When the puzzle is the answer


RACING: Brian O'Connor finds Dermot Weld taking Melbourne Cup success in his stride - it is after all his second win at Flemington

Asked for a low-point to his year and Dermot Weld struggles to come up with an answer. Then he remembers five favourites beaten over the first two days of the Galway festival in July. With little else in the running, it'll have to do.

"It was raining, the ground was unbelievably heavy and I wasn't feeling great about things. Then Colm Murray put a microphone in front of me. All I could do was quote Van Morrison. Sometimes there are just days like this."

Typically, however, Weld didn't just stand around bemoaning his luck. The following day he went instead to Goodwood where the sun shone and Agnetha won the King George V Stakes.

It says a lot for the Curragh trainer's year that that Group Three success merits little more than a footnote in a quite remarkable season. Over €4 million was won by horses from the Rosewell House stable including Group One pots at home, the US and Australia.

No wonder he struggles to find the low point. Now the high point, that's easy. "Media Puzzle and Vinnie Roe upsides turning into the straight in the Melbourne Cup," he says.

"I knew one of them would win because both are such good stayers. For a split second it looked like it might be Vinnie Roe but as they drew clear, the difference in the weights told. And it was firm ground which suited Media Puzzle. They were only point-six of a second off the track record at Flemington," Weld adds.

Such detail in the midst of such a high is second nature for the 54-year-old and it's that cold-eyed calculation that has resulted in him attaining almost demi-god status Down Under.

Unless witnessed first hand, it's hard to appreciate how big a deal the Melbourne Cup is in Australia. Put it this way, Bono might be the most famous Irish person in the rest of the world but what Ocker bloke needs a preening pop star when there's someone who has changed the sporting world to look up to instead.

It makes the comparatively under-whelming reaction at home all the harder to understand, even if the Cup did clash with Mick McCarthy's resignation.

"The race attracted huge publicity all round the world, except probably for Ireland. It coincided with Mick McCarthy, but I don't think the non-racing media realise the significance of the Melbourne Cup.

"There was a piece in The Irish Times during the hockey World Cup that showed the impact through the eyes of a non-racing person but the Irish media just didn't pick up on it," Weld says.

The second Cup of Weld's career, allied to last month's American Grade One from Dress To Thrill and the Group One victory of next year's classic hope Refuse To Bend, contributed to a colossal Irish profile in world racing overall.

The double Derby and Breeders' Cup triumph of High Chaparral and Rock Of Gibraltar's record-breaking Group One wins highlighted Aidan O'Brien and Coolmore's year.

Over the jumps, Florida Pearl again missed out on the Gold Cup but added to the King George with wins at Liverpool and Punchestown while the five Irish winners at Cheltenham was well up to average. ... It all contributes to a sport and industry that has thrived over the past few years.

"Racing in Ireland now I would say is in the best shape it has ever been in," Weld says. "There are several factors to that. The Government contribution in the development of racetracks and prize money has resulted in there being a huge incentive to keep a horse in Ireland. It is encouraging more owners to send horses here.

"But there are also world-class jockeys here and some of the best horses in the world. It's not for me to talk about the trainers, but it means everything is so competitive now."

Not that there aren't areas that can be improved upon and as a former board member on racing's ruling body, Weld knows them well. The amount of racing through the summer is an issue that the rest of racing can identify with all too well.

"I think there should be one day of the week with no racing. They have a "dark day" in the US and most other countries. Why not here?

"We also have to be careful in racing not to price ourselves out of the market. We must make it affordable for the average family to go racing so we must find ways of reducing prices into the tracks.

"Cost must be reduced, not increased. Multiple tickets or family tickets could be an idea but we still have to sell our package better to the general public," he says.

International success can only help in that process and Weld is the unrivalled king of travelling horses around the world and winning. In his own words, 2002 was a "helluva year", but the prospects for 2003 are just as good with the National Stakes winner Refuse To Bend a definite classic prospect.

"He is a serious horse and another nice prospect is Pakhoes who ran second in the Coventry Stakes this year. He definitely wasn't just a two-year-old and I hope he could be a 2,000 Guineas colt," he declares.

That view will encourage those who believe that Pakhoes's Coventry conqueror Statue Of Liberty could be a realistic Classic hope too. But the form of one run shouldn't be treated as gospel. One thing that emerged from that unhappy Galway experience was yet more proof that Weld is never more dangerous than when on the comeback.

"Something like nine of our horses that had been beaten at Galway that week won next time they started. I was told that afterwards." Definitely more like the days that Dermot Weld is used to.