Donn's Articles » Michael Hourigan

Michael Hourigan

Beef Or Salmon and Mossbank are stabled next door to each other at Michael Hourigan’s yard in Patrickswell in County Limerick, boxes one and two respectively, proven champ and young pretender. That is as it should be, just as Kauto Star and Denman occupy boxes one and two at Paul Nicholls’ yard. Perhaps it is done quite deliberately in Ditcheat, perhaps it is more by happenstance in Patrickswell, but the notion is the same – box number as a barometer of ability, address denoting position in the pecking order, equinity mirroring society.

Mossbank is known simply as Gums among the lads, and the sign outside his box tells you as much. One day as a free-spirited youngster, he galloped headlong up the field and careered into the fence, mouth first, knocking all of his teeth out. He stands tall now, taller than he looks with a jockey on his back, ears forward, eyes bright and interested, majestic almost, a big prize in him. It won’t be this afternoon’s Hennessy Gold Cup, however.

It was a tough call to take him out of today’s contest, but it was the right call. Hourigan left him in the race until the last possible moment, until final declaration stage on Friday morning, to give himself every opportunity to think things over. Mossbank is at his best when he is fresh, there are just over four weeks between the Hennessy and the Cheltenham Festival this year, and he feared that if he were to run him today, he might just take the edge off him. He phoned Mossbank’s owner, Michael O’Leary, captain of Ryanair, sponsor of Mossbank’s Cheltenham Festival target, to ask him what he thought.

“You’re the trainer,” was the response. “What do you think?”
“I think best to leave him fresh for Cheltenham,” said the trainer.
“That’s what we’ll do so.”

O’Leary is a great man for whom to train, Hourigan tells you. He leaves the training up to the trainer. It has always been like that, probably derived from the owner’s experience in business. There is no point in employing a pilot and flying the plane yourself.

The sign outside Beef Or Salmon’s box simply says “Salmon”. Michael Hourigan removes the rug from the horse’s back to reveal a lean, toned, muscular body, just one canter away from prime fitness. The horse will gradually begin to realise that there is a big contest afoot as more and more strangers arrive, unannounced, into his box to pat his neck and pull his ears. Watch him now or he’ll try to bite you. He doesn’t look like a 12-year-old, does he?

Salmon was Salmon long before he was ever Beef Or Salmon. By Cajetano out of the Salmon Leap mare Farinella, Michael remembers well the day that he saw him in the outside ring at the Goffs Land Rover Sale in 2000. He was a nice-moving horse, a good walker, athletic to look at, a presence about him, like most good horses.

“I look at horses like you’d look at women,” says Hourigan, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “I’ve always said that. A stunning woman will turn a head, won’t she? And it is in the eye of the beholder. Who decides who is stunning and who isn’t? It’s the same with horses. We all go to the sales, there are so many eyes at the sales, your eyes won’t like what mine like, and mine may not like what yours like. That’s what makes the whole thing work. It helps to have an eye for a horse, but it has to be your own eye.”

A price tag of €6,500 suggests that Hourigan’s eye was one of the few that were caught by the four-year-old gelding, Salmon from the day that he arrived in Hourigan’s yard. The trainer had had a few by Cajetano before – Blue Flu, named after the ‘illness’ that afflicted members of the Garda Síochána on one day in 1998, was one – but he was a sire about whom not many people, including Hourigan himself, knew very much. He doesn’t buy according to sire, he tells you, he can’t afford to buy the sires that he would want, so he buys individuals, good lookers, and if they have a bit of a pedigree, well that’s just a bonus.

The trainer thought that he had found an owner for Salmon four times. Kay Hourigan, the trainer’s daughter, head lass, work rider, human resources manager, marketing director and general CEO of the entire operation, says that the horse was up and down the yard so often under the watchful eyes of prospective owners, that he could have put the head collar on himself and walked up the yard without anyone to lead him. Eventually Joe Craig and Dan McLarnon bought him between them the week before he fell at the last in a point-to-point at Dungarvan in January 2001 with the race in the bag. Three weeks later, he won his maiden point-to-point at Clonmel by a distance under a young amateur called Davy Russell, and he was on the road.

It has been some road so far. Eyebrows were raised when Hourigan ran Beef Or Salmon in the Morris Oil Chase, a Grade 2 contest, a six-year-old against experienced performers on his chasing debut, but they were lowered again when he danced in. More questions were asked when, after winning the Hilly Way Chase at Cork he ran him in the Grade 1 Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown against the best seasoned staying chasers in the country, but they were answered when Beef Or Salmon swooped down the outside to nail Colonel Braxton and Harbour Pilot. After winning the Hennessy in February 2003, five years ago today, the bookmakers put him in as a 5-1 shot for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a novice, second only to Best Mate in the market. Alas, the third fence, the first in the back straight, caught him out.

Hourigan looks troubled and pensive at the recollection.

“Maybe, if you put back the clock, maybe I shouldn’t have gone to Cheltenham the first year,” he says. “He fell, so of course in hindsight I shouldn’t have gone, but he had won the Ericsson and he had won the Hennessy, so the next logical step was the Gold Cup. Have a look at the video of him coming around the bend at Leopardstown on those two occasions, a Ferrari wouldn’t have come around the bend like him. You could easily have visualised him doing the same at Cheltenham.”

The trainer re-lives the Gold Cup fall in his mind’s eye. He went with full confidence, but the third fence is a tricky one, downhill just after you turn to head down the back straight, Timmy Murphy allowed the horse shorten up, but he got in too deep to the fence and there was nowhere to go. He clipped the top and came down, the ground running away from him on the landing side, a real novicey sprawl.

“The fall was the last thing I expected,” says the trainer. “And he didn’t just take a fall, he took a mother and father of a fall. It took us a couple of years just to find out where he was hurting from it, and it really took him years to recover. It spoiled a really top class horse for a long time. But he is fine now. We don’t even need to touch him at all these days. He’s a bit like me. I used to have back problems but I’m over them now.”

Beef Or Salmon may be 12 years old, he may have run 48 times and won 10 Grade 1 chases to date, six of them over today’s course and distance, but Hourigan is convinced that he retains all of his ability. His homework now is as good as it has ever been. The horse knows the gallop at home as well as you would know the office at which you have worked for the last seven years, he knows the starting point and the finishing point, and most of the young horses find it difficult to live with him up it – beat me now if you’re able, while you’re able – until he decides that he has done enough. His trainer finds it difficult to restrain himself.

“He really is in great order,” he says quietly. “His preparation for the Lexus wasn’t just 100%. He missed a couple of little bits of work through niggly little things, nothing serious, but he just wasn’t right in the middle of December. I thought that he wouldn’t run in the Lexus at one point, until we worked him Christmas morning out there, and Kay said he was as good as ever. But he missed two bits of work that he should have done. He should have worked the previous Friday and the previous Tuesday, and he missed a pile of cantering. So he was just a little short going into the Lexus.”

The slow pace of the race wouldn’t have suited him and the ground was just a little bit faster than ideal, yet even so he finished within six lengths of Denman, Gold Cup second favourite.

“He has missed no work since,” says the trainer, twinkle in his eye. “Okay he’s 12, but there is no real new kid on the block, bar the one who is stabled next door to him. We were delighted with his run in the Lexus, and I think you’ll see a different horse on Sunday.”

Whatever happens today, Beef Or Salmon will not go to Cheltenham this year. Five times bitten, sixth time shy. Hourigan didn’t even give him an entry in the Gold Cup. He is in the Aintree Grand National, however, proudly looking down on all of his prospective rivals from his loft at the head of the weights, and he may go in that, or in the Irish National, the trainer isn’t sure. He is favouring Fairyhouse at present, but some people have said to him that he would be an ideal type for Aintree, so you wouldn’t know. In either case, he has nothing left to prove.

The biggest cheer of the 2006/07 National Hunt season was the one that could have been heard in Blackrock village when Beef Or Salmon caught The Listener on the run-in in the 2007 Hennessy. If Salmon sticks his head on front on the run-in today, they may need ear plugs in Patrickswell.
© The Sunday Times, 10th February 2008