Donn's Articles » Willie McCreery

Willie McCreery

Willie McCreery was working for trainer Charles O’Brien in 1998 and training with Kildare. He worked seven days a week and trained every night. On the Sundays on which they had a match, he got the evening off.

On evenings on which the county team was not training, the five Clane lads on the county panel used to get together and train anyway. Meet for a kick around, work on their fitness, shooting practice.

“The shooting practice didn’t really work for me.”

McCreery is hard on himself. In the 1998 Leinster Final against Meath, he contributed two points to the 1-12 total from midfield.

“Every night I used to go for a run on my own anyway. Every single night. I wanted to be as fit as I could be. I was a midfielder and my whole thing was covering ground. I knew that I was never going to be able to match some of the others for football ability, but there was no lad on the pitch who was going to be fitter than me.”

Kildare, managed by Mick O’Dwyer, famously beat Meath in that Leinster Final. It was Kildare’s first Leinster Championship title in 42 years, with McCreery’s point directly after Brian Murphy’s goal a minute from time a crucial score, the consolidating score. It was probably for his overall performance throughout the match, however, more than just that score, that McCreery was voted Man Of The Match.

So how does winning a Leinster Championship compare to training the winner of a Group 1 race?

You can just about make out the shape of two horses as they make their way towards you. It is seven furlongs from the point at which you can first see them on the Old Vic gallop on The Curragh up to the top.

Fiesolana is the one on the near side, covering the ground easily, moving up to join her lead horse as the pair of them thunder past. Willie McCreery lowers his binoculars to reveal a mild smile. All happy. That’s the filly’s first piece of work since the Matron Stakes.

The Matron Stakes at Leopardstown last month, Irish Champion Stakes day. That was some day.

“It’s impossible to compare a Leinster Championship with a Group 1. I suppose as a player, you just worry about your own game, about keeping yourself right. As a racehorse trainer, it’s like you’re the manager. If there’s a problem with any of the team, it’s your responsibility.”

McCreery had never trained a Group 1 winner before. Fiesolana had won the Group 2 Dubai Challenge Stakes at Newmarket last October, and she had finished third in the Group 1 Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville in August, but a Group 1 prize had never made its way through McCreery’s door at Rathbride before the Aussie Rules filly landed last month’s Matron Stakes.

“That was as good as it gets. I have been training for five or six years, and you want to be there on the big days, but you don’t want to be there just making up the numbers. I’d be there on a Group 1 day with a runner in a handicap, and I’d be thinking, wouldn’t it be something to have a runner in the Group 1 race, to be in the parade ring before the feature race. So to have Fiesolana run in the Matron Stakes on just about the biggest day’s racing in Ireland in the last 20 years, to have her go there with a chance, third favourite, that was brilliant. And then to win it. It was unbelievable.”

He felt the emotion too. He watched the race from the stands with his wife Amanda, away from the cameras, away from the owners, away from everyone.

“When I decided to go out on my own as a trainer, Amanda said that she would keep her job with Kildangan Stud and try and pay for things for five years, until we had an idea how the new operation would go. She couldn’t have been more supportive. So to watch Fiesolana win her first Group 1 race with her, just the two of us, as I said, it was as good as it gets.”

Willie grew up with horses. A nephew of Pat Taaffe, a cousin of Tom Taaffe, Willie’s dad Peter was a National Hunt trainer and, from the time that the youngster could walk, all he wanted to do was ride.

Peter McCreery trained Daring Run to win two Irish Champion Hurdles in 1981 and 1982, and he trained Hilly Way to win back-to-back renewals of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 1978 and 1979. As a 14th birthday present, young Willie was allowed school Hilly Way over fences.

Willie’s dad passed away when he was 21, so his brother, also Peter, took over the licence, and promptly trained Son Of War to win the Irish Grand National in 1994.

“There were three of us at home, Peter, Tom and me, and I knew that there wasn’t enough there for the three of us. So I set about going out on my own.”

Willie’s dad was a good friend of Michael Osborne, who was head of the Irish National Stud at the time, and he suggested that Willie do the Irish National Stud course.

“That was a great course. We worked hard, but we had great craic and we all made great contacts and great friends there. Alastair Pimm, the Tattersalls auctioneer, was on the course with me, as were the trainers Brian Meehan and Ger Butler.”

Willie worked with horses in Australia, Japan and America, he worked with KIldangan Stud, he trained for Iona Park Stud and he was assistant trainer to Charles O’Brien for eight years. Then in 2009, he set up on his own.

“I had eight horses at the time, and we owned all of them. I remember Michael O’Donoghue, the stipendiary steward, telling us on the trainers’ course that we should try to get handicappers, because they would run often, keep your name in the paper. You could get a load of two-year-olds and they might run once or twice, but handicappers can run every week. The more runners you have, the more winners you are likely to have, and people want winners.”

Fiesolana is a winner. She has now won six of the 13 races that she has contested since McCreery got her from France.

McCreery loved Fiesolana from the first moment he saw her. She had a lovely eye, he tells you, a lovely head. Leased for last season by a syndicate headed up by Lorcan Cribben, she progressed through the year, from a 92-rated handicapper to a Group 2 winner.

Even so, the plan was always that she would be sold at the end of the season. McCreery knew that he was going to miss her, he didn’t even go to the December Sale at Newmarket to see her on her way, but he saw that she had been sold for 960,000 guineas. Then, the day after the sale, he received a phone call from Alan Cooper, racing manager to the Niarchos Family, her new owners.

“I thought it was one of my mates just messing. But once I believed that it was actually Alan Cooper, he asked me if I would train the filly this year as well. It was brilliant to get her back, and the objective was always to win a Group 1 race with her, which we have done now.”

This afternoon’s Prix de la Foret at Longchamp has always been Fiesolana’s primary objective this term. The Matron Stakes was just something to do in the meantime. With her status as a valuable broodmare now secure, a Group 1 prize already on her page, there is no pressure on Willie McCreery this afternoon, no pressure on her rider Billy Lee.

Even so, another championship win would do very nicely.

© The Sunday Times, 5th October 2014