Oxx impressed with progress at the new-look Curragh
First meeting of the year at the redeveloped racecourse now scheduled for May 6th
John Oxx with 1,000 Guineas contender Skitter Skatter at Currabeg Stables on the edge of the Curragh. “She doesn’t need much work so barring accidents she should be easy enough to get fit for Newmarket.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Legendary trainer John Oxx has given his stamp of approval to the new Curragh racecourse redevelopment.
The decision taken by Horse Racing Ireland earlier this month to delay the start of the Curragh’s 2019 programme was the latest reverse at Irish racing’s HQ which has seen speculation of a budget overrun of up to €25 million on Irish racing’s biggest ever capital development project.
The Curragh’s traditional role as host of Ireland’s first flat turf fixture of the year had once again been handed over to Naas this Sunday before its April 13th fixture had to be switched to the same track too.
It means May 6th is scheduled to be the Curragh’s first meeting of the year with an official opening of the project – originally budgeted at €65 million – set for the Guineas festival later that month.
On Wednesday, and on the eve of his 40th season as a trainer, the hugely-respected Oxx suggested the wait will be worth it and played down any significance to a three-week delay.
“It’s far better for it to open when it is completely ready. It looks to me like there will be no problem for May and I don’t think a few weeks will matter,” he said.
Oxx was impressed by a tour of the new facility last week.
“It’s big enough but not too big,” he said. “It has an important thing in that it’s very compact. No one will have to walk very far, the parade ring is close to the stands and the unsaddling boxes are close by. It’s got a nice circular flow to it and I think people will be impressed.”
Oxx added: “I like that it’s compact. There are a lot of ordinary days as opposed to Derby day and they’re the days you want to create a little atmosphere. I think they’ve done a great job.”
The new parade ring at the Curragh caused headaches last year when Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board officials pointed out it wasn’t big enough to cope with every horse in fields of 22 runners or more. It resulted in some horses being kept in the pre-parade facility before racing.
That prompted changes to the parade ring and Oxx reassured: “I looked down at that from upstairs and it looks fine.”
On the back of Cheltenham, and with the various Grand Nationals still to come, the new flat season’s struggle for attention will begin in Naas on Sunday with the featured €100,000 Tote Lincolnshire and the Group Three Park Express Stakes.
Oxx expects to have a couple of runners on the first card of the new season. But 40 years to the month since his first winner, Orchestra at the Phoenix Park, the 68-year-old says he remains like every flat trainer at this time of year – an eternal optimist.
Significantly he looks to have cause for optimism too. The man who trained perhaps the finest champion ever to emerge from this country, Sea The Stars, has endured a Group One drought in the decade since that landmark 2009 campaign.
The Aga Khan’s decision to leave the trainer who provided him with champions such as Sinndar, Azamour and Alamshar was a major blow. The Tsui family, who owned Sea The Stars, also removed their horses from Oxx’s historic Currabeg stables on the edge of the Curragh.
“Last year I counted up, when we’d got into the season, that we had only seven horses that might possibly win a race. I think we won eight so were proved right,” he recalled on Wednesday. “But this year thank God we’re not in that boat – at this stage anyway!”
A string of up to 80 horses has been boosted by 15 from Godolphin and in particular a link-up with the Group One trainer Patrick Prendergast who in January handed in his licence and formed an alliance with his neighbour.
Among the horses he brought with him is the Moyglare Stud Stakes heroine Skitter Scatter who is as low as 12-1 for May’s 1,000 Guineas in Newmarket.
Oxx confirmed his new recruit will go straight for the classic and jockey Ronan Whelan will remain on board.
“She doesn’t need much work so barring accidents she should be easy enough to get fit for Newmarket,” he said. “She’s not too big. She’s not a hefty lass. But she has a very good temperament. She’s sweet natured and eats her head off. I suppose the concern is others have progressed past her. But she’s plenty big enough if she the ability, which we know she has,” Oxx added.
Another classic would be an emphatic response to a tough decade for the hugely popular figure.
“It’s been frustrating, very frustrating, for five or six years anyway,” he said. “But you have to be philosophical. The world never stays the same. You have to keep battling.”