Willie McCreery's big dreams and no excuses

Willie McCreery almost hit the summit of Gaelic football when his Kildare side lost the 1998 All Ireland SFC final to Galway. He learned a lot from legendary Lilywhites manager Mick O’Dwyer, stuff he applies to his life as a racing trainer. Now he dreams of reaching the very top of his trade.

Complaining about the dominance of Dublin in football is the same as whingeing about the supremacy of Aidan O’Brien in racing as far as former Kildare midfielder and now established racehorse trainer Willie McCreery is concerned.

Pipe down and get to work, is the McCreery mantra. It was the philosophy that defined him as a footballer. Not the most refined with the boot, industry was his forte. The Clane man was legendary manager Mick O’Dwyer’s dream pupil in that laps were a pleasure, not a chore.

The engine that brought him from square to square for 70 minutes was housed in a body chiselled by a lifetime working with horses. He bounced off a lot of opponents traversing a pitch and they knew all about it.

Now, the man who helped Kildare win a first Leinster title in 42 years in 1998, and repeated the achievement two years later, is thriving as he closes in on his best season since taking out a licence in 2008, just three shy of his calendar-year best of 29 winners in Ireland before racing yesterday and lying seventh on the champion trainers’ table with almost €600,000 in prize money accumulated.

He remains a keen follower of Gaelic football and was a selector when Kildare reached the 2003 Leinster Final but doesn’t get to as many games as he would like to nowadays due to his growing success. The bond created with his former teammates remains strong though. ‘Sos’ Dowling and Eddie McCormack ride out at his Rathbride Stables on The Curragh most Saturdays. And it goes without saying that they debate the fortunes of the county team.

“They didn’t win the critical match I wanted them to win, against Armagh,” says McCreery. “That was the only game I wanted them to win. In our time if we lost by 10 points to Dublin it would be a complete disaster. They lost by 10 points to Dublin and fans were quite happy. I don’t know how you could ever be happy to lose by 10 points. That’s a load of codswallop to me.”

He can only see one winner of the All-Ireland.

“Nothing against Dublin; I think they play a brilliant brand of football but my heart would love Mayo… it’s going to be so hard for them.

"Mayo probably played a weakened Kerry team. They’re improving all year but I don’t think they can beat Dublin and I feel for lads that are going to be playing in six or seven All-Irelands and lose them. I lost one and I still wouldn’t be over it and that’s 20 years next year.”

During the Dubs domination over the last five years, some commentators argue that they have too many advantages and the notion of splitting the county for football purposes is being aired once more. McCreery couldn’t be more dismissive.

“Ah sure look it… we all have to step up and get up to Dublin. That’s it.”

The same applies in racing, where many trainers fail and some have to hand in their licences. There are those that point the finger of blame at the dominant forces such as Aidan O’Brien or Willie Mullins but the market is the market. No-one is entitled to anything.

“What can you do? We have to step up and try and beat Aidan. End of story. That’s what we have to do. He’s churning out fantastic horses and has them primed every time.”

McCreery grew up around horses. His father Peter trained Hilly Way to win two consecutive Champion Chases at Cheltenham and Daring Run to claim a brace of Irish Champion Hurdles. His brother Peter Jnr took over and bagged an Irish Grand National with Son Of War.

His uncle was Pat Taaffe, best known for his association with Arkle, and a jockey who finished his career with four Cheltenham Gold Cups, two Aintree Grand Nationals and six Irish Grand Nationals. For good measure, he also trained a Gold Cup victor, as did his son and McCreery’s first cousin Tom.

He always wanted to be a jockey but the powerful frame put paid to that aspiration. After six years as assistant to Charles O’Brien, he moved on to pre-train the yearlings at Kildangan Stud before moving on to one of Godolphin’s trainers. He obviously created a significant impression, as he has a number of Sheikh Mohammed horses now.

From there, he moved on to be manager of Huma Park Stud before becoming Iona Park Stud’s trainer in 2008. He saddled 17 winners in his two years in that role (Toasted Special getting him off the mark at Cork in June of his first season) but when that relationship broke down he took the chance to go out on his own in 2010 and moved to the Curragh.

Starting with 12 horses, eight of which he owned himself, he put a three-year deadline on making the business work on a shoestring. After preparing 11 winners that initial year, he has increased his tally every term since apart from once and built a broad base of support keen to ride along on his coattails.

He only has one runner during Irish Champions Weekend, with Patuano scheduled for the Curragh tomorrow. He has a better record than most in premier handicaps over the past couple of seasons but as he bids to reach the next level, the veterans that relished those sorts of contests have been retired and he has a slew of youngsters still making their way.

“You increase the quality unbeknownst to yourself. If you’re putting yourself out there and you’re winning good races, you get the options of getting better horses to train. Every time you run a horse it’s advertising. If it runs bad it’s bad advertising.

“Every horse that comes into the yard is potentially a Guineas or a Derby horse and you have to treat them like that until they tell you different. Every horse in the place is treated like that. You want to get the very best out of them. Some of them might be in March and some of them mightn’t be ‘til March the following year.

“As long as you’re progressing all the time it’s not too bad but you don’t want to be keeping one for a year and a half if it’s no good or potentially no good, if you’re not getting good vibes from him or her.”

He regularly equates horses to humans. Bloomfield is a three-year-old filly that didn’t run at two but won her maiden in June before increasing her value significantly by finishing second in Listed and Group 3 contests.

McCreery explains that patience and delicate handling is imperative with the juveniles, just as is the case with underage footballers. Some can come to hand quicker but often don’t progress to be ‘senior’ stars as a result.

“Bloomfield’s a very big filly. She was your typical teenager. All legs. You’d only damage them running at two. A horse will always give you 100% and if they’re not ready to give 100% it’s not fair to run them. If you push too hard with a two-year-old you mightn’t have a three-year-old. You might mentally and physically have gone over the top with them. It’s the equivalent of teenagers with big, long legs that have yet to grow into them.

“It’s like in football, you often see very good minors. It will be interesting to see how (David) Clifford does at senior having won three All-Ireland minors, because he’s been such a precocious young fella. He’s 6’ 2”. Will he train on?

“You’d often see two-year-olds win early on in the year but they never do better as the season goes on because A, they don’t have that longevity because they don’t have much room for improvement, and B, the precocious lads get out early before the good ones come out.”

McCreery has formed a fruitful partnership with Billy Lee, and the jockey is the type of horseman the trainer believes is vital in the education of young stock.

“The first day he rode Liquid Amber, he only hit her a flick to encourage her and teach her what to do. Then she comes on and runs 10 lengths better the next day because she’s had a nice, easy introduction. She didn’t have a hard introduction and frighten the life out of her.

“You can go and hit them 10 times and win first time out but they’ll never do anything again because they’re going back wondering what the hell that was all about. You want them to have a good experience and Billy’s very kind on them. He’s very sympathetic to them on the first few occasions.

“You want them to get into the routine of enjoying racing and coming on every time. It is a process. We mightn’t get the best of them for six or nine months but if they’re improving the whole time, that’s all we want to do.”

With the amendment to Rule 212, the so-called ‘non-trier’ rule, such tenderness has come under the microscope. The influence of betting has reduced the allowance for educating a horse about race day, with some claiming that all the education should have taken place at home. It is a patently absurd notion, as no amount of training can replicate the real thing and McCreery is willing to risk the wrath of the stewards and punters to do what he feels is right for his charges and their owners.

“I don’t care what the stewards do really. My horses don’t get hit first time out only to get a flick each side. If they’re going to win they might be hit three times and that’s it because I want them to come back the first day and think ‘That wasn’t so bad.’

“It’s the equivalent to a boxer being thrown in with Mike Tyson the first fight. Sure you’d never want to box again, would ya? If you bring a pup to the park and beat it, it will never want to go to the park again. It’s the same thing. You’re educating a horse to put him on a horsebox, to bring him to the races. You want them to have a good day out, to look around, see everything and learn from it.”

The proposal during the recent Labour Court case involving Ballydoyle and the Workplace Relations Commission that each horse should have two grooms is not rooted in practicality but McCreery is all for ensuring workers have fair conditions.

“People won’t be able to hire two people for each horse. What’s going to happen is that staff will only be allowed work certain hours over the week and they won’t be allowed earn their overtime. A lot of staff live on their overtime of going racing and working weekends. When they’re not allowed do that it’ll be a pretty dismal wage with no way of making a few quid and you’re back to square one.

“You’ll need double the staff but you won’t get them and you’ll have a lot of lads leaving the industry because the pay isn’t there. And the guy who wants to get on and wants to work isn’t allowed do it because of the labour laws.

“It’s not wrong. It’s the way it is. In France they have all the labour rights in racing... A lot of fellas are getting exploited around the country too and that’s not fair.”

Downforce faces a stiff task off top weight in the Listed Garrowby Stakes in York tomorrow but any rain that arrives will be a help. Patuano takes her chance in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Bold Lad” Sprint Handicap at the Curragh tomorrow and again, the forecast rain will suit.

“She’s a tough, hardy filly. She’s not over-big and that’s what you’re always afraid of in the sprints. The sprinters are like the male equivalent, extra-strong runners. The distance horses are always lighter-framed.

"You’d be afraid if you got a shoulder or bumped off one of the big six- or seven-year-old sprinters who’d have another 150 kilos on her and you’d be afraid she’d get pounded. But she’s a big heart.”

Colour Blue won a premier handicap for Rathbride on today’s card last year but it was at the inaugural ICW that he enjoyed his greatest day at the track, when Fiesolana provided him with his first Group 1 in the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes.

“She was a brilliant mare for me. She won six races for me. She won a premier handicap, three Group 3s, a Group 2 and then she won a Group 1. It’s the profile you’d love to see in every horse but unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

"She was a big, strong mare. She could carry weight and was a real professional. She was asleep ‘til you put the saddle on her and even then, it was only when you through the jockey on her she livened up. She was the consummate professional.”

Fine-tuning for the big day is a delicate balance.

“You’re trying to hold the athlete for the day. That’s what Micko was trying to do with us at Kildare. It’s the same with a horse. You’re trying to hone them in.

"I do think in ’98 we were 100% fit for the All-Ireland semi-final. I think we tried to get fitter and that’s where we went backwards. You often hear the term going over the top… you can only get yourself 100% fit. You can’t get 110% fit.”

So he looks to the future. Two recent maiden winners Albamanova and the aforementioned Liquid Amber were good enough to participate somewhere this weekend but the timing wasn’t right and with the latter in particular, there is the hope of being able to go to war at the top level against O’Brien, Bolger, Weld and co.

“She’s a big, scopey filly and the dam trained on and ran until she was four. Kitten’s Joy is a fantastic sire in America because he gets them on dirt and on turf and over various trips. That’s why you do this. You go to small tracks and you’re always dreaming of the big one and she’d have you dreaming now to be honest.”

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