Prendergast: A Colossus of The Curragh

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Kevin Prendergast after winning the 2016 Irish 2000 Guineas | Racingfotos.com

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The vast crowd swarming to congratulate Kevin Prendergast after his G1 Irish 2000 Guineas win with Awtaad (Ire) (Cape Cross {Ire}) was testament to the veteran trainer's popularity. Though popularity is not always a measure of merit, in this case there's no room for doubt.

This wasn't Prendergast's 'first rodeo', as they say. In 1976, he trained Northern Treasure (Ire) (Northfields) to win the Curragh Classic in the colours of his great friend, the late Davy Brennan. Other victories on the trainer's roll of honour include the G1 Irish 1000 Guineas, G1 2000 Guineas, G3 Coventry S., G1 Matron S., G1 Phoenix S. (three times), G1 National S., G1 Moyglare Stud S. (three times), G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup, G2 Pretty Polly S. (twice), G1 Irish Champion Bumper, G1 Irish St. Leger (four times) and G2 Hardwicke S., to list just the highlights.

Several of the above accolades were earned at The Curragh, Prendergast's base and favourite racecourse. When asked what race he would most like to add to his tally, the 86-year-old replies, “the Derby,” and he doesn't mean Epsom.

“We've been second or third in a few times but never won it. We wouldn't have had many runners in it,” he says of the Irish Classic. “Maybe eight or 10 runners.”

Prendergast had his first runner in the Irish Derby in 1964, just his second year of training, but it was in 1973 that he got his first real thrill, as Ragapan (Ire), a son of his father's Irish Derby hero, Ragusa, finished second.

Of his experience at Epsom, meanwhile, he says, “I've only had three or four runners in the Epsom Derby and the closest I got was fifth, twice, and Nebbiolo (GB) was sixth in it. He didn't stay.

“It's very hard to get a horse for Epsom, when you're going to the sales and buying a horse for €25,000 or €30,000. I had a horse who might have won the Epsom Derby in Northern Treasure and after he won the Irish 2000 Guineas, I said to the owner that we should enter him in the Derby, but he said 'No, it's too much money to enter, we'll run him in the Irish Derby'. He finished third, but Epsom would have really suited him.”

With Prendergast's obvious love for The Curragh, and his pride in Irish racing, it may be surprising to learn that he was, in fact, born in Caulfield, Australia. Educated in Ireland, he returned to Australia to work as assistant trainer to Frank Dalton and has great respect for what he learnt there.

He says, “Most of the Australian trainers are very good horsemen, most of them have done apprenticeships and many of the them don't need blacksmiths-they can shoe their own horses.”

Prendergast's connection to Australian racing doesn't end there, as both he and his father employed a number of Australian jockeys.

“Des Lake, Ron Hutchinson, Garnie Bougoure, Bill Williamson rode for my father,” says Prendergast. “The last fella I had was Rod Griffiths-a very good rider.”

The greatest success Griffiths and Prendergast enjoyed together was in the 1991 Phoenix S. with Bradawn Breever (Ire) (Salmon Leap) who made all and narrowly prevailed in a blanket finish.

Returning to his list of racing favourites, Prendergast says, “The horse that meant the most to me was Ardross (Ire) (Run The Gantlet). Financially he was very good to us at a time when we needed the money for death duties. He won the Jockey Club Cup, was second in the Gold Cup and was sold later that year.”

Ardross isn't a choice lacking in sentimentality, though, as Prendergast took over his training upon the death of his father, the legendary 'Darkie' Prendergast, who also bred the champion stayer at his Meadow Court Stud.

Selling winners is a crucial source of funds to many training operations and it is something Prendergast always keeps in mind, even as early as at the yearling sales.

“I was never in the habit of buying precocious horses,” he says. “Mostly, we'd look for a horse that if he wasn't up to standard as a 2-year-old, he'd win a 3-year-old maiden over a mile and a half, and you'd get him sold to go jumping. That's the way we've worked over the years.”

As well as being a top-class trainer, Prendergast is renowned as a shrewd judge of a horse, his stable stars having often been bought at affordable prices. In the past, he worked in tandem with the late Frank Barry of Manister House Stud, a bloodstock agent as well as a close friend.

On their approach, Prendergast says, “We were always a sucker for a good-looking horse, with a good step and usually, if they didn't have a great pedigree, we might have a chance of buying them. You like to buy horses by stallions who are getting winners, and who have good stallion pedigrees. A lot of horses retire to stud and they don't have stallion pedigrees.”

Among Barry and Prendergast's bargain buys are G1 Vincent O'Brien National S. winner Kingsfort (War Chant), who was bought for €36,000 at the Goffs Sportsman's Sale, G1 Moyglare Stud S. winner Termagant (Ire) (Powerscourt {GB}), bought at the same sale for €34,000, and the Godolphin-bred Coventry S. winner Verglas (Ire) (Highest Honor {Fr}), who cost £26,000IRP at the Goffs Orby Sale. Prendergast is now usually seen with former trainer and good friend Jeremy Harley at the sales, as well as at the races, with Harley always present at the yard on work mornings.

The trainer now finds it even tougher to secure the yearlings that catch his eye in the sales ring, as he explains, “Now, if you see a nice horse, three or four of the breeze-up boys get together and outbid you. It makes it harder for the ordinary trainer to compete. The sort of horse you used to be able to buy for €25,000 to €30,000 is now making €80,000 to €100,000.”

This also makes it more difficult on the track. “We notice here in Ireland, that in some of the auction races, you see horses that cost €100,000 running in auction races, which they shouldn't be allowed to do. The scale is too high for auction races to give the ordinary fella a chance. You could be up against a Galileo (Ire) that was bought back for €70,000 or €80,000, which can happen.”

Prendergast's eye for a good-looking horse is apparent at the races, with his runners easily spotted in the parade ring, always guaranteed to be donning a snow-white sheepskin nose band, a meticulously plaited mane, their quarter marks gleaming in the sunshine.

“You've got to have good staff,” he says. “If you haven't, you can't turn horses out well. I've been very lucky over the years to have had very good staff and most of them are with me a long time. I think it's a general approach, also including the feed and the wellbeing of the horse. The main thing in this country is that you have to keep horses warm.”

One of the horses receiving the best care possible at Friarstown Stables is Classic hope Madhmoon (Ire) (Dawn Approach {Ire}), who with two rugs and a red lamp, has no danger of catching a chill in the Irish winter. On his current stable star, Prendergast says, “He's doing very well and hopefully we'll be able to get him out at Leopardstown on Apr. 6 in the Guineas Trial, if the ground is not too bad. Then, we'll see if we'll run him in the Irish or English Guineas.”

Madhmoon was last seen running out an impressive winner of the G2 KPMG Champions Juveniles S. at Leopardstown during Irish Champions Weekend, an initiative Prendergast very much admires. He says, “Irish Champions Weekend is a great promotion for Irish racing. We're very lucky to have a great track like Leopardstown to stage it on, and it's very well run. Awtaad won the Boomerang Mile there, Madhmoon won the Group 2 last year and La Collina (Ire) won the Matron, so it's been a lucky meeting for us.”

He does, however, have one complaint about the Dublin track. “I like Leopardstown, but the only regret I have is that the trainers didn't get together and save the six -furlong sprint track. It was the best six-furlong track in the world and we lost it through incompetence.”

Madhmoon has become “very strong and muscular”, according to his trainer, and is a laidback individual, a characteristic his family shares.

“I've trained most of the family, including the grandam to win a Group 3, on the last day Sheikh Hamdan was at The Curragh. They're all pretty sensible and very genuine. It's a good, solid family,” says Prendergast.

Madhmoon is not the only Friarstown resident whose family Prendergast knows well.

He says, “I have a very nice filly belonging to Luke Barry–a half-sister to La Collina. She's a lovely filly by Zoffany (Ire), though much bigger than her sister. We like her.”

He also highlights an unraced Camelot (GB) 3-year-old filly as one to note. Out of Rebelline (Ire) (Robellino), whom he trained to win the G1 Tattersalls Gold Cup, she has been named Nan Yehi (Ire), and holds entries in the Irish Guineas and Irish Oaks.

Madhmoon shares his grandam with Friarstown's Irish 2000 Guineas victor of 2016, Awtaad, whose first crop conceived at Derrinstown Stud are now yearlings.

“I think Awtaad has a very good chance of being a successful sire as he has a very good temperament and is a good-looking horse,” muses the trainer. “In my opinion, his best run was his last run, in the Queen Elizabeth II S., and we would have loved to have kept him in training for another year, but Sheikh Hamdan wanted a stallion in Derrinstown. His foals sold very well; they averaged over 62,000gns, which is a very good price for a horse standing at €15,000. Most breeders got a good return. I actually sold a filly myself, out of a mare called Brown Butterfly, and I was happy with the result.”

He adds, “I've trained for Sheikh Hamdan for over 30 years and he's been a great supporter. Without him, we probably wouldn't be around. I had a very good friend, Tom Jones, who recommended me to Sheikh Hamdan and it went from there. Tom was his trainer in England at the time.”

The loyalty of Kevin Prendergast's staff, as well as his owners, is an excellent reflection on not just his success, but also his likeable nature. Stephen Craine has been with Prendergast for over 30 years; beginning with riding work while still first jockey to Tommy Stack, he later become Friarstown's first jockey and together, he and Kevin enjoyed much success. After retiring from the saddle, Craine remained as part of the team as assistant trainer, which includes breaking all of the stable's yearlings.

On his highlights of working with Prendergast, Craine says, “Winning two Legers for him was fantastic, but there have been plenty of thrills even since I stopped riding. Miss Beatrix (Ire) gave me a great high as she was tough to break, but went on to win the Moyglare and the Goffs Million. Awtaad was obviously brilliant to be involved in and we've also been placed in a good few Guineas.”

He adds, “I even got a great kick out of working with Kevin before I became first jockey. I was at my own place breaking a half-bred horse and Kevin dropped by, asking me to come round to sit up on an unraced grey colt by Highest Honor. I rode him and was impressed.” The horse was, of course, Verglas.

It's not always about the big days, though, as Craine knows. “I'd retired as a jockey but was still riding work when we had Wrong Key (Ire). I weighed about 9st 4lbs at the time, so when I rode her work, and she had the other horses under pressure behind her, I knew she was good. She only cost 4,000gns so we entered her in a median auction race at 8st 4lbs and Gordon 'Flash' Power claimed weight off her. Myself and Kevin had a right few pounds on her and she won by half the track, that was a great day, I really enjoyed that.”

Craine, more than anyone, should know what makes Kevin Prendergast a top-class trainer. He says, “Kevin is a brilliant judge of a horse–he just knows how who every horse is and leaves no stone unturned. He might not have seen a horse for just one day and he'd be able to tell if it had lost weight.”

The mutual fondness is clear, both in observing Prendergast and Craine together, and when hearing them speak of each other. Craine says, “We have a great laugh together–we're just great pals. He's a genius, he's unreal.”

There is no doubt that at least some of Kevin Prendergast's training ability, and natural aptitude with horses comes from his father and when asked what the greatest lesson he learnt from him, his final word on the matter is simply “discipline”.

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