Donn's Articles » Ger Lyons

Ger Lyons

Ger Lyons is sitting at the counter top in his kitchen, eating a bowl of soup.

“Wade Giles,” he is saying. “They bought Wade Giles off me. That’s how the relationship began.”

It was Wade Giles’s win in a 19-runner maiden at The Curragh in June 2010 that attracted the interest of Sheikh Fahad Al Thani and his racing manager and bloodstock advisor David Redvers. When the horse won on his second start at Naas, beating the high-class Fencing Master into second place, he was racing in the colours of Sheikh Fahad’s Pearl Bloodstock, the same Sheikh Fahad whose family sponsors this afternoon’s 1000 Guineas at Newmarket under the Qipco banner.

“The first time I met Sheikh Fahad was here,” says Ger. “Right here, when he and David Redvers flew in to buy Wade Giles. His intention was always to leave him here in the yard, and I thought, fantastic. It meant that I could train the horse as a three-year-old and make a plan with him. He was a high-class horse.”

As Wade Giles started to progress, however, the offers started to come in for him. Each one was refused, the horse was staying with Lyons. Then a million euro was offered, and that was simply too much to turn down.

“I told Sheikh Fahad that he would be mad not to take it.”

Wade Giles was sold to race in Hong Kong. Re-named Destined For Glory and trained by leading Hong Kong trainer John Moore, he won a handicap there last April and went on to win the Group 2 Jockey Club Mile at Sha Tin last November.

The regret at losing a good horse was more than compensated for by the fact that Lyons’s judgement was vindicated. More than that, however, he had done the right thing, he had called it as it was. The offer was too big, he told Sheikh Fahad he had to sell. Straight up. Any other way just wouldn’t be Lyons’s way.

“My style seems to suit Sheikh Fahad,” says Lyons thoughtfully. “I am black and white and he seems to like that. He is a top class guy to deal with. I remember, when Jemima’s Pearl won her maiden at Dundalk last August, I told him that she was a borderline Stakes filly here, but that she would definitely be a Stakes filly in America. So they went to America. Another Irish trainer might have kept her, and she would probably be running in handicaps here.”

Now with Bob Baffert, Jemima’s Pearl finished third in a Grade 2 race at Oaklawn Park last month, and was good enough to take her chance in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on Friday night.

Sheikh Fahad was sufficiently impressed enough with Lyons to send him five yearlings at the end of 2010. One of the five was Jemima’s Pearl. Another was a filly by Marju whom David Redvers had bought for Sheikh Fahad at the Goffs Orby Sale the previous October. Lightening Pearl, they called her.

“It was just one of those freak occurrences of life,” says Lyons. “It was good for David Redvers to meet Sheikh Fahad when he did, and it was good for Sheikh Fahad to meet David Redvers when he did. I’ve known David for years, he is 100% trustworthy, something that is a rarity in this game. Sheikh Fahad couldn’t have a better advisor than David. And it was good for me as well that David could just ring me and ask me if Wade Giles was for sale.”

Lightening Pearl won her maiden at Roscommon, won a Group 3 race at The Curragh, then went to Newmarket last September and promptly won the Cheveley Park Stakes, notching Lyons’s first Group 1 winner as a trainer in the process.

Lyons always thought that he had the ability to train the winner of a Group 1 race, all he needed was the horse. Now he has a Group 1 horse and he has won a Group 1 race. Makes sense. It’s not arrogance, it’s not cockiness, it’s just what he believes. Now he is a Group 1-winning trainer, and that is as it should be.

“I want to be at the top in this game,” says the trainer, “and the top of our game is Group 1 races. Don’t get me wrong, it was a huge sense of achievement when we won the Cheveley Park, it was a huge team effort, but afterwards I thought, wow, we can do this. If we have a Group 1 horse, we can win a Group 1 race.”

When Lyons sent Big-And-Bold out to win the Grade 1 Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse in 2002, his first National Hunt Grade 1 winner, he opened the bar in the local pub that night. Different times, he figured his days as a National Hunt trainer were numbered as he switched his attentions to the Flat. When he won the Cheveley Park, his first Group 1 race on the flat, however, he didn’t want to celebrate as if it was his last. He had chips and pizza for dinner that evening, and was in his bed by 11 o’clock.

“For Sheikh Fahad to have horses with us here is a huge thing for the yard,” he says. “We’ve been paddling our own canoe for some time. But by paddling your own canoe, you have to keep selling your best just to stay in the division.

“When I set up this operation, though, I set it up so that it would be good enough for a Sheikh to come into the yard. Now we have two. It’s not by accident. When you get owners like Sheikh Fahad and Sheikh Mohammed, it means you can afford to buy horses with pedigrees. We can’t win a Guineas unless we have a Guineas horse.”

There is no mistaking the extent to which Lyons cherishes his independence.

“We have been independent here for so long, since we started training,” he says. “That means we can speak our mind, we can be outspoken if we like, we can call it as it is without worrying about having to tow a party line. If we think that a job is not being done to 100% by the Turf Club or Horse Racing Ireland or racecourse managers or stalls handlers, we can say so. And we say what we say because we believe it and because we are passionate about this game.”

You could never accuse Lyons of lacking passion.

“There is a lot that isn’t right with racing in Ireland,” he says. “You have the authorities running around the world telling everyone how good Irish racing is, but that is to confuse the entity with the participants in it. Our horses are top class, our trainers are top class, our jockeys are top class. But just because Aidan O’Brien is winning races all around the world, it doesn’t mean that the whole industry is right.”

This afternoon, Lyons sets out to claim another British Group 1 race at Newmarket when, ground permitting, Lightening Pearl is set to line up in the Qipco 1000 Guineas. The rain that fell in Suffolk during the week – 25mm of it on Wednesday night when they were expecting 8mm – was not ideal, but the trainer is pragmatic rather than anxious.

“The filly is in great form,” he says. “I’ll walk the track on Sunday morning with my brother Shane and David Redvers, and if the ground is too soft, we’ll take her out. There’s no point in jumping up and down about the ground, it is as it is, you can’t do anything about it, if you don’t like it, don’t run. Ground on the easy side of good will be fine, I’ve always thought that she wouldn’t mind a bit of cut, but if the ground is heavy, we’ll take her out.”

Because that will just be doing the right thing.

© The Sunday Times, 6th May 2012