Donn's Articles » Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger is sitting on the sofa, telling a story.

“The BBC were here yesterday,” he is saying. “After we finished filming, we were having a cup of tea, and the cameraman was telling me that he was from Roscommon.

” ‘I had my first winner in Roscommon’, I told him.

” ‘Really?’ asked Jim McGrath from the BBC. ‘And how did you celebrate?’

” ‘We bought a six-pack in the town,’ I said, ‘and we gave drink-driving a new name. When we were finished drinking, we stopped at the cop shop, and we fired the remnants in through the window of the station, then high-tailed it as fast as we could out of there!’ ”

The trainer is smiling at the recollection.

“Jim McGrath didn’t know what to say, or what question to ask next.”

It’s classic Bolger. Behind the solemn, unflinching exterior lies a dry wit that presents itself more regularly than you might expect. You see it in post-race interviews, when he plays with the interviewer, deadpan, often with the interviewer being unaware, or at best unsure. His is not the iron fist inside the glove made of powder-puff, that was never the Bolger way. Iron fist, iron glove, that’s his reputation. Straight up. You suspect, however, that there may just be a little more give in the fist now than there was in bygone days.

The stories of those days of Bolger yore are now etched irrevocably in Irish racing folklore, probably embellished with the passage of time. There are the stories from the lads about the noise of the boss’s footsteps, the most dreaded noise in racing, more dreaded than the stewards’ enquiry claxon, and about how you grabbed a shovel or a rake as soon as you heard them if you wanted to retain your employ. There are the stories about lads being caught smoking or drinking, and the sackcloth-and-ashes punishments that ensued, the ones about how the boss used to line up all the lads every Sunday morning, best bib and tucker, and march them down to mass. And there is the one about AP McCoy, how, when he fell and broke his leg and was lying there in agony, the boss went up to him and told him that he had better not put on too much weight while he was off recuperating, that he would have to remain light enough to be able to ride on the flat because he wasn’t hard enough to make it as a National Hunt jockey.

All embellished, no doubt.

Yet the list of people who have passed through the Bolger academy and made it to the very top of their profession in the racing industry is quite staggering. People like Peter Scudamore, Paul Carberry, David Wachman and Paul Nolan as well as McCoy and, of course, Aidan O’Brien. It is hardly a coincidence. The grounding that they received at Bolger’s was almost certainly a huge asset in their respective journeys up racing’s uncompromising ladder. Danny Mullins is the latest high profile recruit to Bolger’s, his 126-winner career on the pony racing circuit making him the first draft pick last year. Again, it is hardly coincidental that young Danny – no doubt under the guidance of the entire Mullins dynasty, who know a thing or two about what is required to succeed in racing – wanted to go to Bolger’s. As we are talking, the phone rings, another top pony racing rider on his way.

“Their parents mustn’t like them very much.”

Jim Bolger appears to move easily through life these days with the economy of effort that comes with experience and success. His story is well told. A Wexford man, a hurling fan who appreciates the fact that he has been around for five Wexford All-Ireland titles, he probably followed Mi­cheal O’Hehir’s commentary tones across the wireless divide from hurling to racing. He studied to be an accountant, but didn’t sit the exams. The lure of horses just proved to be too great. He started off training show jumpers, but admits that he wasn’t good enough to compete at the top level.

“Of course, that was back in the days when I ‘did’ nerves.”

He started training racehorses from his base in Clonsilla in Dublin, the Phoenix Park his training ground, before the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 ended the training of racehorses there. A couple of years later he moved to his current base in Coolcullen in the bowels of Kilkenny – the irony is not lost on the Wexford man – so wonderfully remote that he and Jackie couldn’t find their way home one evening shortly after they had taken up residence there.

“If anybody calls to the door and tells you that he was just passing,” the trainer says, “he is apt to be a liar.”

Bolger doesn’t want to change the world any more. He doesn’t need to. He has cultivated one of the most complete cradle-to-grave operations that you will find anywhere in the racing world, employing over 100 people in deepest rural Ireland. Although best-known as a trainer, Bolger is also a breeder of some renown, and his wife Jackie is one of the top owners in the country.

His faith in the stallion Last Tycoon set his operation back at least 10 years in the late 1980s. Nearly put his lights out. Last Tycoon had all the hallmarks of a top class stallion, but he didn’t turn out to be the uber-stallion that his Coolmore contemporaries Caerleon and Sadler’s Wells proved to be. Most of the Bolger eggs were in the Last Tycoon basket, so the trainer suffered.

Unbowed, Bolger showed a similar faith in Galileo seven years ago, and this time he hit the jackpot. Three of Galileo’s best four sons, New Approach, Soldier Of Fortune and Teofilo, were bred by Bolger. Two more of the stallion’s next best five offspring, Lush Lashes and Gan Amhras, are trained by Bolger. That’s half of Galileo’s best 10 foals that Bolger has either trained or bred or both.

This is a new vista of sorts for Bolger, a man who built his reputation on fillies of the calibre of Flame Of Tara, Park Express, Jet Ski Lady, Condessa and, of course, Alexander Goldrun. With the notable exception of St Jovite, Bolger had never trained a really top class colt until Teofilo came along. He has now won the last three renewals of the Dewhurst, and the heads of top class colts peep out over several doors at Glebe House.

It is almost a year now since Bolger sent out New Approach to land the Epsom Derby under a superb ride from his son-in-law Kevin Manning. The magnitude of the achievement was lost on Bolger for a while.

“I suppose it didn’t really hit home until the International Classifications came out at the end of the year, and he was rated the best three-year-old colt in the world,” he says. “There are about 100,000 foals born worldwide every year, and the number one colt was stuck on top of a hill in County Kilkenny.”

The press conference after the Derby last year centred largely on the will-he-won’t-he-run that dominated the preamble, but it didn’t detract from the win in any way for the trainer.

“I never had any problem about it,” he says thoughtfully, “because I was quite happy in my own mind that I was entitled to want to win the Irish 2000 Guineas before I won the Epsom Derby, and I found it very strange that others couldn’t accept that. Okay, so there had to be some little issue about saying that he wasn’t going for it and then ending up going for it, but I could very easily have said nothing to Sheikh Mohammed after he ran in the Irish Guineas and just waited for the Irish Derby, but he was so well on the Wednesday after the Guineas that I would not have been doing the right thing if I hadn’t suggested that he should run at Epsom. The whole press thing was a non-event as far as I was concerned.”

There is no such preamble with Gan Amhras this year. He is going to Epsom next Saturday, and he is bang on track. A staying-on third in the Guineas, he has a lot of the attributes that you look for in a Derby winner.

“I was very happy with his run at Newmarket,” says Bolger. “I thought beforehand and I still think now that he will be better over further. His dam is by Darshaan and he’s by Galileo, so there is stamina on both sides of his breeding, and he gives all the indications that he will stay. He is very well since Newmarket. To borrow a phrase from Aidan, he has gone forward every day since.”

The same Aidan trained his first Epsom Derby winner in 2001 and his second in 2002. Jim Bolger trained his first Epsom Derby winner last year, and Gan Amhras provides him with a real chance of landing his second next Saturday. The master in the student’s footprints. Stepping stones to victory.

He’ll just have to tone down the celebrations a little.

© The Sunday Times, 31st May 2009