Twelve months in, Magee is making steady progress

Interview

The life of a racehorse trainer is not as glamorous as the uninitiated might imagine. Watching from afar, it seems like a career of champagne and big money winners, TV interviews and back-page splashes in the national press.

The truth is altogether different. It’s a tough sport, horseracing, and a precarious one. There is a reason why getting involved with horses has been described as the quickest way to lose a fortune.

But for those whose lives are tied up in the game, that’s all background noise. They do it because of a deep-seated love of horses and of competition and they find a way.

Shercock man Patrick Magee is a typical example of a fledgling trainer starting out, following that well-worn and noble path of hustling along, buying and selling here and there, trying to get his hands on the better horses where possible and squeezing the maximum out of his string.

Magee took out his trainer’s licence in January of 2020. Twelve months on, he’s had two winners and can look back on a satisfactory rookie year rubbing shoulders with big the boys in the world of National Hunt racing.

“I suppose, having two winners, it probably did go well. It is tough enough with no owners being able to go racing but on the other hand, it was something for them to look forward to with no other sports going on,” Magee told The Anglo-Celt this week.

“It’s a tough enough time but when you talk to the owners, they say it’s something to look forward to. They haven’t been negative about not being able to go but I suppose they would have enjoyed the day more if they were able to be there.”

The challenge facing the smaller trainers starting out can be summed up in one word: money. Most horsey people, even some of the top jockeys and trainers themselves, buy and sell horses on the side in order to keep things afloat. All the time, they are looking for that one horse that could catapult them to the next level. That chase, you sense, is one of the most addictive parts of this trade.

“It’s about trying to get a decent standard of horse into your yard and money is a big thing there. Obviously you have small numbers taking on the bigger yards with bigger numbers but you know all that before you start out. Money is the thing at the beginning,” says Paddy.

“There is not much money in training horses. Even the bigger trainers that I talk to, I worked for Noel Meade, and it’s all about turning horses to make money. Buying young horses and selling them on...

“The training only came along for me from having horses that maybe weren’t able to be sold on. She’s Our Vintage probably would have been sold only she picked up a small injury as a four-year-old and the owner held on to her. That’s what we kind of have. We are basically sellers as well as training.”

As an example, Magee tells the story of Captain CJ, a horse he picked up cheap and who turned out to be something special.

“I bought a horse called Captain CJ, he was one of the leading fancies for the Irish Grand National in 2020 before it was called off, and I sold him on. You’re always at it, buying three-year-olds, breaking them, getting them going and trying to sell them on.”

Magee started out with well-known Monaghan trainer, the late Oliver Brady. Early on, he became hooked.

“I just always liked horses. I started working for Oliver Brady when I was still in school and that’s probably where the real love of it started. There were a couple of good horses there and we got a few trips to Cheltenham and I just caught the bug, that was really it.

“I started riding in point-to-points and things like that, from there on working for other trainers, breaking a few horses here at home and training them and buying a couple of young horses myself.”

Point-to-points

Part of Magee’s business is buying unbroken three-year-olds, breaking them and running them in point-to-points, which are essentially nursery races for potential future stars. The riders may be amateur and the races will not attract anywhere near the same media coverage but it is a busy circuit in its own right and the starting point for many equine superstars.

Patrick Magee with his first winner, Cornakill Rose.

Some horses are pure point-to-pointers who rarely if ever run under rules on the track. For others, it’s the gateway and a potential golden ticket for connections.

“If you get point-to-point form, they’re very sellable, simple as. Any of the bigger yards, there is a good market for young point-to-point horses with form, you’d have no bother selling them.

“But it is hugely competitive. It’s not like it’s a secret, it’s well-known. It’s probably harder to win a four-year-old maiden point-to-point race than a four-year-old race on the track, definitely.

“Oldcastle is probably our local one, it’s a good point-to-point too. If you had a four-year-old that won at Oldcastle, he’s worth money.

“The four-year-old winners now are making close on half a million. You’re probably not even thinking of winning a four-year-old maiden at this point, if you could just get placed in one you’re happy enough.

“If you get an impressive four-year-old winner, he’s probably going to make you. Gordon Elliott bought one there that won a point-to-point in Tara for €460,000. He ran on the track subsequently and he was beat actually the other day.

“It’s alright talking about it but to win a four-year-old maiden now, you need an unbelievable horse.”

“There are trainers dotted all over the country with 80 or 100 horses and you wouldn’t even know their names, they don’t run on the track, they are just geared towards point-to-pointing. It’s a huge business.”

The canny horsemen study the point-to-point scene and try to find something that catches their eye. Some will be off limits, purely due to financial constraints, but there are plenty of diamonds in the rough.

“When you go to the sales, because point-to-points are so competitive, to buy that point-to-pointer that you want to buy could be massive money. So you’re trying to get a nice horse at the right price, basically.”

Does he look for a top horse that’s had an injury or is quirky enough to lower its price?

“No, I wouldn’t necessarily go and buy a horse with an injury because they’re just hassle too. You’re hoping to get your eye on a good horse.

“Say Captain CJ, I bought him for five grand and he won a Grade 3 race in Navan. He was beating those €200,000 point-to-pointers.

“He won a Grade 2 Novice so he was top of the novice chasers last year and he was bought for five grand. And that’s the upside of it, they can be bought. He will probably run in an Aintree Grand National.

“What attracted me to him? His sire at the time wasn’t that popular, Westerner, but he’s mega popular now. He is a slight bit smaller than you would have liked but other than that, he was 100pc.

“I just knew a wee bit about the family so I took a chance. On the day he probably didn’t look a million dollars and that was it.”

When Cornakill Rose won at Bellewstown on July 4 last, Magee had his first winner but the best horse in his yard at present is She’s All Vintage. The seven-year-old bay mare landed a monster gamble when backed from 8/1 into 2/1 at Sligo on October 23.

The horse has an interesting back story.

“She’s owned by Fergal Harford in Bailieborough. He sent me her to train her. He was involved in Cornakill Rose.

“He ran her in a point-to-point and she was placed as a five-year-old. She got a little leg injury then and he held on to her. When she was on a break, she went in foal and has a two-year-old by Milan so she’s extra valuable.

“That would be very unusual, to have a mare that’s still racing that has a two-year-old foal. Potentially in two years time she could still be racing and on the same day, her foal could run.

“It was a smart move, she was off for a year and she wasn’t going to be doing anything anyway so he stuck her in foal and then he got Milan which makes her pretty valuable as well.

“She was on the sidelines, she had to get a year off, and he took that decision. If she started back and it didn’t work out, she didn’t stay sound, he had started her breeding and knew she could do the job. Basically she was working for him, you know what I mean.

“The foal will probably be broken during the summer as a two-year-old and he won’t be racing till he’s four.”

Prior to taking out his licence, Magee had toyed with the idea of continuing operating as he was, buying and selling and training point-to-pointers. But when he looked after a top horse called Darver Star, with Louth connections unsurprisingly given the name, it made up his mind.

“I had a good horse called Darver Star, I pre-trained him before I got my licence. We had him here for nine months, he had an injury and we brought him back. He went to Gavin Cromwell’s because I didn’t have my licence at the time but he’ll go to Cheltenham now with a massive chance I’d say.

“He was second in the Irish Champion Hurdle last year, third in the English Champion Hurdle and second in the Grade 2 Novice Chase in Leopardstown over Christmas.

“You kind of think, when you put horses like that through your hands, Jesus… I just didn’t have my licence at the time, I was thinking of staying more in the point-to-points and be a complete seller and then you just think, when you put a horse like him through your hands, ‘Jesus, I wouldn’t have minded holding on to him’.

“It probably was what swayed me. I think you can still do both. There are horses there that aren’t really suited to three mile chasing which is point-to-pointing so it’s good to have the option of running them on the track when you have your licence.”

While it’s not a wasteland, thoroughbred horse training is not nearly as common in Cavan and Monaghan as it is in other parts of the country. While there is a tradition of equestrianism, it just isn’t as strong here.

“It all comes from the hunting side of it I think. There are not as many people around here into hunting or horses in general. It’s just not as big here. Every second person in Meath seems to be involved in hunting or showjumping. I know Cavan Equestrian Centre is very big but I think the racing evolves more from the hunting side of things.

“Probably our land is not as suitable as it is in Meath or Kildare as well for hunting which follows on then.”

While traditionally, jump racing was a more egalitarian pursuit than racing on the flat, where there is gigantic money and lucrative international breeding operations, the game has changed. The excellence of the likes of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott has transformed the sport and smaller trainers have naturally been squeezed to an extent.

There is, however, still room there for the small man to succeed.

“It definitely is [harder] but I still think there is that thing of taking on the bigger yards. I definitely wouldn’t be afraid going into any race because they have a horse in it. With the right horse, they can be taken on.

“You have to start somewhere too, I definitely don’t think they’re unbeatable. Obviously it’s hard because they have such big numbers but I still think if you had a good horse, you’d be more than capable of getting them ready and doing the job.”

As for 2021, it’s a case of onwards and upwards.

“Where do I want to be this time next year? You’re always trying to improve, get more horses and more winners, simple as that.

“I would be hoping to attract more owners here, we can cater for more horses and that’s something we are aiming towards and to get the best out of what we have.”

And that’s the name of the game.

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