Their ‘Field of Dreams’ is Thistle Farm where it is all about producing top class winners for an owner who loves racing

Pat Shanahan, Trainer, Thistle Farm.  (Photo: Eoin Hennessy)
In the world of sport, one of the three divine virtues is hope. It can weld man and animal in the pursuit of excellence, victory, achievement.

In the world of sport, one of the three divine virtues is hope. It can weld man and animal in the pursuit of excellence, victory, achievement.

Recently I visited a racing complex in Oldtown, Danesfort where the Thistle Farm racing and stud farm organised an open day, proceeds of which are donated to a worthy charity.

This year the event yielded in excess of €2,000. This racing establishment is a new development in geographical terms, having been relocated from the Stoneyford area. It operates a dual mandate - racing and breeding. More about that anon when we get to talking to the manager, Andrew Hughes.

We met one of Ireland’s great jockeys, Pat Shanahan, now private trainer in Thistle Farm to the proprietor, Jim Long, a wealthy Scot, who has a great love for racing horses. The stables is not a crow’s step from the Sevenhouses crossroad.

The expression ‘Field of Dreams’ came easily to mind, because in essence, that is what we were looking at.

Is there a Derby winner out there who raised an uninterested head as we passed?

Trainer Shanahan was busy on the gallops, supervising, advising, encouraging, exhorting. You don’t interrupt. Horses were brought back into the yard. They were washed, dried and cooled before being lodged in their boxes.

Now Pat Shanahan, the consummate professional, had time.

Pat Shanahan hails from Nenagh, Tipperary, and he is proud one of that. We discuss his career, its origins, its development and his ambitions. The conversation is prior to the replay of the All-Ireland hurling final. So you will understand the references to hurling, the players.

In Nenagh, Pat was aboard ponies from shortly after taking his first few steps.

“My dad had a few ponies, and I couldn’t avoid throwing my legs across them,” he smiled. “As I got older, the ponies became bigger and I stated racing for six or seven years. I loved the thrill of pony racing.

“I loved being around ponies and horses. Tipperary is a tremendous equine county. Some of the greatest horsemen in the world were born there.

“It was not compulsory to go to the Riding School at the Curragh in my time - it is now - so I applied for a job with the Con Collins yard in the Curragh. I ended up as stable jockey and stayed for 33 years.”

That was a big slice of your life, Pat?

“It sure was,” he insisted. “I then got an offer to join the Dermot Weld stable as second jockey to Mick Kinnane and Pat Smullen. It was a yard that was punching in a huge amount of winners here in Ireland, in England and even in far off Australia.

“It was the leading stable in the country with great regularity. I gave 20 years with Dermot Weld, 20 of the greatest years of my career.”

To what would he attribute the phenomenon that is Irish racing, and the success story that is the Irish bloodstock Industry?

“Our country has a tremendous affiliation with the horse,” Pat insisted. “In my youthful years, every farmer had a horse or two in his yard. They may only be working horses, but his entire existence depended upon the horse.

“Horses were bred for working, for pulling the carriages of the gentry, for carrying soldiers to war. Ireland grew an industry around the horse. The only tractors I can remember in my youth were the old Massey. And then we got into hunting, and as a consequence we started producing racing horses.

“That was well before my time, but we established a reputation for producing good horses that were able to race. The National Stud was established and our thoroughbred reputation spread. We even had noted owners like the Aga Khan setting up racing establishments here, and then we had the Arabian Sheiks with their millions.

“They had the money. We had the horses, and the most important ingredient of all,

great limestone produced grass, the best in the world.”

When he finished one career, another outlet for your expertise opened up. He was asked how he ended up in Oldtown?

“I had retired from race riding, and I was doing a bit of pre-training and handling of young horses for Jimmy Long,” Pat explained. “He gave me a couple of his horses to train. I had a good bit of luck with them, and he gave me a couple more the year after.

“They were successful too, so three years ago he set up Oldtown and asked me to take over the training of his horses in total. It was as simple as that.”

He has a dual mandate in Oldtown in that he have a racing operation and a breeding outfit.

“We have 34 boxes presently, and down at the other end of the yard we have another 35 boxes where our breeding mares are housed,” he explained.

How many mares would you have presently?

“Andrew Hughes is far more familiar with that side of the operation, but I think he could have 22 mares,” he explained.

The stables carry their own stallion, Carbon Unit, but there would be at least four mares sent to Coolmore and a couple to the National Stud.

“That is the side of the business where the expertise of Andrew is paramount,” Pat said. “He has worked in breeding all his life, having worked in Coolmore, Ballylynch, America, Australia, Kentucky and other places.

“What he doesn’t know about breeding thoroughbreds is not worth knowing.”

We skirted through Pat’s racing successes. He won Classics for Con Collins and Dermot Weld. He won an Irish Oaks for Mr Collins in 1984, riding the acclaimed Princess Patti.

He also piloted a Moyglare Stud Group One winner for the Collins stable, and numerous top class handicaps. Like all great sports people, the usual questions about favourite arena, favourite win, and with a horseman, a favourite horse are about right at his stage.

Pat Shanahan’s favourite venue would be either the Curragh or Leopardstown.

“There is no place like the Curragh or Leopardstown after getting off a big winner,” he smiled.

In Pat’s time there was little or no flat racing activity, and consequently, employment during the Winter.

“Quite simply most jockeys were unemployed, so we had to find alternatives,” he said with ease. “Now we have racing year round and an all-weather track in Dundalk.

“In my time most of the jockeys jumped at the chance to race overseas during the Winter. There was no Dubai either, so we all - including Mick Kinnane, Christy Roche, Gabriel Curran and earlier Wally Swinburn (snr), Johnny Roe, George McGrath, Peadar Matthews, Jimmy Eddery went out for the Winter months.”

Where were you based, and where did you race?

“Most Irish lads were based in Bombay, but we raced in places like Madras, Hyderabhad, Bangalore. Then we went on to Hong Kong.”

India is the biggest Republic in the world, a beautiful country, but with dreadful opposites. Would you concur?

“We have no conception of distance here in Ireland,” Pat replied. “When we went racing to Madras, for instance, we would go by plane and it took about three hours. The same with Bangalore or Hyderahbad. There were appalling sights around Bombay in particular.

“There were two opposites really, the extremely rich and the awful poor. It was shocking, but there was nothing we could do about it. I loved the place, the weather, and the people.”

Can we come back a bit and ask would you recommend being a jockey to your son or any young fellow?

“I would,” he said without hesitation, “but I would want to be sure that he has a love for what he is getting into. You have got to love it to succeed. It is no barrel of laughs. It is tough, very demanding and loaded with hard work.

“By the same token it is very rewarding if you become successful.”

Is it a dangerous game? Is it a rough game?

“It is no more dangerous than getting into a car and driving down a country road. Jumping would be more dangerous than racing on the flat. Like all other sports it is sometimes rough.

“Like going for a ball in hurling, if another lad is going for the same ball, you have two options; go in hard, or pull back. It is something similar in a race. If a gap appears and you want it, you might have to contend with another lad going for the same gap.

“It might get rough, but the bravest invariably comes out on top.”

I suppose with modern technology any misdemeanour is picked up and acted upon by the stewards?

“Exactly. There are cameras all over the place. Nothing is missed. It’s like hurling now with the cameras. And sure Hawk Eye cost us an All- Ireland,” he laughed.

Going back in time to his association with Dermot Weld, surely that would have been a “des res” in terms of racing status?

“It most certainly was,” Pat said without hesitation. “I was second jockey to Mick Kinnane. I won plenty of great races for Mr Weld, including an Irish Derby in 1996 with Zagreb. That was a thrilling occasion; the biggest win of my career.

“Lucky for me, Mick Kinnane spent the Winters in Hong Kong, so I got plenty of rides. I would kick in 15 or 20 winners when Mick was away. I brought home a number of Group races for the Weld stable too.

“Dermot Weld was a super trainer. I learned an awful lot from observing the way he did things. He was a genuinely decent man, who would listen to what you had to say. He was a tremendous man to work for and with.

“You could talk to him freely, and he would take your opinion on board. He treated his staff with tremendous respect, and it was certainly reciprocated. I never heard anyone say a wrong word about Mr Weld.”

An opinion on owners?

“There are all sorts of owners,” he said. “They have invested their money, so they are entitled to get value for their investment. Generally they are decent people, but sometimes that changes if you don’t win.”

Would you know if you gave a horse a bad ride? Absolutely.

Would you admit it? Certainly.

“I would have no hesitation in saying to a trainer or owner that I f****d up,” he admitted. “You cannot bluff your way out of a situation that was of your doing. Never try bluffing the lad that looks back at you when you are shaving. That was my motto.”

Three years ago he arrived at Thistle Farm.

“All of this was here,” he said with satisfaction as he looked around. “Andrew Hughes was running the place, but he was more involved in the breeding end. Jimmy Long needed a trainer. Hence my arrival.”

Jumping doesn’t interest them.

“If we feel a horse might be better suited to steeplechasing, we would prepare him for that,” he explained. “We presently have a horse, King of the Pics who won the Grade 3 in Tipperary last year and he was placed in a couple of Grade 1 and Grade 2 races.

“We also have Chicago, who won his Maiden Hurdle in Limerick on St Stephens Day and was placed in a Grade 1 in Punchestown. Both are decent horses, who will shortly be heading out in their jumping campaigns.”

The best horse he rode?

“Undoubtedly Princess Patti,” he shot back. “She won over six furlongs, seven furlongs, broke the mile and a quarter record and the mile a half record in the one season. She was a beauty.”

That from a man who won first time out on Vintage Crop (Melbourne Cup winner plus three St Legers) and Vinny Roe (winner of four St Legers) and Media Puzzle (another Melbourne Cup winner).

He raced on Refuse to Bend, Nightime and Grey Swallow.

“Not one second,” he said when asked would he change a thing about his life.

The manager of the Thistle Bloodstock Limited Irish operation is a proud Kilkenny man, Andrew Hughes. Note the name. Get the drift.

From the Ennisnag area, Andy Hughes - I hope he excuses my familiarity - is a much travelled young family man, who has toured the world in his search for knowledge and experience. He met Jimmy Long some 18 years ago at a sale in England. He was working at Ballylynch Stud at the time. He continued to work at Ballylynch for 18 years.

“Jimmy had one horse at the time, and I encouraged him to board his horse at Ballylynch,” he explained when he took up the story. “It was a bold move by me, but it certainly worked. Jimmy started to increase his numbers, and I have been looking after his equine interests for the past 13 years.

“He now has around 100 horses between brood mares, yearlings, foals and horses in training. Six years ago his interests outgrew Ballylynch, and we decided to go it alone. We bought Oldtown. The rest is history.

“He enjoys the exclusivity that Oldtown provides and we manage the whole place for him. There are around 120 acres, with a 10 furlong track, plus a straight mile gallop. Jimmy is not particularly interested in selling horses.

“His greatest ambitions centre on breeding his own stock with a view to winning Group 1 races. In reality, he wants to have bloodstock that can compete in the big ring with the Coolmores, the Welds and Bolgers of the racing game.

“While I specifically indulge the breeding side of the operation, we got Pat Shanahan on board to handle the actual racing element.”

Why is horse racing and breeding such a marquee industry for the country?

“Because we have tremendous land for getting the job done, and we have great people to do the job,” he insisted. “Limestone is key in the formation of great bone structure, and Irish people are so synonymous with the horse.

“The industry is a valuable employer, and as a consequence is part of our thriving economy. For instance, we have 13 people employed in Thistle Farm.”

What does Jimmy Long want from this adventure?

“Jimmy Long is a wealthy man, having made fortunes from oil and gas in the Middle East,” we were told. “Whilst this operation is an expensive business, Jimmy thinks of it as a hobby which he is exploiting with the expressed purpose of breeding a number of Group 1 and Classic winners.

“He makes no waves about that ambition. He has employed all of us to help him realise that ambition,” he added.