Leopardstown: Big win could be Christmas Dream for Karl Thornton
Dublin trainer has Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown in Colms Dream’s sights
Trainer Karl Thornton and jockey Donagh Meyler. Photograph: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Colms Dream ridden by Donagh Meyler on the way to winning at Leopardstown in February. Photograph: Donall Farmer/INPHO
Christmas means nothing to horses, so while trainer Karl Thornton gets on with the daily job of exercising his 16-strong string, his father, Seán, will be mucking them out. Christmas or not, the job has to be done. But it’s a much easier job with a horse like Colms Dream to look forward to.
According to his trainer, Colms Dream is “not very big and not very pretty” although he will look very high and handsome if he manages to knock off some big-shots in the richest prize over the festive period, Tuesday’s €190,000 Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown.
He is one of about eight runners Thornton plans to have over the entire Christmas period, starting at Down Royal on St Stephen’s Day and taking in Limerick too. That’s half his stable strength. If Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott did the same, there would hardly be room for anyone else.
It’s that concentration of power among the top few trainers and owners that continues to provoke concerns about a lack of competition within racing. Thornton hasn’t time for that. The 35-year-old is like many other small family enterprises engaged in a sport where survival spells success, except Thornton is doing better than surviving.
It’s easy to portray in David and Goliath terms his aim to win the biggest race of his career next week, but it’s not completely accurate either.
Sure enough he doesn’t have a lot of horses. When he took out a full licence five years ago, Thornton had only half a dozen to play with. But within a year they had all won.
They weren’t great races. His first winner came in a selling hurdle at Southwell. It doesn’t get more lowly; but any trainer can only work with the material they’ve got and those in-the-know reckon Thornton works his small string with exceptional skill.
Colms Dream proved that with a five win hot-streak last winter. There have been more than 30 other victories though, on the flat and over jumps, both here and in Britain, all evidence of someone very familiar with the programme book.
“There’s no point a horse finishing fifth or sixth in Ireland if it can win a race in England,” is his reasoning.
Such an outlook contributes to an impressive strike-rate for someone also notable for his address. Arkle conquered the racing world from north Co Dublin, but these days Skerries is more suburban than steeplechase.
“We’re putting in a five furlong gallop and it looks like a driveway, so I’m sure people think houses are going in,” jokes Thornton, who is based two miles outside the town. The family farm was once a riding school. Now it’s thoroughbred country. And it’s staying that way.
It’s a racing set-up familiar far beyond the Pale. So is the story of Thornton’s route through point-to-points. Nor is his willingness to hit the road and race horses in England unique. It is noticeable, and refreshing, however, to see ambition allied to satisfaction with the nature of the job itself, despite all the cut-throat competition.
“There will always be top lads. You can moan that Gordon and Willie are ruining it for everyone else, or you can get on with it,” Thornton says.
“There’s still plenty of racing. If a horse has to go to England to win, then do it. Lots of lads have fallen into that thing about the big lads are there and they can’t do anything about it. The one thing I do find is when you have big owners with 10 or 12 runners in a handicap: that’s where you might ask how many should one owner have in one race.
“Obviously I’d like to improve the quality of horse we have, but we’re alright here. It’s plenty of work, long days, and there’s not much time for anything else. But that’s training horses. I was too tall to be a jockey, I’m not interested in farming and I don’t know anything else,” he says with a laugh.
Colms Dream hasn’t run since April, and Wakea in particular has stepped into the breach with a valuable win at Down Royal last month. But it is Colm’s Dream which still exerts the greatest sentimental pull.
The syndicate that owns him is headed by long-time Labour party councillor Ken Farrell, whose late brother Colm bred the horse. This time last year, he failed to make it into the final Paddy Power line-up and instead went for a consolation prize in Musselburgh in Scotland.
“He fell and did three rounds of the track loose. Another couple of loose ones went with him; they were drunk tired by the time we caught them all and he was still bouncing. I knew then he was a proper horse,” Thornton recalls.
Despite the Paddy Power being targeted in force by hugely powerful owners such as Michael O’Leary and JP McManus, Colms Dream will have no trouble making the final 28 line-up for the Paddy Power this time. His trainer hopes improvement which saw him jump 47lbs in ratings last season hasn’t stalled.
“He wouldn’t like the ground to turn very heavy. He’s had niggly problems this season, but he’s good now and the experience he got from running in a good handicap at Punchestown in April will stand to him.
“There’s nothing flashy about this horse but all he has done is improve and improve. He isn’t big, but he’s got a big heart,” Thornton says. “One of these big handicaps is in him. If it’s Tuesday, great; if not, it won’t be the end of the world.”
Either way, the job will still be there the following morning, Christmas or not.