Donn's Articles » John Oxx

John Oxx

Of course, if John Oxx had had his way, he would have slipped away into the night, unnoticed.  No commotion.  He would have announced his retirement and taken the phone off the hook, unplugged communications.  But that was never going to be possible.  All that he did, all that he achieved, the man that he is, he was never going to escape the accolades.

Johnny Murtagh described John Oxx as a real professional and a real gentleman.  Willie Mullins said that he is one of Ireland’s iconic trainers.  Michael Kinane described him as a fantastic trainer and an outstanding gentleman.  It was a theme that ran through all the tributes: there was as much focus on his qualities as a person as there was on his qualities as a trainer.

“It had been on my mind for a little while,” says John Oxx now.  “It was a simple decision, no agonising over it.  It was time.”

He didn’t really think about how the racing world would react to his announcement.  He didn’t know what to expect.  Typically, he didn’t expect anything really, and the magnitude of the reaction took him by surprise.

“I didn’t really dwell on that aspect of it, so I suppose it caught me by surprise all right.  I’m very grateful though.  The things people said.  Such kind words.”

The understatement has always been the Oxx way.  Let the horses do the talking.  From the day that he took over his father’s licence in 1979, through the early Irish St Legers with Eurobird and Petite Ile in the 1980s, and Flamenco Wave’s Moyglare Stud Stakes, and the Ridgewood Pearl and Timarida years, and Key Change and Ebadiyla and Winona, all those fillies with whom he succeeded at the highest level, all the way to Sinndar.

“We loved Sinndar from the start,” he recalls.  “He was a beautiful looking horse.  Beautiful conformation.  He wasn’t outstanding in his work, but he always stood out in his looks. And I remember in the lead up to the Derby, thinking, I’ll try to be quiet about this fellow.  I won’t talk about him much and we’ll just go to the Derby and see how we get on.  I quickly realised though that that wasn’t going to work.  We had to talk about him, we had to let people in.”

It was typical of the trainer that Sinndar was his first ever runner in the Derby.  First arrow: bullseye.

“We thought that we had a chance going to Epsom, but we had no experience of it.  We didn’t know.  So to win it, and all that it meant, all the history.  It was unbelievable.  I remember, we all got into the car afterwards to go back to the airport, and nobody spoke.  We just all sat there in silence.  We were a few miles down the road before anybody said a word.” 

Sinndar followed up his Epsom Derby win by winning the Irish Derby, then went to France and landed the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

“It was important for the horse, to win the Arc.  So many Derby winners don’t win the Arc, so that was special.  We thought he had a big chance too, he was in great form, improving all the time.  And he was very good in the Arc, he was impressive in winning, in a good time.”

On the day that John Oxx won the 2000 Arc with Sinndar, he also won the Prix de l’Abbaye with Namid.  That was a special day.

There were lots of other special days: Azamour’s King George, Alamshar’s Irish Derby, Enzeli’s Ascot Gold Cup.  But Arc day 2009, that probably topped them all, Sea The Stars’ Arc, and it was different to Sinndar’s Arc.

“There was more pressure with Sea The Stars,” recalls the trainer.  “Sea The Stars had a different agenda.  It was important for him not to fail.  That was the difference.  He had to win the Arc if he was to be recognised as one of the greats.  It was very important for him to win the Arc.”

If Oxx felt under pressure, it was self-imposed, and it was only there because he had trained and managed Christopher Tsui’s colt’s career perfectly all the way to Arc day.  From the time that he first saw the Cape Cross colt at the Irish National Stud, and the time that he legged Michael Kinane up on the gallops on The Curragh and told him that the colt was Galileo’s brother, through his racing career.  It wasn’t a bad thing either that he was beaten on his racecourse debut at The Curragh in July 2008.  He ran a nice race, he kept on well, he enjoyed himself.

“Michael Kinane had a great expression: we’ll leave him with a good taste in his mouth.”

Sea The Stars was never beaten again.  A maiden and a Beresford Stakes as a juvenile, and then, those six Group 1 races as a three-year-old.  One every month.  The Guineas in May, the Derby in June, the Eclipse in July, the Juddmonte International in August, the Irish Champion Stakes in September, the Arc de Triomphe in October.

“You don’t enjoy the big days,” says John Oxx thoughtfully.  “Not really.  You just want the horses to run their races.  If they run their races and get beaten, that’s okay.  And if they win, it’s more relief than anything.  When Sea The Stars won the Arc, it was just relief.”

John Oxx tries to downplay the magnitude of the role he played in Sea The Stars’ extraordinary racing career.  The greats will be great, he tells you.  You just need to get out of their way.  He doesn’t point to the fact that, in order to fulfill their potential, the greats need a mentor of commensurate ability.

“I will miss the training all right.  Going out in the mornings and seeing the horses.  Checking them at evening stables.  But I won’t miss the big days.  You can only enjoy the big days afterwards, when you can look back on them, knowing that everything has gone okay.  That everyone is happy.  Job done.” 

No commotion.

© The Sunday Times, 25th October 2020