Donn's Articles » Maarek


Barry Lalor watched the Prix de l’Abbaye from the tunnel under the Longchamp stands that leads onto the racetrack. Evanna McCutcheon watched from the parade ring on the big screen.

They both fixed their respective gazes on Declan McDonogh’s white cap on Maarek. They watched as their horse and rider began to make ground after half-way, scythe through the gaps as they presented themselves and close on the leader. He couldn’t, could he? Suddenly the winning post flashed past.

Did he?

Evanna likes to watch Maarek’s races on her own, so she had manoeuvred herself into a position of solitude. Now she needed someone. She looked around. Other members of the Lisbunny Syndicate were close by, but they didn’t appear to know for sure. She looked back up at the screen, and the screen was showing Maarek. Still uncertain, she ran off down the tunnel that leads onto the racetrack.

“We found each other pretty quickly after the race, didn’t we?!”

Maarek is a team effort. Trained by Barry Lalor since July this year, ably assisted by Evanna McCutcheon. Owned by the McCutcheons’ Lisbunny Syndicate since forever.

Evanna was out on the racecourse before Maarek and Declan McDonogh came back. When she got there, the result was announced. Numero huit. She thinks she jumped up into the air. Declan McDonogh was beaming when he arrived back. Even Maarek himself looked happy. Barry tries to put a word on it. Exhilarating. Ecstatic. Unbelievable.

“It was like a dream,” says Evanna. “I don’t think is has fully sunk in yet. I was still shaking when I got back in the horsebox at midnight.”

Evanna drove the horsebox to Paris. She, Eleanor Dunne and Maarek left Fethard on Wednesday evening – Rosslare, Pembroke, Dover, Calais – and arrived in Longchamp on Thursday afternoon.

“We caught Maarek sleeping in the box on the way over,” she laughs. “He’s so relaxed. He’s such a good traveller. All we needed when we got there was a drop of rain. Maarek loves easy ground. People were giving out to us, telling us to stop doing rain dances. Then, on Friday night, it rained.”

The post-race press conference went ahead without Evanna, left in the capable hands of Barry and Declan McDonogh and Evanna’s dad Peter. Barry had said on Saturday night that, if Maarek did happen to win the Prix de l’Abbaye, he would do part of the post-race interview in French, and he duly obliged.

Evanna was back with Maarek directly after the race. The horse had to give blood and urine samples before he was even allowed to have a pick of grass, and she wanted to make sure that everything would be okay with him. By midnight, the pair of them were back on the horsebox and driving back to Callais for the 5.30am ferry. The party had to wait until they arrived back in Fethard.

It has been some journey so far all right. A 135,000-guinea yearling, Maarek hadn’t set foot on a racecourse by the time that Peter McCutcheon picked him up at the DBS horses-in-training sale for £2,500.

“He was just a big backward type when we got him first,” recalls Evanna. “He’d show you nothing at home. We didn’t know if he was going to be a sprinter or a middle distance horse or a point-to-pointer. He just wouldn’t instill any confidence in you in his homework.”

Trained then by David Nagle, the son of Pivotal was tried over a mile and a half at Dundalk on just his second ever run in November 2010. But he dropped down to sprint distances in 2011 and won three times, his season culminating in victory in the valuable Joe McGrath Handicap at The Curragh in September 2011.

“We tried to sell him then,” says Evanna. “We thought he was just going to be a handicapper, no better than that, who would win one or two when it was his turn. We took him to the Goffs horses-in-training sale, but he was bought back in at 95,000. Deep down, I was delighted that we took him back home again.”

Last season, Maarek progressed again, winning two Group 3 races and the Group 2 British Sprint Champions Sprint Stakes on Champions Day at Ascot in October. This year, after winning a listed race at Naas on his debut, his season faltered a little. But when Maarek needed a new trainer, Evanna had no doubt about where she wanted him to go.

“I had some great times at David’s,” she says thoughtfully. “He has some lovely horses there now. But when the relationship broke down, the only place I ever wanted Maarek to be trained was here.”

The Lalors and the McCutcheons go way back. Barry’s wife Emma used to look after Evanna when she was a child, and Evanna was riding out at Barry’s nearly every morning long before Maarek arrived. And yet, when Evanna asked Barry to train her horse, he had to think about it for a little while.

“We are primarily a National Hunt yard,” he says slowly. ‘Our family roots are in jumps racing. So before we decided to take on a high-profile flat horse like Maarek, we had to have a think about whether or not it was the right thing for us to do. Thankfully, we decided that it was.”

Barry himself has also been on some journey. Diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002, he made a complete recovery under Dr Donal McCarthy. Then in 2006, the dreaded thing returned again.

“We were fighting an environmental battle at the time,” he says. “We were fighting against the erection of wind turbines close by. We succeeded in getting the number of turbines reduced from 26 to 16, but it took a lot out of me. Thankfully, I have recovered again.”

He has about eight horses in training at present, he tells you. Three flat horses, three dual purpose, two point-to-pointers, a few yearlings. Don’t worry if the figures don’t add up.

Maarek looks good, relaxed and happy after his Parisian jaunt. In truth, every living being at Silverfort looks relaxed. The horses, the people, the dogs, even the chickens. It’s that kind of place.

This week, Maarek will be prepared by Barry and Evanna for Ascot on Saturday, where he will bid to defend the British Champions Sprint Stakes title that he won last year. Evanna and Eleanor will be doing their rain dance again.

It’s just the latest stage of the Maarek journey.

© The Sunday Times, 13th October 2013