Donn's Articles » Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger

Just before Dawn Approach left his saddling box at Newmarket on 2000 Guineas day three weeks ago, Jim Bolger put his hand on his horse’s rib cage, and he could feel no rib. The trainer had done the same thing umpteen times at home, but he had never done it 20 minutes before the 2000 Guineas before.

Bolger knew that he had packed a lot of work into his horse, but he wondered if he undercooked him a little. It is difficult with a horse like Dawn Approach, he is so relaxed, he works so lazily at home, it isn’t easy to gauge his level of fitness before he runs. And before the 2000 Guineas, Dawn Approach hadn’t raced in almost seven months.

The Greenham Stakes had been an option before the Guineas, but Bolger admits that the Greenham would have been for himself, not for Dawn Approach. It would have only served to put the trainer’s mind at ease. The horse didn’t need a prep run. Then the ground got soft and the trainer got brave, and went straight to Newmarket without a run.

It was a balancing act. High-wire, as he himself says. Training racehorses is an art as much as it is a science. You have to get your horse to a level of fitness at which he is able to run for his life on his seasonal debut, but you can’t overdo him. If you ask your horse to do too much on the gallops, if you push him too hard, you push him over the top before his season has begun.

Conversely, you don’t want to be going to the races half-cocked. Not for the 2000 Guineas.

It was a leap of faith, and Bolger made it; relied on his experience, his astuteness as a horse judge, his knowledge of his horse, his unparalleled knowledge of the colt’s sire and dam – both of whom he had trained as racehorses – to know that his horse was ready. At some point you have to jump into the dark and trust that the next branch is there.

You may not know for certain that the bullet is in the chamber until you pull the trigger, but once you do, your shot is fired. So you trust that the bullet is there, you line up the shot and you take careful aim. Then fire.

“I felt that he was always going well through the race,” says the trainer now, relaxed on his couch, cup of tea close at hand. “My only concern was whether or not I had him fit enough but, when he started to pick up coming out of The Dip, I knew that I did.”

It was with as much relief as excitement that Bolger watched as his horse hit the line, five lengths clear of his closest pursuer. Relief that his horse had won it, relief that he had been fit enough on his seasonal debut, excitement in the manner in which he came clear. A microphone was thrust under his chin. He didn’t say he was blown away. He said, as you people would say, I was blown away. There’s a subtle difference. That’s Jim Bolger.

“It was lovely to win it,” he says, “and it’s a great race to win. But, not having had any ambitions to win certain races, it wasn’t a huge deal for me. But having done it, it’s lovely to have won it, and it was kind of necessary for the horse’s career. Having been champion two-year-old, he deserved at least to have been prepared properly for a Guineas.

“And then there were others with whom to be concerned as well. It was great for Kevin (Manning, son-in-law). Because Kevin doesn’t go fishing for rides, it was always likely that it would be one of mine that would provide him with his Guineas winner. I was very happy for Sheikh Mohammed as well. Sheikh Mohammed, of course, had won a 2000 Guineas before, but he has been a very good patron and I was happy to have won it for him. It was lovely to see it all work out.”

The trainer’s first association with Sheikh Mohammed dates back to the mid-1980s through the Ahonoora filly Park Appeal, who was trained by Bolger to win the Moyglare Stud Stakes at The Curragh and the Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket in 1984. Some 21 years later, Teofilo came along.

Bolger bred and trained the Galileo colt to go unbeaten through his five-race two-year-old season, winning the Irish National Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes, probably the two most important juvenile races on either side of the Irish Sea, and saw him crowned the Champion European Juvenile in 2006. Unfortunately, injury meant that Teofilo never got to race as a three-year-old, but a deal was brokered for him to stand as a stallion for Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operation, and so the association began again.

Remarkably, the following year New Approach trod the Teofilo path and won the same five races. Unlike Teofilo, however, New Approach did race as a three-year-old, winning the Derby, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Champion Stakes, while racing in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed’s wife, Princess Haya.

New Approach’s son Dawn Approach didn’t win the same five races as a juvenile, but he won two of them, the Irish National Stakes and the Dewhurst Stakes, and four others, including the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. Another unbeaten juvenile, another European champion, it wasn’t wholly surprising that Sheikh Mohammed bought a 51% share in him, and determined that he would race in Godolphin blue as a three-year-old.

As well as being trained by Jim Bolger, Teofilo, New Approach and Dawn Approach were also all bred by Jim Bolger. It is unusual to the point of being unique that one man can compete at the top level of the sport as an owner, a breeder and a trainer.

“I read Federico Tesio’s book, Puro-Sangue – Animale da Esperimento, nearly 40 years ago. As you know, Tesio was one of the most important breeders of thoroughbreds in history, and that book had an influence on me. I’m not saying that I will breed a Ribot – maybe I have – but I never thought then that I would be where I am today. I did say that I would love to breed, own and train a Derby winner, but I’d settle for breeding, training and owning 49% of one.”

The decision to aim Dawn Approach at the Epsom Derby was not that difficult a decision in the end.

“It would have been a very easy decision for Sheikh Mohammed,” says the trainer, “but it was a little more difficult for me. Dawn Approach would have been money-on favourite for the Irish 2000 Guineas at The Curragh. That’s a race I have never won, and I would have liked to have won it with him.

“But I knew that Sheikh Mohammed was angling towards the Derby, and we decided on the Tuesday after the Guineas that that was what we would do. Actually, had it not been for Sheikh Mohammed, he wouldn’t have been even entered in the Derby. I wasn’t viewing him as a mile-and-a-half horse last year. But if that was what Sheikh Mohammed wanted to do, I was happy to go along with it. And the right thing to do is to go for the Derby. He has won a Guineas now, he wouldn’t have proved anything more by winning the Irish Guineas.”

The main concern about Dawn Approach’s date with the Epsom Derby in six days’ time surrounds his stamina. He is by a Derby winner, but there is plenty of speed on his dam’s side, and he showed so much pace last year as a juvenile that he always looked much more a Guineas horse than a Derby horse. Even so, his trainer is very hopeful.

“Judging by the way he won the Guineas, there is every chance he will get the Derby trip. The fact that he is so relaxed in his races, and that he finished out the mile so well in the Guineas, gives him a big chance. I’m hoping that his class and his temperament will get him through. But he may not have any shortcomings.

“Tommy Stack tells me that he will win the Triple Crown. I’m not thinking that yet, I’m only telling you what Tommy Stack told me.”

There’s that subtle difference again.

© The Sunday Times, 26th May 2013