'We Are Going To Get Relegated If We Keep Selling Our Best Strikers'

Ger Lyons | Tattersalls


   There have been a lot of football analogies in racing this week. Most have centered around a hypothetical situation whereby the Kevin De Bruynes or the Erling Haalands of this world were leaving the Premier League for sunnier-and more lucrative pay packets-in foreign leagues. 

   For all the Manchester City fans out there, you can relax, as the analogy was simply fictional. However, there is nothing fictional about the mass exodus of talent facing British and Irish racing.

   Ger Lyons is better qualified than most to speak about the problem. Lyons, who has held a training licence for over 25 years, has built his impressive Glenburnie Stables in County Meath into one of the best training facilities in Ireland.

   He secured a breakthrough Classic success in 2020 when Siskin stormed to Irish 2,000 Guineas glory at the Curragh while Even So provided the stable with its second when landing the Irish Oaks in the same season. 

   From losing some of his best prospects to the international market, poor prize-money and what he describes as a lack of opportunities for good horses in Ireland, Lyons makes for a fascinating interviewee in this week's Q&A.

Brian Sheerin: You have trained 41 winners this season–only Aidan and Joseph O'Brien have managed a greater tally at this juncture–and you have already surpassed the €1 million mark in prize-money at Glenburnie. Everything is on course for another big season.

Ger Lyons: Everything is going steady away. We haven't run many 2-year-olds so far this season and I have had to be patient with them. The quality seems to be good as we are holding our own in stakes races which has always been the objective for us. 

BS: While things have been going well on the track, I know from speaking with you at length just over a month ago that you have major concerns for Irish racing. You also described yourself as “a pre-trainer” for international handlers due to the exodus of high-class horses to the foreign market. Would you care to expand on that?

GL: Sadly, our prize-money is very ordinary and what I would describe as the 'good horse' is being neglected, hence why they are all being sold to continue their careers abroad. From the top owners right down the ranks, no-one is able to turn down Australia, Hong Kong or America when they come calling. It's disappointing to have to sell our best prospects but the economics of it all makes sense. Not only that, but the owners can see the earning power for their horses in America and we have seen countless examples of horses being moved out there in pursuit of greater prize-money. Masen (GB) (Kingman {GB}) is the most recent horse to leave my yard for America. He has won over $300,000 in three runs in America but would have struggled to earn €100,000 in Ireland this season–and that's if he won three races over here, the chances of which would have been very slim as the opportunities just aren't there. 

BS: Mark Johnston echoed the same opinion in last week's Q&A. He revealed that the owners of Royal Patronage (Fr) (Wootton Bassett {GB}), a Group 2-winning 2-year-old who reached a rating of 113 in his 3-year-old campaign, decided to move the colt to America in a bid to win more prize-money. Johnston was keen to point out that he didn't blame the owners but admitted the drain on resources is becoming hard to contend with as a trainer. Do you feel the same?

GL: I certainly don't blame the owners as we all trade. However, if we keep selling our best horses then we are going to be left racing what's left over and our product will lessen every year. If people don't want to watch our best, how will they come and watch lesser quality races and races with small field sizes? This trend needs to be addressed quickly as we are already a long way down a very slippery slope.

BS: Here's the bit that doesn't make sense for me; Mutasarref (GB) (Dark Angel {Ire}) is a horse who you bought for 95,000gns from Dermot Weld at the Horses-in-Training Sale last October. He was obviously well-bought given he's won three races for you–at Leopardstown, the Curragh and last week at Naas–and has improved 25lbs in the process. However, he's picked up less than €30,000 for those wins at premier tracks and only qualified for that Naas race by virtue of the fact he hasn't won a race worth €15,000 or more. 

GL: He's a good example of a good horse not being rewarded with the prize-money he deserves to be winning. He is now rated 105 after that Naas win but look at what he has earned–it's pathetic. Good horses should be rewarded yet we seem to reward mediocrity. In what world should a stakes-placed horse earn the same as a low-grade handicapper operating in the 45-65 bracket? It does here and that's wrong. The strategy [from Horse Racing Ireland] seems to be all about minimum prize-money levels whereas I would have the lower-rated horses earning a maximum figure and it wouldn't exceed €5,000. No handicapper should be earning more than a stakes horse. It's not long ago that a certain rating, say in the 70s, wouldn't get you into a premier handicap. Now it will, which shows how far the standard is dropping. Not only that but, if you are going to reward mediocrity, that promotes cheating but that is another can of worms that I won't open!

BS: There was a story in The Times on Wednesday about how some leading figures in British racing are pushing for a restructuring of the sport that would result in a greater slice of prize-money being channeled to the elite level. It may not be a popular viewpoint but I gather it's one you would agree with?

GL: I was looking at the figures published at the end of last year and it showed that the average prize-money on offer for the premier handicaps was more than that for listed and Group 3 races which is not only astonishing but, in my opinion, wrong. I am also a big believer that our maidens need to be worth more money. You can only win your maiden once and you should be rewarded for doing so, especially because, in order to win a maiden in Ireland, you need to be rated in the mid-80s or above on average. So, when you win your maiden, that is obviously going to limit your chances when you step into premier handicaps. Therefore, the maidens should carry more prize-money. 

BS: You mentioned last month that the notion of prize-money in Ireland being strong was a myth. It's hard to argue against that viewpoint when you look at Slan Abhaile (Ire) (Territories {Ire}), who finished fourth in the G3 Anglesey S. and picked up just €2,750 for her troubles. Had she finished third and picked up black-type, she would have won just €5,500, which is still less than what you'd get for winning a 0-65 handicap.

GL: That's exactly my point and to add insult to injury, if she had finished third and picked up that valuable black-type, that would have ruled her out of a lot of listed races going forward as the conditions of most of those races state that horses who placed in group races can't run. The Ingabelle S. on Irish Champions Weekend is certainly one of those races so, while we were only beaten a head for black type in the Anglesey, I felt it was actually a good outcome as we still have the option of those listed races. But again, here is another example of the programme hindering the good horses whereas you can run your low-grade operator every day of the week if you want to.

BS: HRI released its six-month statistics last week. The figure that jumped out at me is that prize-money still hasn't risen to pre-pandemic levels despite the fact that HRI boss Suzanne Eade put prize-money at the top of her priority list when the budget was released in December. Not only that, but the Irish Derby, which is meant to be the flagship race of the season, carried a purse of €1m when it was worth  €1.5m before the pandemic in 2019. In actual fact, when High Chaparral (Ire) won the Irish Derby 20 years ago, the race was worth €300,000 more than what it was run for this year.

GL: That speaks for itself and I find they [HRI] try to dress up these reports to convince us that all is rosy in the garden but we are the ones on the playing field and we know the reality of the situation. Look, I was lucky to win two Classics in 2020 [the Irish 2,000 Guineas with Siskin and the Irish Oaks with Even So (Ire) (Camelot {GB})] and both races were worth just €145,000 each to the winner–I've won handicaps worth more. The Ebor for example, which we won with Mustajeer (GB) (Medicean {GB}), was worth €1m. By the way, both of my Classic winners were sold to go abroad! 

BS: You have made it clear that you have no interest in training horses below a certain standard. Given the lion's share of the horse population is rated 70 or less, I am interested to know how you go about weeding out the ones who don't make the grade. I know you are a big fan of claimers.

GL: Plenty of people will say, 'it's all right for Ger to say that,' but, like everybody, I do train plenty of low-grade horses–I just choose to move them on and concentrate on the quality. The claimers have been very successful for us and we need a minimum of one a week. Jim Gough claims a lot of my horses and has great fun with them. He actually came over and shook my hand at Naas last week and complimented me on not only supporting those races but for being realistic with price tags that I put on them as well. That allows him to claim them and enjoy them. Just because I don't want to train horses at that level doesn't mean I don't have them. I just choose to move them on. The authorities need to get their heads around the fact that there are hugely positive aspects to claimers and they need to be made more customer-friendly. I think that the claimers are a big addition to the programme and, if I had my way, I would replace a lot of the low-grade handicaps with claimers.

BS: There will also be people who read this and think, 'But Ger, if it wasn't for trading horses, Glenburnie would not have become the behemoth that it is now.' 

GL: At the start, horses were much cheaper to buy and the upside to trading them on was much greater. Nowadays, it's virtually impossible to buy the level of horse we were buying at one point for less than €50,000. There are always exceptions but in general the price of horses has escalated beyond all recognition which flies in the face of my prize-money argument.

BS: When you were starting out, and trading horses was necessary to survive, did you ever envisage a situation whereby, once you arrived at the top table, you would still be faced with the prospects of losing your best horses.

GL: In short, no. I always imagined it would be different when we got the good horses but times have changed and, as I said already, even the top owners are sellers now. Sure didn't Aidan [O'Brien] sell a Derby winner [Serpentine (Ire)] to Australia recently? It's very frustrating and I always use the football analogy in that we–and I mean Britain and Ireland here–are the team that keeps selling our best strikers. Sooner rather than later, we are going to get relegated.

BS: In the immediate future, you have some smart prospects to look forward to. Apricot Twist (Ire) (Expert Eye {GB}) looked a potential top-notcher on debut at Naas last week. Could we see her in the Ballyhane S. next Monday?

GL: She's lovely but the race could just come too soon as she only ran last week. I've done very little with her since but when there is a race with such good prize-money, it's imperative that we support it. Barry [Mahon, racing manager at Juddmonte] and I will discuss it and do the right thing by the filly first and foremost.

BS: You won the race last year with Sacred Bridge (GB) (Bated Breath {GB}) and, judging by the entries, have been keen to record back-to-back wins. What struck me about your entries is that some of them haven't even run yet so I am presuming you have kept a bit of powder dry for the second half of the season.

GS: We have. As I said, it's important to support such initiatives and hopefully I will have a few runners in the race. I've plenty of bullets to fire in the second part of the season as we have been very disciplined with the babies so far.

BS: It's one thing getting these well-bred fillies to train but another thing altogether managing them to fulfil their potential and achieve the valuable black type that they need before they go to the breeding sheds. You must get huge pleasure out of that aspect of the game?

GL: It's one of the great pleasures of this job and one that I very much enjoy. I always remind myself that these babies could be the dams of my next Classic winners, hopefully. One thing that I have learned that I didn't appreciate at the start is that an ounce of breeding is worth a ton of feeding.

BS: And speaking of high-class broodmare prospects, they don't come much better than Cairde Go Deo (Fr) (Camelot {GB}). I thought she ran a cracker in the Irish Oaks and would be excited to see her step up in trip in time. What are the plans for her?

GL: She's a sweetheart and is slowly developing into what we hoped she would be. I trained her mother and liked her and it was that reason that made me purchase Cairde Go Deo on behalf of Mark Dobbin. Also, the fact that she was by Camelot, the same sire as Even So, made it an easy decision. Hopefully she will stay in training at four, and yes, she should mature into a very good stayer.

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