Hourigan searching for a hero
Quest to find next superstar keeps veteran Limerick trainer's desire burning brightly as ever
For Michael Hourigan, this week's racing festivity at Limerick amounts to a local derby. "It is important that I train a winner at Limerick over Christmas -- it is important," he reiterates.
"Like, when my horses are well and I can train them to go to those meetings, if they aren't winning there you wonder where you've gone wrong. Limerick is my local track. It's only two miles over the road, so it is a bigger deal for me than it is for a lot of other fellas. People expect me to have winners there."
One of jump racing's most enduringly popular characters, Hourigan is expected to deliver for historical reasons. His sprawling Patrickswell base is modest and reassuringly agricultural in essence, but it is a glorious National Hunt institution that was for so long synonymous with two of the game's most iconic horses.
Dorans Pride and Beef Or Salmon were the sort of beloved national treasures that captured the general public's imagination in a way that so many of the superpowers' heavyweights simply fail to replicate. Dorans Pride's famous victory in the 1995 Stayers Hurdle and Beef Or Salmon's conquering of Best Mate in the 2004 Lexus Chase are among a raft of heroic triumphs that define jumping's rustic folklore.
Hourigan has been less prolific of late, but the quest to find the next good horse still drives him. When The Job Is Right threw his hat into the ring with an impressive Grade Three novice hurdle coup at Cork earlier in the month, Hourigan suggested that he would head to Limerick with him in an attempt to avoid Willie Mullins' finest.
"At least we'll have home advantage," he says now, conceding the futility of trying to avoid the champion's legions entirely. "Willie has the horses and he has to run them and we've got to compete against him. He'll beat us plenty, but we beat him some days too. If I had one good enough to go to Leopardstown, I would -- and often have -- but right now we're still looking. A winner or two at Limerick would do nicely.
"I have a nice string of horses, something I haven't really had for five years. Maybe they were a bit sick or maybe they were not much good and a bit sick with it, and maybe I was pushing them too hard at times to make horses of them. But I have a better quality of horse here now so hopefully something decent will emerge.
"As well as The Job Is Right, Aerlite Supreme, Tropical Three and Dushybeag are all decent animals. A few of them had their excuses recently, but they have been freshened up for Christmas. I'd like to go to Limerick with them, and if I can keep them apart I'd be disappointed if they don't bounce back."
Despite being a licence-holder for 40 years, Hourigan wasn't immune to the whims of the economy when disposable income dried up. He has spoken before about how the old-fashioned way of developing an ownership base -- "you'd get a horse to break in from the farmer next door and talk him into leaving it with you" -- was replaced with unsustainable syndicates and those wanting to simply make a fashion statement.
From training over 100 horses during the boom, he now has less than 50 in at one time. The son of a cattle dealer and ever the innovator, he opted to make the best use of his land by increasing his bovine herd to 150 head and kept chipping away.
"My ambition is still to have nice horses, but you do slow down a bit," he says. "It's slower because the Celtic Tiger isn't there, but I have my farming and I have my store horses as well. Hopefully, something good will come out of that some day. I'm 66, but I'm as happy as Larry at what I am at -- I have no problems with myself! I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't do what I do.
"I'm able to do all the things I have always done, and I'm probably working harder than I ever have. Back in the day, you had fellas to do the work for you and you had the Celtic Tiger to pay them. Now I am doing it myself and I'm well able for it and I have my family behind me.
"My daughters Laura and Kay work with me. The way things changed was probably very stressful on them because they didn't realise how hard things can be having grown up through the good times. Everyone has pulled together, though. We are all working harder because that's the only way to get by now. You can't be paying a fella €20k a year if you can't spare it -- five lads will set you back €100k and you need to be having proper winners to be able to afford that luxury."
While the search goes on for the sort of marquee horse capable of adding to Hourigan's incredible 21 Grade One successes, his assertion that he now has a better quality of steed to go to war with is borne out in the statistics. As 2013 draws to a close, he has saddled 22 winners, a figure he has matched only once since 2006.
With a running tally of 18 winners, he has already beaten last season's jumps total of 15. If he maintains something close to his current strike-rate of 12pc, he is on course to finish up with a double-figure ratio for the first time in 11 years. Hourigan might have reached the official retirement age, but he certainly isn't slowing down.
"My wife would like me to slow down, but it's quicker I'm getting!" he quips. "I just enjoy every bit of it. I absolutely adore it and I love getting up in the morning and I love doing it. You couldn't do what I was doing there for the past five years if you didn't enjoy it, but the reward is coming around again now. what matters is that I have several nice horses."
Individuals that would have fallen into the same category in the past include Hi Cloy, Mr Cracker and Dancing Tornado, all winners of St Stephen's Day's Grade Two Greenmount Park Novice Chase. The mighty Beef Or Salmon also ran once at Limerick's four-day Christmas gala, crashing out at the second-last flight after hitting the front under Hourigan's son Paul on his hurdle bow on the same card in 2001.
"It was one of the first meetings on the new course," he recalls, "and he just took a stride or two after the hurdle and fell. We knew before then that he was a good horse, but then the good horses always have a way of telling you they are good."
As an unmistakably self-made survivor, impossible won't deter Michael Hourigan. The search for another unlikely equine hero continues unabated. Next stop Limerick.