Thoroughbred Daily News
Southern Halo - Woodman's Girl, by Woodman - WinStar Farm
WinStar Farm - Versailles, KY | 1997 | Entered Stud 2001 | 2019 Fee $80,000 S&N

Lavery’s Intuitive Approach Paves Way To Success


The Sheila Lavery team at home with the late Lady Kaya | Emma Berry

By Emma Berry

This wasn’t the feature we had planned when TDN visited Sheila Lavery’s County Meath stable at the end of May. Naturally, the talk then was of Lady Kaya (Ire). Of her spirited runner-up finish in the 1000 Guineas at a distance just beyond her compass. Of her next task: a return to Britain for the most prestigious meeting of the year, Royal Ascot. Of the pride she brought to the trainer and her team who look after 36 horses—a mere ripple, really, in a pool in which rival trainers splash about with battalions numbering into the hundreds.

All that changed on Tuesday. During Lady Kaya’s final piece of work before her planned run in next week’s Commonwealth Cup, a life which had already delivered so much on early promise was cruelly cut short when the filly fractured a hind leg and was unable to be saved. It is the fear in all our hearts.

A dream died instantly, but for Lavery, in those moments as she watched jockey Robbie Colgan pull up Lady Kaya and realised something was terribly wrong, her mind, typically, was far from big-race glory.

“I saw it happen on the Curragh and all my thoughts were of saving the horse. Royal Ascot didn’t matter, it was just about helping her,” she said on Tuesday evening. “People outside the racing world think that we don’t care about the horses but we do.”

Nobody who spends more than a handful of minutes at Lavery’s farm just outside Summerhill could be in any doubt as to the veracity of this statement. It is a busy yard, with a small, friendly team of riders and a smaller, friendly pack of dogs. If such a thing as a peaceful bustle exists, then it’s what you’ll find as the morning work is undertaken. Thirty-plus horses are exercised with gentle exchanges between trainer and riders. There’s no jibbing, no fuss, just the occasional hand on a neck strap if a dog’s head happens to pop up in the grass alongside the circular, undulating canter that encompasses the property.

Lady Kaya wasn’t really supposed to come here. The trainer’s niece, Joanne Lavery, in embarking on the pinhooking business she is establishing at Drumree Lodge Stud, bought the weanling daughter of Dandy Man (Ire) from her breeder John O’Connor of Ballylinch Stud fame. When she failed to match her €15,000 foal price at the Tattersalls Ireland September Yearling Sale, Joanne decided to keep her to race.

“We were driving home from the sale and someone rang Joanne and offered €12,000, but she wanted €15,000 and she stuck to it,” Lavery recalled.

After Lady Kaya beat subsequent Oaks runner-up Pink Dogwood (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) by 10 lengths at the Curragh on only her second start last August, Joanne would have had to do a lot more sticking to her guns as the offers came in for her filly. Plenty of owners would have been tempted to sell, but the Lavery family’s faith in their charge was rewarded by classy performances from the filly in the best of company, including a runner-up finish to Skitter Scatter (Scat Daddy) in the G1 Moyglare Stud S. A winter break was followed by a winning resumption in the G3 Ballylinch Stud ‘Priory Belle’ 1000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown—providing her trainer with a first Pattern race victory and her breeder the chance to present the trophy—before what transpired to be her final race in the 1000 Guineas.

Reflecting on Lady Kaya’s early days, Lavery pinpoints her emergence as a potential stable star as the catalyst for Robbie Colgan’s transformation from being a National Hunt jockey to riding on the Flat. She says of her key team member who lives next door to the yard, “Robbie doesn’t say much but what he does say is pertinent. When the babies start cantering he will occasionally say, ‘she goes well’, and you know when Robbie says that you’re onto something good. But at the time Robbie wasn’t riding the Flat horses, so both Ronan Whelan and Gary Carroll had ridden her work and they both said that she was way above average. And I think she was the one that really pushed it for Robbie, because he said he’d do the weight. And that was it then. I think she gave him the inspiration—and the other boys were as sick as turkeys when they heard.”

It is not at all surprising that Lavery remained loyal to the relatively little known Colgan when doubtless she could have taken her pick of jockeys as Group 1 entries loomed.

“Apart from days when he’s racing, he’s been in with me every morning since I started,” she says. “I asked him loads during that time whether he could do the weight because he’s just class. And then he just started to, but he didn’t tell me at first. I went to Limerick one day and Robbie was riding at 9st 2lbs and I had a runner at 9st 8lbs with someone else on the horse. I looked at him and I felt dreadful, then later I gave out to him and he started to tell me last year when he could do the weight. Now I put him on everything.”

What is more surprising is the realisation that Lavery has only been training for six years. With the influx of new trainers typically being male 30-somethings, a 52-year-old woman taking out her licence is refreshingly outside the norm but, as a former eventer, she is not lacking in equine experience, and she is all too familiar with the rollercoaster ride which one must endure to live a life with horses.

“I’ve always bred, and then when something hadn’t sold I did a bit of pre-training,” she says. “Years ago I said I’d always like to train a good filly, and over the years I’d looked at it but they didn’t allow you to train as a restricted trainer of 2-year-olds. But then eventually I just started with four horses and it’s kind of grown ever since. I’m six years in but I’ve been in horses an awfully long time, and you know the downside and you’re used to the disappointments. But am I enjoying it? Yeah. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life and I love the horses.”

She cites the recently retired former champion jockey Pat Smullen as a great sounding board in her career to date. “He’s been fantastic, even from day one I’d bring a horse to the Curragh and Pat would sit up—he mightn’t necessarily ride it in a race but he’d sit up—and I kind of knew what this horse was in the back of my mind and then Pat would work up the Old Vic [gallop] and he’d come back and he’d tell me exactly what the horse was. And I’m looking at him and inwardly thinking, ‘yeah, you’re right’, and he’d tell you so you knew exactly what you had and where you were. He mightn’t realise how much help he has been, but he has.”

Around the time Lavery joined the training ranks, she was already associated with a good filly, Viztoria (Ire) (Oratorio {Ire}), whom she had in training with Eddie Lynam.

“I wasn’t silly enough to take her on,” she says of Viztoria, another inexpensively bought yearling who came good by winning four stakes races over three seasons. Retained as a broodmare, she now has a Dandy Man yearling filly and a Dark Angel (Ire) filly foal, but she too has brought her share of heartache.

“She aborted her first foal and then last year in July her Australia yearling colicked in the field. We’d just had our first double the day before in Galway, and it was great, and everyone’s saying ‘well done’ and in your head, you’re just thinking….” Lavery doesn’t quite find the words to finish the sentence. Once again, it was the animal in distress rather than success that was uppermost in her mind.

The horsewoman clearly not only has an eye for a youngster—she buys almost all the horses she trains at what could be deemed sensible prices—but also an intuitive approach to training which allows the horses to come to hand without being pushed too hard too soon.

“They might work up behind a horse and then pick up but we don’t work them off the bridle, we don’t gun them,” she says. “So not until they go to the races do we really know. For Lady Kaya’s first run when she was third, we knew we had something special, but I said to Robbie, ‘just educate her, just ride her, don’t give her a hard time’. And I think if he had picked up the stick she could have won, but she was third and it was the best thing ever when she came out the next time and won. With fillies, we just give them a nice introduction the first time.”

It is perhaps too much to hope, especially when hearts and nerves are still raw, that lightning might strike twice, but the approach outlined above already appears to be paying dividends with recent maiden winner Lil Grey (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}). The Newtown Stud-bred filly was bought at the Goffs Sportsman’s Yearling Sale for €12,000 by the trainer and her brother John, who plays a vital role as the major owner in the stable and has put together a syndicate of friends to race Lil Grey. She was second on debut to Mohican Heights (Ire) (Australia {GB}), who heads to the London Sale on Monday and is entered in the Chesham S., while Lil Grey reappeared on June 7 to beat a classily-bred field and is herself an intended starter in the G3 Albany S.

“Like Lady Kaya, she is a long-striding filly and we just like to let her bowl along on her own,” explains the trainer from alongside the canter as a streak of quicksilver breezes by, light on her feet like a dancer, Colgan in the saddle.

Lavery had already planned an outing for the Friday of Royal Ascot. That she now hopes to take a young filly in place of her late stable star will come as only small consolation, but it stands as testament to her ability for finding the right horse with which to take aim at major targets from a relatively small team.

Everyone knows how hard it is to find a good one. Just look at the number of darts fired at the board by the big operations each year in the hope of hitting a bullseye, and still sometimes they miss.

Lavery has already proved that her aim is true when a talented horse comes her way. Once the sadness of this week’s desperate loss subsides, the hunt will resume for the next horse to put her stable back in the spotlight. Indeed, she may already have found her.

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