Donn's Articles » Dermot Weld

Dermot Weld

When Dermot Weld worked as a vet on the back stretch at Belmont Park racetrack in New York as a teenager, he dreamed that one day he would bring a horse back to win their biggest race, the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the American Triple Crown. In 1990, he did, with Go And Go, emphatically. No European has trained the winner of any leg of the American Triple Crown before or since.

When Weld worked with Tommy Smith in Australia, he used to joke with the locals that the European horses were better than the Australians. Well, no European horse could ever win the Melbourne Cup, was the usual put-downer. Weld resolved that he would, so he did, with Vintage Crop in 1993 and he repeated the feat with Media Puzzle nine years later. No other European trainer has ever won the Melbourne Cup.

When he began training on The Curragh in 1972, Weld determined that he would win the Irish Derby. It took him a while but, after a couple of near-misses, he did that as well, with the oft-forgotten Zagreb in 1996 and again with Grey Swallow in 2004, when he beat Epsom Derby winner North Light in a thriller.

Weld sits easily in his chair and apologises for his head cold. It is three years and 51 weeks since you sat with him in this very office, in this very chair, and talked about Grey Swallow’s win the previous week. Back then the trainer struggled to put it into context, into the pecking order of achievements. Was it better than Go And Go’s Belmont Stakes? Better than Vintage Crop? Better than Vinnie Roe’s fourth Irish St Leger? He played it with a straight bat back then. He wasn’t sure. It would be hard to beat the Melbourne Cup.

Almost four years on, however, Grey Swallow’s Irish Derby has risen to become the most cherished of Weld’s achievements. Perhaps it is the realisation of how special it is that the horse was bred and part-owned by his mother, or perhaps the verdict is down to the passage of time which has pushed Grey Swallow from the immediate past to the distant past so that he can compete on an equal footing with Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle. It is always difficult to compare the immediate past with the distant past. Is Yeats a better Gold Cup winner than Sagaro? Are Kerry in 2008 better than they were in 1982? Is the German soccer team that will play Spain this evening better than the one that lost to Denmark in the Euro 1992 final? It’s impossible to know. Ask again in a couple of years.

Or perhaps it is because the Irish Derby is upon us again and Weld is once more acutely aware of how difficult it is to win the thing. In Casual Conquest, however, he has another real live chance this afternoon.

“He has come out of Epsom amazingly well,” says the trainer. “I was a bit concerned about how he would handle the track, but he handled it well, the ground was beautiful, and I thought he ran an excellent race to be third in what was a very high class Derby. I have no doubt that it was a very very good race, and I think that will be confirmed as the year progresses.”

There was much deliberation before the decision was ultimately taken to allow the Hernando colt take his chance at Epsom and pay the supplementary entry fee. He is a big horse, 16.3hh, and Weld wasn’t certain how he would handle the contours. He needn’t have worried. The horse handled Tattenham Corner like an old hand but, Weld concedes, was just beaten by two better horses on the day. He has five lengths to make up on New Approach this afternoon, four and a half on Tartan Bearer. It won’t be easy.

“I am hopeful,” says Weld. “But I’m a realist. It’s going to be difficult to make up that ground on what I think are two very high class horses. So we have it all to do, but, how are we going to do it? Well, our horse is having just the fourth run of his life, I think he will improve mentally, he will have learned from Epsom, I think he’ll be that little bit sharper, and he’s on a track that I would imagine should suit him a lot better, our home pitch, so he has a chance of making a better race of it. He came home from Epsom that evening, he lost very little weight, and he was back riding out two days later. It’s not that we have done any great trying on him since, but he appears to be a sharper horse. Horses either go back or go forward from Epsom, they are unlikely to stay the same, and we think he has come forward.”

The Irish Derby has been the race that Weld has had in mind for Casual Conquest even before he made his racecourse debut. A big backward colt, he didn’t make it to a racecourse until last September. He had been working so well at home that his trainer was certain he would win on his debut then at Leopardstown. The only thing that surprised him was that he didn’t win more easily. He just got a little bit weak in the last half a furlong, but he still battled on well.

He pulled a muscle in the very heavy ground in February, which held him up for about three weeks, but Weld took his time with him until 10 days before the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, when he did an impressive piece of work, and usurped Winchester as the Rosewell House representative in the race.

“Winchester was the horse that most people felt would be our representative in the Derrinstown,” recalls Weld. “But the way Casual Conquest worked, we just felt that he was the better horse. Simple as that. He played himself onto the team.”

Weld hoped that he would run well in the Derrinstown, the quintessential Derby trial, but he didn’t expect that the horse would quicken as well as he did off the home turn and put six lengths between himself and his rivals. After that, he had to seriously consider having a go at the Epsom Derby. It cost the owners, Moyglare Stud, £75,000 to put him in the race, but Weld has no regrets. They copped more than twice that in prize money for finishing third, and it did the horse no harm at all. On the contrary, the experience has probably done him a power of good.

Winchester takes his chance this afternoon as well, not because he is needed to make up the numbers, or because his owner, Bert Firestone, who came so close to winning the race in 1985 with Theatrical, Winchester’s sire, also trained by Weld, wants to be represented, but because he has a real chance of going close.

“Again, Winchester is a big late-developing horse, a typical son of Theatrical,” says Weld, who also trained Winchester’s dam Rum Charger, to win the Group 3 Ballycorus Stakes in 2002. “He did what I thought he’d do, he won probably the best maiden of the year when he beat Moonstone at Leopardstown. We waited with him when the ground got dry, he was growing, he’s also a big horse, 16.2hh, and then we ran him in the Silver Stakes at The Curragh with a view to going for the Irish Derby afterwards, and he was a bit disappointing, he was beaten. The ground was probably too firm for him coming down the hill and he was beaten a half a length. But he learned from that.”

The decision to go for the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot last week was probably a poor one in hindsight, admits Weld. The ground had got very firm on the day, which would have been all against him.

“He got hammered coming out of the stalls,” says the trainer, “he was knocked sideways and, whatever happened, he was never balanced during the early part of the race, Pat was never really happy with him, whether he struck into himself or whatever he did, he was never moving right after that, and Pat looked after him. He was a little stiff for a day or two after he came home, but he started back early this week, did a few canters, and I was delighted with the way that he was moving, so we said we’d let him take his chance. He’s an outsider, I fully understand that, but he’s not a remote outsider as long as there is a good dig in the ground.”

Weld has always likened his modus operandi to that of an Indian: plan the attack, attack, then leave as quickly as you can. A single shot rather than a volley, a rifle rather than a blunderbuss. He admits that he doesn’t have the strength in-depth of Ballydoyle and he doesn’t have the resources of Godolphin, so he cuts his cloth accordingly. Perhaps that is why, in this era of quality and intense competition in Irish racing, he looks further afield, why he probably knows the international programme book better than any other trainer in the world, and the type of horse that is required to win which races. Incidentally, next up on the international agenda is Caribbean Sunset’s attempt to land the American Oaks at Hollywood Park next Saturday, a race that Weld won with Dimitrova in 2003.

His sights are set closer to home today, however, just a couple of hundred yards away, actually. It is ironic that, for a man who has travelled as far as you can travel to win a horse race, the winning line at The Curragh is further from the Irish Derby start than it is from Weld’s front door.

This afternoon, both journeys could be well worthwhile.
© The Sunday Times, 29th June 2008