“It could be right in one month, or it could be eleven months – you just never know,” the youthful Clonakilty trainer sighs.
It is five days since he first noticed the dreaded heat in Scarthy’s leg which indicated a strain or slight tear in the tendon. It is a potentially disastrous set-back for the horse and his many connections, owned as he is by a fourteen-strong syndicate based at the Whistle Inn in the West Cork hamlet of Ballinascarthy.
Having had over a year off with a fractured splint bone from May 2005 through to his winning return at Tipperary on October 1 last when he beat the much-vaunted Harchibald among others in a Grade Two hurdle, another injury would be a crushing blow.
“He was entered for a race in Mallow last Sunday week,” O’Leary reflects as he continues his ministrations to the horse. “But we gave him a gallop on the Thursday and when I felt his leg that night there was a lot of heat in it and…” his voice trails off, leaving unsaid the frustration and despair that are the inevitable lot of a trainer who knows he has a ‘big’ horse, but has yet to see the best of him because of circumstances beyond his control.
This, after all, is a beast who has won seven of his 21 starts and who has undoubted Cheltenham credentials, having kept company with and often beaten some of the best horses to emerge from this country in recent years. Names like Liberman (a subsequent Champion Bumper winner), Columba, Boneyarrow, Lincam and Harchibald, have all been vanquished, while top drawer performances against the likes of Hardy Eustace, Central House, Solerina, Like-A-Butterfly and Watson Lake have also been seen.
But now, just as things appeared to be getting back on track after 497 days off the race course, there’s been this latest hiccup.
“You have to resign yourself to these things,” O’Leary reflects. “You can’t blame any one or any thing, these things just happen and you have to be patient. I’m getting used to being patient.”
It is not as if training Scarthy Lad has been an easy ride for the 33-year-old (“put me down as 29,” he quips). Described fondly by his handler as “a nutcase,” he has been notoriously difficult to get ready for the track and starts getting agitated and sweaty every time a racing saddle is placed on his back.
Solutions have been sought everywhere, most recently a special magnetic rug which is supposed to calm him down during stressful moments. “We’ve even stuffed cotton wool into a pair of tights and plugged his ears with them and at Tipperary we saddled him in the trailer and only let down the ramp at the last minute before going into the parade ring,” O’Leary explains, attempting to illustrate how highly strung his stable star is.
“We also got him a special head collar with two magnets on it and a bridle with two more. They’re supposed to get rid of the nervous energy.”
Scarthy has also now got a full-time companion, a frivolous donkey called Eddie, who is a constant playmate, but who has still not been the answer.
“Even at the sales when we bought him, he was a pup,” O’Leary recalls, “and even now he’s a law on to himself. He’ll bite you if he gets the chance and he’s kicked me a few times.
He hasn’t put me in hospital yet, but it hurt, I can tell you.”
To say that O’Leary has gone to extraordinary lengths to try and extract the most from his charge is to underplay the situation and over at the nearby Whistle Inn, there is even talk of buying a laser machine to help cure the latest tendon scare.
“He’s always been a handful,” says pub owner and syndicate member Denis McCarthy. “There was the time at Fairyhouse when he unseated Jim Culloty. I heard two fellows in the parade ring and one of them says ‘Would you look at that Kerryman up on Scarthy Lad with the Cork colours on him.’ I’d swear the horse heard him.”
Nothing is overlooked in the attempt to make him a better horse. O’Leary has even forged a friendship with the legendary Paddy Woods, head lad to the equally legendary Tom Dreaper and the man who looked after Arkle.
“Paddy has been down here and given me a few pointers. Tom Dreaper never worked his horses for more than a mile-and-a- quarter and he kept his methods simple.
“He built things like drop fences and dug simple drains for his horses to jump and his horses always had legs under them when they jumped.
“I’ve also been over to meet the likes of Monica Dickenson (mother of Michael) and Jenny Pitman, and I supposed I’ve bored them to tears with all my questions. But I’ve learned a lot from people like that.”
He’s also learned a lot from people like Fergie Sutherland, the trainer of Gold Cup winner Imperial Call, or his friend and neighbour Raymond Hurley, who trained Whyso Mayo to win the Foxhunters at Cheltenham in March.
And, he has also learned a lot from bitter experience, the most obvious being the loss of this year’s Champion Chase winner Newmill, who, after a lacklustre period (“I’m not making excuses, but we had the virus in the yard”) was taken away by his owners and placed with John Murphy in Upton before going on to win at both Cheltenham and Punchestown last term.
“What can you say? The owner was perfectly within his rights to take the horse elsewhere and in fairness to John, he’s done a fantastic job. But it was a terrible blow. I had the virus in the yard. There were seven horses here – including Scarthy – with serious injuries and it seemed like I’d vanished off the planet as a trainer. It was a brutal time, but you have to move on.
“I suppose I did lose a bit of confidence in myself. When Newmill left, he had not been running well, but I never had a doubt he’d come back. He’d already won a good few races in good company. When he was taken away I knew it was going to hurt, but I didn’t realise how much.”
Along with his loyal head groom Sinead O’Sullivan, the unstinting support of his mother and father Gerry and Eileen, and supporters like the Ballinascarthy Syndicate and people like Margaret Ryan and Con Twomey (a local fruit and veg dealer who has a happy knack of putting syndicates together), Thomas has rebuilt.
He now has 22 inmates and with the likes of promising novice Jagoes Mills, cross country hopeful Il de Boitron (“he hates normal hurdles or fences, but he loves those cross-country yokes and he’ll win one soon”) as well as the recuperating Scarthy Lad, O’Leary still has several strings to his bow and he is also hopeful that several of the youngsters like Fitzcass and Hurricane Carter will come good.
“You’re learning all the time in this game and I’ve learned a lot in a short time. There’s been ups and downs, sure, but that’s the way of it,” he reflects.
Fixated by tendons right now – and understandably in the circumstances – O’Leary waits minute by minute to feel and sense any improvement in Scarthy Lad. “It could be right by next month or it could be next year. Who knows?”
O’Leary knows he has his ‘big’ horse, it is just a question of getting him right. No effort will be spared in that regard and, like Barclay Tagg, he will continue to be that sufferer of the persistent belief that rewards should be the reflection of thoroughness and decency.