23 January 2005

Pony-sized mare is out to provide another feather in the cap for her five-horse stable in today’s big hurdle race at Leopardstown

Small can be beautiful. Solerina is hardly more than pony-sized but if she wins this afternoon’s AIG Europe Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown she will do more than collect her 18th victory for the Bowe family. She will confirm that in major sport, it is only in jump racing that David (or perhaps in this case Davina) can still beat Goliath on a regular basis.

Everybody got very excited about Exeter playing Manchester United in the FA Cup replay last week. But everyone also knows that whatever the result, the non-league team have no hope whatever of beating United more than once in 50. In terms of size, the Bowe family’s five-horse operation in Gathabawn, Co Kilkenny, is a village football team by comparison with Exeter’s operation, yet Solerina has already won four big hurdle races this season and her 13-year-old stable companion Limestone Lad has just retired after a dazzling 35-victory career built around exactly the same trail-blazing tactics which Solerina now uses so well.

Whole forests have been felled to chronicle the story of how Bowe junior began to race his father’s horse only because Limestone Lad was diagnosed with a supposed heart problem when off to the sales. Of how Michael works a 14-hour day fitting the horses in with the sheep and the cattle; how Michael gallops up the towering Gortnamuch Hill at the back of the farm every morning; how in her early days Solerina seemed so hopeless that he rode back in and said: “I don’t know what this is, but it certainly isn’t a racehorse.”

But the tale tends to gather a somewhat patronising, cosy, romantic glow about it. Sure, Michael’s brother, John, owns Solerina and his old father, James, officially holds the trainer’s licence, but to depict Family Bowe as some sort of potato-digging yokels fluking their way into racing’s elite is to completely misunderstand both them and indeed the demands of equine conditioning.

The Bowes are a success – 400 acres is hardly a smallholding – and the farm buildings are not run-down donkey stalls. At 73, James Bowe is not quite as active as when he was master of the North Kilkenny Foxhounds but he still rides his old grey horse up the hill of a morning. John, 33, spends his week working for an investment bank in Dublin but comes back to help his elder brother every weekend. And while their five horses may all be home bred, they too are successful. Both the six-year-old mare Sweet Kiln and the five-year-old You Sir won impressively at Fairyhouse last Sunday to bring the season’s results to eight wins from just 20 runners, a strike-rate way beyond any of the major stables.

“These would be real good stock men,” says Ted Walsh, the most silver-tongued of all Irish commentators and himself the winner of both the English and Irish Grand Nationals as a trainer. “If you looked at their cattle or their sheep, their skins and eyes would look good. That’s what we noticed with Limestone Lad and now with Solerina, their skin would have a real glow about it. They are not just fit horses, they are healthy horses.”

A long and delightfully candid conversation with Michael Bowe late on Wednesday confirmed this secret. “I was brought up as a stock man,” he said sheltering in the barn after finishing feeding the horses and lambing a ewe. “But we always had horses around. I did some hunting and showing and point-to-points. I actually rode Limestone Lad in his first race (back in Feb ’97) but he ran away with me on the way to the start and I said `never again’.

“I owe him everything because he never lost his enthusiasm. I made all sorts of mistakes with him but before a race you could see his blood vessels swell as he pumped himself up. I think keeping horses happy mentally as well as physically is the key.”

To that end Michael has developed his own highly successful interval training system for Solerina and the others around Gortnamuch Hill. “I use three different sides of it,” he says. “I will give her a long canter up to top first time, go back and come about five furlongs a bit quicker the next, and then just let her run up fast for a shorter one the final time. She’s a funny little bitch. She was so scratchy and pony-like at the beginning that we sent her away to Tom Foley and at first he said `she doesn’t seem to have any gears’. Even now she wouldn’t impress you.”

In truth Solerina’s best distance is half a mile further than today’s two-mile trip over which she was only fourth behind today’s three main rivals on the same course last month. But the ground will be testing, her front-running style (“I can’t see the point of holding them up,” says Michael) will expose any weaknesses, and her trainer will be philosophical, win or lose.

“They never disappoint me,” he says of his horses, before adding a postscript all sorts of supposed bigger-hitters should remember, “I only disappoint myself.”

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