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Holding patterns

Strange times indeed, says Michael Halford.  In an ordinary year, his team would be going through the gears now in tandem with the Irish flat racing season: Leopardstown last Sunday, Gowran Park on Wednesday, Cork yesterday.  For now though, he is just ticking over.  This is no ordinary year. 

It’s slowdown all around.  No horse racing, but keep the horses in training so that they are ready to go when racing does resume, all going well.  There are holding patterns all over the country these days, trainers patiently waiting for the word that they can begin their descent.

“It’s important that we see the big picture,” says Michael Halford.  “When you see what is going on all over the world.  The medical people in Ireland are unbelievable, and the government is doing a great job.  You have confidence in them that they are doing the right thing.”

Racing went behind closed doors for two weeks and 10 meetings last month.  Seven of those meetings were National Hunt meetings, two were at Dundalk, and the first day of the turf Flat season was also staged behind closed doors at Naas two weeks ago.  Halford had three runners on the day, and all three horses ran well, Hamariyna running a particularly encouraging race in finishing second behind Lemista in the Group 3 Park Express Stakes.

“We build up to the start of the season all winter really,” says the trainer.  “So when we started, and then stopped, it was a little frustrating.  That said, it was the right thing to do.  Without a doubt.  It’s important that we get this right.”

He wouldn’t be in a hurry with his two-year-olds even in a normal year.  He prefers the slow burn, allow the young horses come forward in their own time, with racing, with experience.  He is a trainer who allows his horses ease their way into the season, improve with maturity.  His season usually doesn’t really hit full stride until May anyway. 

“I thought that it worked well behind closed doors.  I was at two of the meetings, and I thought that they got it right.  I felt safe.  People had great respect for the rules of social distancing.  That should be a positive when decisions have to be made on when racing will start again.”

The rules in the yard are strict too.  For starters, all staff have their temperatures taken every morning when they come to work.

“Our staff all wear gloves, and they’re only allowed into the tack room one at a time.  I do up the board, and they all take a photograph of it every morning, so that everybody knows what they’re doing.  It’s working well.”

It’s working well too at Jessica Harrington’s, where Shane Foley rides out every morning.  Foley was riding in Japan in the early part of the year.  He left on 15th February, two weeks before they started to race behind closed doors there.

“I just wanted to get home,” says the rider.  “I wanted to see my family.  It’s hard on everybody.  I haven’t seen my parents since Christmas.  But you know that it’s the right thing.”

He has all those top class Jessica Harrington-trained juvenile fillies from last year to look forward to this year, Albigna and Millisle, Group 1 winners both, and Alpine Star and Cayenne Pepper.  And others.  It’s just a case of waiting now before they can get going as three-year-olds.

“It’s hard for the trainers,” he says.  “Not knowing when racing is going to come back.  Do you give the horses a week or two off, or do you keep them going?  All those three-year-old fillies are training well.  It might be a case of just pushing the season back.  We could be riding in a Guineas in June.”

They are using the time though.  The two-year-olds are going through their paces at home.  

“Jessie has so many horses, so many two-year-olds.  I am getting a chance to sit on most of them, and I mightn’t have had the chance to do that if the season was in full swing now.  The health of the country is the most important thing, so we just have to sit it out for now.”

Horse Racing Ireland drew stumps on the 2019/20 Irish National Hunt season two weeks ago.  No Punchestown Festival, no Fairyhouse Easter Festival, although there may be plans to run the Irish Grand National in the autumn.  Consequently, almost all of Gavin Cromwell’s National Hunt horses have been sent on their holidays.

“A few of them have gone back to their owners,” says the trainer, “but I’d say about 80% of our owners don’t have the facility to take their horses, so one of our main issues has been finding places for them.  A few of the farmers around have been very kind in offering me fields for them.  They’re in about 10 different places locally, all rugged up, so we are going around feeding them and making sure they are okay.”

The abrupt end to the National Hunt season was not ideal for anybody, and Cromwell was particularly looking forward to running his Champion Hurdle third Darver Star in the Grade 2 two-and-a-half-mile hurdle at Fairyhouse, but he is another who sees the big picture.

“When you see what’s going on all over the world, people’s health, people’s lives, what we do is actually not that important.  But I thought that racing reacted well.  The few meetings that there were behind closed doors, everybody respected it.  Everybody stuck to the rules.”

The yard is ticking over too as a racing yard, with the rules of social distancing in place.

“The school kids and some of the part-time workers aren’t coming in these days, but our core full-time staff are here.  The canteen is closed, and everybody is being very careful.  We only have about 10 flat horses and 10 or 12 dual purpose horses, but we had 25 horses riding out this morning, and it’s working well.  And if there was to be a positive out of all of this, as long as we have our health, maybe we will all appreciate the normal things a bit more.”

Michael Halford is of a similar mind set.

“Hopefully, when we look back on this,” he says, “it will seem like a short period of time.  At the moment, our thoughts and prayers are with those who are suffering, and with the health service, but we might take note of the simpler things in life now.  It might slow us all down a little bit, and that might not be a bad thing.”

 © The Sunday Times, 12th April 2020