Wednesday 21 March 2018

The King of Ballybrit

Dermot Weld's reputation for excellence may be worldwide, but his heart always lies in Galway, writes Vincent Hogan

It was Leopardstown last April and Dermot Weld was in ebullient form. His Rosewell House stable had just completed a treble and he stood now by the parade ring, exploring the detail with media. Suddenly, Weld glimpsed Ruby Walsh across the way -- arm in a sling -- chatting to his youngest son, Kris.

"Excuse me now gentlemen," he grinned to the racing journalists. "I'll go over and sort out the Galway Plate!"

If there is a hierarchy of targets in every trainer's mind, it's little secret that Galway has a privileged perch in Weld's. His greatness will forever be signposted by extraordinary, ground-breaking deeds in cities like Melbourne and New York.

Yet, Ballybrit is his personal kingdom. For 25 of the last 28 years, he has finished leading trainer at the Festival and his affection for the place traces a path right back to his childhood. Weld's late father, Charlie, trained the winner of the Galway Plate in 1959 and Dermot's first win as a jockey was aboard an outsider, Ticonderoga, in the Festival's big amateur race.

He describes that moment as "one of the great days of my life", Weld inheriting the ride only a few days beforehand when leading amateur jockey Tony Cameron switched to the race favourite, Extra Stout.

The victory was screened live on RTE television and the trainer's trust in his untested son imparted a lovely romance to the narrative. Dermot Weld was one day short of his 16th birthday.

The idea that the sight of an injured Walsh at Leopardstown last April might put Weld thinking of a race four months in the distance would be entirely plausible to those who know him. He has a name for utterly meticulous planning, mischief and strategy endlessly intertwined in his day-to-day existence.

Legend has it that he was spotted by a local detective withdrawing pocket-money from the old Hibernian Bank in Naas prior to that teenage victory on Ticonderoga.

Knowing the Welds' reputation for smart business, the detective decided to approach the bank teller for information. Told that Dermot was headed for his maiden ride in Galway, the detective chose to have a flutter on Charlie Weld's outsider. He wouldn't regret it.

It was 1972 when Dermot Weld succeeded his father as Master at Rosewell and he has since established himself as one of the bravest and most innovative trainers on this side of the globe.

In 2006, the Racing Post conducted a poll of its readers to nominate the 100 greatest training feats since racing began. Top of the list came Vintage Crop's win in the '93 Melbourne Cup. It wasn't surprising.

Even now, the scale of that achievement is virtually impossible to place in appropriate context. The race had never been won by a horse from the northern hemisphere, largely because any attempt would surely flounder on the seemingly insurmountable breadth of obstacles.

Primary among those obstacles was the logistical nightmare of transporting a horse 12,000 miles without falling foul of quarantine regulations or, indeed, rolling into difficulty with acclimatisation problems.

Because of the risk of contracting mosquito-borne infections, Vintage Crop would travel to Australia in an insect-proof stall. His food had to be specially prepared to withstand high temperatures and, above all, he had to come out the far end of a gruelling 38-hour journey in fit condition to race.

Weld's contemporaries would have considered him, at best, eccentric in trying to bring the Melbourne Cup to the Curragh. At worst, foolhardy.

That he managed not simply to achieve the feat, but to return nine years later and win again with Media Puzzle, affords him a status in international racing now that flies beyond conventional analysis.

Yet, Ballybrit is -- essentially -- his guilty pleasure.

His gift for piecing together a devastating raiding party of two-year-olds, three-year-old handicappers and maidens, four and five-year-old bumper horses is now the stuff of Galway legend. In Festival week, Weld might have anything up to 50 runners going to post. And he will be underwhelmed if they don't deliver a victory tally of double figures.

Last year, he gave a horse called Stunning View its debut in a maiden hurdle at The Curragh maybe six weeks before Galway. The horse came home second and Weld declared himself happy.

A senior racing journalist understood exactly why. "Would we like better ground?" he enquired of the trainer knowingly.

"We would," smiled Weld.

"Might we be going west?"

"We might."

Stunning View duly won the maiden hurdle at Ballybrit, priced at a penal 4/9 under Pat Smullen. It was Weld's 19th victory in the race. Punters had seen the coup coming.

This was, of course, the race that launched Go And Go into the national consciousness. He won in '89 and, one year later, Go And Go's triumph in the Belmont Stakes would give Weld the distinction of being the first European trainer to win a leg of the American Triple Crown.

In '95, he trained Dance Design to win the two-year-old fillies' race at Galway. One year later, Mick Kinane rode the horse to victory in the Irish Oaks.

Two years ago, Rite of Passage started his career with a win in the bumper at Galway. Last month, the same horse gave Weld his first Gold Cup win at Royal Ascot, lowering the colours of Aidan O'Brien's Age of Aquarius despite being a neglected 20/1 with the bookies.

Weld's gift for this kind of long-term strategy has now acquired mystical status and Galway plays a fundamental part in it. Yet, his relationship with the Festival is hardly a one-way street. He was probably the first major trainer to bring Grade One horses to Ballybrit and he would see in Galway boss John Maloney a kindred spirit in terms of attention to detail.

With the backing of Moyglare Stud and -- more recently -- Rite of Passage owner Dr Ronan Lambe, Weld can be expected to pack some serious power in his Galway weaponry this year. Nothing, mind, will be down to random selection.

He himself admits: "You have to adopt certain tactics. Pick and choose your races. Like the Indians, you have to go in, attack and get out. I do that pretty well, learning when to attack and when not to. I don't fight every battle. I choose my battlegrounds."

The one thing he will probably not want in Galway is soft going.

For he calibrates his approach with summer ground in mind. The process requires clockwork planning, endlessly working the possibilities for just about every horse in the yard.

For years, Ansar was the darling of Ballybrit. He won seven times at the Festival, including a Galway Hurdle and two Plates. Ansar encapsulated the kind of dual-purpose horse that Weld loves to manipulate. After all, the last time Rite of Passage was seen before thieving breaths at Ascot was coming home third in the Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham.

His genius may be for Flat racing, but Weld insists on keeping a share of hurdlers and chasers in the yard. He believes that an interest in National Hunt keeps the place ticking over through winter.

For Galway, he trusts in ritual. Ansar would always be seen in Ballinrobe the Monday or Tuesday before the Festival, being schooled after racing. As one long-time observer reflects: "Dermot would have him down, just to get his eye in and a bit of western air in his lungs.

"He's just so meticulous in his planning, it's a military operation basically.

"Put it this way: his horse -- whichever it will be -- will go off favourite in the two-year-old maiden because it almost seems daft to bet against him. Aidan O'Brien has sort of put it up to him a bit in recent years, but Aidan's priority that week will be Goodwood. Dermot's will be Galway. It's where he's king."

Melbourne beckons again in November of course and, in Rite of Passage, he has an obvious contender. Yet, Weld was quick to remind journalists at Ascot that, in Profound Beauty, he was already armed with the ante-post favourite.

The industry view is that -- weight-wise -- Rite of Passage will be heavily penalised by the Australian handicapper, perhaps moving a shot at victory out of his reach. Weld may instead see a second Ascot Gold Cup as more reasonably attainable.

That said, those who try to second-guess the maestro rarely read him right.

It's worth noting that when Media Puzzle won the Melbourne Cup, the horse that started as favourite was Weld's other runner, Vinnie Roe. Weld has, singlehandedly, internationalised arguably Australia's biggest sports event.

However, he will aspire too to a Champion Hurdle win at Cheltenham. He was at school in Newbridge College when his father's only runner in the race, Farney Fox, finished second in the 1962 renewal. Weld listened to the race on radio. "I will never forget how disappointed I was," he would reflect many years later.

No matter, these are challenges for further down the road. The possibilities of Ballybrit will roll around his head now. Two years ago, Weld chalked up his 200th Festival win with Lady Alicia's victory in the maiden on Galway Plate Day.

Last year he saddled 10 winners, seven seconds and three thirds. To him, mind, they are just the maths of history. "You are always judged," he once said, "not on what you did, but on what you are doing. I like to do things no one else has done."

It has all but become his calling card.

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