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John Oxx

Irish Oaks day 1960, a young boy, just days short of his 10th birthday, climbs the stand at The Curragh. It is the old stand on the far side of the winning post, the one where the ‘ordinary’ folk tend to congregate, and the balcony at the top is packed, but John Oxx is able to squeeze and squirm his way through the bodies to gain a good vantage point at the front. There are major benefits to being 10.

John’s father, also John, has two fillies in the Oaks, Azurine and Lynchris, but it is Lynchris who is the focus of the boy’s interest. Bought by his father himself, she has the potential to be top class, and she has a favourite’s chance of landing a first Irish Oaks, a first Classic, for trainer John Oxx.

It is a gloomy day, and young John peers intently up the straight into the murk, no big screen in front of him, no small screens behind him, just a pair of naked eyes and a heart that races. And then he sees her, first a grey blur then a vivid picture of grace, Lynchris and Australian Bill Williamson emerging from the mist, clear of their field. Truth be told, the youngster doesn’t see another horse, and Lynchris has an easy six lengths in hand at the line.

Some 48 years on, and the Oxx association with the Irish Oaks remains constant. Lynchris was the first of four winners of the Classic for Oxx senior and, although there was a 30-year lull without an official Oxx Oaks victory after Pampalina’s win in 1967, normal service was resumed with victory for Ebadiyla in 1997, and continued when Winona landed the Classic the following year.

“It always gave my father a lot of pleasure to win the Oaks,” says John. “He trained for many owner/breeders, as we do, so he had a lot of fillies, and the Oaks was a big race for him, just as it is for us. We have only won it twice so far, so we have a fair way to go to catch up with him, but we’ll keep going.”

Try to find someone either inside or outside the world of racing to say a bad word about John Oxx, and you will struggle. Ever the gentleman, ever helpful, tolerant even, the Oxx story is reassuring proof that sometimes the good guys do win.

Evidence of the prepotence of fillies in the Oxx psyche is readily available on the walls at Currabeg. A Ridgewood Pearl collage to your left, Timarida to the right, only Sinndar representing the colts.

“We’re a little behind ourselves with the photographs,” smiles John. “We probably need to update it a bit.”

And build bigger walls.

It wasn’t always thus. Back in 1979, when Oxx took over the trainer’s licence from his father, he would have settled for just one photograph in the middle of the wall. The first six years in particular were shaky, one promising year would be followed by a poor one and it was difficult to build momentum. But his owners remained loyal, and he rewarded one of the most loyal, Gerald Jennings, when he sent out Eurobird to win the 1987 Irish St Leger, claiming his first Classic and his first Group 1 race all at once.

“Winning your first Classic is a major milestone,” says Oxx. “That was the year my father died as well, and the fact that it was for great owners of his, Mr and Mrs Jennings, made it very special.”

The following year, Oxx trained Flamenco Wave to win the Moyglare Stud Stakes for Sheikh Mohammed, and he followed that up by winning the Irish St Leger again in 1989 with Petite Ile. That was three Group 1 wins in as many years, and he was well on his way.

There was a different racing landscape back then. It perhaps wasn’t as competitive all over Ireland as it is now, but the big races were difficult to win. Ballydoyle may not have been as strong as they are now, Vincent O’Brien may have been coming towards the end of his training career, but the Arabs were increasing their involvement in racing and the British stables were strong. To put the relative strength of the overseas raiders into context, in the 10 years between 1985 and 1994 inclusive, there were just two Irish-trained winners of both the Irish 2000 Guineas and Irish 1000 Guineas, one Irish-trained winner of the Irish Derby, not even one Irish-trained horse won the Irish Oaks. And if it hadn’t been for John Oxx and Vintage Crop, the foreigners would have dominated the Irish St Leger as well.

“These days people forget how difficult it is to win a Group 1 race,” says the trainer. “Aidan O’Brien wins so many, and can win so many in a year, they’re talking about him maybe breaking his record this year, but for anyone to win a Group 1 race in a year is a big thing. You’re lucky if you win one.”

The decision by HH The Aga Khan to have horses in Ireland in the late 1980s was a big fillip for Oxx. He’s not sure how he was chosen to train the horses. The owner/breeder’s numbers had increased and Ghislain Drion, the Aga Khan’s manager at the time, was in favour of having horses in Ireland. Oxx didn’t know the Aga Khan beforehand, he was just asked if he would be interested in taking some horses, pretty much out of the blue. As well as the prospect of an injection of quality into the yard, it was also a huge vote of confidence from one of the world’s leading owner/breeders in the abilities of an as yet relatively unestablished trainer. The first yearlings arrived in 1988.

“It was a great honour,” says Oxx now, looking back. “Sure look at all the green colours on the photographs, it’s some addition to a stable to have an owner like that, and he’s so great to deal with, it has just been fantastic. When you train for a breeder you get the whole spectrum of horses, the good the bad and the ugly, but there is always a great chance that every year or every other year there will be a real good one there, and we have been lucky enough to have had some great horses for him.”

Oxx repaid his new owner’s faith almost immediately when, in 1993 he sent out Manntari to land the Group 1 National Stakes at The Curragh. But the Oxx success wasn’t restricted to horses who raced in the green silks with red epaulettes. Just as Eurobird provided a quantum leap in 1987, Ridgewood Pearl, winner of four Group 1 races, including the Irish Guineas and the Breeders’ Cup Mile, picked John Oxx up and carried him to the next level in 1995.

“She was the first real star horse we had,” recalls the trainer. “Eurobird was a good filly, but she wasn’t in Ridgewood Pearl’s league. We had been winning a lot of good races and doing well through the early 1990s, but we didn’t just have the start horse, until Ridgewood Pearl came along.”

You can trace Oxx’s career from there by horse, by year. Ridgewood Pearl, Timarida, Key Change, Ebadiyla, Winona, Enzeli, Sinndar, Namid. Timarida landed the German Champion Stakes at Munich and the Beverley D Stakes at Arlington Park in 1996, then came home to win the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. The remarkable mare’s 10 career wins were achieved on seven different racecourses and in five different countries.

Ebadiyla won the Irish Oaks in 1997, Winona repeated the feat in 1987 and Enzeli won the Ascot Gold Cup in 1999, before Sinndar came along and won just about everything that was put in front of him in 2000.

“All Sinndar’s wins were great,” says Oxx. “You couldn’t really beat any of them. Winning the Epsom Derby was amazing. I suppose we went there fancying our chances of running well, but he was our first runner in the race, and it was just an unbelievable day. You’d just be numb afterwards, you’d find it hard to believe that it happened. It was a great occasion, it’s such a great race, there’s nothing bigger than that. And then coming home and winning at The Curragh, that was kind of even more emotional if you like because it was the home race and the one you’d always wanted to win.”

On the day that Sinndar topped off his career by landing the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October 2000, Oxx also sent out Namid to win the Prix de l’Abbaye, and Enzeli to go close in the Prix du Cadran. For a man who talks about having one Group 1 winner a year, to have two in one day, almost three, was quite remarkable.

Of course he would have loved to have had Sinndar in training as a four-year-old. He was still thriving on his racing and he was probably still improving. Alas, it was never likely to happen.

“I did say: ‘There’s still plenty of racing left in this fellow, your Highness,'” laughs the trainer. “But I knew what the answer was going to be. Once they’ve done that, two Derbies and an Arc, he reckons they have nothing more to prove, and he’s probably right too, from his point of view with the breeding operation.”

Irish Derby and King George winner Alamshar and quadruple Group 1 winner Azamour have continued to fly the Oxx flag through the new millennium, Kastoria landed the Irish St Leger in 2006, and there have been a number of near misses at the highest level since, Arch Swing and Caradak among them.

“We’re due another bloody good one!” laughs Oxx.

This afternoon, he sets out to land his third Irish Oaks with Katiyra. Third in the Epsom Oaks five weeks ago when she didn’t seem to handle the track, the trainer is happy with her progress since.

“She’s in good form,” he says. “She’s come out of the race well and has had a nice uninterrupted run. We were happy with her run at Epsom. She got dragged back by a bit of interference and she lost her hind legs on a pathway about five furlongs out, and I thought she did well to finish third under the circumstances.”

Oxx trained Katiyra’s dam, Katiykha, to land the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot, and two listed races. He has also trained a couple of her offspring already, so he knows the family well.

“Katiyra was only having her third run at Epsom, and that really isn’t experienced enough for Epsom,” he continues. “She has almost three lengths to find with Moonstone on their Epsom running, and she’s rated just 107, so she has a long way to go from that if she is to be an Irish Oaks contender. But I would hope that’s a very conservative rating for her. We’ll soon find out.”

Ever the pragmatist, ever the realist, this year’s Group 1 conquest may happen this afternoon.

© The Sunday Times, 14th July 2008