Donn's Articles » Jim Dreaper

Jim Dreaper

Easter Monday 1960, Jim Dreaper makes his inaugural trip to Fairyhouse racecourse. Through starry nine-year-old eyes, he watches as Olympia, trained by his father Tom, wins the Irish Grand National. Tom Dreaper doesn’t believe in wild celebrations, and even if he did, Jim would be unlikely to be a part of them. Children were to be seen and not heard until they could say something intelligent.

When Jim went back to Fairyhouse the following year, his dad won the National again with Fortria, fresh from winning his second Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Same again the next year. And the next. Tom Dreaper trained the winner of every Irish Grand National from 1960 to 1966. Kerforo, Least Link, Arkle, Splash and Flyingbolt followed in the hoofprints of Olympia and Fortria. Even back in the early 1960s, it was a remarkable feat.

You can get quite blasé about these things, and by the time Flyingbolt won it in 1966, Jim had. For almost half his lifetime, for as deep into the past as his memory could reach, they had been winning the Irish National. It was what you did on Easter Monday. You got up in the morning, had your breakfast, went down the road to Fairyhouse, won the Grand National, went home. Job done.

They were different times then. You didn’t have the diaspora of conditions races that you have these days, with the result that the good horses had to run in handicaps. Arkle’s annual programme almost mapped itself out: the Carey’s Cottage Handicap Chase at Gowran Park in October, the Troytown or the Hennessy, Leopardstown or Kempton at Christmas, the Thyestes, the Leopardstown Chase in February, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Irish National, then Punchestown or the Whitbread, out to grass.

“I don’t know how he did it,” says Jim Dreaper wistfully of his father. “How he kept them sound through the season and had them run in all those handicaps. I certainly couldn’t do it. They would have such hard races in those handicaps. One of Arkle’s best ever races was in the Whitbread in 1965 carrying 12st 7lb. Everything else in the race carried 9st 7lb, and he won easy.”

Young Jim watched many of his father’s horses’ exploits from afar, insofar as he could. His formative years were spent at boarding school in Headford, just outside Kells. The headmaster was an English man, and seemed to have racing people just 1lb above second-hand car dealers on his ratings. Fortunately, Jim’s history teacher was Jack Sweetman, Racing Post correspondent Alan Sweetman’s father, and he used to smuggle The Irish Field in to Jim and to Arthur Moore, a partner in the crime that was racing. The half-crowns would be gathered and entrusted to Joe Kirwan, groundskeeper, who would bring the funds to the local betting shop in Kells every Saturday with instructions on how to invest.

“There was an old grainy black and white television in the assembly room,” recalls Jim. “It had a very elaborate red velvet cover on it, which was taken off when there was anything on television to do with the Royal Family, or the navy in the World War, and we were allowed watch those programmes. But Jack Sweetman managed to prevail upon the headmaster the importance of the Gold Cup, so we older boys were allowed to watch it.”

There was no pressure on Jim to go into training at the time. There was talk, when he was 13 or 14, about doing veterinarian studies, but events ultimately conspired against that semi-plan. He had no interest in pony club when he was younger, and he never particularly enjoyed hunting, but he still found time to ride and to ride well as an amateur. In 1971, at just 20 years of age, he rode Black Secret to finish second to Specify in the Aintree Grand National. All the while in the back of his mind he knew that he was going to train. He never really thought of an alternative, but he confides that it was still not so much a burning ambition, more a flickering flame.

Regrettably, the flame had to be kindled a little earlier than Jim had intended. His father got ill in the early 1970s, and Jim left school a year early to come home and help out. He took over the trainer’s licence in 1972, and the transition was seamless. A couple of months after taking over the licence, he sent out Good Review to win the Schweppes Gold Trophy and, significantly, he was champion jumps trainer in Ireland for each of his first five seasons with a licence. Characteristically, softly-spoken and matter-of-factly, the trainer takes none of the credit.

“It was all here for me,” he says. “The horses were here, the staff were here, men working for me, who had been working with horses for 40 years and who knew an awful lot more about the game than I did. Most people would have given their right arm for what was here for me. It was just a different name on the licence.”

1975 in particular was a red-letter year. At that year’s Cheltenham Festival, Dreaper won the Stayers’ Hurdle with Brown Lad, the Champion Chase with Lough Inagh and, famously, the Gold Cup with Ten Up. The Dreaper name was also very quickly back on the Fairyhouse roll of honour. In 1974, Jim sent Colebridge out to win the Irish National, then he sent Brown Lad out to win it in 1975 – just a month after he had won the Stayers’ Hurdle – and in 1976. It wasn’t quite seven in a row, but three in a row had to do for the time being, and it could easily have been five. Leg trouble kept Brown Lad away from Fairyhouse in 1977 but, 12 months later, a 12-year-old carrying the welter burden of 12st 2lb, he won the Irish National again. He is still the only horse to win the race three times.

Notre Pere is set to carry 11st 12lb and the Dreaper hopes tomorrow, but his participation is ground-dependent.

“We declared him on Friday,” says the trainer. “It would have been crazy not to declare him when final declarations were three days before the race. Fairyhouse seems to have missed a lot of the rain that most of the rest of the country has been getting, but I walked the track on Thursday evening and, if the ground on Monday is as it was then, he will run. They are forecasting rain, but they were forecasting rain all week and only a little came, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

For a horse who revels in soft ground, the weather forecast could be much better, but the horse himself couldn’t. After running second to Neptune Collonges in the Hennessy at Leopardstown in February, he had to skip the Cheltenham Gold Cup because of a slight setback, but he is well over that now. Third in the Irish National last year as a seven-year-old, he has to compete off a 22lb higher mark on Monday. The trainer just nods his head. Should be fine.

“He’s good, great,” he says. “I’ll say he’s very good, he’s in really good form. He won the Troytown and he won the Welsh National, but then on 15th January, he went out here and he couldn’t put one hind leg to the ground. We got the vet and got rid of the infection, and he ran in the Hennessy then because basically we wanted to find out how close to the Gold Cup horses he was, but he wasn’t actually sparking that well, probably because he had had quite an intense course of antibiotics. Then the Sunday week before Cheltenham, it swelled up again. We found a tiny piece of birch, a piece of Chepstow birch, 4mm long, tiny, as thin as the lead in a pencil, that had gone in during the Welsh National and the skin had just closed over it. It’s there still, but he’s fine, and we will have it removed as soon as he’s finished for the season. It won’t affect his performance on Monday.”

Dreaper is keen to run, but he doesn’t want to risk the horse on ground that doesn’t at least have some give in it. He doesn’t worry about the weather though. He used to, and it didn’t do any good, so he stopped. He couldn’t influence it.

“I would say that the horse actually prefers nice ground, because it’s easier,” he says thoughtfully. “But he is more effective on soft, because the others are inconvenienced more. We’ll see what Monday brings.”

The Dreaper name back in lights at Fairyhouse and the bridging of a 31-year gap, perhaps. Job done.

© The Sunday Times, 12th April 2009