Tuesday 12 December 2017

'I'll bow and give the Queen some bacon from the English Market'

Trainer Michael Winters lifts the Gold Cup after his horse Rebel Fitz won The Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse in April Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Trainer Michael Winters lifts the Gold Cup after his horse Rebel Fitz won The Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse in April Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

This chocolate factory was no place for Willie Wonkas. The hours were long and the working environment took its toll. He'd see to the horses when he came home from the night shift.

Then the worn-out young father would crash on the sofa. Somehow the factory worker and his hard-working wife managed to keep the dream alive. Now Michael and Patricia Winters might be about to meet the Queen at Royal Ascot.

Michael trains the relentless Missunited. The mare from the 10-acre stable takes on the aristocrats of the racing world in the Ascot Gold Cup on this Thursday coming.

Michael is back on the sofa but this time he's wide awake. "I squandered the chocolate money on gambling and drink. We'd be at the dogs most nights in Cork. I had a line of credit with the bookies when I was 14."

All the while Michael was helping out with training his father's greyhounds and horses. "I was a middle-of-the-road jockey, like a junior footballer." But he was learning his trade, the hard way.

Michael tells of the day he rode his father's horse off the main track through the slip way to the winning post, "a full circuit too early".


"My father Dinny was watching the race on top of a chip van. He was in such a hurry to get at me, he walked straight off the top of the van, but he landed on his feet without a mark on him.

"The father was so excited, he didn't even know he was walking on air. I was saved when our other horse won the race.

"The father and the uncle Teddy knocked down a great life. It was all about the sport of it, the gambles and the bit of fun."

Michael is 56 now and there isn't a pick on him. He's tired-looking though from the grind. The living room is lived in and on the mantelpiece, next to the trophies, is his lovely daughter Laurie's graduation photograph.

Michael's wild days ended for good when he married Patricia.

"I owed money to two banks and two credit unions. It was all from the gambling. Patricia drove the fire engine in Kanturk to get in the extra cash to pay off the loans. We were half-hungry, but never starving," laughs Michael.

The couple bought an old cottage on a single acre in Lismire, near Kanturk. Their mortgage was 100pc-plus.

"I never even checked the upstairs before we bought it. We just looked at the shed to see if it was right for horses. Twas really the shed we bought."

The form for the Ascot Gold Cup is well thumbed on the cluttered coffee table in the small living room. Minnie, the plump, bandy-legged terrier waddles by looking for a rub, which she gets.

"A few years on, we swapped a good mare for 10 acres of land but we still have to use outside gallops. The swap with Trevor Hemmings, a great neighbour, was the makings of us."

Michael has 19 horses now and several goats. He is very fond of goat's milk. "You'd always know from drinking it exactly what the goat was after eating. If the goat was after eating the neighbour's roses, then there would be a lovely sweet taste of roses off it.

"The goats give the horses something to be looking at and it keeps them from being bored. It's good to have a bit going on in the yard, but not too much. When you're living with horses you get to know them and their ways."

Michael's advisor is 84-year-old Jimmy Gordon, who worked for Vincent O'Brien in the early days. Donie Sheahan, also in his 80s, sent him For Bill and the mare hit the headlines when she won several big races for the stable.

His 80-something-year-old Uncle Teddy gives him the use of his farm whenever it's needed. The octogenarians backed Michael to the hilt. Michael's mannerly 21-year-old son Timmy is busy helping out around the stable. "Is he a jockey?" we ask.

"No," replies Michael, with a trace of regret. "I should have been here more with him when he was young. It's like training footballers; you'd have to be with them the whole time but I was in the factory. He's my assistant here now."

Tony Murphy, who is not so much Michael's employee as his friend, brings us to meet the serene Missunited. She's a family pet. Missunited is as docile as a children's pony.

"She's in great form," says Michael. "I'd be hoping for a place anyway. Missunited is 50/1 but she's improving. We'd like a drop of rain though."

Michael is no one-hit wonder. He trained the winners of the last two Galway Hurdles and his classy jumper Rebel Fitz has the King George in Kempton as his main target. There is no trainer anywhere who has won so many big races with so few horses.

Michael does his planning and thinking on the sofa.

"Kevin Manning rides Missunited. Kevin suits her because he sits deep in the saddle. He will squeeze her with his legs and keep her revved up, concentrating and galloping."

Patricia rushes back in from the local clothes shop after "buying the bit of style". She balances a plate of salad on her lap. "Do you want half of this?" she asks me. Patricia is all go and you can see Michael is enjoying her. His wife tells him she hired out his top hat and tails for Ascot.

A hairy she-goat with massive hanging udders stares through the glass of the sliding door. "She's milking eight gallons a day," says Michael proudly.

Patricia, a tall good-looking woman, is studying Television, Radio and New Media in IT Tralee and loves every minute of it.

The talk of the shopping prompts us to ask if there's money being made, now that the stable has big-time horses. "Even as it is," replies Michael, "we'd be scraping our backsides along. We pay off our bills when we have a win and we make the best out of what we have." Michael is gasping. "Billy is dying to go down to the Alley Bar." I'm his excuse.

On the way to the pub he tells us of Dan and Vanessa Hutch, who not only own Missunited but bred her as well. "Wouldn't it be lovely for them to look out the window and see her foals, from their own blood lines, and she after winning a Group One?"

Michael's big wins are framed on the walls of the Alley Bar. A couple of rounds on there's a sing-song, home-made apple pie for the tea drinkers and talk of the Ascot Gold Cup.

It's dreaming time now. The local hero is asked from the counterside exactly what it is he might say to the Queen.

"I'll bow, give her a bit of boiling bacon from the English Market and tell her about my Minnie."

Picture it now. Her Majesty there in her finery, on the winners' podium at Royal Ascot, presenting the Gold Cup, while Michael in his morning suit and top hat is going on non-stop about Minnie, Missunited, the rose-eating goats and the day his father walked off the roof of the chip van.

You'd never know.

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