Donn's Articles » Sam Curling

Sam Curling

Sam Curling remembers Ventana Canyon all right.  He wasn’t there.  He wasn’t at Cheltenham in 1996 when the horse that his father Peter owned in partnership with Philip Myerscough won the Arkle by 20 lengths, he was too young to go.  But he remembers the excitement, he remembers the celebrations.  He remembers how big a winner at the Cheltenham Festival was.

He had been directly involved himself in Cheltenham Festival winners too before last month.  He trained Summerville Boy to win his bumper before sending him on to Roger Brookhouse and Tom George, for whom he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2018.  That’s the nature of his business at Skehanagh Stables: get young horses going and send them on.  He gets as big a kick out of one of his graduates winning a big race, he tells you, as he does out of training a big winner himself.

He trained Indefatigable to finish third in a bumper at Punchestown before she went on to win the Martin Pipe Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2020 for Paul Webber, and he trained Vanillier to win a point-to-point before he won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle in 2021 for Gavin Cromwell.  And going to Cheltenham this year, Sam Curling was as much about Marine Nationale as he was about Angels Dawn.

“I got a massive kick out of Marine Nationale winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle,” he says.  “We always knew that he was special.  We had him since he was a yearling, we broke him as a two-year-old, and Gerry Hogan bought him for Barry Connell before he raced.  It was brilliant when he won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  I was delighted for Barry.”

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was on the Tuesday at Cheltenham, the first race on the first day.  The Kim Muir was on the Thursday, the last race on the third day, but Curling didn’t mind waiting.  He thought that he was going there with a real chance with Angels Dawn.

“It was a once in a lifetime thing for me,” he says.  “To be going there as the trainer of a horse with a big chance in a big race like that.  90% of what we have is for sale.  I never expected it really.  You’d always be dreaming about it, but you’d never really expect it.”

Angels Dawn wasn’t for sale.  Bred and owned by Alfie Sweetnam, she was a slow burn, but again, Sam Curling didn’t mind waiting for her.  She never ran in a point-to-point, she ran seven times in bumpers for Curling without winning, and it took her six goes before she got off the mark over hurdles.

“She never jumped hurdles very well,” says her trainer.  “She was much better over fences.  And we always thought that she would improve when she went out in trip.  She’s a strong traveller, but it just takes her a little while to get going.”

This season, her first season over fences, seven years old rising eight, the Yeats mare has hit her sweet spot.  Beaten a short head in a handicap chase at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve when she got the final fence all wrong, she stayed on well to get off the mark over fences at Down Royal in January.  Then she was travelling well in the Punchestown Grand National Trial in February when she unseated her rider at the second last fence.

“The Kim Muir was always the plan after that, if she got into it.  I wasn’t certain that she would get in.  I thought that she would have gone close at Punchestown, and obviously she didn’t go up in the weights after that, so we thought that she could be well handicapped.”

He watched the Kim Muir from the chute where the horses go out onto the track.  Worm’s eye view with a big screen in front of you.  It was an easy enough watch too for the trainer, she travelled well the whole way, and her jumping was very good in the main.  She and Pa King moved to the front at the second last fence, and landed over the last a half a length in front of Stumptown.

“I could see Stumptown battling back on the far side,” says Curling, “and I knew that Gavin (Cromwell) thought that he would run a big race.  But our mare is tough, she was brilliant, the way that she battled on up the hill.”

One of the first people to congratulate him after the victory was Gavin Cromwell.

Sam was never going to make his living with a brush and an easel, like his dad, renowned artist Peter, best known as a painter of horses, but he was always interested in working with horses.  He rode for Edward O’Grady, Ventana Canyon’s trainer, and for Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins – he rode Hedgehunter for the champion trainer to win the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in 2003 – before going to work for Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle, where he rode work on some of the top horses there, including St Nicholas Abbey and Septimus and Yeats, Angels Dawn’s sire.

These days though, things are going well at Skehanagh Stables.  Sam Curling has had a good season so far, both on the track and in point-to-points, and it could get a little bit better tomorrow afternoon at Fairyhouse, when Angels Dawn will bid to add the Irish Grand National to her Kim Muir win.

“She has been in very good form since Cheltenham,” says the mare’s trainer.  “Correna Bowe rides her out every day, and she is very happy with her.  We haven’t done an awful lot with her since Cheltenham, but she did a bit of work the other day, and she went well.  It’s obviously a hugely competitive race, but you’d be hoping that, with a bit of luck in-running, she could go well.

It could be twice in a lifetime.

© The Sunday Times, 9th April 2023