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Weld legacy already cemented but continues to grow

Author: Nicholas Godfrey

18/05/2017
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Given Dermot Weld’s well deserved reputation as an international pioneer, it came as a bit of a shock to learn last weekend that he had not saddled a winner in America since 2008, when Winchester won the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes. A quite brilliant piece of placement with Zhukova soon put that particular statistic back in its box as the dual Group Three winning mare dismissed her rivals with contempt under John Velazquez in the Man o’War Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday. On paper there had been every reason to think the daughter of Fastnet Rock would be hard to beat, and so it proved in the race itself as she tracked Charming Kitten before drawing away with consummate ease to score by a six length margin that was in no degree flattering to the winner.

I have often questioned why more European trainers don’t consider such richly endowed opportunities across the Atlantic and this is surely part of Weld’s genius over the years: he sees the chance, and he takes it. And let’s be frank here: you won’t find many more straightforward opportunities to secure a top level victory than the Man o’War, where rain softened ground (officially yielding) led to three non-runners to leave just five runners. Of them, only ex-German Wake Forest was a previous Grade One winner and, consistent as he is, the 7yo would never get near winning a Group One in England or Ireland.

Moreover, none of Zhukova’s remaining rivals were proven on the ground, and she was getting stacks of weight. Still, she could hardly have been more impressive, winning imperiously despite the most pedestrian of gallops, which can’t have suited such a stout stayer, and Weld duly claimed another Grade One success back at the New York venue where he achieved one of his most celebrated triumphs via Go And Go in the 1990 Belmont Stakes. The Irish maestro remains the only European-based trainer ever to win a leg of the US Triple Crown, while Zhukova may now be handed the chance to become Weld’s first Breeders’ Cup winner in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Weld may never have scored at America’s championship series, where Brief Truce’s third place in the Mile at Gulfstream Park in 1992 remains his only placed effort, but otherwise his achievements worldwide remain little short of startling. What is more, the 68yo also sits in the enviable position of establishing a new record mark every time he saddles a winner at home in Ireland, having in August 2000 surpassed Senator Jim Parkinson’s tally for career victories. Weld achieved that notable feat when he saddled the 2,578th winner of a boldly wonderful career; he topped 4,000 when Sea Swift won at Naas in June last year, weeks after he won his first Epsom Derby with Harzand.

Not forgetting his prolific history at the Galway Festival (Flat and jumps), Weld’s domestic efforts would be reason enough in itself to celebrate a career that began at the start of 1972, when a 23yo Weld took over from his father Charlie at Rosewell House. Yet it would be hard to imagine a less parochial individual: without any shade of exaggeration, Weld has to be regarded as the most pioneering trainer racing has ever seen, a latterday Davy Crockett of The Curragh. Weld’s CV is almost overwhelming, carrying such a litany of groundbreaking feats that a full house of Irish Classics and his 21 domestic trainers’ titles are often almost overlooked amid exploits further afield.

As well as his US successes, he saddled Additional Risk to score on the opening day of international racing in Hong Kong, a few years before the coup de grace, the improbable victory of Vintage Crop in the Melbourne Cup in 1993. In nearly two decades since that historic success, no other trainer based in Britain and Ireland has managed to emulate the feat, apart from Weld himself, who won again with Media Puzzle in 2002. Though, somewhat oddly, he has never seriously targeted Dubai, he did achieve a notable landmark when King Jock became his 3,000th career winner when scoring under long term sparring partner Pat Smullen at Nad Al Sheba in February 2006.

I was fortunate enough to be able to quiz Weld at length about his cosmopolitan outlook when I visited his yard at The Curragh a couple of years ago. He told me how he knew all about racing in the States 20 years before he began targeting their races, having spent a couple of summers working the backstretches of New York alongside noted veterinarian ‘Doc’ Reid. “It gave me a valuable insight into the importance of the Belmont Stakes, and I saw maybe 130,000 people at the race, which is the most valuable on the east coast,” he recalls. “So even before I had qualified as a vet, I was working there for experience and for money, to help put myself through college.”

He also went to South Africa and Australia, where he rode out for Sydney legend Tommy Smith in the morning before working with top vet Percy Sykes in the afternoon. And if Weld has trained winners on four continents, he has ridden a winner on a fifth: thrice Champion Amateur, he partnered a horse called Poplin, who won the Freight Services Champion Hurdle in Pietermaritzburg in 1970. Although Weld could hardly have asked for a better start to his training life with three winners on New Year’s Day in 1972, and 82 altogether that first season, he faced stiff competition in those early years.

“I was very young and I had to take on men like Vincent O’Brien and Paddy Prendergast so I went in at the deep end and the rest is history,” he explained, adding that his rivals’ strength was one reason he was soon casting his net to foreign shores, almost as a necessity. “The competition was very keen and I felt that it would be difficult to take on those two world class trainers on a small island. It entered my head, as soon as practically possible to run my horses on the international stage, it might even be a lot easier than in Ireland and gradually we went through Europe. The practicalities weren’t there to travel further but then opened up rather quickly at the end of the 80s, and the opportunities came.”

They’re still coming. Just look at Zhukova!

Nicholas Godfrey,
Racing Post international editor

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