“I’ve never taken horse racing seriously enough to need an out,” says multiple Group 1-winning trainer Jim Bolger, who yesterday afternoon opened his Coolcullen yard to the press for a preview of Longines Irish Champions’ Weekend, which takes place on Saturday September 10 and Sunday September 11 at Leopardstown and the Curragh respectively.
Those words, delivered in customary tongue-in-cheek style, belie a career at the top of his profession spanning decades and a passion for hurling, which persistently raises its head in conversation throughout the afternoon.
He speaks proudly of his annual Hurling For Cancer charity match which ran for the fifth consecutive year in 2016, and has, to date, raised more than half a million euro.
And in between conversations about Teofilo, New Approach and St Jovite, amongst other former luminaries of the stable, he entertains with stories of his other love in sport.
As the assembled press pile into the jeeps to take a spin up the two gallops, he halts our progress to tell of a local county final in which a van was being used as an ambulance.
With one player injured from the first-half clashes, he tells us, the driver approaches the referee to ask: “Will I bring this fella to the hospital straight away, or will I wait for a (full) load?”
The jeep door closes, and we get back to the business of horse racing. The first gallop, lined on both sides by leylandii hedges and covered with a surface of Wexford sand and shredded carpet, runs close to the woodchip gallop, lined with beech.
It’s an idyllic setting but, most importantly, an effective training ground for the blue bloods which represent this leading yard.
The Champion Stakes is the feature event of the star-studded weekend, and it’s a race which Bolger has won twice, with Park Express in 1986 and with one of her progeny, New Approach, 22 years later.
“We knew we were going there with a live chance,” says Bolger, recalling that first success.
“I don’t think it had been won by a filly up to that time, so we were having to break new ground. But she was at the top of her game, and I was hopeful she wouldn’t be too far away. She won well in the end. It was a very memorable day.
“New Approach was coming back from an injury, having won the Epsom Derby, so we were hopeful he would collect that on his way to Newmarket for their Champion Stakes.”
This year Bolger will be represented by Moonlight Magic, who is in fear of becoming a forgotten horse, after finishing down the field in the English and Irish Derbys.
But his trainer insists we should not discount the Derrinstown Derby Trial winner, who has a fine record at Leopardstown.
“He didn’t handle Epsom, and he may not have got the trip at the Curragh,” says Bolger, before adding: “I’m not short of excuses.”
“He ran a good race over ten furlongs at the Curragh the last day, and will have improved since then.
"I’m putting him in as an each-way chance for the Champions Stakes, and I’ll be disappointed if he’s not in the first three. He’s certainly bred to be that sort of horse – his dam is a half-sister to Galileo.”
Patience and a sprinkle of genius have helped Stellar Mass develop from a frustrating sort, to one who was just out of the frame in the Irish Derby.
“He is very much an intended runner in the Clipper Logistics mile-and-a-half Group 2, and is in really good form,” says Bolger. “He was a slightly late developer. As a two-year-old he got chinned a number of times, but it was usually by one of Aidan’s (O’Brien) better two-year-olds.
“This year he has progressed a little bit better than some of those, thankfully, and I think there’s more improvement in him. If he holds his form until the end of the season, I’d say we’ll have him in training next year. He doesn’t want it too firm.”
With the subject within earshot, Bolger, in his own inimitable style, adds: “Pat Keogh (Leopardstown Racecourse CEO) has assured us we’re going to have good ground at Leopardstown, as distinct from good-to-firm.
“And I think Dermot Weld will be marking him closely,” he quips, referring to dual Derby winner Harzand’s preference for some cut in the ground.”
Of Bean Feasa, who is expected to take up one of her engagements, in the Group 1 Moyglare, or the maiden, Bolger says: “She’s a half-sister to Teofilo. She’s in good order now, and hopefully she’s getting back to the order she was in the first day.
“We’re not giving up on her, and I view her as a nice prospect for next year. We’re not sure which race she’ll run in yet, but the maidens there will be like group races – they’ll be hard won.”
Flight Risk, who “we haven’t seen the best of him yet” will also likely be in action, while Siamsiocht, Glamorous Approach, Ringside Humour (“the busiest filly in the country”) and Tribal Beat are all possible runners.”
Champions’ Weekend, which is in its third year, is growing all the while and Bolger relishes being part of the meeting, in which there is likely to be plenty of international flavour.
“There’s an opportunity there for any horse with a rating of 95 upwards, and there’s plenty of money there to be won,” he explains. “Even some for some of the less successful stables, if they happen to have one or two horses that can run there and run well they’re going to help to keep the show on the road.
“It’s nice to be competing with the top owners, who don’t really need the money, because if you beat them you don’t have to feel sorry for them. That’s the situation in the big races, where it’s every man or woman for themselves, and the best horse usually wins – and that’s the way it should be. I do like the cut and thrust of it.”
While Bolger may have had stronger teams on paper, it would be folly to underestimate the Coolcullen maestro. Amongst the more-established runners lies a potential ace in the pack. The once-raced Tradfest comes in for favourable mention, as one “we hope could be a classic-type for next year” and perhaps she’ll return in 12 months’ time with even greater ambitions.
Whichever way his fortunes swing over the two stellar days, the forthcoming champions’ weekend will not define Jim Bolger. But Jim Bolger’s participation is an essential part of what defines Longines Irish Champions’ Weekend.
He didn’t handle Epsom, and he may not have got the trip at the Curragh. I’m not short of excuses.
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