Ardglas Stables: a Consignment on the Up

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Ambrose O’Mullane & Mary Reynolds | Emma Berry

By Chris McGrath

The reserve was 50,000gns. And so was the opening bid. At 180,000 gns, a friend turned to Ambrose O’Mullane and said, “How are you so calm?” “Because it’s money for jam,” he shrugged.

He remembered how he had never even wanted to inspect the colt, at Deauville the previous summer. Le Havre (Ire) was all the rage. No way would they ever be able to afford one of those. But his partner Mary Reynolds insisted Ambrose come and take a look. There was a cut on one of his hocks, an innocuous blemish. That was all it took for the colt to be led out unsold for €15,000.

They ran straight down to the Coulonces boxes, offered €10,000. No, they wanted €15,000. A bit of haggling ensued, but other people were heading across. Twelve grand, then; and here, we have a pen. They could easily have sold him on for a profit the same day.

As it was, here they were at Tattersalls the following May, crushed in the gangway as everyone watched agog. Even Mary had admitted that the horse breezed well. As a rule, she would be reliably despondent when ringing Ambrose back in Co Tipperary. Their Ardglas Stable outside Emly is so literally homespun–until this year they have never had any help, and Ambrose was spending half the morning riding out over at Con Marnane’s–that only one of them can be spared to accompany horses to a sale. But this time, unprecedentedly, Ambrose had made the journey as well. This was a tall colt, too tall for little Mary to be showing.

Though he had proved a most obliging animal, all the way through breaking and his prep, after his breeze the pressure was beginning to tell. There were nine vettings. The night before, someone wanted an X-ray, and the colt was nearing the end of his fuse. Ambrose, in fact, acquired the scars to prove it: two, on his forearm. Nearly two years on, they have only recently faded.

Ambrose himself was composed as ever. That morning he stretched out in the tack room, fast asleep. It had been the same in his riding days, as an amateur over jumps. Even if he had a fancied mount, he’d always be dozing beforehand. And they knew he could handle a hothead, too. In the end, that counted against him. “This horse is bloody mad,” trainers would say. “He’s one for O’Mullane.” For every one that submitted, the next would deck him. Between riding out and organising the handful of horses they were starting to take in themselves–breaking jumpers, that kind of thing–it wasn’t hard to quit the racing. But this now, this was a game-changer.

When the gavel came down at last, at 300,000 gns, Ardglas had consigned the top lot of the Guineas Breeze-Up Sale. Friends, other consignors, agents, trainers, everyone went wild. They knew what it meant; knew how these two had grafted, seeking a diamond in the rough.

Anyone who has ever viewed the breezing of a cheap yearling as a bet to nothing should ask Ambrose and Mary. Throw in keep and feed, from September maybe to May; never mind whatever value they might put on their own time, dawn until dusk. “We’ve had piles of those horses, bought them for two grand and sold them for 1500,” Ambrose says. “Very few of them make money. To get the 20 grand horse into 40 is probably easier than getting the five grand horse into 20.”

The first horse they ever breezed, in their hobby days, they had been given for nothing: a Bertolini filly. She made €4,000 at Goresbridge, and they had to borrow a fiver to get a cup of tea on the way home.

So Mary, watching at the rope, had none of Ambrose’s sangfroid. A month earlier she had taken three horses to the Ascot sale. “Two belonged to a client, the other we owned half with a friend,” she recalls. “There was no bid for him and the other two sold for little or nothing. And I said: we’ve had it.”

A dead end, then? After all the groundwork she had put in with horses: the apprentice school, the few rides during her years with Dermot Weld, the gallops fall that put her in hospital for five months, the sales work for Willie Browne. But no, it was not a dead end. As the hammer came down, she exploited her diminutive build to duck and weave her way through the bedlam. “I was bawling,” she admits. “The place was like an All-Ireland final.”

Ambrose wanted to follow the colt over for his wind-test, but he was stuck. “They went crazy,” he remembers now, looking from their kitchen window to the streaks of snow clinging to the brooding Galtee Mountains. “People who’d been going there for years said they’d never seen the like of it. With all the millions horses have made in that ring, and loads of small people having a touch. Somebody pulled the hat off my head, people were shouting. God help the people with the next horse in because there was no-one left in the ring.”

Over the following months, he could point to the two scars. “There’s 150,000gns,” he’d say. “And there’s 150,000gns.” But he might sooner point to the new horsewalker; to the new sand canter, two furlongs round. Before they had just been hacking round the fields, or boxing the horses one by one down to a neighbour’s gallop. And then there are the four new stalls, extending their capacity to 18. They have even had to take on an extra pair of hands in the morning, those of Pa Farrell.

They are so busy now that Ambrose has had to stop riding out for Marnane.

“Thanks for all your help over the few years,” Ambrose told him.

“Let me tell you this,” Marnane replied. “The only thing that got the two of you where you are is hard work.”

That, for sure, is the way people think of these two. “But we did have luck, too,” Ambrose stresses. “There’s loads of people out there work very hard and don’t get the luck.”

And they know how tenuously luck holds. Yes, they had another home run that same spring: a Spirit One (Fr) filly Ambrose bought at Arqana October, on one bid of €4,000, who made €66,000 at Goresbridge. Of the other eight they sold in 2016, however, all the others galloped into the red.

“If you go into the pub and want to hit the bull’s eye you’re going to take six darts, not one, aren’t you?” says Ambrose. But the raising of stakes also means raising the pressure. Next week they take the first five youngsters–sons of Fast Company (Ire) (lot 10) and Zebedee (GB) (lot 96) and fillies by Compton Place (GB) (lot 12), Oasis Dream (GB) (lot 116), and Coach House (Ire) (lot 34)–over to Ascot for the start of the European breeze-up season. Then they have five more for Doncaster, and four apiece for the Guineas Sale and for Goresbridge.

All they can do is stick to the principles that have worked for them so far. That, above all else, means producing a horse on a sustainable curve of improvement. Certainly they want no part of the growing tendency among consignors to blitz horses against the stopwatch.

“Of course they need a certain level of fitness,” Mary says. “But we never gallop the brains out of them at home. Some might have two or three bits of work, but they don’t need any more for breezing. And they might then be racing five or six weeks after the sale, they can go straight into training. They don’t need their heads rewinding again, don’t have to be left off and let down.”

“We only prep a horse for a trainer,” Ambrose explains. “If he clocks well on the day, we haven’t a clue. It’s not that long ago, when I was a young fella riding breezes the first time, they’d go up in pairs, green cap and white cap; they’d carry each other along, boot to boot. Look, it’s grand, the clock can work to your advantage. But when our horses clock well, it’s the horse that’s done it.

“Look out there and you’ll see a horse, 16.2, that most people wouldn’t even dream of having for the breezes. But that horse–compared with the ones going to Ascot–might have three or four feet more of a stride. I guarantee he’ll come up the track and, on the video, he’ll look slow; and then they’ll look at the clock and it’ll be: ‘Jeez, he’s after clocking the same as a five-furlong sprinter’.”

He feels that forcing horses out of their comfort zone to clock a time will only give a misleading impression, anyway. If a horse is only up to winning in Italy, say, then that is the sector of the market where it belongs. “There’s a place for every horse, because they’re only going to race against their equals anyway,” he says. “If they go there and win their races, then people will be happy to come back again.”

At the level they can operate, after all, their options at the yearling sales are necessarily limited. On the basis that their customers are astute enough to see beyond one-dimensional bullets, then, they will not just seek sharp, early sorts (of the type going to Ascot) but also horses likely to get a mile and more in time.

“They have to have a good walk,” Mary says. “You want an athletic horse; a natural horse.”

“And a bit of size,” adds Ambrose. “Then there’s potential; they can progress. You might have to pay more for a big horse, as a yearling, but if you can get him to gallop he’ll get more as a breeze-up horse, too. If you have a handy-sized horse, and he doesn’t breeze great, not many fellas will come down to look at him. But one that might just look a bit backward, someone will usually come down and see that it’s a fine horse.”

And, since none are mercilessly drilled, all the Ardglas horses–whatever their ability or type–can share the same dividend. As one of Ireland’s leading trainers put it to Mary, “I love getting horses out of Ardglas: they have good manners.”

The horses are on so even a keel, in fact, that they will be doing essentially the same in March as they were in December–certainly in terms of distance; and the speed might be the same, too, albeit they will be achieving it with greater ease by this stage. They are taken away for a canter in January and, in gradually becoming stronger, they actually become fresher.

Even with the numbers up, the tour of the little barn behind the bungalow does not take long. The sense of intimacy is heightened by nicknames for all the horses: a No Nay Never colt, for instance, is “Floyd”–named after the boxer, Mayweather, who treated Conor McGregor much as this horse did his work. “McGregor came out boxing,” Ambrose explains. “Floyd just took his time–and this horse was the same, the next thing he unleashes power and speed, but not in a mad way. And he just goes on improving in his work.”

Sure enough, Mary likes No Nay Never (Scat Daddy) among the rookie sires; Ambrose, Coach House (Ire) (Oasis Dream {GB}). They have a colt by the latter selling at Ascot, and have given their 15-year-old son a stake. This is the coalface of the breeze-ups: hands-on, hardscrabble stuff. No matter how fast your horse, you need to talk that bit faster when you go and see that bank manager.

Mary stresses their gratitude to the work of the Breeze-Up Consignors’ Association, putting its shoulder to the wheel for David as well as Goliath. One way or another, anyhow, they are making a name for themselves. Someone asked them to break some National Hunt stores this spring. When they apologised that their hands were full already, and offered to send the horses on, they were told just to call back when their breezers were out of the way. Better to have to wait for a spot here than get one elsewhere now.

“There must be some good reports going along somewhere,” admits Ambrose. “Look, it’s very hit-and-miss, there’s no science to it. You learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Well I do, anyway. The saying is that if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not doing it right. And a lot goes wrong. Sure you could be out of business next year. You can easily come a cropper.”

“So it’s about building your reputation,” he says. “That way, if it doesn’t quite go to plan on the day, a person can still come to you and ask: ‘Is that horse all right?’ That takes a lot of time and you might suffer at the start, which we did, because our horses maybe didn’t look as sharp as the horse next door. But now people are beginning to realise. They are coming back to us, knowing our horses aren’t driven bananas.”

Mary and Ambrose have gone into battle only with a sling, but that keeps the eye keen and the stamina strong. “And actually it’s probably harder to get everything handed to you than to start out with nothing,” says Ambrose. “Because if you start with nothing, you can only go up.”

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