Two days in May, Sedgefield and Sandown, two years ago next month. Two horses, one the dodgy looking Drop The Hammer reluctantly holding on over hurdles in the Durham sunshine, the other the surely past it Blue Bajan rekindling his glory days to take the prestigious Henry II Stakes up the testing Esher hill. It was easy to think something was cooking, something big. It was a trainer called David O’Meara.
He didn’t come over very big, still doesn’t. He was small like the jockey he had been for eleven seasons and 120 winners over jumps. He had thinning red hair, slightly stick-out ears and, while polite enough, appeared to be one of those people who doesn’t want to talk unless there is something worth talking about. From what I had seen in those two very different places, it looked as if there would soon be plenty of chatting to do.
Because the word was already out before Drop The Hammer obliged at Sedgefield. David O’Meara had only officially received the training licence at Roger Fell’s Arthington Barn Stables at Rawston on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors just north east of Helmsley in late summer 2010 but had actually been running the place for a good nine months previously. Horses were winning that you would previously dismiss. There didn’t seem many airs and graces but he had already won that most important of all racing credits. His was a yard you had to reckon with.
But Sedgefield is very different from Sandown, and indeed from Newmarket’s Rowley Mile where the rejuvenated Penitent won last year’s Joel Stakes before running second in the Group One Prix de La Foret on Arc Day and getting himself an invitation to Dubai World Cup night at Meydan. The shirt-sleeved figure greeting Drop The Hammer in the unsaddling enclosure looked no more than just another little northern grafter happy to get on with the game and eat Sedgefield’s mushy peas with no danger of describing them, as did the refined Lord Mandelson, as Guacamole. He wore a suit at Sandown but for us there was also the danger of shrugging off the Blue Bajan triumph as something of a one horse fluke. There should not be too much shrugging now.
For when David had taken over Roger Fell’s beautifully sited but very workaday yard and training operation in October 2009 there were but a dozen horses with Simple Jim, the most successful, boasting an official rating of just 54. By the end of 2011 there had been over fifty winners with nearly a hundred horses, there were sixty nine last year and this morning sees the stable already on the twenty four mark with over £100,000 in prize money, a strike rate of 25% and over a hundred horses on the books and in the boxes which are sprouting like big black mushrooms on the Yorkshire hillside.
By any standards these are challenging figures and confirm O’Meara’s operation as the most upwardly mobile in the country. What’s more they have almost all been achieved from the second hand market, either at the sales like Penitent who cost just £40,000 in October 2011, or from other stables as with last Saturday’s big Doncaster winner Move In Time. Everything suggests David is, in that most exciting of training phrases, “doing something different.” The invitation up to North Yorkshire was a lot too good to miss.
“You will find we don’t hang about,” David had warned. He was right. By 7.15 they were already on third lot. Sixteen horses were circling the concreted stable yard with David turning in his saddle at the centre whilst the riders swapped banter and got themselves into order. They then filed out on to the quite narrow white railed all-weather track and trotted off into the distance. It was a misty morning and the worry was that we would not understand what was happening. Worry we would not.
For when David O’Meara had said that he “like to keep things simple” he was not exaggerating. The all-weather track is some seven furlongs in circumference. After trotting the first three furlongs the string then hack very gently left handed all the way round and past us before they pull up. They have been arranged in ascending order of ability so that when they turn round in their places the fastest horses are at the front. Then they wing back past us round the quite sharp right hand bend in single file some fifty yards apart. Four and a half furlongs in all. And, er, that’s it.
There are no clever permutations of work mates, no long hacks over to distant gallops, no walk back through leafy glades. The sixteen horses come back in, are unsaddled and hosed down with what in winter must be extremely cold water, and are then taken to the three horse walkers to replace the previous sixteen who have been cooling down while this lot were exercising. The riders then tack up another sixteen and the carousel continues. The total routine can be little more than forty minutes. Traditional trainers would spin in their graves. But ask Penitent if it doesn’t work.
David O’Meara is riding the stable star himself in the next lot. Penitent is seven years old and is as unflashy as his surroundings with odd looking joints, feet that have needed something close to sorcery to hold them together, and an attitude at home that is so lethargic that early last season David O’Meara had to ship him to Southwell to see if he had actually retained any ability. After an awesome workout he went to the Doncaster Mile with maximum confidence even if the trainer missed even hearing the commentary to be with his wife and baby daughter in the delivery ward.
“He seems to have taken to it here,” says David, “horses do. They can be very free and excited when they first get on the gallop but once they realise the routine they relax within a week. They get it from the others. When they go left handed all they have to do is hack. When they turn round, we let them stride. Of course it’s very simple. But that’s the point. Everyone and most of all the horses understand it. Of course we also box them over to the Easterby gallops and we turn them out a lot in the afternoons. But this is the basic. Why make things complicated?”
There is a sharp intelligence in the question which comes from a learning deeper than he got from his years in the saddle. For while the figure circling on Penitent has the trappings of the journeyman jockey he once was, the brain has the incisive qualities which could have landed big prizes in wider fields. Born in Fermoy County Cork, O’Meara comes from a professional family, his younger brother works in film animation in Canada, one sister is a teacher in Dublin and the other is a solicitor at the Office of Fair Trading in London. David got a place at Limerick University but after three years the call of the turf became too great. And his parents had to be partly responsible.
For while his father worked in property and his mother as a physiotherapist, they were also clerk of the scales and secretary respectively of the Avondhu point to point. David caught the riding bug racing other ponies in pursuit of the local drag and by the time he got to Limerick he found local trainer Michael Hourigan more interesting than the lecture hall. He was not an instant success going over the side in his first point to point and finishing last in his opening bumper ride, but by the third year of his degree course he was “burning to ride.” A friend spotted an advert wanting an amateur for the Philip Hobbs yard. O’Meara applied and got it.
“He was always very attentive,” remembers Hobbs. “He kept himself to himself a bit and we had a lot of riders around at the time and in the end he went north to try his luck there. You never know who is going to make a trainer but this is not really a surprise.” The elusive first winner had come on February 8th 1999 when a tiring mare called Swansea Gold just lasted home at Fontwell and the highlight of the two seasons in Somerset was riding the Hobbs trained Bells Life to win the 2000 Foxhunters at Aintree.
The first year up North was something of a write off but he then joined up with the Easterbys near Malton winning good races on the grey Turgeonev and also being associated with such horses as Tous Chez and Sharp Belline for the now Grand National winning stable of Sue and Harvey Smith up in its Bronte Sisters meets Steptoe and Son splendour high on Bingley Moor. From these, and from Philip Hobbs, O’Meara drew confidence that training could and should be reduced to simple routines.
“Looking back I suppose I was always interested in the idea of going training,” says David. “I saw what I thought was a good way of doing it and thought that I might be able to apply it. But my other interest was in property like my father. I liked the idea of buying something, stripping it down and redoing it. I am quite handy at that. I bought a house in Hull, another in Malton, a field which might take a stable and actually enrolled in a distant learning degree at Reading University in Building Survey but found it bored me rigid.”
Training was beckoning, he did his BHA modules and an IT course, and when the opportunity came it was from not far away. Roger Fell had made his money running a successful haulage business out of Huddersfield and after having several horses in training thought it would be both more fun and better value if he did it himself. “So I bought this place,” he said looking across the hillside. “Put in the barn and the all-weather and could be sure the costs were mine and not just going to pay the bank which was happening to many trainers. The beginning was not a great success so I put an advert in the Racing Post and got over 100 replies. David was not one of them but I was told about him and when he came up we hit it off. He gets on with things.”
O’Meara receives a salary and a half share in Helmsley Racing and Helmsley Bloodstock, the two companies that run the business. The first year was not profitable but they have made money ever since and while from the outside you could think of Roger Fell as the self-made Yorkshire millionaire who puts a first time manager into his local football club and talks of the premiership, his actual approach is much more hands on and down to earth. Mind you the easy joshing of lads calling him “Rog” and the basic functionality of the portacabin which does duty as the office don’t tend themselves to airs and graces. “I like to be involved,” says Fell, “to make sure suppliers are not taking the micky, drive the box or the tractor, be part of it all. What David has done here is build a team.”
The young football manager is not too poor a comparison. “When I came in, I had to accept what I had to work with. The horses were not great, we could improve some, had to get rid of the others. The gallops were there and I had to adapt myself around them. The first two mornings I went out and what we do seemed the most logical use. When the horses go left handed they know they are only hacking and are completely relaxed. When they turn, they are allowed to stride. When I started Andy (a Brazilian friend of Silvestre de Sousa) was here doing a bit of everything. I brought in Liam (Baily, now head lad) who was not afraid of hard work and we have built from there.”
There are now more than twenty on the cards mixing the huge experience of local point to point king Guy Brewer with the youthful energy and flexibility of staff in their twenties. “They are very bright,” says David O’Meara, “and they have grown up knowing the way I do things, the way we do things.” So too, even more importantly does the stable jockey Daniel Tudhope, the tall, 27 year old Scotsman who but for a broken collar bone might have been champion apprentice in 2005 but whose career hit such a rock bottom in 2010 that he abandoned it in August with just six winner on the board. It was at the suggestion of Silvestre de Sousa that he started riding out with O’Meara in February 2011. By May he was outgunning Dettori on Blue Bajan, by season’s end he had notched 43 winners, last year he logged 76, this year he continues to thrive.
When Tudnope talks about O’Meara giving him confidence he is pointing to the most important management gift of all. Many rookie trainers pitching at the big time as with Blue Bajan at Sandown would have resorted to a “name” jockey. Any study of that finish, or of course more recently of Move In Time’s big win at Doncaster will have confirmed what professional already knew, that for strength, balance, ambidexterity and drive Tudhope was already a match for anyone. All that was needed was confidence. Be intelligent. Give it to him.
“He is a very clever person,” says Daniel. “The gallops may not be ideal but he knows how to use them. He would not be the easiest to get to know but he understands how to make things work. He has a very good eye for a horse but most of all he gives you confidence.”
That feeling is shared by the owners who are coming flocking to the door. “He is a thinker not a talker,” says Nick Bradley of the Middleham Park syndicate team who now have some twenty horses with O’Meara. “He is very straightforward and his mind never rests, he is picking up new things all the time. We don’t have to go into the second hand market and he gets the very best out of him. Look at Penitent, we were told to retire him but he has won Group Races and next month is invited to Hong Kong. And there’s that Smoothtalkingrascal who we got for 19,000 last year after he had lost his way and first time out he won a decent race at Leicester beating Zanetta who won at Newmarket last week. I tell you David O’Meara is as good as any trainer in the country.”
They are words so bold they could become a burden. Yet the young trainer seems unfazed with things. “I want to progress,” he says reflectively, “but I remember playing table tennis with my father who was rather good at it. If you were leading 16-11 and you thought you had it in the bag he would beat you. But if you just played for the next point you could make it.”
With that he put Penitent into the horse walker. The old horse stopped half way in and refused to budge until the rubber partition had been pushed a full horse’s length ahead. “There,” he said as the star walked happily away. “A horse likes a habit, you have to respect him for it.” There was a sense of challenge, almost of triumph in the statement. He may not talk a lot but O’Meara looks to be trotting into something big.