Ascot braced for Yankee raiders with an accent from Co Clare
Published 14/06/2010 | 05:17
The lead singer is Irish, almost to the point of self-caricature. The stage, meanwhile, could not be more quintessentially English. But the dream – as though scrupulously conforming to a patent, the dream is American.
Incongruously enough, to those who remember it as a bastion of insularity, Royal Ascot has become the most cosmopolitan race meeting in Europe. In recent years, its management has literally gone out looking for trouble, inviting horsemen from all round the planet to come and beat the Brits in their own backyard.
First came the Australians, who swiftly exposed a deficiency of speed in the indigenous sprinters. Then, out of left field, Wesley Ward arrived last year from California with a team of second-tier juveniles. And two of them had their races won by halfway.
This time round, the Americans are returning with a rather different accent. Tomorrow, on the first day of the meeting, we have the engrossing spectacle of a colt good enough to run fifth in the Kentucky Derby, quitting the Triple Crown trail to meet two European Classic winners on home turf. And then, on Saturday, one of the most implausible romances of the modern Turf nears consummation when Carl O'Callaghan saddles Kinsale King in the Golden Jubilee Stakes.
Twenty years ago, O'Callaghan arrived in Brooklyn from rural Co Clare as a waif, a naïf, clinging dreamily to the ancestral redemptions of those starving compatriots who crossed the ocean in the 19th century. Sure enough, he ended up sleeping in a cardboard box, under a bridge, with nothing to comfort him but two hungry dogs and a guitar. He was 16.
Somehow he was sustained, in body, by the fellowship of the streets – and, in spirit, by an imperishable ambition. Other homeless folk took him under their wing, showed him how to forage in restaurant trash. He washed cars, saved up for phonecards, rang home and dissembled. Everything was grand.
After a couple of weeks on the streets, he woke up one morning and walked into Belmont Park. He found John Kimmel's barn, asked for work, and stayed for seven years. Then he heard that a man named Todd Pletcher was getting started, so he went and joined him, again for seven years. Eventually, he decided to try his luck in California, got himself a licence and assembled four or five horses. One of them, Kinsale King, won a Grade Three race at Hollywood Park last December. O'Callaghan had been waiting too long not to recognise his cue. He put Kinsale King on a plane to Dubai, watched him win a $2m (£1.4m) sprint and danced around the parade ring like a man who had found the end of the rainbow.
When he takes Kinsale King back to California, he will have near to 50 horses in his barn. Should he win on Saturday, however, he will first take him back to Newmarket-on-Fergus, and show them all what happened to that tall, freckled adolescent who bought a one-way ticket to New York.
"I'd love to put a pen up in the middle of the town and have a big party," he says. "We've got busloads coming to Ascot. My parents never knew what really happened, when I left, but I suppose they'll find out now. Everyone has a dream and hopefully I can send some kind of message. If there's someone watching me, or learning from what I'm doing, then I'm happy."
Not every adventurer, clearly, could summon the same reserves of charisma and dynamism in a crisis. Since lodging his champion in Newmarket, O'Callaghan has been charming the locals with his music – he has released four albums in the United States, to raise funds for a cancer charity – and homespun ways. He feeds Kinsale King on eggs and Guinness. "He has two pints in the morning, and two in the evening," O'Callaghan explains. "It's an old myth but there's yeast in it, I think it puts a shine on his coat. It's just like putting molasses in his feed."
Whatever his secret, he's doing something right. Kinsale King has delicate feet, and it can take five hours to get them shod. O'Callaghan was also sufficiently professional to fly Kieren Fallon – another son of Co Clare – out to New York last week to gallop his mount.
"Kieren has been an idol all my life, though I've only known him two or three years," O'Callaghan says. "We all know the road he's been down, but he's paid his dues and he's working hard. And this horse has a lot of heart, a lot of character. He's got to take to the turf, got to take to the straight line, but one thing's for sure – he's gonna run. He loves to run. You just take care of him, point him in the right direction, and he'll run for you."
As it happens, Fallon has also picked up the mount on Noble's Promise, whose trainer, Kenny McPeek, is a far more familiar face on the elite American circuit. This, after all, was the man who found Curlin, a record-breaking champion, for just $57,000. He also has a unique training facility, rotating horses from the monotony of trackwork to a converted stud farm in Kentucky where they can gallop – as Noble's Promise must tomorrow – over turf and right-handed.
He was emboldened in such innovations by a pioneering visit to Ascot in 2004, to saddle Hard Buck as runner-up in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Which other American trainer would even contemplate taking a three-year-old from leading into the turn in the Kentucky Derby to the St James's Palace Stakes? "He needs to be shortened back to a mile, and back home we don't have the right races available," McPeek says. "The truth is that in American racing we need more choices. We train horses left-handed between 6am and 10am – and if you don't like it, you can go somewhere else.
"Wesley consulted with me repeatedly before coming here last year, and I told him it's not that big a deal. It just takes a combination of a horse that's good enough, and an owner that's brave enough. And I've shocked the world before. I've had a 70-1 Belmont winner."
And Noble's Promise, like Kinsale King, certainly fortifies the sense that America's horseracing is one of the few 21st century environments still enriching the country's national mythology. He was found as a foal for just $10,000 and is owned by a blue-collar syndicate of two dozen – postmen and the like – paying $416.67 apiece.
The same themes, then, are elaborated on two legs and four. O'Callaghan says: "I just needed someone to take a chance on me." But that's also the way he likes to treat horses – to talk with them, to communicate, give them a break. "It's no different from human beings," he reasons. "If you give and give, you receive. We never have a bad day at my barn. I want everyone smiling. If I can't make people smile, they move on. I'm always confident, it's how I live my life. I never regret anything I've done, any choice I've made – I did it, and survived."
And, McPeek agrees, that's just the way it should be. "Horse trainers are positive people," he says. "We have to be, because we lose more than we win. But I wouldn't put this horse on the plane if I didn't think he could do it."
Chris McGrath's nap
Victorian Bounty (7.40 Windsor)
Has been in the doldrums but well treated on his best form and looked to have turned over a new leaf on his reappearance here, showing all his old dash before tiring into third.
Amazing King (8.25 Warwick)
Showed a lot more last time, tiring only inside the final furlong, without preventing another handy drop down the weights. Style of running suggests this shorter trip could suit him even better.
One to watch
Cult Classic (R Hannon) made a promising start to his career at Newbury last week, isolated from a steady pace before making up good ground into fourth.
Where the money's going
The Hong Kong raider Happy Zero is 7-1 from 10-1 with Ladbrokes for the Golden Jubilee Stakes at Ascot on Saturday.