By Chris McGrath
Mark Dwyer can't really explain it, either: the fact that so many of those about to launch another crop of pinhooked yearlings into the European breeze-ups should have come into the game from jump racing. On the face of it, after all, they are now at the very opposite end of the spectrum. After years handling the big frames of slow-maturing steeplechasers, they are honing the sharpest of Flat blades.
Several consignors in America made the same transition, not least the man who once taught the young Dwyer to ride in Eddie Woods. And in the European market, those to have done so include Norman Williamson, Roger Marley and now Katie Walsh. Above all there is the doyen of the trade himself, Willie Browne, who routinely partners with Dwyer not just in the breezers he assembles every year at Oaks Farm Stables, near Malton, but also in foals and jumping stores.
The one theory Dwyer does put forward is itself a bit of a paradox, given the relative brevity of the pinhooking process. But it's an instructive one, as a breeze-up business will only survive if the promise showcased in such young horses proves to be sustainable.
“You could maybe relate it to the fact that you have to protect the jumping horse for the future,” Dwyer says. “That you have to mind them a bit. Because with these breeze horses, when you're looking at them every day, the most important thing is just making sure you're not overdoing them. Those horses I was associated with, jumping, were nurtured four, five, six years. Forgive 'N Forget got to Cheltenham six years running, and was a single-figure price every time. And that becomes one of the things that stays with you: if you look after them, they look after you.”
By the same token, he notes, many successful Flat trainers also graduated from jump racing. When he was stable jockey to Jimmy FitzGerald—the man who preserved that flame in Forgive 'N Forget, one of two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners ridden by Dwyer before his career was ended by a fall at Kelso in 1996—the guvnor's young assistants were named Richard Fahey and John Quinn. Ralph Beckett was cutting his teeth in the yard, too.
“Fitzy was a hard man, he didn't take prisoners, I don't think anyone would dispute that,” Dwyer remembers. “But the horse came first. If he sent a horse all the way down to Newbury but then wasn't happy with the ground, he wouldn't run. And it is true that unless you look after them, you won't get the return.”
In those days, of course, a sideline of some kind with young horses was often simply a pragmatic use of the long summer break. Jockeys might have a small livery yard at home, and one thing would sometimes lead to another. Dwyer, moreover, had only transferred to jumping because of increasing weight, having served his apprenticeship at the famous academy of Liam Browne.
It is the latter's namesake, however, who has proved a still greater influence. Dwyer often rode for Willie Browne before coming over from Ireland to join FitzGerald, in 1982, establishing a rapport that only strengthened as the scope of their joint endeavours broadened.
“Listen, he's been a big help to us all the way through,” Dwyer says. “We've had our moments, but they're brief, and you move on very quickly. Invariably, we'd like the same type. He's taught me that you need a bit of size and scope, and they need to be athletic. They've got to be able to pull out there, and walk up and down and with a purpose. Correctness is a big thing as well—even if sometimes they can change, and usually for the worse. Because even though we'd probably argue more about a foal, a yearling's more difficult. You wouldn't think so, but they can come back and bite you. So that one you're doubtful about, you tend to leave alone.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules as to how the pair divide their interests. A Doncaster yearling will tend to go up the road to Dwyer, rather than ship to Co Tipperary, but their American pinhooks, say, will just be divided according to the scale of their respective facilities. Dwyer's is a more intimate outfit, this time round hosting around 10 foal pinhooks and 15 breezers; Mocklershill operates on a more industrial scale, and as such will have plenty of other projects besides those shared with Dwyer.
“Willie buys plenty of horses I wouldn't, and invariably he's right and I'm the one licking my wounds at the end of it,” Dwyer says. “But we all have to make choices and you wish them all well.”
With the European breeze-up circus about to resume, starting at Ascot this week, Dwyer has been putting the finishing touches to his quest for the next Sir Gerry (Carson City), the subsequent G2 Gimcrack S. winner he sold at the Craven Breeze-Up in 2007.
“He was a good horse at home and a good horse at the sale,” he recalls. “There were no surprises there. He was a sound horse who went on and did what he was supposed to do.”
Dwyer feels his consignments for this spring are well up to scratch, not least after installing an equine spa last year. While they still have to do it on the day, he likes an Equiano (Fr) at Doncaster, for instance, that he couldn't sell last autumn; and also three that followed the Sir Gerry route from Keeneland: colts by Lemon Drop Kid and Flatter at the Craven Sale, and a Candy Ride (Arg) at Doncaster.
Pinhooks that fell through the September gaps in Lexington have yielded some spectacular dividends in Europe over recent seasons, and none of these cost much relative to the talent they have evidently been showing. But Dwyer reckons that European yearlings, while typically lacking the physical precocity of American stock, usually catch up over the winter.
“If it's good, it's very good,” he says of Keeneland gambles. “If it's bad, it's very bad. You can take a bit of chance: the Americans' veterinary [screening] is quite tough to get through. We use our vet, you get your pros and cons and you make a judgment. And you can get great value on that basis.”
Like Browne, however, Dwyer is less keen on another American import to the European scene: the timing laser. Nowadays he sees an almost robotic link between the fastest times and the biggest prices.
“We like to buy a long-term horse, a nice, scopey horse that's bred to go a mile and a quarter,” Dwyer says. “Some people are better than others at making them to go quick, and I don't fit in that category, for sure. And I wouldn't want to. I have no interest in pushing them to the limit.
“We work against a hill on the grass and I'd never want to see them flat out here because they're doing enough doing for this stage of their lives. I'd never gallop them five furlongs. When they're ready, they'll do two six-furlong canters. You build them up. You get them upsides; then they go three, three and a half furlongs; then you get them to breeze along for two; and then eventually you get them to train on their own. But of course some you've got to back off, others will need a bit more.”
That's where the old school horsemanship comes in. Reading a horse by looking at his manger, not your stopwatch. Dwyer has a living to make, naturally, and accepts the need to meet the market halfway. But he feels saddened by an automatic collapse in the value of horses that “fail” to make the top 10 or 15% on the clock.
“If everything vets right, and they're happy with the physical, invariably the top times will make the most money nowadays,” he says. “Are they the best racehorses? I'm not sure. But there's a certain faction out there that are just completely blinded by the speed figures. It's the visual that's important to me, though I suppose that would probably make me a poor man if I was buying breeze-up horses. And I can see that if you were an agent, and your client's in Hong Kong, and you're sending him a list of times, and you want to buy number 100 on the list, it's going to be a lot harder to make your case. Even though it will only be a few tenths behind.”
Happily, as with all bloodstock markets, there is a daily corrective in the winning post. If the same consignors annually produce explosive breezers that promptly implode once asked to gallop more than two furlongs, then the market should—in principle, anyway—figure things out.
“This business is about credibility,” Dwyer says. “You might be wrong about things, but if you're speaking honestly, and people can believe you, that's as good as you can get it, really.”
And really that takes us back where we started—to that horsemanship you get in a jump jockey. Dwyer knows there's more to a young horse than :20-odd seconds of frenzied galloping. As a rider, he was always methodical in thinking through a race: playing his hand according to the strengths and weaknesses both of his own mount, and of his rivals. And he tries to see his business in the round, too: wearing the losses, not getting carried away by the odd home run.
“Nothing grieves me more than bringing a horse home from a sale,” he says. “If there's a live punter there, just take the loss, move on, and hope there's enough on the other side to make up for it. I've a horse out here we gave 130 grand for, as a foal. And he's now three. But so long as you can keep the corners covered, you just think a bit better about the whole thing. If you're stretched, and your back's to the wall, it's a different place to be. I've been there. And I'm not saying I won't be there again.”
A few consignors will have learned as much last year, in bringing unwanted yearlings back to market after seeing the headline gains of the previous cycle. Dwyer cautions that if ever the game appears easy, you aren't seeing the whole picture. That would apply as much to those enslaved by the clock, as to those responsible for a glut of mediocre horses last year.
“The volume was just over the top,” Dwyer says. “I'd say 800 to 900 in the system is loads, never mind 1,100 to 1,200. The market can't cope with that. The people aren't there for it. Remember some people out there just don't like the breeze-ups, even though it's been such a great source of winners, year on year. And top-class winners too. But those horses aren't always going to be the fastest in the breeze. And some guys out can find them just by seeing them come up there. They won't mind the time so long as it's reasonable. They'll use a little bit more imagination than just the black and white numbers. Because no matter what we're doing, none of it's simple.”