Derby days

 

INSIDE TRACK:High fashion, thundering hooves, and €1.5 million to be won - its's Derby day at the Curragh tomorrow, and the stakes are high for everyone, from the trainer of the favourite to the owner of the hostelry that will host the winners and their entourages, writes Miriam Mulcahy

A CROWD OF 45,000 people will descend on The Curragh this weekend for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby. A smooth, expertly-run operation awaits them, with every likely contingency given consideration. As soon as one Derby has finished, planning for the next one begins. Sunday is the biggest day in Irish flat racing, with royalty, international stars and local celebrities adding to the glamour quotient. The racing isn't half bad either, with the finest young horses in Europe in contention. The prize? €1.5 million for the big race; and entry can cost a tenth of that. "Everyone lifts their game," says Paul Hensey, general manager of the racecourse, "and everything is done to the last."

Champagne, pints, wine, afternoon tea, beef and salmon - all will be consumed in the marquees, champagne lounges, bars and restaurants. The marketing spin has been in overdrive for weeks. The traffic management has been meticulously planned, the helicopters will come and go all day. For women, there have been agonies of indecisions, what to wear, and then, the all-important, how to wear it.

The old, dilapidated stands won't be around for much longer. Redevelopment is on the cards, a shining edifice of glass that will do one of the finest racetracks in Europe justice. Whatever the future brings, the Derby will remain the race everyone wants to win. For the people whose business it is to try to win the glittering prize, their lives bound up in the turf, what is the essence of these last days of June? How do they get ready for the Derby, and how does it feel to be a winner?

In the racing world, the Derby is seen as part of a holy trinity. First there's the French Derby at Chantilly, then comes Epsom, and at the end of June comes what they call the renewal, the rematch. The first few horses in the final line-up at any of those races are regarded as worthy candidates, their progress is closely monitored and discussed. As the field lines up, the early favourite is not necessarily the favourite any more. Horses it beat have been re-peaked, conditioned, and are possibly lying in wait for this race, where, over a mile and a half, fortunes are within the grasp of those brave enough to try. History can be forged in a few minutes, by as much as a mere head of a horse.

When a place has been secured in the stands, and the horses spring from the gates, everything melts away and only this remains - the punters surrounding you roaring their chosen horse home; the riders, grimly finding gaps and pushing their animals through; and the possibility of being a witness to a truly momentous sliver of time.

There is the thrill, too, of becoming part of something greater, being overtaken by a visceral thrill that quakes through the crowd, feeling the electrifying tattoo of the thunder of thoroughbreds' hooves as they do what they have been bred and trained for, to fly, at 40 miles an hour, over the Derby course that is used but once a year. It's a few minutes that could be glorious. Today and tomorrow, there is nowhere else to be.

Dermot Weld, trainer and Derby winner

On local turf, on hallowed ground, Dermot Weld has won the Derby twice, with Zagreb in 1996 and Grey Swallow in 2004. Grey Swallow's win was a particularly sweet victory for the Welds, a legendary racing family, because Weld's mother had bred the horse, about half a mile from the track. "He was a very good horse. He had run very well in the spring of the year for me, and we were hopeful."

Zagreb, his first winner, was another special horse. "I had trained his sire Theatrical, and he came second in the Irish Derby for me, just beaten by a neck in the shadow of the post, so we had to wait for his son Zagreb to get the big day for us." Which he did, by six lengths.

Weld plans each horse's campaign, and the culmination of his strategies is to win the Derby. "It's a feeling of great satisfaction, that all your planning comes to fruition." This year his contender is Casual Conquest, who ran third in the Epsom Derby. "It's particularly exciting this year because you're going to see a very high-class field."

To be a Derby contender, the horse needs a combination of ability and mental strength - "the physical ability to perform and the mental ability to carry it out."

Casual Conquest recovered quickly from Epsom. "I was very pleased, it was a long day for him. So he had a couple of easy days, out in the field here, relaxing, then he started back on his work programme, cantering for about a mile each day, on the gallops. He's a fit horse, he'll do his first major workout tomorrow morning and then every Tuesday and Friday, short, sharp work. The week of the race, he'll work short and sharp, and in between he'll just be doing gentle cantering. No more days in the field."

Weld is hopeful of having another winner this year. "New Approach is an outstanding colt and a very worthy Epsom Derby winner. He's fully entitled to be favourite. But I think Casual Conquest will have learned a lot from his race at Epsom, he'll be a much more mature individual. I think the galloping track will suit our horse better. The Curragh is a very fair racetrack, it's among the best racetracks in Europe. There are very few hard luck stories at the Derby - famous last words."

Seamie Heffernan, jockey and Derby winner

Winning the Derby has been an ambition of Seamie Heffernan's since he was a boy of 12. The dream came true in Technicolour for him 12 months ago, when he won the Derby on Soldier of Fortune. "He had very good form going into the race. He finished fifth in the English Derby, then he improved a little bit and he handled the conditions at the Curragh very well."

When he crossed the finish line, how did it feel? "Ah sure, it felt great. I knew I had a good chance going into the race, it has been my dream since I was a kid, to be riding in those races, never mind winning them."

The jockey doesn't need to be overly concerned about his preparations for the big race, as they are already riding several times a week. "Our build-up to it is riding at all the different tracks, getting fit. You're always on the lookout, looking to see what horses in the yard might be Derby horses, hoping that we have a few, and there's not much between them. I'd be hoping, come Derby day, my horse would be the one."

Heffernan has been part of Aidan O'Brien's team at Ballydoyle for 12 years, and he's very happy there. "I am grateful to be riding for a team as strong as Coolmore. They're a good team, easy to work with. Aidan says, 'many hands make light work' and he treats everyone with a bit of respect.

Aidan is a brilliant trainer, he can peak the horses for the big day. If it didn't go right, he can re-peak them again, and he can get the edge. It doesn't always work out, but that's horse racing."

Seamie knows as well as anyone what makes a Derby runner. "It's a feeling. Some trainers can look at a horse and see the potential; I have to ride him and feel it. They have to have speed, strength and stamina, a good attitude, and they have to battle. It's a tough race and you need a horse that wants to win and wants to race and wants to respond to the jockey's urgings.

"It's a serious race to win. I'd love to win the English Derby or the Arc [Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe], any of the group ones, but the Irish Derby is special, it's the big race of the year. You would be excited, but you'd be hoping, too. It's the one you want to win."

Joe O'Donnell, racecourse veterinary surgeon

Compared to everyone else at the Derby, the vets' day is not too hectic. Horses are sometimes sent in by trainers or stewards, but Joe O'Donnell, senior vet at the Curragh, and 35 years attending horses, says, "it's such a good course, it's poor performance rather than injuries. The track at the Curragh is excellent and it's recognised worldwide as being one of the best."

There is a team of vets on duty on the day. One will always be at the start, one will be at the middle of the course, and one will be at the stable yard. O'Donnell's job on the day is to see that any horse that gets injured is tended to promptly. "Dehydration is a problem in warm weather. The horses get wobbly, they breathe very, very heavily. Anxiety can cause a horse to sweat heavily before a race, that's a mental thing for the horse. When you see them after a race, profusely sweating, we have to get them relaxed. Oxygen is required sometimes, and cold water. The horses are hosed down and provided with lots of water to drink."

In his opinion, the attitude of the horse is by far the most important thing in making a Derby winner. "Physique and breeding obviously come into play, but if they haven't got the right attitude, they usually don't perform at that level. Some horses perform best when they get to the track, they may not perform at home at all. They're lazy, laid back, quite like people. They have the same vices, the same problems, the same failings. Some nice ones and some not so nice ones. Most of the good horses you deal with have an attitude. And you'd know within seconds."

Over the years, O'Donnell has dealt with classic Derby winners, including Dermot Weld's Grey Sallow and Zagreb. He recalls Vintage Crop, immortalised at the Curragh in bronze. "He was an amazing horse, his ability was outstanding. He was not what would necessarily be classed as a Derby horse, but he achieved an awful lot from small expectations."

He explains what he reckons pure ability is: "To produce speed at the end of a distance. And speed is not gauged on the number of strides they take, it's the ability to lengthen the stride when asked. Not a lot of people know that."

Rose O'Loughlin, owner of the Keadeen Hotel, Newbridge

Going to the Keadeen Hotel is an essential part of the weekend celebrations, although the grand dame of Kildare hotels has reined in the Bacchanalian excesses of the past. In these more regulated times, the event is ticketed, and access to the hotel is restricted to guests and invitees. A marquee on the hotel grounds allows the younger crowd to party, while those at the epicentre of racing will be inside, enjoying the fare in the restaurant and escaping the madding crowd.

As a teenager, I had my first summer job there. I had the misfortune to start on Derby Saturday; it took almost 20 years for me to have anything to do with racing again. Rose O'Loughlin sailed through it all, always the epitome of cool poise. What looked like complete chaos was only the hotel stepping up its game, and the years of resilience showed.

Going through the kitchen, it was not unusual to see Rose taking her place, plates in hand, in the line of banqueting staff about to sally forth to the ballroom, or memorably, sweeping her waist-length string of pearls behind her back to mop a spillage, quicker than anyone else could, so the glass washing could continue.

Lobster and ostrich are on the menu this year. The restaurant will be full to bursting all weekend. The helicopters will buzz above like angry flies. Italians, Americans, Japanese racegoers will arrive to stay. Bentleys and Porsches will jostle for space in the carpark. Security is trebled, extra bars are conjured up in marquees on the lawn.

"The technology has changed. We used to hire in public payphones. Now, if someone loses their friend, they show you a picture on their phone," says O'Loughlin. She remembers a beautiful summer's evening when a man in the restaurant burst into song, and entertained everyone for the night.

She says she has her heart in her mouth, waiting for the crowd to come. The winners flow through in triumphant procession: owners, trainers, jockeys. "There's a happy, carnival atmosphere. They're all in good humour. There is a dress code, but they're all well presented."

Relief floods through O'Loughlin when the weekend is over. The marquees come down and the clean-up crews get to work. The crowds that have thronged the grounds disperse. The hotel exhales, the excitement is over. The Derby, like a twister, has blown through and is gone. Now all that remains is to clear away the debris and put the champagne, and the stories, on ice for another year.

Orla Murtagh, married to jockey Johnny Murtagh

Mother of five young children, Orla Murtagh is notably glamorous on race days. She has dressing for the races down to a fine art, and is prepared for the big meetings months in advance.

"I'd be all ready for Ascot, certainly. So I would have the good clothes bought. At the start of the racing season, I buy three or four outfits in complementary colours such as black, beige, cream, white. My hats would match. I'm a fan of Philip Treacy's - his hats are dateless and I have some upstairs that are six or seven years old and I can still pull them out. By day I am always in jeans; for special occasions I like classic, Audrey Hepburn style.

"When I'm racing, dressing right for the occasion - that's the big thing. I don't think you should wear a Royal Ascot hat on a Wednesday evening in Naas. In England there are more rules. At Ascot, for example, it's skirt on the knee, and your shoulders are meant to be covered. If you wear a hat, the crown has to be covered."

Orla has confident style. "There's something nice about putting the pearls on, whether with a dress from Louise Kennedy or from Zara," she says. "Louise Kennedy has gorgeous things for racing, lovely classic clothes. I just love her. Her coats, they're gorgeous for racing, you can wear trousers or a skirt with them, and they're perfect with hats. They're made for it - especially if it's a dry day and the sun isn't out.

"I love Zara, too. I have a beautiful dress I got in New York for the Guineas weekend and I put a jacket from Zara with it. To me that's style, to mix high street with designer clothes, knowing what matches. I would often buy a dress in Zara, put it away for a while and bring it out six months later. Recently, I had Louise Kennedy trousers I adored, I just happened to spot a grey silk shirt in Zara, absolutely stunning, and pulled out a Philip Treacy grey hat I had - and it all worked. That ticks all my boxes.

"I love dresses, too. I don't like anything too structured, too fitted - be it a fitted dress or a floaty dress that you could put a jacket or a coat over, given the day. If I'm at the races, I'm there from noon until maybe six and there's nothing worse than having to be poking and pulling at yourself. Personally I prefer a hat to feathers, but that's just me. And handbags, I love a handbag for going racing.

Johnny Murtagh races in Dubai for three months of the year, and Orla and the kids join him for part of it. "When I'm in Dubai, I'm on my holidays, and I have time to go shopping. I would see something I like and I would buy three or four outfits, and I'll say that's for the Guineas, that's for Ascot, I'd be organised. And I know if I have shoes and a hat to go with them or if I need to get something else.

"Friday evening of the Derby weekend is a lovely atmosphere - it's family orientated. I always bring the kids, all five of them, and I have my flat shoes on, a nice pair of white linen trousers with a nice jacket on top and my big handbag. By that time of the evening, it gets a bit nippy, so you have the pashmina, the vital accessory. And that's the kids' Derby day, and if Daddy gets a winner, they love when that happens. There's a local, community feel; it's the one night I'd say to people, come racing. The pressure isn't on to dress up, there's still good racing, it's a bit of fun and you can bring the kids."

Saturday is the Pretty Polly Stakes day. "It's a Group One day, the atmosphere is building up for the Derby. I'd be dressed up, but I wouldn't wear a hat. If the weather is nice and I'm wearing something and it needs a hat, I'll put it on, but I don't feel I have to on the Saturday.

"The Derby brings everything out and anything goes. It's lovely to see. I love to see loads of people out on Derby day. It's good for our sport, it's good for racing to get as many people as possible to enjoy the day. For flat racing, Derby Sunday is the biggest day, the biggest crowds. To win the Derby in Ireland, your year is made. We'll watch the video 150 times."

TP Burns, Derby winner and veteran racegoer

Some 70 years ago, TP Burns rode at his first Derby meeting, at the age of 14. He comes from a racing family - his father also won the Derby - he was champion jockey three times, rode close on 1,000 winners, and retired in 1975.

Ballymoss was the horse Burns won his first Derby with. "He was the best three-year-old by a big margin, he was a hell of a horse, no question about it."

Burns laughs when asked what it was like to win the Derby. "Big occasion, oh, a big occasion. I'm not going to say it was the best thing that ever happened or anything like that, but a big occasion."

To prompt his memory, Burns's son James, a horse trainer, produces a giant green tome that contains a list of all the Derby winners. Burns puts his glasses on, the great book is placed on his lap, he opens it, sighs, and the years fall away.

"The first Derby that I remember well was Sea Serpent in 1931." He then reminisces about Ballymoss in 1957, and the great Santa Clause, trained by his neighbour, Mickey Rogers in 1964. When Meadow court won in 1965, Bing Crosby, who had a share in the horse, sang When Irish eyes are smiling in the winners' enclosure.

He remembers when the racetrack was enclosed, and the gallops improved, and the sheep were held back. He talks about the time the Sweepstakes money was put into the race - £50,000 - and how it changed Irish horse racing forever. The first Irish Sweeps Derby was heavily publicised. "I never saw such a crowd on the Curragh before or since, for that day. The whole flat rath was full of them, down by the sheep pen was full, all-Ireland really did turn out for that."

He loved riding the Irish Derby. "The inside track is only used once a year. It takes a little bit of ingenuity to ride it. The Derby track is sharp until you get to the top of the hill, and then the race unfolds beautifully. The faster the going and the more spread out, the better the race it is. If you get to the top of the hill and they're all on top of one another, it's a horrible race. If there's a good pacemaker, and they follow him, it's a grand, clean race."

Burns always watches the race from the stands, as he loves being among the crowds. "The big screen," he says, "is the best thing that ever happened."

The Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby takes place at the Curragh Racecourse, Co Kildare tomorrow. The first race is off at 1.30pm and the Derby is at 3.50pm