On the face of it, Brendan Duke may have been flying a bit high wanting to run 1,000-1 outsider Skelligs Rock, then a twice-raced maiden, in the Derby. But the colt missing the race because of the invocation of a new Epsom safety limit remains the biggest disappointment of the Dubliner's fledgling training career and the ruling still rankles.
However Duke, 51, is blessed with an optimistic, philosophical disposition. "For every wet day there is, the good Lord sends a fine one," he said. And for his small Lambourn-based string, that metaphorical high pressure zone may be hovering over Newbury on Saturday.
Duke will be tilting at big money again, but the £135,000 Weatherbys Super Sprint is much less of a windmill than the premier Classic. The five-furlong race, confined to two-year-olds who went through an auction ring as yearlings for 40,000 guineas or less, gives the perceived smaller owner the chance of a large pot. The Coppington Stables candidate is Kuringai, who will be the cheapest purchase in the field at just 3,200 guineas.
The Royal Applause colt has already repaid Duke's investment to the tune of a shade over £10,000 in prize money. It took him eight goes to break his maiden, but in nine runs he has been worse than fourth only once, fine testament to a snap decision made at the Tattersalls sales last November.
"This little colt walked in, and I thought 'I could train you'," Duke said. "He looked a real early type. The pedigree was fine, by a top stallion out of a Barathea mare whose dam [Park Stakes winner Morcote] was a high-class juvenile. I was prepared to go quite a bit for him and I couldn't believe I got him for the money."
Kuringai runs for Duke's partner, Angela Telling, for expedient reasons. "I'd bought a few on spec and one more and I'd have been sleeping out under the stars," he said. "But my view is that if I was a grocer selling boxes of biscuits, there's no point in me telling a customer I can get one tomorrow.
"I hid this little colt round the back and she caught me lunging him one day. I was a safe distance away and I didn't think she'd be violent in front of the lads so I confessed and said he'd be a grand little chap for her." All's well that ends well, and the other speculative buys all found owners too.
Duke, who served 20 years with Jim Bolger and trained briefly in Ireland before joining Charlie Mann as assistant for a year, has a dual-purpose string of 16. His first winner was the decent hurdler Blackchurch Mist at Wincanton in December and a month later Coppington Flyer got him off the mark on the Flat at Lingfield. "I wanted to come to Britain as there are more opportunities than in Ireland," he said. "The year I was with Charlie was his best ever and it would be nice to think I had some input."
Back to the Derby and Skelligs Rock, who has run twice since the Epsom meeting: second at Sandown and unplaced at Newbury. "I really feel that we had a raw deal," he said. "We accepted the invitation to enter as a yearling, paid all the forfeits and then, because of a late change in the race conditions, had to make way for horses who came in at the last minute.
"Our money had been accepted, which to me was in the nature of a contract, and then the goalposts were moved, which in other businesses might be considered unacceptable. Skelligs Rock was going to be a 100 per cent serious challenge in what I still think is a very ordinary year. He ran a good race against a Stoute hotpot next time and had every excuse at Newbury, which turned into a circus with loose horses and ours stuck in the stalls for 11 minutes. He will prove yet that he is a proper horse."
With money to sixth place, Duke gives bargain-basement Kuringai a sporting chance of earning on Saturday.
"I know he was beaten at Lingfield last time but the ground was loose and Oscar [Urbina] said he coudn't handle it and he was changing legs the whole time," he said. "He's only 15.2, but is a real man, as tough as they come and bouncing at the moment. He doesn't know what he cost but we treat him as if it was two million."Reuse content