Donn's Articles » Ken Condon

Ken Condon

Success Days looks relaxed as Stephen Hunter tightens the saddle.

“Nothing fazes this fellow,” says Stephen. “He’s unbelievable, for a three-year-old colt. He’s like an old pro.”

Success Days ambles out from his box into the yard. He has done this before. He is officially grey, he looks grey, like his dam Malaica, but look closely and you can see traces of brown and other colours, a veritable kaleidoscope. Ken Condon lowers his arm and Stephen uses it as a step to spring into the saddle.

“Everything all right?”

“Couldn’t be better.”

Success Days has shaken things up around here, that’s for sure. Not that Ken Condon hasn’t trained good horses before. Norman Invader, Marvada, Group race winners, Rockingham winner Bay Knight, last year’s Queen Mary third Newsletter who is back for more this year. But this fellow could be different. The thing about Success Days is that his best days are probably still ahead of him, and that’s the exciting part.

“When we brought him to Cork for his seasonal debut in April,” says the trainer, “I was thinking, okay well let’s see how good this fellow is. They didn’t go a great gallop in that race, the ground was really soft and the lads were sensible, but our fellow picked up nicely to win well. He was always getting there, grinding away, and I thought at the line that he was a good winner, pricking his ears, plenty of energy left. I wasn’t getting carried away, but I thought that he could be all right.”

That’s Condon’s way, feet firmly on the ground. The Group 3 Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown was only eight days later, but the trainer was happy to allow the horse take his chance in the race. Owner Robert Ng was a little concerned about the short time between races, but Condon felt that the Cork race hadn’t taken much out of the horse. He wasn’t blowing at all afterwards and he hardly lost any weight. He wrote a long email to the owner with the case for, and they decided to take their chance.

“When there were only three runners, we thought, with the race under our belt, we would let him bowl along in front, make our race fitness tell. Shane (Foley, jockey) kept it simple, and he won well. That was the first day that he really impressed me. That was the day that I thought, this fellow could be good.”

Condon had always liked this horse. He remembers the first day that he arrived in his yard, expertly prepared by David Cox, who boarded the Jeremy yearling’s dam for owner Robert Ng. He thought that he was a nice yearling, that he could be a racehorse, but he never thought then that he could be a Derby horse.

After the Ballysax, the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial was the logical race for him. It was the obvious next step. Success Days had been entered in the Guineas, but he got the 10-furlong trip in the Ballysax so well, he didn’t need to come back in trip to a mile.

“He’s so relaxed, he gives himself a chance of staying any trip. You see him there yourself, he wouldn’t impress you at home, but when he gets onto the racecourse, different story.”

On the contrary, Success Days does impress you as he moves easily in front of you on The Curragh, his long easy stride taking him forward, just sauntering away easily under his rider, effortlessly eroding the gap between himself and his lead horse. It’s an easy day today. He did a piece of work last Tuesday and he will do another one next Tuesday. That should leave him perfect for next Saturday.

“We didn’t have him entered in the Derby,” says Condon. “I suppose he has taken us by surprise a little. And £75,000 is a lot of money for the owner to have to pay to put him into it now on Monday. But I have spoken to Robert about it a lot, and he has spoken to other people, and he wants to do it. He’s so proud of this horse. He bred him himself from his mare Malaica, for whom he paid just €20,000. And he figured, to have a horse like him who is good enough to have a chance in the Derby, you have to have a go.”

Actually, after the Ballysax, Condon was thinking Irish Derby. He was thinking The Curragh, not Epsom. But when his horse passed the post in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, 10 lengths clear of his closest pursuer, something went off in Condon’s head and he thought, maybe Epsom.

“I know that all his runs this year have been on soft ground,” he says thoughtfully. “And that is a concern, no question. He is so good on soft ground, it is easy to think that he might not be as good on good or fast ground. The answer is, I don’t know. We don’t know how he will be on fast ground. But they always water the ground well at Epsom, they present the ground beautifully, so that gives us a chance. And if it did happen to rain, well that would be a bonus. He still has to improve on what he has done, but we know that he could be a Group 1 horse on soft ground.”

He knows what he is talking about too. He has been around enough top class horse to know one when he sees one.

From Ballyhea in County Cork, Condon’s introduction to horses was through hunting and eventing, in which he represented Ireland at Junior level. But it was always the training end of the racing business rather than the riding that interested him most.

He cut his teeth, gained experience with the Niarchos family, with Coolmore. He wrote to some of the top trainers in the country looking for experience. John Oxx offered him a role, so he did six months at Currabeg, then went to the States to work for Lane’s End Farm. He also worked in the States with Todd Pletcher and with Neil Howard, but he returned to Oxx, where he stayed for five years.

“We had some great days at John’s,” he recalls. “I learned so much. John was brilliant. Namid was there at the time, and Ebadiyla and Edabiya and Enzeli. And, of course, Sinndar. He was a remarkable racehorse. He just kept on improving. And on the day that Sinndar won the Arc, Namid won the Prix de l’Abbaye. That was some day.”

Condon also met his wife Pauline Ryan at Oxx’s, and Pauline – won finished second in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham on Sophocles in 2007, just behind Barry Geraghty, just in front of AP McCoy – is an integral part of the team at Ridge Manor Stables.

It is further from the Derby start to the Derby finish than it is from the front gate of Ridge Manor to the front gate of John Oxx’s yard, and the Oxx influence is palpable. Everybody relaxed, humans and horses, no rush, everybody happy, everything done correctly.

Exciting times here. They won’t be getting carried away though. Feet firmly on the ground.

© The Sunday Times, 31st May 2015