Lambourn trainer Sylvester Kirk retains the distinctive tones of his native Donegal/Tyrone. There was just one moment during his eight years as assistant to Richard Hannon, a period which coincided with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when he wondered if the accent was going to leave him alive.
Deputed to drive the Hannons to Windsor for lunch with the Queen, Sylvester became confused driving out of the castle premises. Suddenly he was brought abruptly to a halt, the stable-spattered car surrounded by armed men with weapons cocked which definitely weren’t loaded for pheasant. ‘At that point,’ he says, demonstrating an impressively anodyne mumble, ‘I feared I might get shot simply for opening my mouth.’
Fortunately, nobody fired, his explanations were accepted and he lived to set up as a trainer in his own right in Upper Lambourn, where he and wife Fanny, one of Hannon’s six children, bring up their own two sons in the friendly Cedar Lodge yard, where you can watch the horses having a pick from the kitchen window.
Before becoming assistant to Richard Hannon, Sylvester worked at the Irish National Stud and as a stallion man for Coolmore, travelling horses to Australia. His father Syl was a small-time Irish trainer — ‘It was a winner a month if we were lucky’— but he never had any doubts about wanting to follow him. ‘I was too big to get into racing any other way.’
He remains full of admiration for Hannon, both for his instinctive training skills and for his sociability. Sylvester spoke in tones of incredulity about a trainer who complained recently of being ‘peopled out’. Like most in a profession working ever harder for its share of the leisure dollar, he knows that getting on with potential owners is as important as training the horses. ‘You end up with people you have an affinity with and who trust you. You need the same sense of humour’ — a sense of humour which in his father-in-law once extended to running real life ‘Find the Lady’ competitions with wagered tenners pinned to the nappies of the Hannon triplets, of whom Fanny was the only girl.
His background ensures that Sylvester has handled good horses. But in the middle ranks he has to settle mostly for the cheaper livestock on the premises. ‘You’d like to go out and buy a BMW but mostly you end up with a Mondeo.’ By sticking largely to the Hannon template of buying strong, early-maturing horses — ‘Though it would be nice to be dealing with the kind of horses you spend a year and a half bringing to their peak, I try to buy the sharpest I can’ — he sends out 40 to 50 winners a year.
One by one he is climbing the pinnacles. The first Royal Ascot winner (Elhamri) has been accompanied by a couple of Group Threes (Gracefully in the Prestige Stakes at Goodwood, Opera Cape in the Solario Stakes), a big sales race at Newbury (again with Elhamri) and a Winter Derby at Lingfield with Sri Diamond. But he knows the price you can pay for ambition. ‘Trying to get some ready for Ascot is the first pressure. You are bound to mess some up on the way. You have to push them to get them there and some will fall off the edge.’
For mid-range trainers timetables are crucial. You need to get three runs into your young horses to have them handicapped and hope to win a nursery before year-end. They must gamble, too, by buying horses without firm orders from owners. Usually Kirk ‘specs’ about 15 horses a year. For half a dozen there will be owners in mind who have expressed at least some interest. ‘With the rest of them it’s a wing and a prayer.’ Two or three seasons ago, he would reckon to have found owners for all 15 by Christmas. The way the recession is biting it now takes until March of the next year. Economic pressures show another way, too. ‘There have always been a few bad debts. Now they are bigger bad debts.’
The Kirk yard is not much into gambling now, the trainer insists, although ‘some horses present themselves and you take advantage of it’. But there was a redoubtable early coup with In For The Craic, owned by Sylvester’s best man, his cousin Seamus Kirk and a group of friends from Tyrone/Donegal called ‘The Quiet Men’. They all got on at 33–1 for a scrappy little maiden at Lingfield in 2002. When it shortened to 8–1 the trainer was still chiding them, ‘Have ye no faith?’, expecting it to go all the way down to 7–4.
Gambles or not, this is a yard on the up and there should be a good handicap in Norse Blues, an Epsom winner on Derby Day. They have hopes for Opera Buff. The big filly My Sharma should win in the back end and other nice lookers to note were Delagoa Bay and The Giving Tree.