Racing: From Newark to Kentucky, small-time trainer pursues an American romance

Eoghan O'Neill aims to add colt Silent Times to roll of honour in the USA's biggest race. By Chris McGrath
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Today Eoghan O'Neill makes the same journey as so many other young Irishmen over the years, across the Atlantic in search of opportunity. But he will not be travelling in desperation.

Appointed to train at a state-of-the-art complex near Newark, O'Neill became one of the success stories of 2005, winning 33 races including the Richmond Stakes at Goodwood and the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster. Now, if satisfied by his reconnaissance this weekend, O'Neill plans to take his best colt, Silent Times, on the road to Louisville.

It is now 20 years since Bold Arrangement arrived from Newmarket to finish second in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately his pioneering example has not been matched since, not even by Dr Devious, who came home and promptly won his Derby at Epsom instead.

The race especially bewitches Sheikh Mohammed, but the homespun success of a horse like Funny Cide - a cheap gelding, bought by a gang of high school chums who would arrive at the track in a yellow bus - showed that not even the biggest investor in Turf history can be certain of finding the needle in this particular haystack. On the other hand, the success of Wilko in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile a couple of years ago showed that a horse like Silent Times, who shared a dead-heat in the Champagne Stakes, is entitled be competitive at the top level in the United States.

Certainly O'Neill and his patron, John Fretwell, are pragmatists. They know that Silent Times could make himself worth far more on dirt than might be the case on turf in Europe. He would be a valuable stallion prospect even if showing up well in his two scheduled trials, never mind how he might get on in the Kentucky Derby itself.

"Say we kept him here, and he ran the race of his life in the 2,000 Guineas - the fact is that often nobody remembers the placed horses or particularly cares where they end up," O'Neill reasoned. "We're trying to maximise his value, because that's the long-term goal of John's business. Remember in terms of prizemoney even the trials are worth as much as the Guineas. And this horse should be well suited by American racing. He has got the speed to jump and hold a position at the front end, and he can pick up off it. He showed that at Doncaster. And his pedigree offers plenty of hope that he should enjoy the dirt."

Silent Times is by a turf stallion in Danehill Dancer, but his dam is a sister to Offlee Wild, who has just retired to stand at $15,000 (£8,400) in Kentucky. Their mother, in turn, was a half-sister to Dynaformer, whose progeny have been so successful that he commands a fee of $100,000 per mare. With that kind of family tree, it is easy to follow the logic of O'Neill and Fretwell. It is rather less easy to see how they managed to get their hands on him as a yearling for just 26,000 guineas.

"He was an enormous, gangly thing," O'Neill recalled. "He looked a good walker to me, and athletic, though obviously not to many other people. He was either going to be very slow or very fast. And he was still backward during his first season, and was never going to be over-raced a result. But he is getting bigger and stronger all the time. He has got a neck and a backside on him now."

The colt certainly looked in terrific shape as O'Neill led him out into the midwinter sun a few mornings ago. And if here was the cornerstone, all around was evidence of growth and optimism. Diggers guarded the steel frame of a new stableblock that might house a cathedral equally well: it will add another 40 stalls to the present capacity of 47.

Clusters of yearlings cantered in naïve groups up immaculate replicas of the best communal gallops in Newmarket. Many of the young horses belong to Fretwell, who has found a profitable niche in the middle market, but the stable is also welcoming new patrons, one of whom spent €185,000 on a Rock Of Gibraltar filly at Goffs.

Meanwhile workmen hammer timber into new lunge rings and paddocks, extending a panoply of facilities: covered ride, horsewalkers, swimming pool.

Even O'Neill and his wife, Melissa, have entered the spirit of expansion. They already have three children, aged four or less, and are expecting another baby in May. That could yet prove a trifle inconvenient, as the Kentucky Derby is run on the sixth day of that month.

O'Neill endured some very hard times during his years in Newmarket, but Fretwell does not confine his eye for talent to horses, and picked out his application from over 80 others he received after advertising for a trainer.

Still only 34, O'Neill has certainly followed a long and winding road since spending summer holidays at the Chantilly stables of Robert Collet. The original idea was that he would learn French, but he learned rather more from horses like Last Tycoon, winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1986, and Le Glorieux, who won the Japan Cup the following year.

Nonetheless he persevered through five years of economics and accountancy at university, and had actually worked for three weeks in a bank when finally surrendering to the siren. He learned the ropes under John Gosden and Sir Mark Prescott and proved resourceful with limited material once training in his own right. Little could anyone realise that the same sense of adventure that enabled him to find obscure Pattern races abroad would one day propel him towards Churchill Downs.

"I never lacked belief," he said. "I had plenty of knocks during my time in Newmarket, too many really, and would have given up long ago if I didn't have belief. Sir Mark wrote to me after the Richmond and said: 'All you ever needed was a chance.' I am sure that is true of a lot of people, I was just lucky that I met John. He's excited by the idea of taking this horse to America, but I won't waste his money. My approach has never changed. We want to get the best out of every horse. If Silent Times belonged in a seller at Southwell, that is where he would be running."

How overseas runners have performed in the Kentucky Derby

2002

Johannesburg (Aidan O'Brien, Ireland) 8th - A champion two-year-old, who won all seven starts, but only ran once more after this disappointment.

Essence Of Dubai (Saeed bin Suroor, Dubai) 9th - Had prepared with two wins in Dubai, but subsequently proved no better than a Grade 2 performer.

Castle Gandolfo (Aidan O'Brien, Ireland) 12th - Limitations confirmed on his return when he finished sixth in the French Derby.

2001

Express Tour (Saeed bin Suroor, Dubai) 8th - Fast, but lacked stamina for a race in which Godolphin's best ever chance, Street Cry, was sidelined by injury.

2000

China Visit (Saeed bin Suroor, Dubai) 6th - UAE Derby winner, but never quite reached the top afterwards.

Curule (Saeed bin Suroor, Dubai) 7th - Outclassed.

1999

Worldly Manner (Saeed bin Suroor, Dubai) 7th - Lost his form after a hard race here.

1995

Eltish (Henry Cecil, UK) 6th - Later beaten in a photo at Royal Ascot, but then returned to the US.

Citadeed (Peter Chapple-Hyam, UK) 9th - Never won again and ended up racing in Hong Kong.

1992

Dr Devious (Peter Chapple-Hyam, UK) 7th - The most unorthodox Derby preparation ever- he won at Epsom just four weeks later.

Arazi (Francois Boutin, France) 8th - Lost his unbeaten record here in the first of several disappointments at three.

1986

Bold Arrangement (Clive Brittain, UK) 2nd - If it looked good at the time, everything that has happened since has made it look even better.

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