It would come as no surprise if this weekend, like most weekends, Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore partners of John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith came away with a sackful of Group 1s.
Their horses dominate the fields for Irish Champions Weekend, with multiple classy contenders in most races – horses bred in the purple and prepared to perfection by O’Brien.
While the favourites will be handled by Ryan Moore, the second strings, still the envy of many other yards, are likely to fall the way of Ballydoyle’s trusted number two Seamie Heffernan.
Heffernan has long been part of the Ballydoyle team and could well find himself in the spotlight at some point this weekend. Here he takes a few minutes to talk to us:
How important is Irish Champions Weekend for Irish racing?
I’d say it’s very important. Racing, especially at the top level, is a worldwide sport and every country that wants to keep their racing up there has to keep upping their game all the time. To have this weekend is an important thing for Irish racing as it means it can attract the best horses and stay up amongst the best in the world.
Can you tell us a little about the two tracks used, starting with the Curragh…
Our best track is the Curragh and nothing else comes close to it. At the Curragh usually the best horse wins and it’s unusual for there to be hard luck stories. If someone comes back with a hard luck story then they’re just looking to make an excuse. They get racing early there and the best horse normally just keeps going.
And how about Leopardstown too…
At Leopardstown they can sometimes go a steady pace and you can get yourself in a bit of trouble. It’s not as straightforward riding at Leopardstown compared to the Curragh.
There is a lot of rain forecast for both courses. Do you think that will be an issue?
I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all and I wouldn’t let it cloud your thinking too much. Most horses will gallop on all types of ground, but some will try harder or be able to cope on different types of ground more. Things such as confirmation, attitude and constitution is what it comes down to on the ground in the end. If there’s a shock or an upset because of the ground you have to remember that the horse was put in the race by someone for a reason – they must’ve thought it had a chance in the first place. At Champions Weekend no one just has a runner for the sake of it.
You are the number two rider at Ballydoyle. How do you find that role?
I’ve been there quite a while and my position has never changed. I get very well looked after for riding out there and I also have a jockey’s licence. So, for as long as they want to keep using me when their first choice of jockey isn’t available then I’ll keep riding for them. It’s a pleasure to be in the position I’m in and that’s the way it is.
Is bringing horses through at home something you particularly enjoy?
I get a big thrill out of bringing a horse along and being proven right about a horse either being very good or, on occasions, not being so good. We all spot them as yearlings and make our opinions about the horses. Some opinions are right, others are wrong, and it’s something I enjoy. There’s a lot of staff there and I don’t ever find the work hard. I don’t have to use the gym in the evening because I work there and there are a lot of benefits to working there.
Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore partners have dominated racing recently, and dominate the fields for Irish Champions Weekend. Is that a good thing for racing?
It’s certainly a good thing if you’re on that team. Everybody wants to keep upping their game all the time and the men that put the money into keeping Ballydoyle are proper men – and they want to win, a lot. They can be taken on by other big operations around the world who are equal to them in terms of money and equal in stock, but they might not be quite as good or not have the luck that we’ve had. We always want to get better and we always want to win.
With the likes of Winter, Churchill and Order Of St George in action there is a lot of focus on Ballydoyle. Is there any extra pressure as a result?
For me, pressure might be with you for the first ten, maybe 20 years, but after that it goes. Every time I weigh out and swing my leg over a horse I cherish it. I cherish every ride and every winner I have I love. It’s something I enjoy. There’s no pressure for me and I’d say that’s probably the case for the team as a whole.
Aidan O’Brien is being tipped to break Bobby Frankel’s record for Group/Grade 1 wins in a year. Do you think he can do it?
It is definitely possible but it is also going to be difficult. As long as the horses stay healthy then Aidan won’t change anything and he’ll run them when he thinks they need and run and where he thinks they’re most likely to win. It would be a great achievement for him and the team.
Looking at your team as a whole this weekend, can you see the horses dominating?
Absolutely. We’re really happy with the horses as a group and this is a major weekend for us, so we want the horses to be right and be performing. From race to race Aidan doesn’t empty them to see if they’ve improved at all, he lets them do their talking on the track. Aidan’s trump card is that he can keep a horse improving right throughout the season, it’s an amazing skill. Whether it’s steady progression or something more rapid that reaches a peak, is rested, then comes back better than ever. These horses are going to be at the top of their games for this weekend.
And, finally, your ride on Highland Reel at the Breeders’ Cup still stands out in the memory. Looking ahead to the autumn, are we likely to see you in action overseas?
I’d like to think I could pick up rides but it’s never happened before. If Aidan uses me then I’ll have rides, if he doesn’t then I probably won’t be there. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way I expect it to be. I’m always open to offers and will listen to anyone and to what anyone has to say.