Off The Beaten Track: If ever a trainer fit the handle of this column, it is Damien English, the Balbriggan native operating out of Grougha Stables in Naul.
The 32-year-old has held a training licence since 2011 and established a reputation for picking up cast-offs cheaply, only to turn them into money-spinners.
Central to the entire process is the daily ritual of a trip to the beach. It was borne out of necessity – he didn’t have any facilities to gallop his horses so went to Mornington instead. It proved restorative, mentally as much as physically, for his motley crew.
Cash Or Casualty was the first. Acquired from James McAuley, he provided the debut winner at the Galway Festival in that initial season. In all he triumphed nine times and was placed on a further 27 occasions.
Astute identification of horses of similar ilk has brought him to 52 winners to date. Geological is the current poster boy for the English methodology, “an absolute legend who has done so much for us”, having accumulated more than €160,000 in prize money since being acquired from the Richard Hannon yard for just 800 guineas three and a half years ago.
Bluesbreaker cost the same and won five times. English went to 3000 guineas for Tribal Path, who won six times in 2016 and the following season, finished fourth in the Irish Lincoln, a race he would love to win.
“I worked for a lot of trainers over the year and the horses they were buying from England, I couldn’t believe the value they were getting,” says English.
“So I just found if you’re buying these horses for smaller money, it’s less about training their body and more about training their mind. It’s about getting them interested again, sweeten them up.
“I was blessed that I had no gallop so we started using the local beach and just doing things a little differently, taking galloping away from them a little bit, until they get interested again.”
The English racing story started with Damien’s grandfather Joe, a farm labourer who maintained the fences at Fairyhouse. Damien’s father Joseph recalls cycling up from Balbriggan with his brother Jimmy and their father at times. Jimmy became a jockey with Jim Dreaper (Jimmy is now an artist), and though Joseph figured there were better ways of earning a living than riding, he was in thrall to the sport.
Damien was racing at Bellewstown and Fairyhouse before he could walk. He was riding ponies by the time he was four, even though the family lived in an estate in Balbriggan but once they moved outside the town when he was 10 or 11 and had a few acres, there was no stopping him.
The dream was to be a jockey, and during his time at the RACE academy in Kildare, he was lucky enough to do some work experience with John Oxx. His first job couldn’t have been in more different surroundings, with a more different value and calibre of horses, but Peter Casey was a brilliant tutor.
“My mother (Mary) sent me down first when I was 10 or 11, I think to try put me off the idea of leaving school to go racing. He was a hard man to work for but he was very fair. It was the making of me because he taught me how to mind horses. You might have went without food, sleep and drink but the horse got everything.”
A terrible fall in a point-to-point when he was 24 left him with torn cruciate and medial ligaments in his knee, as well as significant cartilage damage. Indeed he was still feeling the ill effects until recently and has only just returned to riding out duties after having another operation on his ACL that left him a frustrated spectator for two months.
“I was limping for five years and I’ve no limp now for the last month. So far, so good. I’d have spent 10 more years as a struggling amateur jockey before I’d ever have done this if it hadn’t been for the injury so it’s a blessing in disguise really.
“I worked in me Da’s factory for a year. It was the first time I got paid proper money. Nine to five, Monday to Friday but I just hated it. In a factory, driving a forklift, I wasn’t getting my kicks out of it, that’s for sure.
“James McAuley was training in Naul at the time and he got onto me to start riding a couple of lots. So I bought Cash Or Casualty off him and started training.”
Joseph funded the purchases and let his son at it. He and Mary have had a ball sharing the rollercoaster ride to date and the hopes are that there is more to come.
English’s success has attracted suitors such as Bright Star Syndicate and Galaxy Racing and he will have 20 horses for the upcoming year, and only one of those will be their own. What’s more, a few of them obliterated English’s previous high-spend figures.
Bright Star shelled out for a pair of two-year-old maiden winners. Swissterious, a 100-rated facile victor for Karl Burke last year that ran well behind Phoenix Of Spain, a subsequent just-denied runner-up in the Racing Post Trophy, cost 55,000 guineas, while North Wind came from Ballydoyle for 25,000 guineas, having won his maiden in Naas last July very easily.
“We got them in November and we’ve just put them away to freshen them up. They’re only starting back now. We also bought Trading Point out of David O’Meara’s for Galaxy. They’re all rated 90-plus so we’ve definitely upped the standard of the yard. I look around now and there’s not too many horses there that shouldn’t be winning.
“It was the first time we went to the sales with three figures to spend so it was brilliant. I still think we bought value. We bought the highest-rated two-year-old at the sales so we stuck to what we always do, we’re still looking for value. When I came back I said to my father, ‘He’s the dearest horse I ever bought, but he could turn out to be the cheapest.’
“This time last year we said we’d like to get a yard of premier handicappers and we’re starting to get there now, and even with these two two-year-olds now, they might even take us to the next level.
“Dundalk is only 20 minutes up the road. From October to December last year, we won €24,000 in place money only so I don’t think I’ll ever turn my back on that. It’s a great facility to have but definitely we’ll be focusing more on the turf flat season.
“Normally we’d have bought them two-year-olds and they’d be out in Dundalk by now but we’ll sit tight because they could be the ones to bring us to that next level.”
There is still Geological though.
“He’s the only one we own ourselves now and we’ll never let him go. He thrives on his racing. We gave him the full month of December off and when we brought him back in, he jumped onto the lorry to go to the beach. You could tell he was missing it.
“He will be back at Dundalk (tomorrow) night for the Fast-Track Qualifier he was second in two years ago to Captain’s Joy. With these better quality horses coming into the yard he’s going to have to be a bit sharper and when you’re as enthusiastic as him, even at seven, keeping up with them will bring him on I’d say.”
The beach’s rising tide is certainly doing the trick.