Coakley’s Winter Warmed By Combat


Denis Coakley |

By Chris McGrath

As the lacerating wind chases another squall of snow around his little yard, huddled in the lee of the Berkshire Downs, Denis Coakley is more grateful than ever that one of its usual residents has found sanctuary in the desert.

“You can’t take him out even when it’s raining,” he says. “I know the horse now: he’s got ability, it’s just a case of keeping him happy. So if he doesn’t want to go out, he doesn’t have to. And he doesn’t like the cold. That’s why he loves Dubai. If he were here, he’d be standing in his box doing nothing. Now he’s $100,000 richer and, because he’s still out there for another week, he’s having a holiday.”

Hors De Combat (GB) (Mount Nelson {GB}) has certainly earned his vacation. In fact, the handicap he won at Meydan a couple of weeks ago, added to a third prize on his previous start there, matched the entire domestic earnings of Coakley’s string in 2017. As such, he represents the perfect poster boy for the Dubai International Carnival.

With different shades of Maktoum blue to the fore in so many races, the hospitality plainly stops once the gates open. But the Carnival hosts want to give horsemen at every level the opportunity, if matching the aptitude of even a single horse with sufficient enterprise, for a payday that can–in a case such as this–make a mighty difference to the year’s arithmetic.

Coakley has been too long engaged at the wrong end of the numbers game in Britain to deceive himself that this faraway, midwinter coup might achieve a corresponding transformation in his own profile. His cheeks ruddy with the cold, the Irishman leads the way into a cramped office and looks ahead to his 20th season with neither illusion nor resentment.

“My owners are loyal, they stick with me,” he says. “But I’ve only got 22 horses and it’s hard to get any more. If people do show an interest it’s usually for me to do a deal. They think if you’re a small trainer you should be charging half-price. Yes, it can be frustrating. But I can’t do anything about it, so there’s no point moaning. I just try and do the best I can with the horses I’ve got. The only thing that upsets me is if I haven’t done something right; if I’ve missed an opportunity.”

Coakley has never been the type to cold-call millionaires, and few of those would otherwise seem likely to register such opportunities as he does take. After all, he will typically restock with just half a dozen yearlings–often only in the four-figure bracket.

He gestures to a photo on the wall: Sirce (Ire) (Josr Algarhoud {Ire}). “That filly cost three and a half grand,” he says. “I thought she’d win first time out but after four runs I had to persuade the owners not to get rid of her. She just wanted a distance, and a visor, and ended up winning seven races and only beaten a neck and a head in the Lillie Langtry.”

Just along the wall is Percy Jackson (GB) (Sir Percy {GB}), bought out of Tattersalls Book 3 for 6,000gns. He bolted up in two of his first three starts, finished second in a listed race in Germany and was sold to Hong Kong.

“I have two homebreds this year but normally I have to go and buy yearlings myself, and hopefully sell them on,” he says. “So I can’t be paying too much for them. You have to decide what you can cross off. Most times, it’ll have to be pedigree. Fillies are probably cheaper as well. And because everyone wants sharp, precocious 2-year-olds, you have to try and find a nice individual you just think will be okay and stay sound. Not too backward, though. You want something that can run and hopefully win at two, and then go on. Anyway usually I buy a nice one every year.”

His latest discovery is Electric Landlady (Ire) (Red Jazz), who cost 7,000gns at the Tattersalls December Sale and won two of her four starts last season. “She’s rated 84 so will start off in a fillies’ handicap somewhere and we’ll see how she goes,” Coakley says. “She’s not overbig but she tries.”

Though he only ran three other juveniles, one of these also won and another was third on both her starts. Auspiciously, moreover, Coakley’s best horses over the years have tended to progress: the likes of Miss Marjurie (Ire) (Marju {Ire}) and Steppe Dancer (Ire) (Fasliyev), group winners who both carried the same Chris Van Hoorn silks as Hors De Combat.

“Hopefully they go on,” Coakley says. “Often that’s been because they have stayed, so when the handicapper gets to them for winning at a mile, they have a bit left to go a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half. Miss Marjurie was very unlucky not be placed in the G1 Yorkshire Oaks. She was fifth, only beaten a length and a half, and had really taken herself off when they crossed her in front.”

He became acquainted with Van Hoorn during a decade as assistant to William Huntingdon, who used to train here in West Ilsley himself. In fact Keeper’s Stable was then used as a quarantine unit for Drum Taps (Dixieland Band) and Arabian Story (GB) (Sharrood) when they were being prepared for the Melbourne Cup. As it happens, it had been in Australia that Coakley first crossed paths with Huntingdon and worked for him at Warwick Farm.

All in all, his Turf education was certainly a varied one, and for a long time focused on jumpers. “I lost my claim riding for Gordon Richards in Cumbria,” he recalls. “He thought I was quite good for a while. I rode Little Bay against [triple champion hurdler] See You Then at Doncaster; I was only beaten a neck and was meant to ride him again. But I broke my arm and [John] Francome got on him.”

Coakley also rode for a leading American jumps trainer in Janet Elliot, for three years, before a winter with Neil Drysdale signalled a switch to the Flat. Though it was never a practical possibility to stay out there, Coakley admits that the American model makes more economic sense for the smaller string.

“All you need is a bridle and saddle, you pay your stall rent, and that’s it,” he says. “And the training is so easy, too, you just go to the track, do your work, go back; everyone knows what they’re doing. And you can always concentrate on your best horses, all the ones you’re breaking or whatever are on the farm.”

He has duly enjoyed sampling something similar when commuting to Dubai. Hors De Combat arrived in Coakley’s yard from James Fanshawe in November 2016 to be trained for last year’s Carnival, where he likewise made the frame in both starts.

“The international quarantine barn is run by Feargal Cooper and they look after you very well,” Coakley says. “We get a groom, accommodation and meals thrown in. Our horse’s work rider Abdul Aziz is very capable, and I’ll go out three or four times to see him work. It’s just a shame there wasn’t another race for him. Going back to dirt there has restricted Carnival options for the Europeans, but Hors De Combat ran well after coming home last year and hopefully he’ll have a good summer ahead.

“He has often been a bit unlucky, coming too late or getting stopped, but the race the other day worked out for him-in the end, though first he missed the break and then the jockey dropped his stick. Generally on the turf there you can’t be too far away, but fortunately they went off quick and then Richard Hannon’s horse kicked too soon and they all chased him. And he ran for hands-and-heels. He just took a bit of time to kick in around the two marker, but that’s him and then he cruised through really.”

But if the 7-year-old may be reluctant to return into weather like this, Coakley could not be happier with their usual environment. He despairs of owners flocking to Newmarket on the premise that so many winners come out of there–no less than you would expect, he notes with a smile, when so many thousands of horses happen to be trained there.

“Derby winners have been trained on the gallops here,” he says. “Guineas winners. Horses as fast as Dayjur, and Gold Cup winners. So you’ve everything you need. There can be no excuses here.”

No, this is not a man for making excuses–even when they seem abundantly available. Numbers, in his vocation, cover a multitude of sins. Without them, the stakes are giddily raised for every runner; for every triumph or disaster, at however lowly a level. A few years ago Coakley picked out a 17,000gns yearling from the first crop of Dark Angel (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}) (not a sire he could often afford now, of course) named Gabriel’s Lad (Ire). He proceeded to win the Victoria Cup and over £180,000 all told, only to break down fatally on the track.

“The only thing you ever want is the horse to be all right,” Coakley stresses. “But yes, definitely every winner counts. You get a kick out of them all because they’re never easy. I’ve some nice horses for this year, I think, and hopefully they’ll win some nice races. All I can do is try to do the right thing for the horses. What else can you do? But hopefully I’ll get some more horses, or at least a better class of horse. You never know.”

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