Moonshadow was a full sister to the Oaks winner Love Divine. She was beautifully bred but desperately slow. She may yet earn fame as a dam of classic winners but she has already left one small mark on the racing story. At Lingfield on November 9th 2006 she was the first horse that Tom Queally rode for Henry Cecil. At Epsom this week, Aviate and Bullet Train represent rather different prospects.
It was Moonshadow’s 7th and final attempt to prove herself a racehorse and she duly finished a fading 6th of 12 and had her targets changed from the parade ring to the breeding paddocks. Yet for the then just 22 year old Tom Queally it had been an opportunity to die for. “I was really thrilled,” he said at Lingfield last week, “and although I could not get hold of Henry on the telephone, when I saw him in the street at Newmarket to say ‘thank you’ he asked me to ride work for him the next season. He’s a genius to work for.”
In 2007 most of the Cecil connection was on the gallops but Queally did ride one winner, Lady Lil at Pontefract, for Warren Place from 14 rides, and 2008’s 18 winners from 90 rides blossomed into last year’s full blown 215 ride stint and a 41 winner scorecard which included the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, the Champion Stakes at Newmarket not to mention the small matter of Midday’s ground breaking win in the Breeders Cup Distaff in California. There was also the “sinned-against” short head defeat in last year’s Oak’s matched by photo finish victory but “deemed-the-sinner” demotion in this season’s 1,000 Guineas. It has not been an uneventful union. “Sometimes,” says Tom Queally in that quiet, thoughtful way of his, “I can’t believe I am only 25.”
For while it was the Cecil link, and a dramatic opening Group One victory on the “spare ride” Art Master?? for Michael Bell in Ascot’s Golden Jubilee, that last year catapulted Queally into the big time and over £2million in UK prize money, it was way back at Clonmel in April 2000 that the winning had begun. Everyone was impressed as this 15 year old schoolboy and former southern area pony racing champion drove an hitherto unsuccessful four year old called Larifaari between horses to land the first of what are now over 550 firsts on the Queally card. It was to prove an almost too explosive start.
For if in that opening season the boy was initially just keen to do anything trainer Pat Flynn said en route to landing the Irish Apprentice Championships, the parents were insistent that schooling at The Christian Brothers in Dungarvan must come first. By February 2001 Declan Queally had unsuccessfully applied to the Turf Club to have his son’s indentures transferred to his own small yard in Waterford and by October it had become a very public dispute finally resolved by the Turf Club ruling that the Flynn/Queally contract should be terminated a year early as “relationships between the parties had irretrievably broken down.”
Tom does not want to revisit the issue except to say that how much he now appreciates that his parents insisted on him finishing his education to the extent of getting Leaving Certificate (Irish equivalent of A Levels) grades better than many fellow pupils not encumbered by another life on the track. “My mum would pick me up at 12 o’clock,” he says, “and I would study my school work as well as form on the way to the races and be back in school next morning.”
After the split with Pat Flynn, weekends would be spent riding out with Aidan O’Brien to whom Tom went full time in 2003. But while the Ballydoyle experience was invaluable and even provided a shock first Group winner when the pacemaker Balesterini slipped the field in the Ballysax Stakes, it did not fuel a winner increase or a change in the perception that the young man from Clappagh somehow thought too much of himself. At the end of the 2003, with a score of just 11 on the board, Queally told O’Brien that he needed to try his luck abroad.
“Aidan was very good about it,” says Tom with the self possession some have taken as conceit or even idleness, “and if I had ridden three more winners that year I would probably still be in Ireland. Hand on my heart I was not cocky, but when you are an early success and handle yourself with a degree of confidence the papers can take against you. I felt sorry for my mum and dad and knew I should try somewhere different.”
The road to the Cecil saddle was not a direct one. In January 2003 Queally had spent several weeks with David Elsworth at Whitsbury and ridden the winner of a “seller” at Lingfield. The next winter he had a spell work riding at The Fair Grounds in New Orleans and then travelled down to New Zealand where he rode a winner and so impressed experienced owner Doug Rawnsley that he was then and there predicting an international future. “He possessed brains, good manners, beautiful hands, flair and balance,” Doug wrote to me, “It was obvious that he had great potential but told me that he had nothing lined up and was about to accept a job as a work rider in Lambourn.”
A father figure was needed and, as it has for a string of jockeys including Jamie Spencer and Frankie Dettori, it appeared in the slow-talking, hard-smoking, cryptic but benign shape of Barney Curley. He may be a stewards’ challenge and a bookmakers’. Over the years Barney may have cost Tom a 21 day suspension for “not making sufficient effort” on the odd ball Zabeel Palace in 2007 and have involved both Tom and his younger Limerick University student brother Declan in a bookie busting coup last month, but when it comes to caring for young men’s futures no one doubts Barney’s credentials.
At Lingfield on Tuesday Queally was twice sporting Curley’s famous black and white livery and twice needlessly scaring the betting ring on horses who very evidently have an “If” about them. But if Curley did not that day repay his jockey for the lift down from Newmarket he has long since given Tom a sense of perspective for which the young rider is quite touchingly grateful.”
“Two years ago,” Queally explains, “Barney said to me ‘you have a big season up ahead and I am now going to take you to Zambia to make sure you realize how lucky you are.’ What I saw down there with the work he’s doing with DAFA (Direct Aid To Africa) stops you ever feeling sorry for yourself if you are in a traffic jam after riding three beaten favourites at Sandown.”
So to Epsom in what is Queally’s seventh season since he arrived and promptly won the UK Apprentice title with 66 winners in 2004 but did not top the 100 until five years later. Whatever happens it is unlikely to faze him witness the phlegmatic calm with which he handled the Oaks and 1,000 Guineas enquiries. “If you are going to try and kick the stewards room door down,” he says, “you are not going to get the race back but you do make yourself look an idiot. And it’s a privilege for me to be riding for Henry when you consider he has had the likes of Pat Eddery, Steve Cauthen and Lester Piggott.”
“The Derby,” he adds, “is the complete test of the thoroughbred. You have got to have a horse with the mentality to handle the occasion and the balance to handle the track. As for Bullet Train, (his first Derby ride), I like the way he won at Lingfield, the way he handled the course and stretched and quickened that day. He’s physically quite impressive, well balanced for a big horse, is really improving and I like his attitude.”
“Aviate is a smaller, nippier thing. If you sat on her and Timepiece in the morning you would probably pick the other filly. But it’s about the afternoon not the morning and anyway it’s great that Henry is double handed and I will be almost as happy if the other one wins. I am a team player and you have got to see the big picture otherwise it’s all pointless.”
“Henry is fantastic to ride for,” Tom continues. “I understand what he wants from me and I think he understands what I can do for him. He has this way with his horses, is so at one with them. It is as if he has something extra. I could stand here and talk about him for an hour and not do him justice.”
If Bullet Train takes the Derby on Saturday, he will return to an emotional reception unmatched in a classic since the old king led in Oaks winner Sun Chariot in 1942 and even the bookies cheered. The centre of that applause will be master trainer Henry Cecil not the young man from Cappagh on his back. His jockey will like it that way.