Still stacking up the memories
Hard work, fresh air and a regular supply of winners keep Tommy Stack going, writes John O'Brien
THE way he tells it, there was never any grand plan, no burning ambition for the life of a trainer and the pursuit of winners. Tommy Stack just fell into it, the way a racing man might stumble upon a classy colt. He'd bought Thomastown Castle stud from Phonsie O'Brien in the early 1980s after a spell working for John Magnier. He bought young horses and moved them on. Bred a few here and there. Happy out.
It was Northern Express that changed the course of his life. Stack knew the colt had ability but, try as he might, he couldn't find a buyer. No point in leaving him at home, he thought, idling his life away in a paddock. He took out a permit and trained the horse to win a Listed race at the Phoenix Park in 1988, leaving a field of expensive, well-bred colts in his wake. That was the beginning.
"It wasn't something I thought I'd ever do," Stack says smiling. "When we moved here, Vincent O'Brien would bring horses down to work and I'd watch him every day. I went racing with him as often as I could and maybe a little bit of that rubbed off. We'd keep the odd horse we couldn't shift at the sales and Northern Express was one of those. It just went on from there."
Over the years, the good horses and big winners came in an agreeably steady flow: Las Meninas, Tarascon, Tolpuddle, Drayton, Myboycharlie. It never bothered Tommy, though, that no matter how many winners he trained he'd always be known as the man who steered Red Rum to Grand National glory in 1977. Those days remain vivid in his mind's eye, as wondrous to recall now as they were to live through then.
The anecdotes come in waves. "I'll never forget . . ." he begins here. "The amazing thing . . . " he continues there. Red Rum had arrived as a three-year-old at Bobby Renton's yard in Yorkshire where Stack had gone in 1963 after a spell in Dublin working in insurance. "We left it at that and the old man said we'll run him at Newcastle on Wednesday and you can ride him," he laughs. "'Thanks,' I said."
The rest is storied history, of course. Red Rum went to Ginger McCain. The sea water at Southport helped settle his troublesome legs and he galloped to three Grand Nationals, Stack on board for the historic third. In all, the horse ran for 11 years, running 110 races. Such durability, such raw courage. "One of those horses blessed with character," Stack says. "When the challenge comes, they rise to it."
Stack wouldn't say it, but his description fitted the jockey too. Six months after Aintree, he was creased by a horse in the paddock at Hexham, severing the tubes to his bladder and fracturing his pelvis in 12 places. He spent three months in traction, nothing but the tips of his shoulders touching his hospital bed. He lost two stone and had to learn to walk again before he could think of riding.
In April, Red Rum would be gunning for his fourth national and, to be ready, Stack needed to be back in the saddle a month earlier. He sweated his way back to fitness in the Leeds United gym at Elland Road where he was a frequent visitor and a welcome guest. Then, on the eve of the race, the horse suffered an injury and never ran again. The jockey was fit, Stack smiles, but the horse went lame.
The Hexham accident was nothing compared to the blow that struck him 20 years later and would have buried a weaker man. St Stephen's Day, 1998. He had been feeling a bit fluey that Christmas, but nothing alerted him to the bomb that was ticking away in his brain. His last memory is of stepping into the bathroom in his home. Three weeks later, he woke up in a hospital bed in Cork. Confused but still alive.
"My wife Liz told me afterwards how lucky I'd been. They took me to Clonmel hospital and there was a woman there whose nephew had died from meningitis a year or two before. She knew straight away what I had. They gave me an injection into my spine and diagnosed it straight away. But for her I was gone. I was in Cork for a couple of months. Wandering and talking and making no sense."
For an ambitious stable, the timing was terrible. Earlier that year Stack had saddled the brilliant filly Tarascon to win the Irish 1,000 Guineas and, after a couple of average years, the future seemed bright. Now his illness left them in a quandary. His son, Fozzy, had been six months with John Dunlop in Arundel. "A general dogsbody," he says. Fozzy can't remember any other option being considered. He would come home and, effectively, assume the running of the yard. He hadn't yet turned 20. Fozzy is a quieter presence than Tommy and, still in a sense, living in his father's shadow. If it bothers him, he does an exceptional job of disguising it. Keeping Tommy's name on the trainer's licence has had its obvious benefits. For a young trainer trying to find his feet in the hard-nosed business of Irish Flat racing, maintaining a low profile was a sensible way to start.
The first few years were as tough as he had anticipated. They averaged around 10 winners a year and found the good horses that lift every stable hard to come by. Then they found Tolpuddle. In 2004, the gelding won the Irish Lincolnshire and added two Listed races over the following two seasons. For Stack, it was a turning point. Confirmation that, for all the odds against you, it was still possible to find quality horses and take on stables with superior numbers and resources.
"It wasn't ideal circumstances to return to Ireland," he says. "I had to learn by making my own mistakes as much as anything else. When things aren't going great in this game, you can be too hard on yourself. Thinking back we probably had a lot of ordinary horses. Bad horses sometimes make you think you're doing something wrong. You can't find gold where there's no gold to be found."
He has learned that it is a risk-and-reward business. A few years ago, he took a punt that Danetime -- which hadn't even won a Listed race on the track -- was undervalued as a stallion, a hunch that proved right and paid rich dividends. From Danetime they got Alexander Alliance, Drayton and Myboycharlie among others, two Group Ones and multiple Listed race wins among them.
In 2006, they picked up a filly, Unsung Heroine, that had gone through the sales ring for a derisory 5,000 guineas. Her ability was soon apparent, though. She won a Group Three at Cork and finished second to the top-class Conduit in the 2007 St Leger. A year later, the stable had its most prolific season with 33 winners. But, says Stack, there wasn't a Group winner among them. A step forward or a step backwards? Even now he isn't sure.
"Look, it's like anything," he says. "You're always looking for a bit of quality. Will anybody remember who won the 5.25 at Wexford three days afterwards? But they'll remember who won the Derby in 10 or 20 years' time. To get quality you just need a bit of luck and patience. When you get a Group horse, you have to make the best of it. Get the best form you can into them."
At Thomastown, he trains 70 horses, divided between two yards, both teeming with quality. On the first day of the season, Stack loaded four of them into a horse box, pointed it towards the Curragh and claimed the first four races on the card. Already he has 12 winners and three Group victories to his name. Keeping pace with the cream of Irish racing stables: Ballydoyle, Rosewell House, Coolcullen, Currabeg. Flying.
He can't pinpoint anything they have done differently this year. They just have better horses. Nothing to get carried away about yet, though. Next week brings Guineas weekend at the Curragh and he will send his stable stars to contest the first two Classics of the season. Cut and thrust time, he says. The opening weeks of the season have been little more than a rehearsal for this moment. Still, it has been some rehearsal.
It is late Thursday afternoon now and you watch him moving about the yard, inspecting the horses, making sure everything is as it should be. He opens a stable door and the three-year-old filly, Lolly For Dolly, casually turns her head to survey her latest visitors. He likes the fact that she is so relaxed and eats well, an uncomplicated filly. The good ones usually are, he thinks.
She cost just €55,000 at the Newmarket sales and, already, she has paid her way, winning her maiden at Cork by seven lengths and, when pitched in against older horses in a Group Three at the Curragh, stepping up to the mark to beat the Ballydoyle-trained Famous by two lengths. Stack isn't sure she'll stay much further than the Guineas trip, but no matter. If she's good enough over a mile, it will do.
Noll Wallop is different. The colt is bred to get a trip but has won twice over a mile and earned his place in the field for the 2,000 Guineas on Saturday. Stack marvels at how composed he is for such a big horse. Sometimes he is so idle on the gallops that he wonders how there could be any speed there at all but, so far, the three-year-old has delivered handsomely when sent to the racetrack.
Right now, he is toying with the idea of running Cnocandancer alongside Lolly For Dolly in the 1,000 Guineas the following day. Just to have two fillies with such obvious potential is a happy luxury. Cnocandancer was impressive when winning a maiden at the Curragh two weeks ago and he likes the fact that she was forward enough to win on her debut. If they're going to be above average, he thinks, they should be able to win first time out. "Usually anyway," he says.
Whatever happens, these are unquestionably good times. The stable is winning races, finding better horses, looking ahead to a better future. Last month Tommy was back at Aintree, a guest of the racecourse, reliving sights and meeting acquaintances he hadn't seen in years. He might have waited for the big race on Saturday but his beloved Munster were playing Northampton at Thomond Park that afternoon so he flew home instead.
At any given moment, Fozzy can't be sure of Tommy's whereabouts, just that his father will be busy somewhere, fetching feed for the horses, perhaps, or adjusting the rails on the gallops. Years ago Tommy used to ride the odd horse for Mick Easterby and the trainer offered some sage advice. "He told me you should never retire. Because you get older quicker if you retire. He's 85 or 86 now. Fresh as a daisy. Hard work and fresh air, he always said, would never kill you."
He smiles and heads for the door now, his work not yet done for another day. The tank of water he is carrying is beginning to leak and he better get going before it is empty. He cranks up the tractor and sets off towards the yard, waving as he goes. Happy for the sunshine and the good horses. Happy just to be alive.