Byrne widens his horizon in Weld's world

Groom comes full circle on round-the-world journey for pioneering Irish trainer
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The Independent Online

And you think Britain has had a lousy summer? Down in Louisville, they had such an outrageous downpour on Tuesday that the racetrack and infield at Churchill Downs can only be crossed by canoe. Six inches fell in one hour, and dozens of horses have been evacuated from flooded stables. It was with corresponding relief, then, that one of the favourites for the 27th Arlington Million here on Saturday, Einstein, was loaded on to a lorry yesterday and driven north.

Other refugees, who had already completed longer journeys, seemed dazed by the clarity of daybreak outside Chicago. One Irish horseman at the quarantine barn wondered wistfully whether he could get his foal out here for a few days. "I'm still trying to get its hair to fall out before it starts growing again," he grumbled.

As a wellspring of the international sport this meeting has long brought together men and horses from every racing environment. True, it has been somewhat overtaken since John Henry, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, won an epic duel with The Bart in 1981. That, of course, was in the days when a million bucks was a lot of money.

In the meantime, the expansion of the global calendar has stimulated a whole new discipline in thoroughbred training. And nobody, surely, has contributed more to the process than Dermot Weld. The man who saddled breakthrough winners of the Melbourne Cup, in Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle, also has a prolific record on American soil and is a regular at this meeting. Last year, Winchester bolted up in the Secretariat Stakes, and this time he runs Mad About You in the Beverly D Stakes.

She is supervised, like so many of Weld's globetrotters over the last 15 years, by Jeff Byrne. He is the old hand here now, helping out inexperienced grooms who arrive jet-lagged and bewildered at the quarantine barn. "You all need each other," he said yesterday, garrulously allowing his breakfast to congeal in the track canteen. "Not just the greenhorns. Doesn't matter what yard you're from. Someone to hold a horse for a wash, someone to give a lead."

Little could he suspect the remarkable odyssey that beckoned when a careers counsellor in Co Carlow suggested that his slight build might qualify him for the apprentice school at the Curragh. He had never even sat on a horse, but within the year he had joined Weld. "It's been phenomenal," Byrne said. "I've been everywhere from Australia to Saudi Arabia. The boss has been so good to me over the last 20 years. There are lads in my line at home who have never even left Newbridge, let alone Ireland."

There are no cunning secrets to Weld's travel regime. "He keeps everything simple," Byrne said. "Get them in early, get them relaxed, get them eating. Get them in the familiar routine. If you can get them eating and drinking on the plane, you're halfway there. Then I have a blood taken, and it's unbelievable what he can tell by reading the results on the other side of the world. He can tell if you're overfeeding, if the hay's too rich."

Byrne stresses another debt, to the understanding of his wife, raising daughters aged just three and one. Back in 2002, the year the Breeders' Cup came to Arlington, they returned from their honeymoon to find that Weld wanted Byrne to fly here the very next day. Even Byrne wondered if this might be asking too much of Caroline, but Weld solved the matter by sending her out, too.

It was in this same canteen – as Hispanic work riders in chaps ordered their breakfast burritos – that the newly-weds ran into a fellow they knew from home. James Graham was going nowhere as an apprentice in Ireland, and was here looking for work. Byrne made some introductions.

And here, seven years on, was Graham again, taking a coffee during the track renovation. "He's now the second leading jockey in Chicago," Byrne said proudly. "A few weeks ago he rode six winners in one day. When he came here, he had ridden one winner."

"Yeah, an apprentice race at Naas," Graham interrupted with a grin. "Got run away with." Byrne shook his head. "And good luck to him, because he wanted it bad enough. There's not many people would have taken that chance, would have left everything behind like that. Even me – I love coming here, but I love going home, too."

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Wing Play (8.20 Sandown) Clearly well treated, on the same mark as when pulling six lengths clear of the third in pursuit of an unexposed rival at Windsor last week. More consistent since being fitted with cheekpieces, and reunited with rider who won on him at Lingfield last month.

Next best

Sequillo (7.55 Sandown) Like so many in his stable, really flourishing this summer and has only been raised 2lb for beating two rivals in a sprint finish at Folkestone last time.

One to watch

Hyades (H R A Cecil) again suggested that he will win a decent handicap when his stamina comes into play at Goodwood last week, keeping on from midfield over 9f, despite looking uncomfortable on the track.

Where the money's going

News that Urban Poet is to be aimed at the Ladbrokes St Leger, following his excellent third to Harbinger at Goodwood last week, prompted Coral to introduce him to their betting at 8-1.