swallow and on the far right is Vintage Crop, which needs no explaining. Around the room are other bits of pieces of racing gold. There's a picture of Perris Valley jumping the last with Weld's long-serving jockey Brendan Sheridan on the way to victory in the 1988 Irish Grand National.

On a circular table there is a crystal bowl for Dimitrova's win in the American Oaks in 2003. There's a sculpture for one of Committed's wins in the Prix de l'Abbaye. A chartered medal from UCD sits on the same table. On the window sill is an award entitled Sport Star Of The Year 2002. Beside that is an award entitled Personality Of The Year 1993. And this is just one chamber of the Weld castle.

"Every race you win has its own importance. Every situation is different, every major achievement has its own qualities, characteristics and hard work. A lot of hard work went into training 17 winners at Galway last year, the same as the hard work required when we won the Melbourne Cup, the Belmont Stakes or the wins in Hong Kong or Dubai."

You have to go back even further than Ticonderoga's success to find the spark of the Galway fire for Weld. At the age of 11, young Dermot led up a horse called Highfield Lad again for his father before the Galway Plate. Johnny Lehane was the jockey and Weld recalls the wonderful memories of leading the pair back into the parade ring victorious. Galway instantly became special.

Now, 53 years on, Weld could write a book about his Galway memories. Each time you throw a name at him, he pauses briefly, smiles and tells you about that horse.

"Ansar," he repeats proudly, "He was a wonderful little horse to train and a fabulous horse around Galway. He typified a 'Galway' horse, he was courageous, well-balanced and very sound. He won seven times there, including a Galway Hurdle and two Galway Plates, which was magnificent."

Then you have a horse called Kiichi. Weld labels the horse as the answer to a quiz question very few people would get. Which horse won the two-year-old maiden that takes place on the Monday of Galway and then came back three years later to win the Galway Plate?

Then you have Spanner, a horse Weld inherited when he took over from his father and a horse he rode and trained to win three Galway Amateur Handicap races. The last of those three wins in 1975 was complemented by a Galway Hurdle victory, which meant he was the first horse to do the Amateur Handicap-Galway Hurdle double.

We could sit and talk about General Idea, successful for Weld in the Plate in 1993, we could talk about Strathline, the 1985 Galway Hurdle winner, we could talk about Go And Go, Grey Swallow and Dance Design which all launched their star-studded careers at Ballybrit, but if we did, we'd be here all day.

Quite simply, Dermot Weld is the Galway Festival. The 17 winners he sent out last year took his overall tally of victories at the Galway Festival to 245.

If you blindly had a tenner on every single Weld runner during the festival last year, you would have finished with a profit of just over €160. In winning the leading trainer's award by a street, Weld was collecting the same award he had won 24 times before.

The questions they will ask this week are the same questions they ask every year. How does he do it? What is the formula?

"Different horses are prepared at different times. There are horses that I will have been preparing for many months as I have it my mind that these horses would be very suited to Galway," Weld explains.

"You need a horse with good action on good ground. You need a sound horse, a horse which is adaptable and well-balanced. And you need a horse with plenty of guts and courage. On top of them you need the jockey and in Pat Smullen, Robbie McNamara and Leigh Roche last year I had three class riders."

Rock Critic was responsible for two of the 17 wins and Weld points him out as a perfect example. He goes for the Topaz Mile on the Tuesday, the race Weld took last year with Stunning View, and he goes with a big chance.

Daffern Seal is another one made for Ballybrit. He jumped like a stag when he won on his debut over fences at the festival last year and it was after that race that Weld and Dr Ronan Lambe, a great supporter of Galway himself, started talking about a Galway Plate bid.

On the flip side, Weld points out that most of the rest of last year's winners have been sold on, which is a central theme of the current climate. "Nowadays you've got to make it commercial, you've got to be able to trade horses on in order to get new stock in," the trainer says.

"Riviera Poet is a perfect example. We won the Monday two-year-old maiden with him impressively last year and he was subsequently sold on to Hong Kong. But then we bought his half-brother in the sales and he'll be my horse, Thunder Mountain, in the two-year-old maiden this year."

All things being equal, the shuffling of the pack has made Weld less optimistic about Galway this year. Also you can plan just about everything in laser detail, as the trainer has become renowned for, but you cannot plan the weather. "I don't like giving tips because I don't like losing people money," the trainer says. "And the ground is something I think every punter should be wary of during the week, soft ground is an advantage to the bookies."

Also, it happens that Weld could well be busy elsewhere this week. Sense Of Purpose could bring him to Goodwood on Thursday. And then there is the strange move by the racing authorities to move Cork's classy card back from next week's Bank Holiday Monday to Sunday, something the Curragh-based trainer feels strongly about.

"Galway has to compete with the Olympics for attendances all week," the trainer points out, "And now you'll have all the main players going to an excellent card at Cork and this is unfair on Galway, which is so important to the finances of Irish racing. No race meeting in Ireland should clash with the Galway Festival."

Wherever Dermot Weld is, his horses will have been readied and meticulously prepared for Galway.

"I'm not trying to go and win 18 races or anything this time round, it hasn't entered my head, nor will it happen. Like everything in life there are other achievements you move on to."

Still, we won't bet against it, just in case.

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