Donn's Articles » Michael Halford

Michael Halford

Last November, out of the blue, Michael Halford received a fax from Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operation asking him if he would be interested in training two young horses for them in 2010. The horses weren’t named at the time, but their details were on the fax, one by Dubawi, another by Shamardal, two of the top Darley stallions. Halford had responded in the affirmative almost before the fax had come to rest in his in-tray.

The trainer didn’t know it at the time, but he was part of a plan by Sheikh Mohammed to send 12 yearlings to six different trainers in Ireland this year, he was just delighted to get them, honoured to be asked to train horses for one of the most influential men in the global bloodstock industry. Things got even better when the horses arrived later that month, two gorgeous-looking horses, real racehorses. In truth, the trainer didn’t expect anything else, coming, as they did, from Sheikh Mohammed’s Kildangan Stud, just a couple of miles up the road. The Shamardal colt in particular filled his eye.

“He looked fantastic when he arrived in here,” recalls Halford. “God, he was an amazing horse. I couldn’t believe my luck when he came in off the box. He was just a beautiful horse from day one, it was very exciting to get him, and when we got him going, he seemed to have everything, attitude, temperament, great balance, straightforward, healthy, sound. We loved him. He’d be cantering away there, he never seemed to get tired, he did everything easily. But he was big, so we just bided our time with him, let him grow into himself.”

He entered him in a maiden at Leopardstown in early August, but he had already decided not to run, that the ground was just going to be a little fast for such a big horse for his first run on grass, when David Marnane rang to tell him that he had ear-marked the same race for one of the Sheikh Mohammed colts that he was training, Fred Archer. It wouldn’t have made sense to run the two horses in the same maiden. Casamento didn’t run in the race, and Fred Archer won it. Two weeks later, Casamento made his racecourse debut at Tipperary.

“I walked the track, and I was happy with it,” says Halford. “They had it well watered, and it was dead level. He was a big price but it was a good race, and our horses would generally come on for their first run. They’d always be doing their best, but I wouldn’t kill them at home. We hadn’t had a two-year-old winner this season before then.”

Casamento was drawn wide, and the first bend comes up quite quickly after the seven-furlong start at Tipperary, so the plan was for rider Gary Carroll to go forward from early and tuck in close to the rail, but once he started going forward, he couldn’t get him back, so he actually found himself in front after two furlongs. After that, he wasn’t headed.

“I was thrilled with him,” says the trainer. “I was delighted with the style in which he did it. And he came on a lot for that, the penny really dropped with him, so we decided that we would let him take his chance in the National Stakes.”

From a maiden to a Group 1 contest is a huge step up, but Halford thought that Casamento was up to it. It was a bold move, pitching a once-raced maiden winner into what is traditionally one of the hottest juvenile races on the Irish racing calendar. And this year, it looked even hotter than usual, with the first and second favourites for next year’s 2000 Guineas, Zoffany and Pathfork, set to line up against him. It is easy in hindsight, but there is no mistaking the confidence that Halford has in his horse. Ask him if he was nervous before the race, if he thought that Casamento might let him down badly, might be shown up as being well short of Group 1 standard, and he shakes his head and smiles.

“No,” he says slowly. “I’d normally be a pessimist, I know what can happen with horses, but this lad is different.”

Casamento didn’t win the National Stakes, but in going down by a head to Pathfork, a proven top class juvenile colt, he enhanced his reputation hugely.

“Aidan had a few in the race,” recalls Halford, “and we thought that one of his would lead. So I told Declan McDonogh to just go forward in the early stages, get a lead, but Declan said that even before the gates opened, he knew he was going to hit them and run, so he did the right thing in allowing him go on. It’s amazing, this horse is so relaxed at home, follows a lead horse all the time, big long rein, but it’s a different story when he gets to the races. He’s not free or anything, he just wants to get on with things. His dad Shamardal was the same, he was a front-runner.”

When Pathfork passed Casamento two furlongs out, Halford was hoping that he would hang on for second place, but the horse did better than that. He picked up again when McDonogh gave him a smack, and got back at Pathfork. Three parts of a length down with 100 yards to run, he went down by a fast-diminishing head, and the pair of them finished five lengths clear of Zoffany in third. As defeats go, they don’t get much better than this one.

It is difficult to under-estimate the impact that a horse like Casamento can have on a yard like Halford’s. Inside the gates, the horse puts a spring in everyone’s step. You can feel it, the trainer tells you, there is an air of hope, an atmosphere of confidence around, it influences the lads, feeds the horses. Outside the gates, it puts Halford’s name into the public domain, up there with the top practitioners of his profession, a man who can train a top class horse once he has the right raw material with which to begin.

Not that there has ever been any doubt about that one. The son of farrier Mick, it has always been horses for Halford. He worked for John Murphy and Dermot Weld, and he rode as an amateur for Frank Ennis and Noel Meade, but deep down he felt that he wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional rider. He took out a licence to train when he was 21, bought a piece of land at Pollardstown on The Curragh, built 10 boxes and a house and kicked on. That was in 1985.

Things were difficult in the beginning. Ten years after he started, he walked into his yard, counted 30 boxes and 10 horses and wondered aloud how marvelous it would be if all 30 stable doors had a horse’s head peering out over it. There was no watershed, no one event that caused a quantum leap, he just continued to work at it. Even when things were tough, even during the very quiet times, he was in the yard early every morning, he was at the races, at the sales, you never know from where your next break is going to come.

And it came. Horses like Miss Sally and Golden Cross and Tipperary All Star and Miss Emma were the rungs on the ladder that Halford climbed. Fifty-four winners in 2005 saw him finish fourth in the trainers’ championship, behind only Dermot Weld, Aidan O’Brien and John Oxx.

It was around that time that he began planning his move. He had 100 horses divided between two yards on The Curragh, and he figured that he needed to move to his own self-contained yard in order that he could continue to advance. He bought a farm on the Kildangan Road just outside Kildare, and designed and built the training establishment that he wanted. It was months in the planning, years in the making, but now Halford can boast one of the most impressive training establishments that you will find anywhere in Europe.

Every facility that you need to train racehorses is here, all top spec, the gallops, the boxes, the spas, the swimming pools, the turn-out paddocks, the horse-walkers. Doneany is a living, breathing organic lesson in how to turn a green field into a world-class centre for the training of racehorses.

It hasn’t been easy. Halford hasn’t remained untouched by the downturn that has affected most people in most walks of life in recent times. Where once he could count over 100 horses, now he can count over 60. But it hasn’t been all bad, there has been a streamlining of horses and of owners, and he can still boast of a yard of quality horses and a large spread of good owners. A lot of the syndicates have gone, but some he has retained, and when Sheikh Mohammed, HH The Aga Khan and Lady Clague want you to train their horses, you know that you are on the right track.

Casamento continues along that track in the Beresford Stakes at The Curragh this afternoon, and this particular track could be very fruitful indeed.

© The Sunday Times, 26th September 2010