By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Clare is not a hotbed of horse racing, in terms of trainers at least, but Newmarket-on-Fergus is where Aengus King holds a restricted licence, meaning he is allowed train four horses under NH Rules.
One of his quartet, Braize, is owned by Mike Neville, who is happy to have his charge with a long-time friend. King, in turn, has no issues with training the seven-year-old, because Neville is long enough in the sport to understand the percentages.
Primarily though, King has the licence so that he can train his own horses. As founder of the delivery service Cargo King, it might be assumed that he has the resources to buy at least at the middle end of the market but his sights are set much lower.
Capture The Drama has won eight times on the track and once in point-to-points but cost just €1,800. Four-time victor (including once between the flags) Change The Rules was purchased for €1,200. Sunday’s Galway winner, Well Tom, cost the same.
“I bought them all in the August Sale at Tattersalls as that’s the cheapest sale. If I go to the Derby Sale or the Land Rover, I just go for the day out. I might see something but I wouldn’t be buying it. It’s all a bit of education. I know there’d be no horse for me to buy.
“When I got to the August Sale, I get a catalogue and mark up the ones I think that would make the kind of money I’d be talking about. There’d be about 40 or 50 and I’d look at those.”
Horses available for such relatively meagre sums are either usually without talent or have physical or temperamental problems. With bargain-basement shopping, you have to forgive a lot but there are some non-negotiables nonetheless. After that, it is about what King applies from his experience built as a point-to-point rider, in hunting and from show jumping. The results are stunning.
“The work I do would be different to all the other trainers. When I break them, I ride them a lot. When I break them, you could ride flat work with them. I’d have a bit of experience in show jumping, would be a very good friend of Edward Doyle, so I understand flat work and when a horse is moving and carrying himself properly. If he doesn’t have those advantages, he has no chance of beating a better horse. I beat better horses because my horses are better prepared. Not because they’re better horses.
“When you buy horses at that level they have problems and there are certain problems I won’t touch. If he doesn’t have a good walk or if he has a bad heartbeat, I wouldn’t touch them. Other ailments I don’t mind about,” he says laughing.
He is quick to praise Eoin Mahon (schooling), John Staunton (at the track) and Anthony O’Gorman (cleaning stables) for the work they put in.
But patience is required too and King’s policy of not allowing the use of whips at home is part of that. Take Well Tom.
“We always thought he was a nice horse from the day we got him. Those Well Chosen horses have a lot of ability but a lot of people don’t get it out of them because they’re very gregarious. They’re like young lads. They don’t mature fast. They’re very hyperactive. You can’t chastise them.”
Capture The Drama wasn’t the most amenable initially either but has been a model of consistency since landing his maiden at Gowran Park in March 2016 at huge odds.
“You’d have to come and see him to appreciate what we do with him. The time he won at 100/1, I hadn’t ridden in five or six years and at my age, I shouldn’t be riding anyway — hunting alright but not riding a racehorse.
“How I didn’t get killed off him is a miracle, but anyway, I got him to relax. I knew he’d improved going to Gowran that day. It wasn’t a super maiden that he won, but he won it. We were in shock more than anything else. To be honest with you, our mouths were open. We didn’t even shout him up the straight. We thought we’d be beaten a cricket score.
“We had an awful problem in the stable with him. He was never happy so I painted a mural on the wall of the countryside, but there’s depth in it. It makes the stable seem three times bigger than it is. When you’re standing at the stable door you think you’re looking up the field.
“You know the way a horse rubs off the walls with their covers. He’s never touched the mural since it went up a year and a half ago.”
Now 63, King still rides out though he doesn’t school horses over fences anymore. His morning starts at 5.30am and finishes at 9am, giving himself an hour to gather his thoughts before he moves on to the day job.
Well Tom will continue to improve he maintains, having benefitted from a hobday procedure to address a breathing difficulty that had been preventing him from seeing out his races. Once the ground turns winter soft, he will be taking a break.
That will be the signal for the mudlarks Capture The Drama and Change The Rules to return. The latter has recovered from a bad injury and then a freak accident when on the comeback trail. Some birch from a fence lodged into his hind foot and the resultant infection almost claimed his life.
“He was on a drip for 10 days. If you saw what came out of the leg. The vet said if I’d waited, he’d have been gone.”
King also owns four horses that he is allowed train for the point-to-point circuit. Sales from this sector have combined with his success rate to ensure that he hasn’t had to dip into his pockets for the past three years.
He has a remarkable strike rate on the track, revelling in bettering even the man he reveres, Willie Mullins, in that regard when hitting 35 per cent (six winners from 17 runs) in 2016/2017, thanks largely to Capture The Drama’s five triumphs.
Would he call what he does a hobby?
“It’s called lunacy. What I do now, unless you loved it, you wouldn’t do it. And the day I won’t like it, I’ll close shop.”
That’s a while away yet.