Racing: Land of opportunity takes Essex boy to Hollywood

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The Independent Online
Pat Byrne was mucking out stables in Surrey two decades ago when, tired of `Dickensian' conditions, he travelled to America.

On Saturday, at Hollywood Park, Byrne fields three strong contenders for honours in the Breeders' Cup, reports Richard Edmondson from Los Angeles.

When he first arrived in America 19 years ago Pat Byrne was not destitute, but you could flip the funds in his pocket. On Saturday the Romford-born trainer has strong prospects of emulating D Wayne Lukas by saddling three winners at a Breeders' Cup meeting. It's the sort of story that foments in every poor mind in the United States.

Pat Byrne has made it in America like he could not have in Britain. You can tell he has a chip on his shoulder about this because he tells you so many times that he hasn't. "This wouldn't have happened for me in England and I would probably have been somebody's travelling head lad," he says. "The only success story from the bottom you hear about is Barry Hills. Now he plays the role. You'd think he was royalty when you speak to him."

Byrne's family traces back in racing five generations on the paternal side. He believes his affinity with the thoroughbred comes from his forefathers who worked horses on the Curragh. "I've always thought I was talented with an intuition for horses," he says. "It's natural for me, it comes easy. You're dealing with flesh and blood, so you need an eye for it."

This skill, however, was not immediately obvious to his first employers in Britain and Byrne's days as an apprentice passed without a single ride in public. "Reg Akehurst didn't do me any favours. He worked my arse off," he says. "I became more than handy with a pitchfork because I mucked out 20 stalls a day. It was Dickensian."

It was the time of punk rockers, Starsky and Hutch were on the television, and Byrne got on his bike. He seems to have been wherever they race horses, working in France, Belgium and Ireland, with Australia also on his list. But it was when he landed in the United States that he heard cherubs trumpeting in the sky. "As soon as I came over I thought this was the place for me. I had that gut feeling," he says. "It's absolutely true that this is the land of opportunity. If you work hard, it happens."

Now, at 41, following 11 years with a licence of his own, virtually the only link he maintains with the land of his birth is the pronunciation of the "f" in Bethnal Green, where he once lived. He is now a citizen of the United States, which has given him everything he owns, and his memory of the old country is hardly enhanced as the purpose of recent return visits has been to bury his parents.

Byrne's main barn of 30 horses is at Louisville, Kentucky, where, at the spring and summer meeting this year he saddled 14 winners from 17 starters, including nine races in a row. His client list has swollen to include such as Robert Sangster, for whom he saddles Panama City at Santa Anita today. The precious cargo that has been shipped to Hollywood Park is comprised of Favorite Trick and Countess Diana, respectively market leaders for the juvenile events, and Richter Scale, who, despite his name, has not been employed in southern California before.

This contingent is being guarded by an extraordinary figure called Richard Kluck, a bald nightwatchman so physically fierce it is debatable whether night itself ever visits barn 63 north. Dick (you can call him that when your newspaper publishes in another continent) likes a tattoo and his approach is more Cape Fear than a little carnation on the shoulder blade. In fact, you can get a decent hand of gin rummy from the playing cards he has imprinted across his Himalayan torso.

Kluck has trained with the Navy Seals and is a bouncer to the stars. "He takes care of David Schwimmer and Bob Hope," Byrne says. "This week he's keeping the bad guys away from the horses."

The horses themselves look magnificent, hard, shellac finishes to their coats a uniting feature. On their afternoon walks they are quiet with their heads bowed, as if kneeling on a pew cushion. Their trainer is a little more animated as the day approaches when the whole of Britain's racing community may be alerted to the mistake it made in letting him go. "The level we're on now is incredible," Byrne says. "People want to know what we are having for breakfast. I'll be disappointed now if I win just one. I'll settle for three wins.''