Report by Clara Caslin
A noted Irish horse trainer has described what it takes for smaller family operations to compete in an era when well-resourced trainers like Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott dominate on the track.
Paul Stafford has trained horses at his yard in Rolestown, a rurual village close to Swords in North County Dublin since the late 1990s, producing winners such as Fenlon’s Hill and Dubai Devils.
The trainer told Off The Ball that so many factors have to come together in order for a smaller trainer to be successful against those who bigger and better-funded.
"Horses have gotten so expensive now that you need to be spending a lot of money.," he said. "It’s hard competition out there with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott prevailing on the track. They have the resources, top class horses and owners and we have to compete with that.”
Mullins, a former six times amateur champion jockey in Ireland, started training racehorses in 1988. Located in Clonsutton in Co. Carlow, he trains horses such as Bellshill, owned by Mr and Mrs Wylie.
He trained the legendary Hurricane Fly, who won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham twice. He also trains Un De Sceaux, who gave him his 50th Cheltenham Festival winner at the Ryanair Chase in March 2017.
Elliott, meanwhile, is the trainer of Aintree Grand National winner, Tiger Roll - the first horse to win the race twice since Red Rum in 1974 - owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary.
His yard located in Cullentra House stables in Co. Meath and is home to the retired Don Cossack who won the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“You have to be very lucky to have a really good horse. You buy them at three years-old, break them in and then hope they’re good enough to win races. They are going into races then where competition is just so high and it’s very hard to compete."
— Off The Ball (@offtheball) April 17, 2019
Goodwill of neighbours
Stafford described how in his early days as a trainer, he relied on the goodwill of his north Dublin neighbours.
"I have a two furlong track now but when I started out, I depended on good neighbours to let me use their fields and stubbles to train the horses”, he explained. "It was hard work, but
it had to be done.
"I wouldn’t envy anyone starting out, you need a lot of luck, it’s very hard for small trainers. Unless you were in a position to have everything like a track and enough horses to train," he
Stafford left school at 16 and spent nine years working five minutes up the road for Jim Dreaper at his yard, where legendary horses such as Flyingbolt and Arkle were trained.
He started his career in Hokkaido, a northern Japanese island. Here, he spent three years there breaking in yearlings and educating locals about how to look after racehorses.
He met his wife in Japan and they moved back to Ireland. He started off training point-to-point races, a form of horse racing over fences for hunting horses and amateur riders, and progressed to training horses for the track.
Tusker Flop won "five or six times" for Stafford at point-to-points, which resulted in enhancing his reputation.
Stafford’s father, Tommy, who briefly rode as a jockey in the 1950s, spent 32 years handling baggage at Dublin Airport and brought his family up with the same love of horses that he
Tommy still works at the yard with the rest of the family. His other sons are part of the production, James is a farrier, Colm rides out at the weekend and Thomas, a carpenter, takes
care of maintenance.
Fenlon’s Hill and Dubai Devils are currently Stafford’s most prominent horses.
The star of his yard, Fenlon’s Hill, has been a consistent horse for Stafford and placed in five of his last nine races.
"It depends on how he progresses really, he’s up to two and a half miles and that seems to be his ideal," Stafford said.
Fenlon’s Hill is an eight-year-old owned by John Blake who Stafford has trained since 2016.
His last win was in Down Royal in May 2018 where he came up against nine horses including Cecil Corbett, one of Elliott’s own.
Upcomer Dubai Devils won at Fairyhouse in February this year and he’s been well placed since 2015.
"I think Dubai Devils is a horse that hasn’t found his level yet. Hopefully he’ll be a better horse over fences than he has been over hurdles because he jumps so well and he can stay galloping so hopefully it’s not the end of the road for him."