Sunday, 25 September 2011



JOHN OXX  has unleashed some smart-looking-two year-olds as he bids to find a worthy successor to SEA THE STARS. But, as STEVE DENNIS  finds, he has other matters on his mind.

“On the day the trainer’s classic contender AKEED MOFEED faces a big test, Oxx talks to Steve Dennis in a major interview.

“IRELAND doesn’t have a God-given right to retain its good name for racing and breeding just because we have a great love of the horse. It only takes a few bad decisions and the house of cards begins to come down.

“His horses do the talking for him, but when John Oxx opens his mouth  it’s always wise to listen. He chooses his words carefully and unhurriedly, the way he trains the horses at his yard on the far side of the Curragh.

“The understated, unruffled, almost unobtrusive Oxx is a reluctant witness before the all seeing eye of the media. He would rather be left to train in peace but is conscious of his duty in this respect, conscientious in carrying them out. When you enjoy the sort of success Oxx can lay claim to the world will beat a path to your door whether you like it or not.

“He has won two Derby’s, two Arc’s, two King George’s, two Irish Derby’s a Breeders’ Cup Mile, and in the mighty SEA THE STARS trained the king of horse luck allows once in only a very few lifetimes. Oxx is a wanted man , and he gives himself up with a good grace.

“I’m not a media person, I don’t particularly like it at all,” he said, “I’m just not comfortable with it, but I’ve come to realise that it’s part of the game.

“A few years ago I was getting SINNDAR ready for the Derby, and I was thinking  ‘I won’t talk to anybody, they can all go to hell’, and then I thought ‘well that’s not the way to play it, just deal with it’ and so that is what I did. “Nowadays it’s more important than ever to give people information and try to make the sport interesting for them, to ignite or maintain their interest. By the time SEA THE STARS come along I was ready for it.

“It was only after the Arc that there was a huge media interest in the horse. Until he left and went to stud we had someone here every day with a tape recorder or a camera. In the end there were so many people wanting to see him that we had to get them altogether in a group and do it that way. “It was all an extra worry, really. You couldn’t keep it up for very long and run a business at the same time.”

“Running the business is what Oxx prefers, what he has been doing for more than half his life. His father John had been very successful as a trainer, winning eight Irish Classics (four Oaks, three St Legers, 2000 Guineas), and Oxx was only 29 -… “It was young enough, but at that age you think you know it all, think your old at 29- when he took over the license at the Currabeg yard in 1979.  It took him a while to establish himself, the patronage of the Aga Khan at the end of the 1980’s and the emergence of the first truly international  star in Ridgewood Pearl in 1995 vouchsafing him entry into the top echelon. The likes of SINNDAR, ALAMSHAR and AZAMOUR kept him there, while SEA THE STARS  assured him lifetime membership. This season has been solid if unspectacular, a decent strike- rate and some gratifying successes including the Doncaster Cup with SADDLER’S ROCK and the Blandford
Stakes with the improving MANIEREE.  No stars, maybe, but there is a twinkle in Oxx’s eye.

“The horses have been slotting into their races nicely and we’ve had a couple of two-year- 
olds showing a bit of promise. We’re not always fighting out the Classics like some others, we don’t have that number of quality horses. Some years we have a Group 1 horse, some years we don’t. No there was no sense of anti-climax after SEA THE STARS because he was a one -off,  you don’t expect it to be repeated.

“ The following season I had my worst bunch of horses for 25 years or so, a very ordinary .
year. I don’t get over excited about the good times and don’t get too downhearted about the bad times. I try to keep on an even keel, a realistic outlook. If Aiden O’Brien had a bad year with no good horses he’d feel the difference because he’s used to constant success, but with us we don’t. If it happens we’re glad of it.

"We’ve had some very good ones in the last 20 years and we can’t expect another SEA THE STARS, but if we could get one or two like the others it would be very nice indeed.

"Which inevitably leads us towards BORN TO SEA , whose career/column inches  ratio is already dangerously unbalanced owing to his being half- brother to SEA THE STARS (and, of course, GALILEO). The last son of URBAN SEA, he carries the sun-yellow silks of Christopher Tsui and made a splash on his debut when winning the Listed Blenheim Stakes at the Curragh this month.

"Comparisons are odious at the best of times and especially invidious in this case, given the colt’s inexperience and the size of the horseshoes he will be expected to fill. Oxx is the ideal man to quell the hype without diluting the dream.

“It’s very early days,” he says. “He isn’t in the same box as his half- brother, I don’t like doing that. He has enough to do to follow the other horse as it is without putting them in the same stable. He could have run in April if we’d wanted, he’s a more precocious type and would have learned very quickly. We had him ready to run at the Irish Oaks meeting, but he got a touch of sore shines that week and was off for a few weeks. No harm done, he’s had a race and there is time for one- more- he should get reasonable ground at Leopardstown in the Killavullan.

“He’s always looked very nice, like his half brother, very good- looking, well balanced, a good mover, athletic, always been promising. He’s a bit more rounded, close-coupled, and that’s the INVINCIBLE SPIRIT in him. He’s already 16.1hh and well made.

“No-one can expect the mare to produce another one like SEA THE STARS, but if he could just have enough in him to win something good along the way it would be great. There’ll be a job at stud for him somewhere whatever he does.

“We’re just thinking race to race and day to day at the moment, and it’s in the lap of the gods where we’ll end up.”

“Oxx also has impressive maiden winner AKEED MOFEED – a leading contender for today’s Beresford Stakes-in the yard and adds, with a typical disclaimer: “We didn’t have such promising horses at this time last season. Mind you, we have plenty of two- year- olds who aren’t so exciting.”

“A bright horizon then, on a local level. But Oxx has always favoured a wider perspective and doesn’t see similarly encouraging signs in Irish racing as a whole. His concern for the ongoing stability of the industry gained a wider audience last spring, when his reaction to the “unpatriotic, unacceptable, anti-Irish racing” comments of Paddy Power CEO Patrick Kennedy in an all-party committee meeting at the Irish parliament surprised many with it’s vehemence.”

“Bookmakers are very clever people, very successful businessmen who have done great work for themselves,” he says. “But the fact is that they’re evading a lot of tax by going offshore and getting away with murder, and betting exchanges are the same. They keep using the
red herring that they don’t need racing, that they have enough business without it, but if you took racing away from them they’d all fall down.”

“OXX never seems the type to become rattled, but although his words are chosen in the habitually measured way there is no mistaking the urgency behind them . “Sure things aren’t as bad for Irish racing as they were in the late 197o’s early 1980’s. The structure and administration of racing so much better than it was back then , when prize—money was only modest, there was little wealth in the country and no wealthy owners.

“Although prize-money has dropped  it’s still at a reasonable level and we can still hold on to our owners, just about. The standard of the horses in training is much higher too, mainly because of Ballydoyle, a very large fish in a relatively small pond.

“We’ve a good industry despite everything. It’s taken many years to build it up and it’s come along way, but we could loose it in a few years if the income stream is not resolved.

“Ireland doesn’t have a God-given right to retain it’s good name for racing and breeding just because we have a great love of the horse. It only takes a few bad decisions and the house of cards begins to come down.”

“Oxx is very dependant on foreign owners, confesses to concern that should prize-money decline further his owners may look to have their horses trained in a more rewarding jurisdiction. The situation in Britain has the potential to deepen the gloom.

“It’s important for Ireland that British racing is strong because they go hand in hand together.

“Bookmakers don’t mind if the racing is rubbish and prize-money is low, but that won’t keep owners owning and people buying yearlings.

“At least the betting industry is thriving and making money. If there was no way of seeing any money coming in at all would be far worse. What worries me is that the people running the bookmaking firms may have short –term objectives. I hope they have a longer-term vision.

“It’s the one business that has boomed in recent years –surely there is enough money for the betting operators, the government and ourselves if solutions can be found .”

“It would be a shame to conclude in such downbeat style but the mood lightens – as it always must-with a walk around the yard . BORN TO SEA looks out over his door, a bright bay lure that draws us closer.

“There is no greater pleasure that training a top horse, to me that is the best reward for the work.

“Winners are important, everyone needs them, they keep everyone happy, but the quality horses are what you want to have around the place and if we get another it will be gratefully received.”

“He opens the stable door, takes of the colt’s rug, and we admire BORN TO SEA’S sleek frame.”Here’s your first visitor ,” Oxx mutters. One day there may be many more; they will be dealt with calmly and courteously . Oxx may not relish the prospect, but it isn’t just the horses who do the talking at Currabeg.”

“A winning sequence that may never be matched …..
“FINE horses have come and gone, but for John Oxx the presence of SEA THE STARS will linger forever, one of those horses who don’t so much define a trainer’s career as hallmark it in perpetuity.

“Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, International, Irish Champion, Arc – six races in six months, a winning sequence that may never be matched. Oxx shepherded the colt safely to his destiny.”

“Every race was so important – to choose one is a little like being asked to choose one of your children over the others.

“The Guineas was vital, we were so keen to give him his chance in the race because we knew he had plenty of speed but he had to demonstrate it, which would mean everything to him as a stallion. As the season went on we realised he had so much speed he could go any distance, but he needed the Guineas to set him up. He ran a temperature on March 17th so it was an even harder task for him, but because of his constitution he overcame it. He looked a little light after the Guineas – a photograph of him taken ten days after the race is completely different to the photograph taken ten days after the Arc.

“He had a lot more weight on him then, had grown and matured, but the Guineas took a bit out of him because it was rushed and consequently he had to work hard, it's never easy  going there without a prep run anyway.

“Then the Derby, no horse has done the Guineas-Derby double since NASHWAN, so it was great to achieve that. After that the Eclipse a hard race for a horse of that age -
I remember Henry Cecil telling me he thought that the horse might be beaten in the Eclipse, because he’d had so many good three-year-olds beaten in the race over the years. 

“Every race was an extra hurdle, a bigger event. The Irish Champion, it was the only time he ran at home and there was a huge crowd at Leopardstown . He had a wonderful level of support, people were telling me they had come just to see the horse in the flesh.

“And at the end he looked unbeatable going into the Arc. Mick Kinane was very confident , said it was hard to believe he was getting better. It looked like he couldn’t lose – but sure,  a horse can always lose.
"The way the race panned out made it more exciting to watch, I wasn't too anxious at the time but everyone else was. What a great relief, it would have been such a shame had he fallen at the last hurdle. (so to speak) When you think back, the whole thing was just a dream."

“My clients like to move their horses on at the end of their three-year-old careers, which means that every year half the yard is two-year-olds. It also means there are hardly ever any four-year-olds around the place, and consequently very few opportunities to win one of those nice older-horse races at home and abroad. I did win the Gold Cup at Ascot with ENZELI , but he was one of the very few who weren’t sold. It limits us a little, but that’s the way it is. We’re a selling yard, and we can’t just keep the best ones and sell the rubbish because it would leave us with no credibility at the sales.”

“MICK KINANE is here twice a week to ride work and is still the great asset he always was. On the equine front, we tend to be sent horses from the same families by the Aga Khan, which is nice because we’ve a feel for the relatives, we know their quirks and capabilities, and can give the owner better feedback.”

“ My favourite part of the job? I like looking at the horses, observing their behaviour, watching them progress. I simply enjoy being around them.”


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