Grand ambition still burns
Dawn Approach can become second little acorn to reach Derby heights for Jim Bolger, writes John O'Brien
WHEN he won the Epsom Derby in 2008 and elevated himself to the front rank of Irish trainers, Jim Bolger sought the wise counsel of his colleague, John Oxx. Bolger had a burning question. "How long," he wanted to know, "does the glow last?" Oxx, who had landed the great prize with Sinndar in 2000, responded hopefully. "If you never train another," he said, "it will last forever."
But Bolger didn't want to take the chance. Five years later he is back with another five-star contender, a son of his 2008 winner, more Epsom glory beckoning. He turned 71 last Christmas Day and still there is no inclination to let go of the reins. Five of the last seven Dewhurst winners have travelled to Newmarket from his Coolcullen stable. In that time he has trained four European champion two-year-olds: three colts and a filly, Finsceal Beo.
Putting those achievements into perspective isn't difficult. They all but place Bolger on a par with the Coolmore conveyor belt across the border in Tipperary, an increasingly credible rival to the world's most dominant racing empire. That this glorious Indian summer should come on the back of a Coolmore stallion is a compelling adjunct to the story, the audacity of it entirely in keeping with the Bolger legend.
Almost a decade has passed since Bolger, acting on a hunch, started shipping mares to Coolmore from his stud farm in his native Oylegate, Co Wexford, to be covered by Galileo, the 2001 Derby winner. Galileo was a great-grandson of Northern Dancer, the sire put on the map when Vincent O'Brien brought Nijinsky back from Canada in the late 1960s and changed the face of European racing and breeding forever.
Although O'Brien is regarded as the nonpareil when it comes to his racing achievements, Bolger does not suffer unduly in the comparison. While it is a racing certainty that Galileo's proficiency as a sire would have been unearthed anyway, with or without Bolger's patronage, that in no way diminishes his foresight or the risk he took in placing all his eggs in the one promising but critically unproven basket.
And the concerns about Galileo were real enough. "A few of us were scratching our heads at the time," says Dr Sieglinde McGee, the Irish Field's bloodstock correspondent. "Sadler's Wells had been a disappointing sire of sires. He had no son carrying on his legacy. I remember talking to Tony Morris in Newmarket about the Sadler's Wells dilemma. We agreed there were two sons left with a shot: Galileo and Montjeu."
In his willingness to take risks, his aversion to taking the safe option, Bolger was following the trend set by O'Brien a generation before him. Unlike Bolger, O'Brien had grown up on a family farm surrounded by horses, but the stables and paddocks of Ballydoyle, like Coolcullen, were built from nothing but the dreams and persistence of a self-made man who liked a punt and wasn't deterred by the odd failure.
Bolger was already approaching his 40s when he pitched up at the Phoenix Park in the late 1970s, unfulfilled by the grind of office life and dabbling in the few showjumpers he kept, eager for the buzz of thoroughbreds and to break into the tight-knit coterie of the Irish racing establishment. "He seemed to come from nowhere," Oxx once told Brough Scott. "We looked at each other and said, 'Jim Who?'"
By then, though, Jim Who had been beavering away quietly for years, attending sales, studying catalogues, plotting a route to the top, assembling bit by bit what he liked to call his "grandiose dream." For Bolger that dream wasn't just establishing a yard and belting out winners. He wanted those winners to wear his own colours and to come from his own breeding sheds. To do something few of his rivals would even dare consider.
"It was very unusual," says Oxx. "Earlier this year Patrick Mullins broke the amateur riding record of Billy Parkinson that had stood for a hundred years. He had bred all his own horses and was the Aidan O'Brien of his day. The McGrath family bred their own too and Seamus McGrath trained them. But in a hundred years, you can't think of too many. A lot of them breed first, then go into training. Jim went the other way. It was highly risky, of course, but then Jim was always a noted risk-taker."
What struck those who first encountered Bolger as a fledgling trainer in north Dublin was the sheer self-belief he exuded, the relentless certainty with which he pursued his dream. "I don't think I've come across anybody with such self-confidence," says Noel Meade. "From day one, he was always so positive he'd be up there at the very top. He left nobody in any doubt about it."
Bolger was helped by a sharp and instinctive business acumen. One of the early success stories he is fond of talking about was a three-year-old called Erins Isle, the second highest rated colt in Ireland in 1980. The horse was sold for a big fee to race in America and, after enjoying huge success over there, Bolger bought him back for the bargain price of $30,000.
Around the same time, he began championing Ahonoora as a stallion even though there was little in the horse's racing career or pedigree to suggest huge potential. From Ahonoora, though, Bolger was blessed with a rich seam of racing talent that would have cost him an arm and a leg at the sales: Park Express, Noora Abu, Topanoora, Project Manager among them.
It would take 30 years for those little acorns to thrust high into the sky. From Erins Isle came a mare called Affianced, the dam of Soldier Of Fortune which, alongside Teofilo, Bolger would reap from his first crop of Galileo's. And from Park Express came New Approach, the colt which would make Bolger a wealthy man and lift him into another stratosphere as a trainer, the "grandiose dream" finally becoming a reality.
Naturally, as with any gambler there were setbacks along the way. In the early 1990s, he sent his mares to Nordico, a son of Northern Dancer, and enjoyed limited success before plunging heavily into Last Tycoon, a Breeders' Cup winner, and enjoying even less. The venture, Bolger said, cost him "hundreds of thousands" of pounds and set him back at least 10 years as a trainer.
And so a period of decline set in. The winners dried up. In 2003 Bolger's annual haul of 31 winners was the first time in nearly two decades he'd slipped under 40. Even in 2006, when Teofilo was hinting at a change in fortunes, he could only finish fifth on the trainers' list, his place among the traditional big four alongside O'Brien, Weld and Oxx apparently under siege.
That set the stage for the gamble that would either make him or finish him forever. Bolger had thought about Galileo as a future stallion ever since watching him win on his debut at Leopardstown hard on the bridle, never imagining he would be in a position to afford him. Then, in his fourth season at stud, Galileo's price was reduced to €37,500 and, scarcely believing his luck, Bolger began gathering up his mares and prepared to send them across the county border.
Luck? It only half explains it. "Well, he got lucky to get in at ground level," says Meade. "He put his tuppence worth in and backed him and it worked. But I'm sure he'd accept himself, had he stuck at what he was doing, with his own sires like Project Manager, he wouldn't have got very far. Once he got out of that box and went to Coolmore, he hit it right. Jim's a brilliant trainer and a very clever guy. He had the right mares. Once he picked the right one, it all fell into place."
Not all the foals Bolger breeds are kept to race in the now-famous white and purple silks of his wife, Jackie. In 2011 he sold two Sea The Stars foals for a combined €1.65m as well as his star mare, Banimpire, to America for €2.3m. To keep the wheels of his burgeoning empire turning, the 700-acre stud farm in Oylegate, the new premises outside Rathvilly he purchased five years ago, the costly business of keeping 70 mares, the businessman must simply do deals the trainer wouldn't normally countenance.
It is the businessman, too, who has forged such an unlikely but fruitful alliance with Sheikh Mohammed. Bolger sold his half-share in New Approach to the Sheikh after he won the 2007 Dewhurst with the condition the colt stayed at Coolcullen until the end of his racing career, and a similar arrangement now exists with New Approach's son. Horses seldom race in the blue silks of Godolphin outside of the Sheikh's appointed trainers. For Bolger, however, he has made an exception.
And so the wealth conferred by Galileo continues to filter down. When New Approach went to stand at the Sheikh's Darley Stud and Bolger sent Hymn Of The Dawn and other mares to be covered, it would not have occurred to him to think he would be blessed with such talent among the stallion's first crop. And to find one better than New Approach himself: that wasn't even the stuff of Jim Bolger dreams.
Nor when Dawn Approach won the opening race of the 2012 Irish Flat season over five furlongs at the Curragh, could it have seemed apparent to those present that they were witnessing a 2,000 Guineas winner and overwhelming Derby favourite. It is often the case that such precocious two-year-olds fail to train on at three. But then not many of them have Jim Bolger as trainer.
Seven from seven now, a 2,000 Guineas neatly tucked away, Dawn Approach seems a near certainty to give Bolger his second Derby triumph next Saturday. The pedigree experts suggest caution, though. Dawn Approach may have a Derby winner as sire, but there's no emphasis on stamina on his distaff side and that concerns them. The general trend on the dam's side was to race between eight and 10 furlongs. Beyond that, nothing is certain.
"The way he won at Newmarket, he looked like a horse which would stay a mile and two furlongs," says McGee. "He has a very good temperament so that will stand him in good stead. He's less likely to boil over. There's no guarantee he'll stay, but he's related to a Montjeu which did stay so there is a chance."
Another way of putting it: if he has the icy cool of his trainer, the same unflappable mentality, or even a tiny fraction of his fortitude and stamina, then there seems little doubt. Dawn Approach will stay all day.