Dynastic forces powering Taaffe's Aintree mission
Irish trainer from a family with racing in their blood will saddle a horse named Treacle in the Grand National. If history counts for anything on Saturday, then this one sticks out a mile
No less than in his own surname, where letters seem to split and reproduce, the lifeblood of the Irish Turf contains a constant mitosis: the same chromosomes breaking down, generation by generation, into fresh versions of the old mastery. So it is that Tom Taaffe's involvement helps to saturate even the world's most famous steeplechase with some intimate, familial lore. Taaffe, Mullins, Carberry, Moore, Walsh: names that make pedigree seem still more important in horsemanship, than in the horses themselves.
Branches of the family tree become ever more entwined. In the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday, Nina Carberry will be riding for her uncle, Arthur Moore, against her in-laws, Katie and Ruby Walsh, themselves respectively in the cause of their father, Ted, and a man lending new fame to a great dynasty, Willie Mullins. Taaffe, however, brings his own, unique resonance. True, he was once stable jockey to Moore. But his name will forever be linked to the champion who transcends this entire genealogy as the greatest steeplechaser in history.
Taaffe was only two when perched upon the withers of Arkle himself – the moment preserved in a family photograph, if not actually in his own memory. A characteristic admission, this. Few would hesitate to gild an upbringing as the son of Pat Taaffe, Arkle's jockey. But the man who saddles Treacle, one of the leading Irish fancies at Aintree, has a scrupulously understated temperament. He made a name for himself as a rider, and then as the trainer of a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in Kicking King. But he inherited a perspective that would serve the sport well, in its excitable appraisal of each new champion.
On Saturday Taaffe hopes to emulate both his grandfather, trainer of Mr What in 1958, and his father, rider of Quare Times (1955) and Gay Trip (1970). But he will never again have a horse through his hands like the one he clasped with tiny fingers, some 46 years ago. "I hope there never is another Arkle," he says. "I say that jealously, because I grew up with it, and understand what it meant. There is no horse that could come and win those races with 12st 7lb or 12st 10lb on their back. Nowadays the Grade One horse runs in Grade One races off level weights. Arkle ran in every race, and kicked them all upside down and out of the way. A lot of people new into the game, who don't know its history, at once assume that Kauto Star is the best ever, or Sea The Stars, or whoever. Mill House was probably going to be the best ever. Only he ran into Arkle."
As a trainer, his father came up with a Gold Cup winner of his own, in Captain Christy. For Taaffe, that process was barely separable from paternity. The day Kicking King made his debut at Leopardstown, Elaine had gone into labour and Taaffe needed a police escort from the track. "There was a little bit of unrest in the household, all right," he smiles. "But I knew this was a damned good horse and I wanted to see him run. It turned out I was a couple of hours early anyway. We'd called the boy Pat and I said: 'Now that I've found the new Pat Taaffe, have I found the new Arkle?' Little did I know the horse would go on win a Gold Cup, a couple of King Georges. That was enough for me."
Much the same perspective had been necessary as a jockey. "You're either going to be known as Pat Taaffe's son that could ride; or Pat Taaffe's son that couldn't," he remembers. "That's as simple as it was: black or white, nothing in between. I sum it up by saying I got the job done. I rode about 400 winners, and plenty in big races thankfully."
Judging from photographs adorning the stylish house he built on this Co Kildare hill, when coming to Portree in the mid-1990s, his two sons have the same gene. Now 10 and eight, they cut a natural dash over an obstacle. "It doesn't come in a manual," Taaffe agrees.
Perhaps the most important moment of his training career was itself pure instinct. Three weeks before the 2005 Gold Cup, Kicking King was ill and out of the race. Taaffe was leaving for Navan races, running late. "My wheels were spinning and the horse just took off round the field, his tail up, galloping a couple of circles and back," Taaffe recalls. "I was in Navan before I thought about it. He couldn't be as sick as they were saying, if he was doing that."
Taaffe took him to Naas for a gallop. He told Barry Geraghty only to test the water, not to overdo it. The alarmed jockey suggested Taaffe ride the work himself. "So I did," he says. "And I pulled him up halfway up the straight. I knew he was alive, I didn't want to overcook him. Of course, there are other times when you do something by instinct, and get it wrong. It's not an exact science."
Sadly, all the mystery and magic of his second calling can be suspended by its brutal economic realities. And times are especially hard now. Ireland, Taaffe laments, "is now a place only to sleep and rear kids". Even as the crash came, moreover, his horses were stricken by a mysterious sickness. In the 2010-11 campaign, he mustered just three winners. "Only last September did we get to the bottom of it," he says. "It took a lot of money, a lot of time, and help from a great friend. It was heart-breaking. You got to the stage when you had to ask yourself: are you going to throw in the towel or not? We had a lot of bills unpaid, guys disappearing. Thank God for the true core, who stayed with me. But you had to get up and be strong."
In the boom times, fortunately, Taaffe had confined himself to around 55 horses – the right capacity for his time and facilities, even though there were "people slagging me for not going 100-plus". Now he has rooted out the rotten apples, and the horses retained nowadays – around 33 for now – reiterate an emphasis on quality over quantity. "That's what we work to achieve, to be in the mix in the big races," Taaffe says. "They're healthy again, and I know I've a really good team coming through behind. I'm really looking forward to the next two years."
It was the stable's time in the wilderness that retarded the fulfilment of Treacle. As a result, Taaffe reckons him capable of raising his game even at 11. He has only ever run two horses in the National. One unseated at the third, but Slim Pickings came back to finish third and fourth. "Rhythm's everything," he says. "The first six fences are crucial. It's not just about jumping well, it's about avoiding the melees, and then the first big challenge of Becher's. We won't be in any great hurry with him. We'll just be hunting round, trying to mind our own business, and whatever is going to unfold will unfold. When we had Kicking King, someone said to me it must be enormous pressure. But it was a lot less pressure than not having one to run."
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