Donn's Articles » Katla


Saturday’s Listed Rockingham Stakes winner Katla was the filly that nobody wanted. Indeed, if the Turf Club had complied, John Grogan would have named her Why Not Me.

Grogan is a dairy farmer who has a couple of broodmares, no different to any one of the myriad dairy farmers who have a couple of broodmares who are dotted all over Ireland like stars in the night sky and whose combined forces make the Irish bloodstock industry the unique entity that it is. He did train a winner before, Be Dignified who won the first division of a six-furlong maiden at Ballinrobe in July 2004, but you could never before have accused him of being a racehorse trainer.

He breeds to sell, his fingernails clinging to the typically unrealistic hope that one day one of his mares will throw a good one, make the mare, live the dream. So the fact that Katla wasn’t accepted at any one of the main yearling sales last year presented a minor problem. The breeder heaved a sigh of relief when she was accepted at the Goffs breeze-up sale at Dundalk in February, but that sale was cancelled. Over 100 of the two-year-olds due to be sold there were moved on to the Goresbridge sale, but Katla wasn’t accepted. She wasn’t good enough.

Grogan kicked his options around in his head, limited though they were. He couldn’t put her in training with an established trainer, he simply couldn’t afford that luxury. He rang five established trainers and asked them if they would train the filly for a half-share and no training fees, and all five declined. He couldn’t train her himself, because he only had a permit, a restricted trainer’s licence, and restricted trainers were not permitted to train two-year-olds. Or so he thought.

It was only when he investigated further, on the instigation of Joe and Jane Foley of Ballyhane Stud, that he discovered that the rule on restricted trainers had been changed. Like the little red hen, Grogan decided that he would train Katla himself.

Rewind five years, Grogan buys a Dr Fong mare named Bratislava for €8,000 from Lady O’Reilly as a prospective broodmare. Just a three-year-old, she has run four times and never finished better than 11th, but he likes the mare, and there is plenty to like about her pedigree if you dig deeply enough. When you only have eight or 10 grand to spend, you always have to dig deeply enough. He wouldn’t have had to have dug so deep if Bratislava’s half-brother Wootton Bassett had been around at the time, but then again, he wouldn’t have got her for eight grand.

When Lady O’Reilly’s racing manager James Kelly gives Grogan a small luckpenny, he puts it into an envelope, gives it to his wife Miriam and tells her to hold onto it until the first foal runs.

That first foal was Katla. She won on her third attempt at Cork in August, and she was beaten a short head by the colt Longhunter in the Listed Blenheim Stakes at The Curragh in September. When she was well beaten in the Group 3 C L Weld Park Stakes over seven furlongs back at The Curragh at the end of last month, Grogan feared that she may have reached her limit. However, he had had Saturday’s race at York in the back of his mind for her for a while. It was the only six-furlong option that he could find for her. Last Wednesday morning, Christy Ryan – assistant trainer, if you like, insofar as you can have an assistant trainer with one horse – took her out to do a piece of work, and called Grogan directly afterwards. ‘You’d better enter that filly somewhere,’ he said. ‘She’s on fire.’

When you are a small-scale operator, you make do with the basics and your role is all-encompassing. Katla is trained on a three-furlong round plough, although she does get away sometimes to work with other horses. Tommy Stack and David Marnane have been accommodating in that regard. Billy Lee rides her work when he can, and he said he would have walked to York if he had to in order to ride her on Saturday, but it is Christy Ryan who is in Grogan’s every morning at six o’clock before he leaves to be in work for eight.

There are no transport managers, no travelling head lads. Grogan and Ryan and Katla left Cashel on Friday morning at five o’clock and were home with the trophy at seven o’clock on Sunday evening. There were a few drinks on Sunday night all right, but they won’t have the real party until they get organised a little.

Next up for Katla is a Group 2 contest at Maisons-Laffitte on 1st November. Now that she has the travel bug and has earned her ticket, Why Not?

© The Racing Post, 12th October 2010