A natural puts his talent to the test

John Cobb meets Newmarket's newest trainer, John Durkan
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John Durkan could have started his training career by renting a yard on Newmarket's Hamilton Road, racing's equivalent of a Wimpey estate. Instead he chose to buy Harry Thomson Jones's Green Lodge, one of the most historic stables in town.

He could have gone to Doncaster when the sales season started but again pitched high, flying off to mix with the blue bloods at Keeneland before jetting back to the Yorkshire sales arena with his shopping list.

If this makes Durkan seem like one of the breed more interested in image rather than substance, the presumption could not be more wrong. "I'm just concerned about doing everything the right way," Durkan said. "When you get the chance of a yard like Green Lodge, in the town but right beside the gallops, you have to take it."

Durkan has made a habit of taking his chances: persuading an initially reluctant Charlie Brooks to take him on as a pupil-assistant seven years ago, moving on to the role of assistant and amateur rider at Oliver Sherwood's stable, before accepting the same position at the 170 horse-power Flat stable of Sheikh Mohammed's No 1, John Gosden.

From each he learned. "Charlie is never afraid to take a chance with a new idea and with Brian Delaney [the head lad] there from the old regime of Fred Winter I got the best of both worlds. Oliver is very thorough, another out of the Fred Winter school.

John Gosden is meticulous, a very patient man."

Durkan's grounding did not begin when he arrived in Lambourn, though. His racing education started in Ireland at the age of 10 when his father, Bill, took out a licence to train and the remarkable chasing mare Anaglog's Daughter came into their lives. Small of stature, but with the biggest heart and with feet that were even larger, she sloshed her way to muddy, well-celebrated victories from Ascot to Cheltenham to Chepstow.

The young Durkan got an early opportunity to find out what a great horse is really like, riding her at work and in her schooling - an education for both of them.

Bill Durkan had come over to Britain in the 1950s and, starting from scratch, had created an impressive building firm. His main concern was developing that business and, although he held the training licence, it was Ferdie Murphy who prepared the horses.

Murphy, now, at last, training in his own right and making headlines with the Cheltenham Festival winners Stop The Waller and Paddy's Return, put Durkan jnr on a path he was more than willing to follow.

"Even then John had a great understanding with horses," Murphy said. "Every afternoon, when the boys came back from school and the other lads would be off playing tennis or football, he'd be straight into the yard. He was absolutely crazy about horses.

"He was a more than capable rider. He could have been a good pro."

The racing photographer Ed Byrne has known the family since the Anaglog's era. He has seen more than enough of the good, bad and ugly in the racing world to know the difference and has never been afraid to tell people in which category they belong.

"John's a natural talent with horses," Byrne said. "He has an empathy with animals, they respond to him. Even the old dogs would follow him around the yard."

It will be high-class thoroughbreds that Durkan will be aiming to lead into winners' enclosures now and it is his "natural" ability that he will rely on.

"I'll be aiming to keep it simple," he said. "Keeping things as close to nature as possible. With all the hi-tech equipment available you can get away from the fact that it's horses, not machines, you're dealing with."

That is what equine entrants to the stable can expect, but what about the owners? "Involvement is the key. It's very important that they can come down to see their horses any day bar Christmas day. The house will be open the whole time."

There will be an Irish accent to the training as Durkan hopes to create syndicates of his fellow countrymen to race under an Irish Abroad banner.

When the new owners arrive at the "open house", there, beside 30-year- old Durkan, will be his wife, Carol. But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her into the traditional greeter and cook role of trainers' wives.

"Carol has ridden in races and represents Ireland in three-day events," Durkan said. "She's a really good judge of a horse." That is hardly surprising as her father, Timmy, owns the Camas Park Stud and is a legendary pinhooker, a trade that relies on the ability to identify and buy foals which can be sold a year later at a profit.

Also on the team, and these days an asset beyond price, will be Frankie Dettori, who has promised to ride work and on the racecourse.

Durkan's own riding career brought 93 wins, including successes on luminaries such as Run And Skip and Brown Windsor, and just nine falls in seven seasons. But there were also 16 suspensions for use of the whip, which says something about his hunger to win.

It is one quality that will stand him in good stead now, but only one of many. "His pedigree and record is second to none," Sherwood, his old mentor, said. "If he can't make it as a trainer, no one will."