Donn's Articles » Tom Taaffe

Tom Taaffe

Ten days before last Wednesday’s Galway Plate, Tom Taaffe watched as Finger Onthe Pulse did a piece of work at his Portree Stables just outside Straffan in County Kildare. He watched the horse stride out well, pick up nicely and do it all very easily. Frank Berry, racing manager to the horse’s owner JP McManus, watched with the trainer, and the pair of them left the gallops happy. Next stop Galway.

Taaffe was disappointed when AP McCoy, the owner’s retained rider, chose to ride Dancing Tornado in the Galway Plate instead of Finger Onthe Pulse, but he wasn’t despondent. McCoy is quite possibly the best National Hunt jockey ever, to have him on your side and not against you in a race increases your chance of winning it and decreases your chance of being beaten, but in Mark Walsh, Taaffe had booked a young rider who was well up to the task.

You could understand the champion jockey’s decision. Dancing Tornado, also owned by JP McManus but trained by Michael Hourigan, had been impressive in winning a hurdle race at Naas on his penultimate run, he was progressive over fences and you could easily forgive him his latest run in the Irish Grand National over a distance that was simply too far. By contrast, Finger Onthe Pulse had run 16 times over fences, he hadn’t won a race since October 2008 and, on his last three runs he had fallen twice and unseated his rider once. On top of that, on the face of it, Taaffe’s horses didn’t appear to be in great form. He hadn’t sent out a winner since he sent out Smoking Aces to win a hurdle race at Punchestown last February.

The bookmakers agreed with McCoy in framing their prices on Wednesday morning, making Dancing Tornado a 14/1 shot while putting Finger Onthe Pulse in at a dismissive 40/1. There was a better chance that Spurs would win the Premier League next season, according to bookmakers. Only one horse in the field of 22 was a bigger price than Taaffe’s representative. Then things changed. Dancing Tornado pulled out lame on the morning of the race and was scratched, and McCoy’s name was chalked up beside Finger Onthe Pulse. The bookmakers scrambled around a bit and said 20/1 and 25/1. Perhaps it wasn’t as much a case of the bookmakers agreeing with McCoy as following him.

“I felt sorry for Mark,” says Taaffe. “He is a good lad and he will have plenty of other days, we will do our best to make sure that he has plenty of other days, but AP McCoy is AP McCoy, there is only one, and we were delighted to have him on our side.”

Taaffe is not a trainer that you readily associate with the Galway Festival. He is not a trainer who typically lays one out for months for a maiden hurdle or plots one up for one of the big Galway handicaps. He is more a trainer who prepares a horse for a race that he thinks will suit, whether that race is at Punchestown or Leopardstown of Cheltenham or Galway.

As a rider, he wasn’t especially successful at Galway either, his boss Arthur Moore was always more about the old-fashioned steeplechaser, the typical Irish National Hunt horse than he was about summer jumpers, but Taaffe did win the Galway Hurdle in 1990 on Athy Spirit for Willie Fennin. Winner of the GPT Handicap three days earlier, Athy Spirit was backed down to 9/4 favourite for the Hurdle, and he duly won doing handsprings. On his way into the races on Wednesday morning, 19 years and 364 days after that Galway Hurdle victory, Taaffe bumped into Willie Fennin, and suggested that he should have a few quid each-way on Finger Onthe Pulse in the Plate.

“There are certain races that suit certain horses,” says Taaffe thoughtfully. “This fellow was a Jewson Chase winner, he has a touch of class, he has pace, he stays well and he is at his best on good ground. Also, he is a good jumper, despite his recent record. Like all of us, he was just having no luck.”

From mid-February to late July is a long time for a trainer to go without a winner. In a game in which confidence and perception are as important as ability, a long losing streak is no good. Taaffe had everything checked out, every horse, every aspect of his yard, he examined his training methodology. The horses had been a little under the weather in December and January, but they had a clean bill of health in the spring.

“It was a trying time all right,” says the trainer. “And it was mystifying. We had clinicians and everyone telling us that the horses were all right, but we knew that they just weren’t firing. It’s a bit like a human athlete who has been sick, three months later he’s well again, but he just isn’t flying. That was how our horses were. All the tests were fine, but in the same way as you know when horses are thriving, you can also see when they aren’t, and ours just weren’t.”

As well as that, the luck was going against them. Ixora was going to go close when she was carried out at the final flight in a maiden hurdle at Sligo. Finger Onthe Pulse himself was going well when he unseated his rider at the third last in a valuable handicap chase at Punchestown.

“It was mind-boggling,” says Taaffe. “Everything was going wrong. It was difficult to motivate staff and you were all the while putting on a brave face to clients. But we knew that it would turn. We eased off on some of the young horses thankfully, you can do a lot of damage when you push a young horse when he isn’t right, and the horses are starting to run well again. It’s a game of two halves and hopefully we are into the second half now.”

Taaffe’s instructions to McCoy in the parade ring on Wednesday were just to be handy, pop him out in the first three or four and try to get a good position, get some room at his fences.

“Tony gave him an outstanding ride,” says the trainer. “He just popped him off, got him jumping, dictated the pace from the front. It was remarkable that nothing wanted to take him on. To be able to dictate a race like that, to ride a waiting race in front, was huge. Not many riders would get away with it like he did. I stand to be corrected, but I think that if you look back over the last 20 years, you will never see a Galway Plate like it, where nothing came up to challenge the leader for all of the final circuit until they got to the dip.”

Taaffe watched the race from the owners’ and trainers’ stand. Once his horse jumped the second fences past the stands on the final circuit, he started panning back through the field looking for dangers. There were a couple of others travelling well in behind, but his horse was doing everything perfectly, enjoying an easy time of it in front, and he knew that he would stay.

“Coming off the last bend,” he says, “I knew that he was going to either win or finish second, and that was great, that he had run so well. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had slipped up and fallen on the run-in, just the way things had been going.”

Taaffe exhaled when Finger Onthe Pulse crossed the line. Relief, not ecstasy. Relief that he had had a winner, that he had broken such a long losing sequence, and that he had broken it in the Galway Plate, the National Hunt highlight of the summer. For a trainer who has experienced the highs of winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup, two King Georges and two Punchestown Gold Cups, it had been a long time coming.

“There was never any pressure from our owners,” he says. “All the pressure was from ourselves. JP is a fantastic owner, he and Frank Berry let you off to do the right or the wrong thing, if anyone is going to feck it up, it’s you. So it was great to be able to reward them on Wednesday. It was a good day. It’s given us a launching pad to get back to square one.”

© The Sunday Times, 1st August 2010