Jim Bolger has cracked racing better than anyone else alive. With no background in the game he has built his own training centre and his own studs to the extent that three quarters of his 100 horses, including Dawn Approach, the world’s most awaited three year old, have also been bred by him in his native Ireland. And that’s before we start talking about the press ups. At 71, Jim still does 100 every morning.
“It’s a lazy man’s way of keeping fit,” he says characteristically dry, witty and challenging at the same time. In the early days the challenge and the dryness were more marked than the wit and the warmth beneath. It made him both a formidable opponent and a fearsome employer accentuated by his own rigid no-smoking, no-drinking, mass-every-Sunday regime, and by the self-belief necessary for his own entirely untutored entry into the training ranks. “He seemed to come from nowhere,” says the lucid and legendary John Oxx, himself the son of a trainer, “we looked at each other and said ‘Jim Who?’”
When they first asked the question Jim was already all of 35. By then most top trainers are a couple of classic winners into their careers having earlier spent several years sitting at the feet of some favoured mentor. Jim had come via accountancy, car sales and show jumper trading, and as one of six siblings of a farming family in County Wexford there was so little time for sitting down that he did not watch a film until he was 16 and did not see a traffic light until two years later when he went to Dublin to start work as a cost clerk in an electrical firm.
Thoughts that Jim Bolger, the cool, neat and meticulous mastermind who has saddled no less than five of the last seven Dewhurst winners, was ever a mere horny handed son of soil are dispelled by the news that his father’s sister married Robert Brennan who became the Irish Free State’s first minister to Washington having earlier been founder of the Irish Press newspaper, National Director of Elections for Sinn Fein and been condemned to death but not executed in the Easter Rising of 1916. It may have been a simple farmhouse but there can’t have been many in County Wexford in the early 50s with the New Yorker on the table complete with stories from Robert Brennan’s daughter, Jim’s cousin Maeve, whose brilliant, troubled life is a cherished landmark on the Irish literary scene just as her lipstick and nylon stocking appearance was a wondrous visitation to her uncle’s home.
Nonetheless this was deepest, rural Ireland with horses working the land and central to its being. Jim was bright enough to move on from first school to the Christian Brothers in Enniscorthy but vowed to make a living with horses someday. Significantly his early experience was as much to do with dealing as riding. Not for him the jockey and trainer’s nursery of pony racing and point to points, but the breaking and selling of young horses and, when possible, doing a bit of show jumping for himself. “For years while I was working in Dublin,” he said quietly as we watched Dawn Approach come out on to the woodchip gallop at the training base Bolger has moulded on to the shoulder of Coolcullen hill in County Kilkenny, “I used to say that I had never lost money on a horse. I even sold a Grade B show jumper to a young Libyan called Major Gaddafi. Wonder what happened to him.”
Jim loved his riding – “besides winning,” he says, “the best thing in racing is riding a good jumper over fences at speed” – but he was always a pragmatist. “With the show jumpers I would ride them in the ordinary competitions but I was not good enough for the top classes and had a friend who rode them for me in them. I did have three winners from 12 rides in bumpers but that was only by default, and after I got kicked to bits in my second point to point I said that this was an indulgence I could not afford.”
Dawn Approach is the ultimate example of how pragmatism is still attached to what he calls his original “grandiose dream that we would one day breed and run our own”. For after winning at Royal Ascot last summer he was sold to Sheikh Mohammed but stayed on at Coolcullen just as his sire New Approach did when the Sheikh bought him after success in the 2007 Dewhurst. Dawn Approach is slightly bigger, stronger and an even more lustrous copper chestnut than his father and without the unmanageable tendencies that saw New Approach become the first horse to be ponied to the start before the Derby. He won all six of his races last season, beginning with Ireland’s very first two year old race of 2012 exactly a year ago this Sunday.
When Dawn Approach won that day most people saw it as a brisk piece of Bolger business to ensure New Approach made a good start as a stallion. The idea that we had been looking at the future Dewhurst winner seemed ridiculous – until you remembered who trained it. “Jim was always very resourceful and had such a belief about him,” says his long standing if not long suffering wife Jackie, “that I always thought we would make it.” Marrying Jackie in the Dublin years was the best thing Jim ever did and the partnership is infinitely deeper than the fact that their horses run in her white silks with the purple panel down the centre.
The plunge into full time training was taken on the back of selling a show jumper for £13,000, almost eight times as much in today’s money. The former head of accounts for the O’Flaherty Group would then ride ten lots a day using gallops in the Phoenix Park which ended at the American embassy and his wife would pick up the pieces. “We only had three staff and David Downey is with us still,” Jackie says simply. “We all had to get by.”
Those early days were a very different world with apparently much lesser prospects than those emanating from Dawn Approach as he trotted handsomely down the woodchip ahead of us in the hands of Adrian Taylor who not only did the same thing with his sire but was the strong armed controller who used to “pony” New Approach to the start on a stable stalwart rejoicing in the name of Metamorphosis. But Jim Bolger’s belief did not waiver, results began to come including breaking the two mile hurdle track record at Aintree with a four year old filly called Peaceful Pleasure ridden by Dessie Hughes. In May 1981 another filly, the three year old Condessa, made an even bigger statement. Having won a handicap at Clonmel, she crossed the Irish Sea to run placed in the Lingfield Oaks trial and then next week boxed up to York to beat the Henry Cecil trained 1,000 Guineas winner Fairy Footsteps in the Musidora Stakes on the Knavesmire.
“I knew then,” says Bolger savouring the details very exactly, “that if I could beat a Henry Cecil trained 1,000 Guineas winner, anything was possible. A man I had bought a house from gave me 20k to buy a racehorse and I got Condessa for 13k at Goffs but for the life of me could not find another with the rest of the money so had to give him 7k back. That hurt. But we did sell Condessa for 350k at the end of things.” Jim Bolger did a TV interview with me after the Musidora. He was 39 and very composed for a first timer. You didn’t need to be Einstein to sense something special.
Two years later he was winning the Musidora again with a filly called Give Thanks. She and her stable mate Flame of Tara were the best two of their sex in the country. It was Jim’s first full season since moving from Dublin to Coolcullen. “I thought I would like to have a pair like them every year,” he reflects wryly looking back at the high-hedged gallop up which Dawn Approach is about to wing on an “easy canter” having done a “half speed” the day before. “We were able to build two gallops here, the other is sand and both rise 150 feet, and to start the stud at Redmondstown but it has not all been easy. I was never actually insolvent but there were times when we were certainly overtrading.”
Outwardly the flag continued to fly. He trained over a hundred winners a season three times between 1990 and 1994 and St Jovite’s Irish Derby and King George victories in 1992 still make Jim feel he was the best horse he has had so far. But a combination of major owners either dying or leaving and a disastrous conviction that Breeders Cup winner Last Tycoon would make a leading stallion almost cleaned Bolger out. “It was a disaster” admits the trainer. “I sent mares to him and bought his stock and got nothing. It cost me practically everything, hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
But Jackie Bolger had not been wrong to trust to her husband’s resourcefulness. “For 15 years before I began training I had been invisible in racing,” says Jim, “but I had always been to the Sales, always studied pedigrees, had my own ideas. We began to build up our mares. That ‘grandiose’ dream’ took shape.” As the world now knows he hit the jackpot by backing the stallion Galileo and selling both New Approach and the unbeaten Dewhurst winner Teofilo to Sheikh Mohammed at a life changing profit. But the horses have not just delivered because of their breeding. The way Jim Bolger trains them makes you shake your head in both wonder and surprise.
Ahead of us on the gallop Dawn Approach touches 50 kph, his red gold tail flowing elegantly behind the smooth punching of those hindquarters. Jim may finally depend on his original Wexford horseman’s instinct or his years of pedigree study to take his training and breeding decisions, but having built things up in his own way he is prepared to use as many modern aids as seem appropriate. There is a treadmill for controlled exercise which was crucial in getting New Approach back after mid-season injury and which Dawn Approach was on three times a week during his winter break. There is a GPS system to track all fast work. There are scales to log weights every Thursday and two days after every race. And the results of the Equinome genetics testing system has become central to Bolger’s planning of his breeding operation and his analysis of his horses.
The system categorizes a horse’s stamina capabilities from a TT for middle distance to a CC for sheer speed. “Galileo was a TT but he had class,” says Jim slipping effortlessly into the detail. “The ideal for a classic horse is CT. New Approach was a CT while Dawn Approach is a CC. I trained his dam who had talent although she got injured, but she was by a sprinter so the Derby distance is unlikely, But as he settles so well, I would not rule it out entirely.”
Adrian Taylor slides out of the saddle and Dawn Approach is led off for a 20 minute cool down on the walker. He had been ridden for just 15 minutes but would have been on the machine for twenty minutes at the walk and 15 at the trot before Adrian took over and, unlike many top stables in both Ireland and England, he would also do full exercise on Sunday. “He’s very much where I want him,” says the trainer, “he would be 512 kilos now. He went up to 525 during the winter after running in the Dewhurst at 495. He will probably be on 500 for the Guineas. Of all the mechanical aids the one I would least like to lose is the weigh bridge but I am chasing fitness not chasing scales and anyway the most important element in the whole operation are the riders. We have some 13 very good ones and four or five who are exceptional. The riders are everything. Remember what Adrian said to me at the end of Dawn Approach’s canter – ‘who would have thought that New Approach would sire something better than him in his very first crop.’”
Out they come again. There is Adrian Taylor on Grand Criterium de Saint Cloud winner Loch Garman – “he’s a lovely big horse, 535 at the moment, goes for the Derrinstown and then the Irish Guineas.” There is Pat O’Donovan on 2011 Dewhurst winner Parish Hall who could not run last here – “he’s in great shape and will have a good season.” There is Ronan Whelan on Trading Leather – “could be my Derby horse, but must have good ground.” All three colts are home bred and run in the Bolger colours just as did their sire Teofilo and all will be ridden as the sire was by Bolger’s son in law Kevin Manning. Loyalty and family excellence does not come any greater than this.
Head man Brian O’Connor strides over. He is young, bright, carrot-haired and earnest. He makes you think of Aidan O’Brien and A.P.McCoy, the two most famous of the other young men who would have looked at Jim Bolger in that way. Time was when Jim had a seemingly well won reputation of being a control freak and litigious to boot. Several times he took on and beat the Turf Club albeit the last occasion was the hardly onerous task of overturning apprentice Ronan Whelan’s conviction for excessive use of the whip by pointing out that his jockey had dropped the wretched thing at the start. But today’s Jim Bolger has a serenity amidst the precision. He claims to run the Redmondstown Stud with just one ten minute phone call to his nephew Kevin each morning, that he has not actually stepped into his five staff office since Christmas, and that while he does not indulge in soft things like holidays his idea of a break is to take off to Dublin for four days to read books, meet friends and go to the theatre. “They say that I have 102 employees,” he says, “but I tell them there are 102 people who have just one employee. That’s me and I will only go on as long as I want it to.
Over a ridiculously lucky racing life I have been privileged to visit many of the most famous places in the racing game. In all that time the only self-created, cradle-to-grave, one man breeding and training operation to compare would be the one that Colin Hayes crafted amongst the sighing gum trees of the Barossa Valley 80 km up from Adelaide. But even Colin was dependent on investors like Robert Sangster. Jim Bolger rides alone. “I don’t have nearly enough words to describe him properly but I do have one,” says Kevin Manning, “The man’s a genius.”