The Sweeneys ready to swoop on festival again
Colman Sweeney and Salsify on their way to victory in the Foxhunter Chase at last year's Cheltenham. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty images
Foxhunters Chase: Training racehorses requires space. And sometimes that space comes in handy for the people around them too: especially when it comes to family. George Burns once said happiness is having a large, close-knit family – in another city. Colman Sweeney admits sometimes to knowing how the old grouch felt.
Sweeney says he and his father Rodger can spark off each other. No doubt Sweeney Snr believes his son isn’t exactly a basket of fruit all the time either.
In the midst of it all is Mrs Sweeney, Joan, mother of Colman, wife of Rodger, and owner of the horse that has brought them all to places they never reckoned on.
Salsify was possibly the Irish success story of Cheltenham 2012. Not a product of Willie Mullins’s all-powerful academy; not part of JP McManus’s battalions either. Instead the horse trained by Rodger, owned by his wife, and ridden by his son, landed a memorable Foxhunters victory.
Next Friday, Salsify will return to defend his title. As heart-warming family stories go, it takes some beating. But it’s much more interesting than just schmaltz.
It’s nearly 20 years since Colman stood out from his siblings by developing an interest in ponies. Rodger Sweeney was in the haulage business. His big sporting interest was greyhounds. There were always dogs about the place, talented ones too.
But Colman liked the ponies, so he was scooped up out of a front-garden game of football one day and father and son went to a point-to-point.
Rodger’s training experience may have been with dogs but when his son started riding out for a local trainer, and then spent a couple of summers working at Jim Bolger’s, he decided to invest in a racehorse, and train it himself.
Such a move, his son insists, is typical of a man not short of confidence.
“My father is a bit special. Without insulting him, there’s a touch of arrogance there that means he believes he can do anything,” Colman Sweeney says with an obvious mixture of affection and slight exasperation.
“He has no doubts, is always confident.
“Every day we give out about him, and he can be hard to get along with sometimes. The two of us have some fair battles. A lot of days, we’re not talking. But we must be doing something right.”
That much is obvious. The point-to-point fields of Munster have been known to fleece the gullible without them even feeling the shears.
But Rodger Sweeney always knew a pup when he saw one and he was hardly some naive English buyer either. Most importantly of all, he was prepared to learn.
Father and son have learned so well they are now pillars of the Munster point-to-point circuit and possess the finest hunter-chaser in these islands at their north Cork stables. It is a remarkable story that threatens to get even more remarkable next week.
The one hiccup along the way came when Colman, after maturing into one of the best amateur jockeys in the country, and already a Foxhunters winner on the Paul Nicholls-trained Sleeping Night in 2005, suffered a bad fall in 2010 that threatened to end his riding career.
He kept failing concussion tests, and his life looked to be taking another direction. His weight soared and he started doing a computer science degree.
But Rodger wasn’t going to allow his son settle on that – “You’ll have to least come back to ride one winner. You can’t let your last ride be a faller.”
So the weight was dropped, the riding began again early last year, and the fairytale really did come true.
“Most trainers, with a lot more horses than me, might go a lifetime without getting a good one, so I know how lucky I am,” Rodger has said with the perspective of one who has learned well.
“My father has been highly successful in business, highly successful with the dogs, and you’d have to say highly successful with horses as well. Sometimes I think he could train turtles!” Colman laughs.
“It’s a joint-effort between us. We have only 14 horses riding out here but we have a few for the flat, a few over jumps, some pointers, and then there’s Salsify,” he adds. “Basically we feed them hard, train them hard and if they stand up to it – great.”
From coming to the game cold, the father-son team are now respected members of a point-to-point community that continues to be the cradle of National Hunt racing. Sweeney rode Denman to his first outing in public. He’s seen other stars emerge between the flags since.
“French horses have been all the rage for the last few years but pointers have done as well as them – Denman, Finian’s Rainbow, Flemenstar, Sizing Europe, they’ve all won points. And they do tend to last longer than the French horses.
“It’s all gone very professional now. There was a time when you could get a horse 80 per cent fit, and that 20 per cent class would see him win, and then they’d get sold on. But you can’t get away with that now,” he says.
Salsify’s aim all season has been a return to the scene of his greatest triumph and his rider is confident of a bold show, especially on better ground.
Victory would make Sweeney the first to win the Foxhunters three times.
“The one aim has been Cheltenham. Even when he won at Leopardstown the last day he wasn’t fully squeezed up. And before that at Down Royal the ground was very heavy and he pulled a shoe off six out,” Sweeney says.
“But he is doing really well now and we want him spot on for Cheltenham again. He was great last year. But he’s like my father that way. You notice how good horses like Salsify have that same sort of thing in them. They just go away and do it,” he adds.
That’s the thing with families: maddening sometimes; but who else would you rather spend the great days with.