Calm Casey seeks a place in the sun
Ken Jones encounters Rough Quest's trainer who is geared up for the National
A bit of warmth is what Casey wants for Rough Quest, the 10-year-old, Irish-bred gelding he is sending out at Aintree tomorrow in the Martell Grand National.
No wonder. A nip in the air, Casey thinks, was one of the reasons why Rough Quest did not mount a more serious challenge for the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival two weeks ago, finishing second to Imperial Call. "When the leaders broke away down the hill he was left with too much to do but I am fairly sure that the temperature troubled him. Likes the sun on his back, but then don't we all," Casey said.
On a summer's day the views from Beare Green near Dorking in Surrey can be quite glorious but on Tuesday mist shrouded the surrounding hills, a metaphor for Aintree's uncertainty. As always, imponderables crowd in on assessment. Getting a horse in peak condition for the race is a feat in itself, never mind the doubts Casey may still harbour about Rough Quest's involvement just two weeks since the Gold Cup when victory would have earned the horse a long vacation. "No question about, that," Casey said. "We wouldn't have entertained the Grand National and I was not sure about what to do until last Saturday. When we got back from Cheltenham he seemed well enough, not greatly affected, and there was the alternative of the Irish National."
Important factors in a discussion Casey held with his employer, Andrew Wates, who owns Rough Quest, were a distinctly favourable weight of 10st 7lb and Aintree's anti-clockwise direction. "It suits the horse to go that way around," Casey added, "but even with those advantages he was ridiculously short in the betting."
Casey, who claims to have never struck a bet in the 25 years he has spent racing since beginning an apprenticeship with Aubrey Brabazon at the Curragh, advises supporters of Rough Quest to play a waiting game. "To my mind, the price is still unrealistic and he's sure to drift a bit more," he said.
The trainer was sitting in the cluttered lounge of a comfortable cottage set across from the small, tidy yard that is home to Rough Quest and 15 other horses. A man of average height with alert eyes, he had on working clothes and slippers. Smoke swirled from the small cigar he held in strong fingers.
On one wall there was the usual array of past achievements: Rough Quest winning the Ritz Club Chase at Cheltenham last year, scoring at the Punchestown Festival, more recently successful in the Racing Post Chase when brought home by Richard Dunwoody.
While Dunwoody may have fancied the ride on Rough Quest tomorrow, trainer and owner have remained loyal to Mick Fitzgerald. "He knows the horse well, gets on with him," Casey said, "so I have no worries in that respect."
An interesting man, Casey conveys that impression of grizzly strength Bill Shankly saw in Tom Finney. You can sense independence, too. This week when BBC television cameras were wrongly positioned to get footage of Rough Quest at full gallop, Casey understandably refused to stage a repeat performance. "All the attention we have been getting is very nice and, of course, it is good for the stable," he said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere. My priority is the horse's preparation. I ride him myself here, personally see to his diet and feeding, and I roll the gallops."
Born in Donegal 50 years ago, Casey knows the ups and downs of life, coming to his present position as a salaried trainer after the bleak experience that resulted from a decision to set up on his own in Lambourn. "I'd gained plenty of experience as a head lad to Paddy Mullins, and when looking after John Upson's horses [Casey sent out Over The Road to win the 1988 National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham] but when I went on my own things did not work out and after four pretty depressing years I sold the stables."
A change of fortune came when Casey answered an advertisement placed by the Wates family. "You only have to look around to see that this is a wonderful set-up," he said. "The Wates are fine people to work for, and I can train for other owners without any of the financial pressures that can cripple you in this business."
At about one o'clock in the afternoon, Casey was relishing an hour's break from his chores and the respite from the presence of interrogators. Sitting back in an easy chair, he lit another cigar, his daily ration increasing as the great race draws nearer.
It is not one about which he knows a great deal. "Of course, I've been at Aintree before," he said, "but to train a horse for the National is a new experience." The way to tackle it is common knowledge anyway. Hunt around the first circuit, stay in touch with the pace then get ready for a big effort from the last, on past the Elbow. If only it were so simple.
Casey went silent, drawing again on his cigar. "I just hope it isn't a slog," he said. "Hate to see horses hurt." Never mind the glory, the thing uppermost in Casey's mind is Rough Quest's welfare.
"Have you spent much time in Ireland?" he asked
"Yes," I replied.
"Lovely place, lovely," he added. His thoughts were momentarily far from Aintree.
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