Ireland's hopes of Europe domination secure in cool hands of De Bromhead

Trainer of the Champion Hurdle favourite talks to Chris McGrath as tension builds towards next week's Cheltenham Festival
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is all very well on a green and gold Waterford day such as this, the sea and fields smarting in the sunshine, mute with the unexpected promise of spring. Even a trainer lacking the advantages of youth and temperament that combine in Henry de Bromhead might, on such an afternoon, contemplate the responsibility with a degree of innocent optimism.

But it will be different next week, won't it, Henry? The day when thousands of your compatriots pour into the Cotswolds, their imaginations bulging, slavering for the blood of British bookmakers, almost all of them rallying to the one standard. And that's the one in your hands, Henry. A heavy duty, is it not? After all, the Irish don't go to the first day of the Cheltenham Festival looking to take prisoners.

"Do you know, it probably hadn't dawned on me," he said. "I hadn't really been looking at it that way." De Bromhead has taken such wide-eyed pleasure in the emergence of his brilliant young hurdler, Sizing Europe, that it seems perfectly possible. He grins. "But I suppose it's true. Thanks for pointing that out. I'm starting to sweat now."

Had it not occurred to him, of course, he would hardly have spent the morning showing a security firm around his stables, installing closed-circuit television. And be in no doubt, the hot favourite for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle is in very secure hands. At just 35, De Bromhead's easy demeanour has deep foundations – both in his pedigree, and in his own experience.

The genes, along with the surname, trace back to the chevaliers of medieval France. Of more immediate relevance, however, is the benign interest of his father, Harry, who trained Fissure Seal to win at the 1993 Festival on the same hill where Sizing Europe is now preparing for 11 March. "Dad's brilliant," De Bromhead said. "He'd never tell you anything. But he's always there to be asked."

De Bromhead was selling stallion nominations at Coolmore when his father decided to retire at the end of 1999. "He'd had a bit of a fright with his health," he said. "So I said: 'Sure, why don't I give it a lash?' I'd almost gone to Coolmore to avoid training, because I'd seen how tough it can be. But it's something you can't get out of your system."

After a year with Robert Alner in Dorset, he had been given the chance to work as a private trainer back in Ireland, which taught him only how little he still knew. So he returned to England for two years with the great sorcerer Sir Mark Prescott. "A marvellous experience," he recalled. "You worked your butt off, and he would spend the first year knocking the edges off you. But he was so willing to teach. You could ask him anything."

De Bromhead won with his very first runner, down the road at Tramore on New Year's Day, 2000. "Mind you we had an odds-on shot get stuffed the same day," he remarked. "It was the only meeting staged anywhere in Europe after the millennium celebrations, so the publicity we got was unbelievable."

Though he also saddled a winner at the Punchestown Festival that spring, he soon reached a plateau. Even now there are only 37 horses in the yard, a defiantly unpretentious sprawl of mud and masonry among the supple farmland. Things had gone quiet, and De Bromhead began to sell on his winners. Then one day, out of the blue, a Yorkshireman named Alan Potts rang. He had read about a promising point-to-pointer in the yard, and wondered if he might come and see him. By the time Potts arrived the horse had developed a problem, but De Bromhead managed to sell him another youngster by the same sire.

Potts now has 13 horses here, including Sizing Europe himself. "A phenomenal guy," De Bromhead said. "His is an amazing story. He started out with nothing. At 16 he was working in the mines. But he got one day off a week, to finish his education. Then he mortgaged his house for 10 grand, and started his own company."

Potts has since made a fortune from "sizing", a mining technology, and several of his horses have the same prefix. (By way of shorthand, their trainer finds himself saying things like "Asia worked with Europe and Africa.") De Bromhead bought Sizing Europe out of a field in Co Galway after winning a bumper with his half-brother. Last season the horse remained very much a work in progress, and De Bromhead spared him the Festival as a novice.

He again felt Sizing Europe to be not quite right at Christmas, when he missed an engagement at Leopardstown. And it may be that these snags were the making of the horse. Both appearances this season have shown that he excels when fresh: in November, he went over for a look at Cheltenham and thrashed Osana, apparently the leading British hope for the Champion; and then, at Leopardstown in January, he coasted away from Hardy Eustace and Al Eile, two veterans with many a medal on their chests.

"And I think he idled in front," De Bromhead says. "I was stunned. I think everyone was. He was just awesome. I thought beforehand I'd be delighted if he finished in the first three, because nice ground and a fast pace is what he wants, and you can never be sure of getting either in races like that."

He leads Sizing Europe into the muddy yard on a threadbare halter. No champion hurdler in recent years has tried his luck over fences, but this lad is unmistakably built for the job. "He was only a frame of a horse before, but he's getting stronger all the time," De Bromhead said. "His neck is filling out nicely now. It's not my call, but I certainly get the impression Alan's mad keen for him to jump fences. That's why he bought all these horses. This one certainly has the size and scope, and jumps like a horse that wants fences. In fact, my only instruction to Andrew [McNamara] at Leopardstown was that if he felt he might be in trouble, might be meeting one wrong, to use his scope."

Could it even be that this is a horse capable of bridging the gap to Dawn Run, the last Champion Hurdler to win a Gold Cup? De Bromhead at least acknowledges that he could try longer distances. "He's relaxed enough," he said. "I know he didn't look it at Leopardstown, but he was three wide, with no cover. He's not a horse that will sprint. He just has a very high cruising speed."

Whatever the future may hold, Sizing Europe has already made an irreversible breakthrough. "I'm just trying to keep everything as relaxed and chilled as possible – including the trainer," De Bromhead said. "Half the time you're pinching yourself that you've got the Champion Hurdle favourite. For a young guy, starting off, a horse like this makes all the difference.

"I'd always be analysing myself, asking myself questions – too much so, probably. So it's an enormous relief to find a good one. You know you can train a Grade One horse. A couple of years ago, I didn't know that. It gives you a lot of confidence. And once you've got that, you keep throwing the dice."

Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts

*The Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter between the steeplechasing giants Kauto Star and Denman has dominated the turf all season. Today, Alan King, an outstanding trainer of recent Festival winners, gives his view.

n 'Denman looks like he's a proper stayer, and he will make sure there's no hiding place for any of the others. But I just think that Kauto Star is probably the best horse I've ever seen jumping, and he might be the best we will ever see. To have that versatility, to win over two miles and three, right-handed or left-handed, on any kind of ground, he's a phenomenal horse and I hope we are all appreciating him while we have him. It'll be a great horserace, but I'll be rooting for KAUTO STAR.'