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'When we haven't paid much and they win, that's bonus territory'

Having unearthed two potential sprint stars, Denis Hogan is on track for a first Group winner


Trainer Denis Hogan at his yard in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary: ‘We just got lucky in that we gave the horses the time that they (big studs) probably don’t have.’

Trainer Denis Hogan at his yard in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary: ‘We just got lucky in that we gave the horses the time that they (big studs) probably don’t have.’

Don Moloney

Trainer Denis Hogan at his yard in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary: ‘We just got lucky in that we gave the horses the time that they (big studs) probably don’t have.’

Denis Hogan reels off the list of potential targets for his sprinting flagbearers, Sceptical and Make A Challenge. July Cup. Nunthorpe. Flying Five. Prix de l'Abbaye. British Champions Sprint. All Group One targets, confined to the elite, won only by the very best.

Hogan has never registered a Group success of any nature. There are three graded triumphs over jumps, in what was his natural habitat and remains a source of winners, but to be mapping a programme comprising only the top of the pattern programme on the Flat is nuts.

"You just keep working away as normal, you make the plans in the back of your head," says Hogan. "You know what can go right and wrong. You don't stop to think about how big a race they are . . ." He pauses. "You try not to."

It wasn't always like that. Although just turned 33 this month, Hogan has had a training licence for 11 years. There were many sleepless nights worrying about the latest setback.

"In the early days, if a 0-50 horse picked up a knock you would be walking the box and think it is the end of the world. But as you go on you realise it is going to happen and you just have to be able to deal with it and move on."

It was not always like this either. Horses did not inhabit the livestock on the family farm in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary but Charlie Swan is a neighbour and young Denis was in thrall to his feats in the saddle. When Swan opened a riding school, Hogan was out of the stalls quicker than Sceptical or Make A Challenge.

He was a good pupil and the dream of being a jockey evolved as he flourished on the pony racing circuit. When he turned 16, he was apprenticed to Curragh trainer Michael Halford, who, like Swan, remains a key and trusted counsellor to this day. By his own admission, he probably lacked the discipline to look after his weight and so took out a National Hunt licence.

His parents, Martin and Mary, had invested in a few ponies for him so that he would be guaranteed rides in that sphere and at 14 he was conditioning and preparing them to be competitive on the circuit. That process always intrigued him, to such an extent that he took out a trainer's licence at 22 even though he knew it would have a negative impact on his riding career. But having just lost his claim, he was swimming in deeper waters with the likes of Walsh, Geraghty, Russell et al. Opportunities were going to be limited. This way, he was in control of his own destiny.

Kallellshan and Jack The Wire landed some nice pots early on in the jumping sphere, while Youcantcallherthat and Moyhenna have achieved at a high level, all with Hogan in the plate.

Inis Meain was his first good Flat horse, albeit a dual-purpose operator that won over both codes, but it is the manner in which he has turned cheap purchases into money machines on the level that has accelerated his rise. Allegio was bought for £5,500 and has accumulated €70,000. Tithonus cost €4,200 and made almost €190,000.

Sceptical was acquired for £2,800 just last August. The son of Exceed And Excel has triumphed in four of six contests, most recently finishing third in the Group One Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. The four-year-old is already the highest-rated sprinter in Ireland.

Make A Challenge is just four pounds inferior, according to the handicapper. They shelled out £6,500 for him and he has garnered nearly €180,000 for the owners Walter O'Connor, Barney O'Reilly and Hogan's parents.

Powerhouse operations such as Godolphin, from whence Sceptical and Make A Challenge emerged, and Juddmonte, where another recent winner Dalvey grew up before being acquired for £6,500, have proven fertile sources for Hogan and his investors. He baulks at the notion that he is improving horses that had been showing nothing or proving their owner-breeders wrong about their level of ability.

"We have been buying these horses from different sales for a long time. We have had a lot of success in lower-grade races and we are happy with that. When we haven't paid much for horses and they win a race, that's bonus territory. We never bought any of them thinking we would be going to a Group One.

"We would be looking for backward types or maybe ones with little issues that, in time, we think we can rectify. That is the reason we are buying. We like dealing with the big studs because they have got such a volume of numbers. We know they have a new batch coming through every season. So they're not just selling them because they are no use, or they have injuries that can never be fixed.

"To be fair, these big studs are all very up front with all of their notes and veterinary issues. They are in the selling game too. They have to have homes for these horses and we just got lucky in that we gave the horses the time that they probably don't have. They can't afford to be giving them all time because it's probably a stallion they are looking for really and they have a whole new batch of horses coming in at the start of each season."

Make A Challenge is favourite for today's Group Two Greenlands Stakes at the Curragh. If Sceptical showed ability from the start, it wasn't the same for his stablemate, which didn't run for a year after his purchase and then took a dislike to the stalls - a potentially ruinous trait. Jamie Joyce is given the credit for eliminating this flaw with hours of work at home and, as a result, Make A Challenge has won seven times and been a close-up fifth in the Group One Champions Sprint at Haydock last September. He skated up on his seasonal debut in the Sole Power Stakes at Naas eight days ago and is ready to rock.

"He came out of it very well. You couldn't ask for him to come out of it any better to be honest," says Hogan. "He is in really good nick at the minute. So it is good timing. You would probably like a bit more rain but either way the Curragh will have it safe for such a big meeting."

The enjoyment his parents get from this success only adds to the satisfaction, given how they have supported him every step of the way.

"They have got really attached to him. Especially my dad. There was talk of selling him during the winter and he would have been disappointed if we sold them. There was plenty of interest. We didn't move on any of it. He is a valuable horse to have. Hopefully we can keep him in one piece. If he was being sold, I ideally wouldn't like him to leave the yard. But that is up to connections really."

Did he have to learn to train Group One sprinters, one wonders, coming from a jumping background?

"With any horse and any trip, whether it be a sprinter or a point-to-pointer, there is a couple of basics that they all need. Obviously we adjust the trip on their fast work. But there is a lot of basics that they all have to get. Having them healthy and fit and keeping their minds right is the biggest things really. You can be getting good horses but if you don't keep them mentally interested, it is no good really.

"We are very lucky in that we have loads of space here and it's very quiet around. We have the gallop across the road. We can go up and down the roads and not meet any traffic. We have loads of paddocks for turning them out. Every horse gets to the paddock and that keeps their head right. They are happy. Horses, no matter what distance they want or are bred for, they have to be healthy and happy."

If they remain healthy and happy, the two stable stars will eventually cross swords, possibly in the Nunthorpe or the Flying Five. What a wonderful problem to have.

Sunday Indo Sport