Ed Dunlop: 'The horse that has changed my career, changed my life'

Newmarket trainer has been touched by the popular support for his magnificent mare. Nick Townsend meets a famous family man
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The Independent Online

A few paces from Ed Dunlop's office stands the Amelia Earhart of the turf, her classically sculpted head leaning inquisitively out of her box, surveying you a touch contemptuously. In such equine company, you can be excused for indulging in a little anthropomorphism.

"What, another admirer?" the jet-setting, indomitable mare might be thinking. "After all that fuss at Goodwood?"

Four weeks ago it was now, although that titanic duel to the line between Dunlop's Ouija Board and her Irish challenger Alexander Goldrun remains indelibly imprinted in the memory. Not just the race, but the response to it by a horse of exceptional prowess and presence. The reaction at the Sussex course after the Nassau Stakes transcended the normal acclaim. There is popularity. And there is sheer adoration.

"Afterwards Frankie [Dettori] trotted her down past the stands. There was huge applause, I've never experienced that before," says Dunlop. "Then someone said, 'Three cheers for Ouija Board' and it was hip, hip, hooray from everyone. That was amazing. Great atmosphere. It just goes to prove how popular she is.

"She's the people's horse. I'm lucky enough to train her for a bit longer. I can't tell you how many people have faxed, texted, emailed, and been so nice and kind, and said wonderful things about her and Court Masterpiece [his Sussex Stakes victor] at Goodwood. I can assure you I'll miss them when they're gone."

The victory was testament to Dettori's intuitive understanding of what was required for victory. "He was very emotional about it afterwards, you know," says Dunlop. "But he gave Ouija Board a fantastic ride. We were very worried about these speedier fillies, and he was saying, 'I don't know what to do. How do I ride her?' I said, 'However you like. No instructions. You know her. Do what you think'."

He did just that, adopting a radical strategy. Instead of attempting to quicken off the pace, the mare forced the issue three furlongs out. She prevailed by only a nostril from Jim Bolger's Alexander Goldrun. "It was pretty brave of him to commit that far out when she is known as a filly who travels well; you pull her out, she quickens, race done," says Dunlop.

Age has not so much wearied her as altered her attitude to racing. "We've had to adapt her training regime this year," says Dunlop. "Because as she's got older, she's got lazier. I'll never forget the work she did as a three-year-old, before the Pretty Polly and the Oaks. It was mind-blowing. She showed explosive speed. But inevitably that has got slower.

"In the Nassau she was doing this [he motions with his fingers a twitching of the ears, which can suggest that a horse is not fully concentrating]. You can't say she needs blinkers, but she definitely keeps a bit to herself. I think that's really why she's lasted so long."

It has been a career punctuated with injury, and some riding performances which haven't always been the most judicious. It is no great surprise to discover that Ouija Board's preparation for her last race was not propitious either. "She climbed over the top on her way to the Nassau," says Dunlop. "They had to stop the horsebox on the side of the motorway. She had some cuts, superficial fortunately, but she virtually sat down.

"Of course, there was considerable trepidation. But fortunately, she seemed absolutely fine. When she arrived at the course, I trotted her up and she was totally free. She got lucky that day and and she won the race. But she's not good in a horse- box. She seems to be better in an aeroplane, and settles in magnificently into those foreign environments. She travels round the world but she's not a good traveller. Why? I don't know. You see her in the stable, and she's as docile as an old sheep."

Next Saturday will be a 10th foreign trip for Ouija Board. The Irish Champion Stakes beckons, at Leopardstown, where Hurricane Run, this season's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes victor, could be among the opposition.

The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, in which the daughter of Cape Cross was third in 2004, could be her next destination, and a third attempt at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, and the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf (a race she won in 2004 and was runner-up in last year) is definitely on the schedule, before her swansong, the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin, where she was victorious last year.

It will be like losing a close member of the family when the five-year-old mare departs to the paddocks at the end of the year. Initially, there is talk of a liaison in the United States with Kingmambo. The six-year-old Court Masterpiece, who runs next in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, is also due to be retired, to stallion duties.

"In this business, there are a lot of lows and a few highs," says her 37-year-old trainer as he offers Ouija Board a pick of grass, although in truth the mare would probably prefer one of her favourite Polos. "Having her outweighs everything. She's changed my career, changed my life, changed [owner] Lord Derby's life. I'm not saying it's changed the jockeys' lives [there have been no fewer than eight of them, including Jamie Spencer, who partners the mare in Ireland], because they all do pretty well."

He adds: "Now I just need to get another one. I know I'll be remembered as the trainer of Ouija Board; but I want to be remembered as the trainer of something else, as well. She's the people's champion - and I want another one."

Some of Dunlop's rivals may regard that as gluttonous. Not only is he blessed by the presence of the world's finest mare contentedly surveying the world go by at his neat, flower-festooned yard in Newmarket's Hamilton Road, but a whinny away is Court Masterpiece.

But training such mighty athletes is like imbibing a draft of opiate: it merely stimulates the desire for more. And on a more pragmatic level, Dunlop also recognises how capricious training can be, even though his father's name, John Leeper Dunlop, proved very useful when he set up as a trainer 14 years ago.

"I'm very lucky to have my father to talk to," he says of the Arundel-based doyen. "He's trained 2,000 to 3,000 winners, and been very successful at what he does. We speak regularly, and I'm very proud of who he is. Yes, of course it's opened doors for me; it's got me jobs in racing as a result. Of course it may have helped me get the job as salaried trainer to Sheikh Maktoum - who sadly died earlier this year - but I wouldn't have kept it if I hadn't been capable."

Dunlop, whose younger brother Harry will soon add a third Dunlop to racecards when he starts training in Lambourn, adds: "You're always going to be compared to your father. Hopefully, having trained a few good horses, we're beginning to lose that mantle."

He smiles as he stresses that his destiny was not always deemed to be in this profession. "In your childhood, you know no other way of life," he says. "What do you do? You're kicked out of bed at 6am to go and ride racehorses. It's not like your father goes to the office, comes back in the evening and you've no idea what he does.

"But I became something of the black sheep of the family after I stopped riding out at 16 when I got too big. I became a bit of a pretend rebel. I never imagined I'd be a racehorse trainer then. But you keep coming back to it because it's so close."

For the first seven years, the graph looked impressive. "We just got bigger and better, and had more and more winners," says Dunlop, the former assistant to the late Alex Scott. "There were some top horses, too, with Ta Rib, Night Style and Lailana. Then we jumped off a cliff. The horses got ill. We went through a struggling two or three years, lost some owners, and had fewer horses. But we stuck in there; and along came Ouija Board."

Surely his ambitions would include the trainers' championship? "I've hardly achieved anything," he says. "Sure I've trained 17 Group One winners, and I've got two great horses this season, but every day, you think, 'We should be doing better'.

"It's such a numbers game; my father was the first trainer to have 200 horses, 25 years ago, and to be honest you need that number plus to be champion trainer." He currently has around 100.

But presumably, Ouija Board's adventures have enhanced the yard's stature and yielded an increase in owners? "We've attracted some [new owners]. She's high-profile, she's won a Breeders' Cup and she belongs to an Englishman," he says. "She's a huge horse, and not just in our little world, but in the world of sport, probably."

Unlike Amelia Earhart, one suspects we will hear of her again after her final journey, through her sons and daughters. And, no doubt, her trainer.

LIFE & TIMES

BORN: 20 October 1968.

HEIGHT: 6ft 5in.

FAMILY: Son of Classic-winning trainer John Dunlop. Married, with three daughters.

EDUCATION: Eton.

RACING EDUCATION: Assistant to Nicky Henderson and Alex Scott.

TRAINING CAREER: Took over Gainsborough Stables, Newmarket, from the murdered Alex Scott in 1994.

FIRST WIN: 19 October 1994.

BEST SEASON: 2001, 74 wins.

THIS SEASON: 36 wins.

BEST HORSES: Ta Rib, Lailani, Court Masterpiece, Ouija Board.

BIGGEST WINS: Oaks, Irish Oaks, Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare, French 1,000 Guineas, Sussex Stakes.

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