Monday 20 November 2017

Winters adds to unique attraction of Ballybrit

Colourful ex-chocolate factory worker who trained Rebel Fitz to famous win has sights set on more glory, writes Richard Forristal

Michael Winters carried shoulder-high by well-wishers after Rebel Fitz's victory last year
Michael Winters carried shoulder-high by well-wishers after Rebel Fitz's victory last year
Jockey Davy Russell with owner Brian Sweetnam (left) and Mick Winters
Michael Winters' greatest hits: Monsignor
Rebel Fitz, left, with Davy Russel leads Cause Of Causes and Davy Condon.
Michael Winters' greatest hits: Forpadydeplasterer
Michael Winters' greatest hits: For Bill
Winters is a brother-in-law of former jockey Adrian Maguire
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A welcome consequence of the Irish racing calendar featuring a handicap hurdle run in the height of summer for a king's ransom is that some of the game's most fascinating hidden characters are frequently thrust into the limelight.

With a prize fund of €260,000, the Guinness Galway Hurdle is the richest jump race in the country – bar none. It is also one of the most prestigious in terms of tradition, the 2013 edition marking a landmark 100th anniversary of its inauguration.

Consequently, turf giants such as Vincent O'Brien, Tom Dreaper, Aidan O'Brien, Dermot Weld and Noel Meade have all made it their business to see their names etched on the cherished roll of honour. However, the race has also been especially lucrative for more unheralded stables, something that ensures its enduring essence as Irish racing's ultimate clash between the big fish and the small fry.

In 2012, pandemonium descended upon Ballybrit after Mick Winters' Rebel Fitz hit the line just in time to spare Davy Russell's blushes. Russell and Winters were a potent alliance in the champion jockey's formative years point-to-pointing, which added to the sense that theirs was a hugely popular triumph rooted in humble origins.

At the centre of it all was the inimitable Winters, a one-time factory worker and hospital carer whose eccentric style and entertaining demeanour captured the public imagination before the race was even run. Prior to the off, RTE television broadcast a profile of Rebel Fitz's trainer in his natural environment of Kanturk, known as the capital of Duhallow – a real GAA stronghold in north-west Cork.

It was an immensely enjoyable portrait, not just because of Winters' engaging personality and easy charm, but because it also revealed the extent to which the local Duhallow community would be touched should glory come Rebel Fitz's way.

"If he were to win the Galway Hurdle, it would be something that maybe when we are dead – just as we might remember things like Foinavon winning the Grand National when we were young fellas – it would leave a little mark for Duhallow and the area, that we were after doing it," Winters explained in his rural brogue.

"At the moment, sure, we'd be ecstatic, but we'd get excited about a point-to-point, you know what I mean! It might buy a couple of new jumps and we might get an automatic gate and do little bits and pieces, and we'd have one or two nights out – but then we'd be back to work. So it would be more for down the road, really."

At the end of the mini-bio, his brother Tony held up an ante-post docket for a close-up shot to reveal a €100 each-way stake at 8/1. He had earlier quipped that they were all "odds-on to be on 'Crimecall' before making it on television for the races".

That was the sort of irreverent, self-deprecating humour that conveyed the yard's relaxed atmosphere through a variety of colourful family members and neighbours. Mick Winters, an ever-present on the renowned Cork and Waterford point-to-point circuit, was the figurehead who epitomised the roguish Rebel spirit.

By the time it was confirmed that Rebel Fitz had survived Cause Of Causes' late flourish to prevail by a short head in the Galway Hurdle, not only was it assured that the electronic gates would happen and Tony's appearance on 'Crimecall' wouldn't, but Winters had become something of an accidental icon. The purple trousers and garish cowboy shirt that were hoisted high on a clatter of exultant shoulders around the Ballybrit winner's enclosure guaranteed as much.

Such recognition, though, was deserved reward for a lifetime devoted to horse racing at grassroots level. As a son of a bookmaker, 56-year-old Winters had long been immersed in the game, but he was also far removed from a career trainer.

A brother-in-law of former jockey Adrian Maguire (who's married to Winters' sister Sabrina), he always dabbled with bloodstock, and was respected as a shrewd point-to-point operator. In the mid-1990s, the dual Cheltenham Festival winner Monsignor, bred a stone's throw away in Kilbrin by Ted Dennehy, passed through his hands before joining Mark Pitman.

At the time, the married father-of-two was nearing the end of a 25-year stretch in a chocolate factory. He was anxious to make a fist of the horses, but ended up doing a stint as a carer in Mallow hospital to make ends meet. Then the boom hit and, like so many others, all of a sudden he found himself with a trainer's licence and flush owners.

From the get-go in 2005, his strike rate was impressive, as he placed a select handful of horses with consistent precision. As evidenced by more than 50 winners just eight years later, Winters' star has – in contrast to the majority of handlers whose boats rose on the boom's high tide – defied the tough economic climate to maintain a steady ascent.

Nonetheless, somewhat fittingly for a man who earned his spurs producing young talent, initially it was another horse that he never raced that earned him the most acclaim. A gelding that he had bought from a patient he met in Mallow Hospital years before showed precocious ability at home; the horse was Forpadydeplasterer, famously sold for the princely sum of €150,000 to Charlie Chawke and the Goat Racing Syndicate.

Then in 2009, the dual point-to-point winning mare called For Bill burst onto the scene by winning three bumpers. Owned by the popular Killarney pharmacist Donie Sheahan, For Bill really advertised Winters' on-track training prowess, winning twice in Graded company and nine times in all before her well-earned retirement in 2011.

As For Bill embarked on her breeding career, Missunited emerged to fill the gap. Likewise a dual bumper winner in 2011, she again showcased Winters' broad range of expertise, plundering three hurdles – one in Graded company – and three Flat races in less than a year, before filling the runner-up berth in three successive Listed races.

For a man who spent much of his life earning a daily crust outside of racing, Winters certainly knew how to train a good horse, something that the broader public might be blissfully unaware of were it not for the oft-maligned Celtic Tiger. The light of that suppressed skill finally discarded its bushel courtesy of Rebel Fitz's Galway coup.

Owned by London-based banker Brian Sweetnam, a native of nearby Castlemagner, Rebel Fitz was another to win his two bumpers as a nervy five-year-old in 2010.

Over the next two seasons, Winters nurtured his precocious talent meticulously. The end result was a high-class prospect that would have landed a decisive Galway Hurdle victory 12 months ago were it not for the high drama that ensued when Russell powered down a shade prematurely. All's well that ends well, though.

The horse named in honour of Cork hurling legend John Fitzgibbon clung on to turn Ballybrit into a sea of red euphoria, in the process becoming just the second horse to win the cherished prize off a mark of 140 or higher. Were it needed, that was proof positive of the full extent of Winters' extraordinary capabilities.

This time, Rebel Fitz will return to the scene of his greatest feat as a nascent steeplechaser. Mindful of his relative inexperience and enormous potential over fences, Winters has been reluctant to commit the 11-time winner to a bold Plate tilt, though it became slightly more likely after a stunning 15-length Killarney rout.

Either way, the expectation is that Rebel Fitz will run during the week, which is possibly the most important thing, as it would mean that Ballybrit would once again be graced with Mick Winters' presence. After all, the place wouldn't be nearly so special if it weren't for characters such as him.

Irish Independent

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