Shepherd’s Walk in Epsom has seen plenty of horse action over the years. Jack Reardon trained there 70 years ago and it was from that leafy lane that John Sutcliffe sent out Specify to win the 1971 Grand National and from where John Benstead would patiently prepare slow-developing stayers for Hamdan al-Maktoum. A few years ago, though, several trainers having moved in and out, the proud morning parade of horses heading across to the grandstand and the training grounds had dwindled to a trickle.
All that has now changed. Fifty-plus equine athletes wind through the trees of a morning again. Roger Teal has scored at top level, and at Ermyn Lodge a smart new double-purpose spread for horse matching, hatching and dispatching past the winning post has been built up by owner Tony Smith and his wife Lesley. Tony’s breeding and sales operation swiftly expanded to include a training yard with Pat Phelan installed as trainer and breeding manager.
Pat’s CV tells us much about a country’s priorities. If horses could speak, then surely it would be with an Irish lilt. There is something about the Irish and horses, some tweak in the genes, an instinctive bond. Born on a stud farm, Pat joined the Irish army and, as well as doing the tough stuff on border patrol, became an international eventer and showjumper. Captain Phelan was soon put in charge of the Army Equitation School at The Curragh and, Ireland being Ireland, the Irish racing academy was created under the army wing. An old Forces tradition that officers were allowed the use of the gallops for one horse allowed him simultaneously to operate as a permit trainer.
You can see from Pat’s friendly authority today with the fresh-faced youngsters tacking up and hosing down horses how he enjoyed those days, taking tough characters running wild on the streets of Kildare and giving them a focus. ‘We were training people for the racing industry,’ he says. ‘They were heavy old army horses but it taught kids discipline. You soon learnt who had the bottle.’ Among those whose subsequent careers benefited were top Northern trainer Richard Fahey and lightweight jockey Jimmy Quinn.
Pat was later headhunted to manage a 250-horse pre-training centre in Japan and spent nine years building a nucleus for its racing industry. Back in Europe he considered setting up as a trainer but instead spent two years managing the Highclere Stud. The move to Ermyn Lodge came in 2006. They started with two mares and seven racehorses; now they have 24 in training, and, counting mares, foals and yearlings, there are 76 sets of four legs on the books.
These are hard times for breeding and selling racehorses, and Pat is a realist. ‘You can have good-lookers but if you don’t have “black type” you are wasting your sweetness on the desert air.’ Yes, the Irish do phrases, too. What he means is that your mares and colts need to be winning listed and group races to build pedigrees. ‘We’ve all these horses to sell or feed. We’re at the growth stage. We need to solidify, to improve the quality to survive.’
The successes are coming and there is a clever commercialism apparent. Tony Smith made his money from Ede’s, the international transport business. They bought a horse for £800, called it Ede’s and at one stage it won five races out of six. Because Ede’s figured in a famous £1-million accumulator bet for a small punter, stable and business got pages of valuable publicity. Run For Ede’s also won six, and we should look out next for Ede’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
Epsom Salts, bought for £500, has proved an effective stayer, winning both the Apprentices’ Derby and the Jump Jockeys’ Derby. Dani’s Girl won a listed hurdle at Ascot and the stable has not been without its own effective gambles. The horse named after the yard, Ermyn Lodge, a son of Singspiel, was weak as a two-year-old but Pat spotted the potential. ‘Early in his three-year-old career, we decided we had a date with destiny here.’ At Kempton in March 2009, Ermyn Lodge, backed down from 33–1 to 5–1, won nicely, costing the bookies an estimated £250,000. ‘Yes, we had a few quid on,’ is all his trainer says. But the smile is a wide one. There were a few pints in the Rubbing House after that.
There were encouraging victories recently for Cochatchee and Roberto Pegasus. But because they breed, too, there was equal excitement when the Jane Chapple-Hyam-trained Klammer (one of our Twelve to Follow) won a listed race in France. Black type duly acquired for Ermyn Lodge’s resident mare Aymara. There will be more to come.