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Kevin Prendergast

Kevin Prendergast is sitting in his armchair, talking about his dad.

“He was champion trainer in Britain three times in a row,” he says.  “1963, 1964 and 1965.  That was some achievement, and you rarely hear it mentioned.  And back then, it wasn’t like it is now, when they fly horses over.  Back then, you had to drive them to the North Wall, then send them all over England.”

Darkie Prendergast was a pioneer, a legend in his own time.  He won the Epsom Oaks in 1963 with Noblesse, the same year that he won the King George and the St Leger with Ragusa, who also won the Irish Derby that year.  In 1964, Ragusa won the Eclipse and Pourparler won the 1000 Guineas.  In 1965, Meadow Court finished second in the Derby, then went back and won the King George, having won the Irish Derby in the interim.  There are your three British trainers’ championships right there, rat-tat-tat. 

“You can fly a horse to Melbourne now in 22 hours.  Back then it took the old man that long to get to the north of England.” 

The Melbourne reference is not an accident, the Australian connection is strong.  Prendergast was born there, two of his seven daughters are now married and living there, and he spent some of his formative years there, working with trainer Frank Dalton in Randwick. 

Returning to Ireland, the amateur rider spent nine years as assistant to his dad before going out on his own in 1963. 

From humble beginnings, Prendergast gradually grew his own team, both in terms of numbers and in terms of quality.  He won the Irish 1000 Guineas and the Irish St Leger in 1972 with Pidget, and he won the Irish St Leger again the following year with Conor Pass.  He won the Gimcrack Stakes in 1976 with Nebbiolo, whom he sent back to Britain the following year to win the 2000 Guineas, beating The Minstrel into third place. 

He also won the Irish 2000 Guineas in 1976 with Northern Treasure.  Forty years later, he won it again with Awtaad.

Awtaad looks good, his deep body gleaming in the Friarstown sun, his blue and white (Sheikh Hamdan colours) headband contrasting with his dark coat.

“He’s very well,” says his trainer.  “We’re all set for Royal Ascot on Tuesday.”

Prendergast has had Royal Ascot winners too.  Ore in the Queen’s Vase in 1981, Ore again in the Queen Alexandra in 1982.  Verglas in the Coventry Stakes and Oscar Schindler in the Hardwicke Stakes in 1996.

On Tuesday, Irish Guineas winner Awtaad will take on French Guineas winner The Gurkha and English Guineas winner Galileo Gold in the St James’s Palace Stakes, a contest that will define the three-year-old milers of 2016.

Prendergast remembers well when Awtaad came into the yard first, sent to him by Sheikh Hamdan.

“I liked him, he was a big backward type,” he recalls.  “He was always going to need time, he was never going to be an early two-year-old.”

The trainer knows the family well.  He trained Awtaad’s grandam Adaala, he won three races with her, including the Listed Kilboy Estate Stakes at The Curragh, and he trained most of her offspring.  That’s the way Sheikh Hamdan tends to operate, return the yearlings to their dams’ trainers, allow trainers to get to know the families.

Prendergast also trained Awtaad’s dam Asheerah, who won her maiden at Limerick over seven furlongs as a three-year-old, and who finished second in a listed race over 10 furlongs.  She stayed 10 furlongs, which is why Prendergast has no fear about Awtaad getting further than a mile in time, if he needs to. 

“We got Awtaad ready to run in a maiden at The Curragh at the end of last season, in the middle of October,” he says, “and he ran really well to finish third.  Then we ran him back two weeks later, on the last day of the turf season at Leopardstown, and he won nicely.”

Then you can dream.  The Cape Cross colt had to progress again as a three-year-old if he was to be a Classic contender, but he thrived through the winter, and he won the Madrid Handicap on the opening day of the 2016 season by five lengths.

“We decided to run him the Tetrarch Stakes after that.  We figured, if he wasn’t good enough to win the Tetrarch, he had no business going for the Irish Guineas.”

He was good enough to win the Tetrarch, as it happened, and he was also good enough to win the Irish 2000 Guineas.

He was brilliant in the Irish Guineas.  Chris Hayes always had him perfectly positioned, just behind the pace and towards the outside.  He travelled like the most likely winner from a long way out and, when Galileo Gold struggled for racing room on the far side, and Hayes asked Awtaad to lengthen, it never really looked like he wouldn’t win.  Sheikh Hamdan’s colt had never been beyond seven furlongs before in his life, but he saw out the mile really well.

“The bit of rain that we had before the Irish Guineas helped,” says the trainer, “but the race went really well.  Chris gave him a nice ride, even if he did hit the front too early!  But I never thought that he was going to be caught, I knew that he would run all the way to the line.”

There was Derby talk afterwards, but ultimately, the decision to go to the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot was the correct one.

It is a year for anniversaries for Kevin Prendergast: 40 years since his last Irish Guineas winner, 20 years since his last Royal Ascot winner.  They could be celebrating again on Tuesday.


© The Sunday Times, 12th June 2016