Donn's Articles » Robbie Hennessy and Sublimity
Even if you didn’t recognise the bay head that peers out over the stable door, ears slightly forward, white star almost smack bang in the middle of his forehead, just a little to his right, there is no mistaking his identity or the depth of his achievement. The plate on the door removes all doubt: Sublimity, Champion Hurdle 2007.
Significantly, it is the only box in the yard with a plate that unmasks the incumbent. This is not Ditcheat, where a Gold Cup winner or a Champion Chase winner inhabits every second stable. This is rookie trainer Robbie Hennessy’s yard, just outside Ratoath, with its 16 boxes and its sights on the sky. Fifteen other heads look out over fifteen other doors, their presence acknowledged with a mere head-tilt and a passing comment about previous exploits and possible targets, Donegal and Kong and Motaraqeb, but they are largely anonymous heads for now, the chess-board pawns that surround the king. If there was a red carpet, it would lead straight to the box in the corner.
“He’s a gentleman as well,” says Philip Carberry as he puts a bit in Sublimity’s mouth and pulls his ears through the bridle. “He’s gone really professional. If he has lost anything in terms of youth or raw talent, he has made up for in terms of toughness and professionalism.”
Sublimity ambles out of his box and into the yard, head slightly lowered, nonchalant as a schoolboy, hands in pockets, shirt sticking out. You may or may not have patted him on the neck or tugged his ear, he doesn’t really seem to care, or even notice. Five times left-handed around the three-and-a-half-furlong all-weather gallop, five times right-handed. Nothing too strenuous today, the serious work is done, he is just ticking over until Sunday. Robbie Hennessy looks on with irrepressible pride, sporadic comments on the horse’s power, his conformation, his wellbeing, like a proud father would talk about a talented son as he watched him play football from the sideline.
“Philip wishes the Champion Hurdle was tomorrow.”
Robbie Hennessy can’t remember exactly when he began to think that he would like to train racehorses, but he knows it was a long time ago, almost as long ago as his first association with horses. That was during the summer of 1978, Robbie was eight, on summer holidays and hanging around at home in Artane. His mother thought that it would be a good idea if he would go down to the local riding centre in Malahide, learn how to ride a pony and, more importantly, get out from under her feet for the mornings at least.
That was the acorn from which the oak grew. Robbie left school as early as he could and joined the apprentice centre in Kildare, a class-mate of Johnny Murtagh. His father Bill, who had always been interested in racing, got into racehorse ownership. He had a couple of horses with Jim Dreaper and a couple with Navan trainer Oliver Finnegan, who supplied the furniture for Hennessy’s pub in Artane, with whom he won the Troytown Chase twice, with Papa’s Buskins in 1985 and Roberts Rhapsody seven years later.
Robbie’s career as a rider began to take shape. He joined Dermot Weld as an apprentice, then moved on to Michael Kauntze, but it wasn’t until he went to Australia that he managed to ride a winner.
“Michael suggested that I go over to Colin Hayes in Adelaide, who was one of the top trainers in Australia at the time, for the winter,” says Hennessy. “I must have ridden about 30 seconds in Ireland before I went. Every time Dundalk was on, the boys used to make a fortune backing me each-way. But I won on my first ride for Colin Hayes, and then I won again on my second. It was a brilliant experience.”
Robbie’s weight got the better of him when he came back from Australia so that riding on the flat was no longer an option. He joined Tony Mullins and rode over jumps for a couple of years. He rode Uncle Bart to victory three times, including in a novices’ hurdle at the 1993 Galway Festival, and he rode his father’s Kharasar in the 1995 County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
The continued pursuit of a career as a jockey became unrealistic, but Robbie still rode out twice a week for John Carr while running the family pub in Artane with his two brothers. Carr was pre-training a couple of horses then and had a few point-to-pointers, so Robbie suggested to his father that, if the trainer did the trainer’s course and got a full licence, they should send him a couple of horses.
They went to the horses-in-training sale at Newmarket in October 2004. Robbie marked off about 20 horses whose form he liked and they went into the sales ring. As Sublimity walked in to the ring, John Carr was on his way out.
“Hang on a second,” said Robbie. “This is a good horse.”
“We have no chance of getting him though,” said John.
Robbie had wanted to buy Essex at the same sale the previous year, but was put off. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again, so they waited. The bidding was slow. Carr bid 20,000gns, it crept up slowly to a bid of 32,000gns, Carr’s bid, well short of their expectations, and the gavel fell.
They had him wind-tested, but the vets weren’t happy, so they wanted to gallop him the following morning and then test his wind again. If he failed, they could give him back, if he passed they had to keep him. That evening, Robbie was out in Newmarket having a drink with Shane Donohoe.
“You’d better hope that horse fails the vet tomorrow,” said Shane. “His pelvis pops out, and he has loads of other problems.”
Shane wasn’t the only doubter. Others, while perhaps not so forthright, were equally disparaging.
Sublimity passed his wind test the following morning. Robbie was gutted. Two and a half years later, he won the Champion Hurdle.
If Robbie Hennessy was ever going to give it a go as a racehorse trainer, this was the year to do it, this year when he could have a high profile horse, a Champion Hurdle winner, who would draw media attention like a blooming rose draws bees. It wasn’t easy on John Carr. It’s not often that you win a Champion Hurdle with a horse and then lose him from the yard the following year. But there was no falling out between Carr and the Hennessys. It was just one of those things.
It is early days, but indications are that Robbie Hennessy can train. You don’t spend time with Dermot Weld and Michael Kauntze and Tony Mullins and Colin Hayes and not learn how racehorses should be trained. Sublimity got nutted by Punjabi on his debut for Hennessy in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Wetherby in December, then won the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on his second. His first winner, a Grade 1. Ask him if he was thrilled, delighted with himself, and he is circumspect.
“I was more thrilled for my father,” he says thoughtfully. “After the year that he had had. This time last year he was in getting cancer removed from his lung. Then my mother died. Then there was a shooting in the pub, a fellow was shot dead, and Sublimity had niggly little problems that we just couldn’t get sorted. It was just a bad year for us. The December Festival Hurdle was right at the end of a terrible year, so it was great to end it on that note.”
Bill Hennessy is in great form now. He rings Robbie every day, every single day, not once or twice a week as it used to be, looking for a full report on the horse. Interest rejuvenated. He has booked a box at Leopardstown today and has invited some friends along. All set.
“The pressure is on now,” says Robbie with a laugh.
It is unlikely that either horse or trainer will buckle.
Â© The Sunday Times, 25th January 2009