Henry De Bromhead riding crest of a wave after annus mirabilis

Waterford trainer still pinching himself after rewriting racing’s history books

Trainer Henry De Bromheald with Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle at his yard in Waterford ahead of the Punchestown Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho/PaA

Trainer Henry De Bromheald with Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle at his yard in Waterford ahead of the Punchestown Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho/PaA

 

First of all, the name. ‘De Bromhead’ is originally Norman before pitching up in Yorkshire in 1293. Then it moved to Waterford, married a not so exotic sounding ‘Fanning’ in 1896, eventually becoming as home-baked Déise as bread called ‘Blaa’.

There’s no denying however that it’s a distinctive and even historic handle.

There was apparently a secretary to Marie Antoinette who, like the final Queen of France, ended up feeling the merciless tickle of the guillotine.

A Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead survived Rorke’s Drift in 1879 and earned a Victoria Cross. But not many people know that he also has a has a slice of film history to his credit as the character played by Michael Caine in ‘Zulu’.

When it comes to racing history though, no name of any kind can compare to Henry De Bromhead’s accomplishments over the last six weeks.

No one, not even legends such as Vincent O’Brien and Tom Dreaper, had ever before saddled the winners of Cheltenham’s three greatest prizes during a single festival.

But, within four unprecedented days last month, De Bromhead pulled it off, winning the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle, the Champion Chase with Put The Kettle On and Minella Indo completing the fairytale in the Gold Cup.

That the latter beat his stable companion A Plus Tard for a De Bromhead one-two seemed a scarcely credible cherry on top of Cheltenham’s ‘Holy Trinity.’

Yet within a few weeks there was a similar one-two, the first since 1908, in the Aintree Grand National as Minella Times beat Balko Des Flos. No one has ever enjoyed such a streak of big race dominance.

It has been labelled racing’s ‘Grand Slam’, an on-the-spot term created to try and quantify true novelty.

Yet if the 48-year-old from Tramore was simply ‘Murphy’ there’s a chance a sizeable slice of the population might not have registered him at all such is the entirely appropriate public profile of De Bromhead’s jockey, Rachael Blackmore.

Employer’s exploits

The cultural significance of Blackmore becoming the first woman to ride a Grand National winner inevitably dwarfed every other consideration at Aintree. After the Gold Cup even her error in opting for A Plus Tard rather than Minella Indo was a popular angle.

Try as she has, and she has tried, Blackmore mostly failed to deflect even some of the spotlight to her employer’s exploits in rewriting the history books too, a situation the man himself appears to relish rather than resent.

“I think it’s shocking – her taking all the limelight off me!” he joked this week while readying many of his stars for the final festival hurrah of the jumps season at Punchestown next week.

As a self-confessed racing anorak, the broader context of what Blackmore is doing isn’t lost on him.

“I think it’s brilliant for her and I think it’s brilliant for the sport,” he added.

Such perspective has struck a chord though with those impressed by the affably fluent figure who’s happy to cede the spotlight to his pioneering jockey while going about the task of reconfiguring the parameters of what constitutes success in the old game.

It’s an urbanity totally in keeping with that rare surname so that Irish racing’s latest training titan cuts a distinct figure of his own.

Such individuality was attributed too to his father, Harry, a businessman turned trainer who liked turning a profit on selling horses but was shrewd enough to hold on to one Cheltenham festival winner of his own in 1993.

“An original thinker, a bit unorthodox, maybe some would say a little wacky sometimes, but he did things differently,” his son has summed up. Behind the eminently reasonable public face there is plenty evidence in his own career of the apple not having fallen far from the tree.

The yard’s resident goat with Gaby’s Cross at Henry De Bromhead’s headquarters in Waterford in advance of the Punchestown Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The yard’s resident goat with Gaby’s Cross at Henry De Bromhead’s headquarters in Waterford in advance of the Punchestown Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

There was nothing unconventional though about De Bromhead Jnr going to school at Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick. Many racing luminaries, including the Coolmore supremo, John Magnier, have done the same.

A subsequent brief attempt at an accountancy career didn’t last long and instead spells spent learning on the job for various trainers were interspersed with experience in the breeding industry before taking the leap and taking over the licence from his father in 1999.

His first winner was on the first day of the new Millennium at Tramore. It hardly heralded a new era. Within a few years, scrambling to buy and sell cheap point to pointers had De Bromhead weighing up whether or not to pack it in.

It was English businessman Alan Potts who proved an unlikely saviour. Taking a shine to the young Irishman, he invested heavily in prospects off the point to point circuit and bluntly encouraged the “born and bred worrier” to back himself too.

Trainer’s hallmarks

The emerging talent that was Sizing Europe highlighted what were to become his trainer’s hallmarks, patience, perspective, and a notable ability to get horses jumping properly.

Two of Sizing Europe’s eight career Grade One victories were at Cheltenham, including the 2011 Champion Chase. He was crucial to the establishment of De Bromhead as a major new force in Irish racing only for a body blow to come in 2016 when Potts removed his horses.

One of them, Sizing John, a horse sourced by De Bromhead, won the Gold Cup for Jessica Harrington a year later. If he was never less than decorous about it in public, De Bromhead would be less than human not to have been privately devastated.

“That was a massive blow. Potts dragged him from becoming a point to point man into becoming a trainer. So when Potts upped and left, Henry had to handle that very well,” says Eddie O’Leary, brother of Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary. “There’s a serious steel core to him.”

Gigginstown Stud quickly filled some of the empty boxes with stars such as Petit Mouchoir. The link with the O’Leary’s also instigated a partnership with far-reaching implications for the trainer by encouraging him to use a rising star of the jockey’s room.

He does things in his own quiet way but there’s no shortage of ambition there. He wouldn’t have achieved what he has if he wasn’t ambitious

Over the years there have been jockeys who have found out how, behind the laid-back exterior, De Bromhead is no soft touch.

Blackmore however quickly gelled with the trainer and soon she was riding almost every De Bromhead runner, including those belonging to new and influential clients such as Kenny Alexander, owner of the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle.

It appeared almost seamless but the assembly of such top class talent so soon after the Potts split was no accident.

“He does things in his own quiet way but there’s no shortage of ambition there. He wouldn’t have achieved what he has if he wasn’t ambitious,” says Peter Molony who manages Alexander’s bloodstock interests.

“I’ve always found him great to deal with, straightforward, steady. He is a level sort of guy and can be good fun.

“I remember we were at an Ireland-England ruby match in Dublin. He’d just had a few winners at Cheltenham and was being treated as a little bit of a celebrity. We ended up being taken to a bar where Brian O’Driscoll, Mike Tindall and Lawrence Dallaglio were. Of course he mentioned to O’Driscoll he might like to buy a horse!” Molony adds.

Bottom line

Results rather than charm are the bottom line for any owner and the root of De Bromhead’s success has been in expertly moulding young talent often sourced from the point to point fields.

Minella Indo and Honeysuckle both won ‘between the flags’ yet regularly have their jumping technique brushed up on with regular loose-schooling.

It’s a domestic regimen that also sees horses regularly doing dressage as a form of equine Pilates to improve agility through stretching, a task often overseen by the trainer’s wife, Heather.

“She is very important there. There is an awful lot of flat work and dressage and concentrating on back issues in order to get them to jump properly. I believe Heather has a big part in all that and always has. Schooling is a massive thing in Henry’s,” says Eddie O’Leary.

“Special Tiara [2017 Champion Chase winner] was rated 116 over hurdles which is nothing and he became a champion over fences.

Many greats have gone before and never achieved what he has done in the last six weeks. It’s incredible

“It’s all about a chasing career with Henry. Don’t even ask him to spell ‘bumper’. He had one the other night, and it takes a special horse for Henry to win a bumper, but before that his previous bumper winner must have been in black and white!

“He’s a very patient trainer and always waits for the horse to come to him. He’s unbelievably good. You can’t do what he’s done this year and not be.

“Rachael is grabbing the attention but everyone knows who Henry is and what he has achieved. He’s now mentioned in the same breath as Vincent O’Brien which is awesome,” he adds.

“Many greats have gone before and never achieved what he has done in the last six weeks. It’s incredible,” says Molony before dismissing suggestions of such unparalleled success possibly changing the man of the moment.

“I went down to see the horses after Cheltenham and there was nothing but slagging. He is surrounded by good people. So his feet will be kept firmly on the ground,” he laughs.

Being possessed of such a distinguishing surname however means ribbing is hardly a novel experience.

At one point ‘De Bromhead’ morphed into ‘Broom-Head’ before ending up with the hero of the hour being labelled ‘Henry De Yard-Brush’.

“In all fairness you can now call him Henry the Hoover,” points out Eddie O’Leary. “Because he’s mopped up the whole thing.”

Closed doors

Thousands of people will be on site at Punchestown next week but the racing is strictly behind closed doors.

During the five days of the festival, beginning on Tuesday, the HSE will continue to operate both a testing centre for Covid-19 and a vaccination facility.

Testing has been in place at the track’s Events centre since August while vaccinations are being given in the trackside pavilion and the New Hunt Stand.

“Thousands will be through the site but obviously it will all be separate from the racing. The festival won’t impact on the HSE and their activities whatsoever. They will run simultaneously and won’t interfere with the other,” said Punchestown’s chief executive, Conor O’Neill.

Last year’s festival was cancelled due to the pandemic and next week’s environment will be in stark contrast to 2019.

On that occasion a total attendance of 126,880 included a modern day record crowd of 37,206 on the final ‘family day’.

O’Neill said the impact of no crowds has made for an “extremely difficult, challenging and tough year,” pointing out that 80 per cent of Punchestown’s annual turnover usually comes from the festival.

“Punchestown probably has the worst business model – we practically make all our money in five days out of an outdoor event in Ireland, ” said the track’s communications manager Shona Dreaper.

“Everything at Punchestown is based on people so we’ve had a pretty rough run. But we’re all systems go for next week. It’s a festival of a different colour.

“Whilst plenty of our venues would be traditionally filled with revellers, we now have a vaccine centre and a testing centre. So while the festival is going on, racing will be doing its bit to get everything back up and running.

“They will be running in tandem but it’s just a sign of the times to have so much HSE activity in line with one of the biggest race meetings of the year,” she added.

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