A Sensational Trip Without A Whip

The Seen-Unseen group are standing together facing the camera and posing for a group picture at the Curragh Beag and Racing Stables.

By Martin Kelly

The Seen-Unseen enthusiasts all gathered together from across the Country, at Kildare Railway Station on August 2nd before loading onto the Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) transport, to take the group over to the nearby Curragh Beag and the Racing Stables of John and Jodi O’Donoghue. Clare McLaughlin, is the founder of Seen-Unseen and arranged our sensory visit to this working stable. Largely assisted by Barbra White, Snr. Executive with HRI.

On arrival in the stable yard, the first striking sensation was stepping out onto a soft gravel surface coupled with the peaceful sound of sycamore trees gently rustling in the Curragh breeze. This distinctive soft covering stretched over the stable yard until we reached the cobbled areas which fronted along the perimeter of the horse boxes. Clare then introduced us to John O’Donoghue, the young trainer and his wife Jodi. Together, they told us how the yard works through a set of daily routines. Having thirty thoroughbred horses in training and only six stable lads to ride out, it is indeed a busy schedule. Consequently, the O’Driscoll Yard operates on a nine to five basis so efficiency is the key.

We were now on high alert as we awaited a string of horses returning back from their training run on the Curragh Gallops. So! Just like clockwork, the unique sound of clip-clopping horses echoed into the Yard with their riders chatting and the horses snorting and whinnying as the party walked along the cobbled path. This party of four were now heading towards the unsaddling enclosure to be hosed down before heading for the horse walker.

Two members of the group can be seen reaching out to pet a white horse which is standing in the stables.

Ironically, we were informed that one member of this string had dislodged a plate while training so we got an unplanned sensory insight into the stable farrier’s role as Pat, the stable’s “shoemaker” was introduced. Pat’s job was to remove and replace the faulty shoe and get the costly Kingswood back on the horse’s hooves again. During this procedure, apart from the sound of the farrier at work, we also got to learn about the importance of well shaped and perfect fitting horseshoes. Moreover, to closely examine the horseshoes and learn how different styles are fitted depending on the weather or for track racing. The traditional or heavier shoes are generally fitted over the Winter period while a much lighter aluminium racing plate is fitted before racing, thereby, putting his/her best foot forward.

The O’Donoghue enterprise is based in the former yard of the famous John Oxx, the renowned flat race Trainer. This tried and tested stable yard can boast of having produced three Irish Derby winners, under the stewardship of John Oxx. Including see the stars, who went on to win races all across Europe.

The next element of our sensory journey was a visit with the friendly stable hack Gibbs Hill (Gibbo). Gibbo is a nine year old grey gelding whose role is to lead by example, to keep the younger friskier thoroughbreds in line when out exercising. Gibbo is indeed a magnificent animal, standing over eighteen hands high and he exudes strength and power with not a hint of flab on his enormous frame. Everyone had an opportunity to spend some sensory time with Gibbo and as he was chaperoned, we also got to feel or rub him.

As the stable hack, Gibbo can be described as the main man around the yard and a perfect role model so we thoroughly enjoyed his company. After our sensory experience with Gibbo, he was taken out for a short trot around the yard and on return to his box, he immediately dropped onto his back stuck his legs in the air and entertained us by snorting and rolling about. John informed us that this was an expression by a very “happy horse”.

After this unscheduled performance, we were then invited by John and Jodi back for coffee and cakes in the stable canteen. Naturally, these fancy cakes are not normally to be found on the stable table as the jockeys are always extremely conscious of their calorie intake. While enjoying these forbidden treats, we all engaged in yet another tactile insight into the finer elements of the racing industry. Getting to handle a wide variety of racing materials from horse bedding to the tasty nourishing nuts fit for a king. In addition, a full set of a jockey’s racing outfit was passed around, from the highly coloured vests that represents the owners along with a range of distinguishing coloured hats. Also, we held a typical lead rain and Newmarket blanket that keeps a horse warm while walking around the parade ring before his Jockey jumps on board and heads for the Starting Gates.

Members of the group are standing around and are seen from behind as they listen to a member of the stables' staff speaking to them

Now all fully replete, it was back to our sensory tour and to observe the horse walker in action. This area is where the horses were now cooling down and relaxing after their Curragh exertions. In many respects, identical to an athlete warming down after a hard training run. The horse walker is fully automated so the horses are moved along independently, thus, allowing the stable staff to maximise their resources.

Alas! Our unique sensory visit was drawing to an end but was sticking with the racing formula, before saying our goodbyes to our excellent hosts. It was a quick run through the O’Donoghue’s starting stalls which again for us was a hands-on experience of what happens during the start at an official flat race meeting. This time we had an opportunity to stand in a typical starting stall to imagine what it feels like for the horse and jockey before the race starter presses the button. All of the O’Donoghue two year old horses are schooled through this mandatory resource before they can ever register to compete. Such starting stalls guarantee that at least all the horses in a race are facing forward before the gates spring open and they jump off. Thankfully, we passed through the starting stalls with not a hint of a Jockey’s whip in sight.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end so it was now back on the HRI bus and homeward bound. Having personally participated on numerous Seen-Unseen adventures, this sensory tour of a live racing stable was no doubt, a unique sensational experience for all concerned and left us with lasting memories.

However, with these memories still fresh in our minds, four days later on August 6th, we were invited by HRI to attend the Curragh races as guests. On this occasion, to experience first hand how race goers enjoy a day at the races. August 6th, was a classic trial meeting with the Pheonix Stakes the main event for two-year-old horses at the Curragh track – the official home of Irish flat racing. This meeting featured a range of trials for up and coming racing stars, with the Pheonix Stakes offering the top prize. Yes! It was yet another Aiden O’Brien victory with his horse Little Big Bear taking the first prize.