When Irish trainer Jim Bolger named the colt he had bred himself Mac Swiney, he both backed his judgment and ramped up the stakes.
Calling a horse after a real person — living or dead — means his performances come under extra scrutiny. No one wants it to be a dud. On Saturday in front of 4,000 spectators at Epsom, Mac Swiney could become a Cazoo Derby winner.
Not for the first time 79-year-old Bolger’s judgment has proved spot on. The son of New Approach, who Bolger trained to win the 2008 Derby, has already won Classics, beating stablemate and English 2,000 Guineas winner Poetic Flare in last month’s Irish 2,000 Guineas.
Rory Cleary celebrates after Mac Swiney’s win in the Irish 2,000 Guineas last month
This afternoon Mac Swiney lines up the most important Flat race of the season as only one of two previous winners at Group One level — the other is Mark Johnston’s Gear Up, who won the Criterium de Saint-Cloud last season.
It is also likely winning a race that is British institution with a colt named after Terence MacSwiney, playwright, author and Irish republican politician who died in Brixton Prison in 1920 after being arrested by the British Government on charges of sedition, will give fierce patriot Bolger almost as much satisfaction as scooping his share of the £1.125million prizemoney.
Bolger said: ‘I had been thinking about naming a horse after him for a considerable number of years. Then I realised that the 100th year anniversary of his death was coming up. Lucky enough I picked the right one.
‘Horses have to be named in the spring of their two-year-old days. This fellow had been broken in and ridden from October and had been cantering over the winter.
‘We knew at that stage we had two nice two-year-olds. I had to pick the names then for the right horses and I felt the colt by New Approach was well up to honouring the memory of Terence MacSwiney.’
Mac Swiney is the son of New Approach (above), who Bolger trained to win the 2008 Derby
Bolger’s track record in the Derby allied to Mac Swiney’s form are a persuasive case for support.
Apart from New Approach, Bolger has had a Derby third with Star of Gdansk (1991) and two seconds with St Jovite (1992) and Blue Judge (1993) from only nine runners.
That record might have been even better had the training of St Jovite, the best mile-and-a-half horse Bolger says he has ever trained who went on to win the Irish Derby at the Curragh and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot after his two-length defeat by Dr Devious, gone more smoothly.
Bolger said: ‘He was held up with a heel infection a couple of weeks before the Derby and missed about 10 days of regular exercise.’
Bolger has a reputation for ploughing his own furrow. He grew up on a farm in County Wexford where his first equine experiences where with four working horses who made the operation work before the first tractor arrived in 1954.
Aidan O’Brien’s Bolshoi Ballet is the hot favourite for Saturday’s Cazoo Derby at Epsom
He developed and traded showjumpers before graduating into thoroughbreds and starting training in 1976.
Now over three-quarters of the horses in his stable are his and run in the name of wife Jackie. Quite simply, winning and finding a good horse is an economic necessity.
Given the unpredictable nature of training horses, precarious times are always just around the corner.
Bolger said: ‘I suppose it’s a miracle of sorts. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I am probably reasonably good at the survival game now. I don’t stress too much and fortunately the medics tell us a little bit of stress is not a bad thing.’
If St Jovite is the best mile-and-a-half horse Bolger has trained, he reckons Mac Swiney’s sire New Approach was the best over a mile and a quarter. He won his Derby despite failing to settle and pulling too hard early in the race in the hands of jockey Kevin Manning, Bolger’s son-in-law, who also rides Mac Swiney.
The rain is a positive for Andrew Balding’s Chester Vase winner Youth Spirit
New Approach had arrived at Epsom off the back of second places in both the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas. Bolger makes a telling comparison with Mac Swiney, who was suffering from a respiratory infection when fourth to race-fit Derby favourite Bolshoi Ballet on his seasonal debut at Leopardstown last month.
The trainer said: ‘Mac Swiney is as good as New Approach after his Guineas run. I expect him to better at longer distances. I am fairly confident he will get a mile and a half and get it well.’
The unexpected rain which fell at Epsom yesterday can only have enhanced Mac Swiney’s chance.
Bolshoi Ballet deserves to be favourite. His six-length win in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial was a striking performance. Significantly, his trainer Aidan O’Brien, who has won the Derby a record eight times, saddles only Ryan Moore’s mount when his normal course of action has been to turn up mob-handed.
It could be a vote of confidence in a colt whose sire Galileo was also O’Brien’s only Derby runner when he won the race 20 years ago.
Inexperience is the big question mark against Frankie Dettori’s mount John Leeper, who is named after trainer Ed Dunlop’s late dual Derby winning trainer father.
Dante Stakes winner Hurricane Lane looks solid, while Third Realm was a taking winner of the Lingfield Derby Trial. The worry for the Roger Varian-trained colt is that no horse has won the Derby from his No 2 stall.
The rain is a positive for Andrew Balding’s Chester Vase winner Youth Spirit but a negative for William Haggas-trained Mohaafeth, even though it should dry up today.
While Joseph O’Brien’s Southern Lights can outrun his odds, having been unlucky in running last time behind Bolshoi Ballet.
The latter may well dance home but this may be the day Bolger calls the Derby tune again.