by Emma Berry (5-minute read)
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The spotlight will be turned on the best racing that Ireland has to offer when the Longines Irish Champions Weekend takes place on September 14 and 15 at the country’s two major racecourses, The Curragh and Leopardstown.
The Curragh has recently undergone a much publicised €80 million redevelopment, but it is much more than just a racecourse. Set in Ireland’s Thoroughbred heartland of Kildare, it is home to the country’s largest training centre and more than 800 racehorses. This too has received significant investment and improvement over the last few years thanks to the support of Eva-Maria Bucher Haefner of Moyglare Stud.
The owner-breeder’s largesse in enhancing the natural facilities on offer across the ancient plain goes way beyond helping just those stables where her horses are trained. It has also provided a major boost to more than 50 trainers on the Curragh itself, as well as those who bring their horses to use the gallops from farther afield.
I suppose I’m a little bit biased but it is possibly the best training ground in the world. It’s a phenomenal facility with over 2,000 acres of beautifully maintained gallops. It is just a wonderful place to live and work.” –Tracey Collins
Tracey Collins has succeeded her father and grandfather at Conyngham Lodge, a stable with a history spanning more than 150 years. Her love of the place is almost palpable as she says simply, “I’m born and bred here on the Curragh and every morning I come out here is a privilege.
“I suppose I’m a little bit biased but it is possibly the best training ground in the world. It’s a phenomenal facility with over 2,000 acres of beautifully maintained gallops. It is just a wonderful place to live and work.”
Collins is situated in the Maddenstown area of the Curragh, while her colleague John Oxx, another with longstanding family ties to the place, is on the other side of the training grounds at Currabeg Stables on Little Curragh.
He says, “Years ago when I was a youngster, when my father was training, we didn’t have all-weather gallops, we didn’t have artificial surfaces. The horses worked on grass as much as they could. So, what they had years ago we still have but the facilities have been greatly enhanced now by artificial surfaces–all-weather surfaces–which enables the trainer to go out and do whatever he wants just about every day in the year.
“What the trainers today on the Curragh have are all sorts of options. They can work on grass, they can work on peat moss gallops, they can work on a very good woodchip gallop–the Old Vic–which is a particularly well-looked after and well-structured track. Then we have the sand and fibre tracks that are a bit slower but they can be prepared to whatever way you like. We have straight gallops and we have round gallops. There are not too many other alternatives that you’d wish to have.”
Owned by the Irish government, and with the Curragh Camp army base occupying a significant portion of the grassland just shy of 5,000 acres, the Curragh nevertheless retains a bucolic feel, despite its proximity to the M7 motorway which joins Naas and Limerick. A further peculiarity of this expanse of land is that sheep have grazing rights over much of the area, making for an extraordinary blend of four-legged creatures in action across the turf every day–some carefully bred and selected for speed, others not so.
“The Curragh was an open plain, so humans have done nothing to destroy the Curragh in the last hundred years, and horses won’t either, and that’s why we have to keep it such an amenity,” says John Oxx’s neighbour, the Gaelic football player-turned-trainer Willie McCreery.
“You come back here in the afternoon and there are lots of people walking dogs, there are families out playing. It’s a great amenity for everyone. We are just lucky we get to use it in the mornings. Horses love open spaces–and I’ve never heard of a sheep attacking a horse yet, you know.”
Pat Smullen won nine championships in the saddle but his association with the Curragh began way before his days as one of Ireland’s top jockeys. For more than 20 years he has been an almost daily fixture at Dermot Weld’s Rosewell House, the largest stable in the training area.
“I’ve always loved the mornings the most,” he says. “The buzz that I always got was trying to find a really good horse and that has never left me.”
As the rider of the Aga Khan’s 2016 G1 Epsom Derby and G1 Irish Derby winner Harzand among a host of decent horses from the Weld stable, Smullen knows more than most about doing just that. And it is one of his former equine partners, Moyglare Stud’s G1 Prince of Wales’s S. winner Free Eagle, whose name has been used to mark Bucher Haefner’s contribution to the improvements to the Curragh’s training grounds as the title of the new all-weather gallop, which runs alongside the well-used ‘Old Vic’ woodchip gallop.
These training grounds are steeped in history, and now with this new development and refurbishment of all the gallops that are here, we have a world-class facility.” –Pat Smullen
“There’s such a variety of gallops, which I think is a huge advantage of training horses here,” Smullen says. “With the Old Vic and now the Free Eagle, there’s an incline on both gallops which is not too severe but is a gradual pull for nine furlongs. It makes horses work so you can get work into them without having to overexert them, which reduces the risk of injury.”
Across the 1,500 acres specifically designated for the training grounds, the all-weather surfaces have doubtless been an invaluable addition in recent years, but the 70 miles of grass gallops and 12 miles of peat gallops are still regarded by many to be the Curragh’s crown jewels.
Smullen continues, “We have some of the best grass gallops on Walsh’s Hill, which covers almost a mile and a half. There have been plenty of good horses trained on there who have gone on to win Derbys, Arcs and Melbourne Cups. These training grounds are steeped in history, and now with this new development and refurbishment of all the gallops that are here, we have a world-class facility.”
World-class racing is what will be on show during Longines Irish Champions Weekend, and come Sunday, those in the grandstand at The Curragh won’t have to look too far beyond the racecourse to see where a significant number of champions have been made every morning for hundreds of years. Long may that continue.