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Johnny Murtagh has hailed the role of the Irish EBF Auction Series in building his operation to the point where he is now a Group 1- and Royal Ascot-winning trainer, whose success prompted three of the largest owner-breeders in the world to send him horses.
Murtagh was a generational talent as a rider, recording success at the highest level on a global scale including in Ireland, England, France, Germany, USA, Canada, Hong Kong and UAE.
Having been legged up on the best pedigrees around throughout a stellar career, training was always going to begin at a different level without access to the blue bloods. And it is notable how the boss of Fox Covert Stables on The Curragh reflects on the opportunities to access considerable prizemoney – €699,000 this year – in the Irish EBF Auction Series helped him grow.
“It is special, it got us started,” was Murtagh’s glowing reference on the Irish EBF Auction Series Shout Out.
“I can’t thank them enough for it. It gives those horses that opportunity to win good money for syndicates and for the smaller owners who can’t afford the blue bloods of the world. But if you could win one of those it is going a long way to pay the training fees for the year.
“That is what you are trying to do. You are just trying to make sure that the horse that they have in training with you can pay its way.” Murtagh has continued to support the series, even as the quality and quantity of his string has expanded. In all, he has registered eight maiden winners since the commencement of the series in 2015 and accumulated a total of €144,735, with 33 of his 67 runners collecting in some fashion.
Two of those winners have come this year, Lord Gorgeous taking the spoils in the very first race of the series at Dundalk in April and then more recently, Threebagsfull scoring at Bellewstown.
It is the presence of Champers Elysees on the roll of honour that stands out, however. A €28,000 purchase at the Tattersalls Ireland September Yearling Sale in 2018, the Fitzwilliam Racing-owned filly collected €17,000 alone for her triumph at The Curragh 12 months later.
She continued to progress through her three-year-old campaign, famously providing Murtagh with his maiden Group 1 success in the Matron Stakes at Irish Champions Weekend 2020. September is clearly her favourite month of the year.
The daughter of Elzaam, who has now accumulated almost €300,000 in prizemoney to date, is far from an outlier when it comes to the quality emerging from the Irish EBF Auction Series.
Laws Of Indices and Helvic Dream are former series maiden winners to provide their trainers Ken Condon and Noel Meade with Group 1 victories this year, having been purchased for just €8,000 and €12,000 respectively, while Gavin Cromwell’s Quick Suzy won the Irish EBF Equine Maiden at The Curragh in May and subsequently landed Group 2 spoils in exhilarating fashion for Gavin Cromwell at Royal Ascot.
In all, there are 24 qualifying races, run over five, six and seven furlongs, confined to EBF-eligible two-year-olds purchased at public auction for €72,000 or less, with weight allowances for horses purchased at lower prices. The minimum value of each race is €20,000 while a final, which is worth €120,000 alone, and an alternative €30,000 nursery final will bring the series to a fitting climax in Naas in October.
There are still 15 maidens remaining this year, including two this weekend at Cork (Friday) and Gowran Park (Saturday), before attentions turn to the Galway Festival contest on July 31st.
For Murtagh, these maidens presented and continue to present an obvious opportunity to source horses and owners, with the potential for getting a return in terms of prizemoney and/or a sale, and the dream of finding a horse capable of competing at the highest level. Success breeds success, not just for the trainer and that means owners are much more likely to reinvest.
“It’s great. When you go to the sales on a budget, you are looking for the horses between the €20,000 and the €40,000 so you are eligible for those auction series. You could run maybe in a maiden and run well, and then I always ask my jockeys, ‘Can she win an auction maiden?’
“The prizemoney is so good. You could rock up at an auction maiden there could be four or five real live chances. They are very competitive but it is a great initiative for those horses. At least you are not rocking up against a Galileo or a Frankel or a Sea the Stars or a War Front. It gives you a chance at your own level.
“And the sweet spot is, if you get one for €10,000 and you are taking on a €50,000 horse, you get the weight allowance. It is a game changer for us. And it is something that we really appreciate that has come on board. We have been lucky in a few but we really appreciate what everybody did behind the scenes to give horses that don’t cost, haven’t the big pedigrees, a chance to pay their way through the year.”
“(As a trainer) it gives you an opportunity to get a win beside your name. Everybody is happy to go to the races. There is no better way to promote yourself than getting those winners on the board. And you get some money in for the kitty to pay for the training fees. And then at the end of the year if you sell on you can go back shopping again for the following year.
“That is the way it has been. That is the way we have ran the business there for the last number of years. It is good prizemoney, it is good profile for you. There is nothing better than bringing people to the races and they walking to that No 1 and standing there for the photo. And then the opportunity to race for the big bonus at the end of the year which is the icing on the cake.”
The success has continued this year in association with new stable jockey Ben Coen, and Create Belief supplied the pair with another landmark triumph in the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.
As a result of this glory, founded on having a series for the market of horse he could trade in, the pedigrees are now being sent his way. The Kells native now trains for the Aga Khan, Coolmore and Godolphin, and he was only a neck away from hitting the target for the triplicate of titans in the space of 24 hours last week.
“It was nearly a great weekend because I had the first winner for the Coolmore partners, the first horse they gave me (Ever A Dream, an eight-length handicap winner at Fairyhouse on July 11). Took her a while to win but it was great. To get those owners into the yard it is very hard and then to show them that you can do the business it means a lot.
“We had our first winner for Godolphin the next day (Safecracker bagging a Dundalk 3yo+ maiden). So that was extra special as well because going back years ago, John Oxx had all those horses for Sheikh Mohammed when he came on first. We have only got two horses for them so to win with one of them was good also.
“And we nearly had our first winner for the Agha Khan down in Killarney (when Karakoul was just headed on the line in a 2yo maiden the same day). It was nearly a great weekend’s work but to get those big owner-breeders into the yard (is great). Because there is always a chance you can get that one horse and that is what we are looking for.”
But the Irish EBF Auction Series will remain a key focus of the Murtagh organisation, because of what’s on offer, in terms of prizemoney and potential quality, such as Champers Elysees.
“She went on to win a Group 1 which is really good but I can’t emphasis enough… Everybody targets the auction maiden now because the prizemoney is so good. If you do win you have a chance of going for the final as well. So it’s a great initiative.”
“When you see the likes of Laws Of Indices flying the flag for the series, coming up through the ranks, it can only be encouragement for people to get involved”
“For the owners, it’s dream stuff really. They’re five friends, they spent €8,000, you win a Railway Stakes, you run in Royal Ascot and you win a Group 1 in France”
Ken Condon is targeting an assault on three big prizes for his Irish EBF Auction Series graduate Laws Of Indices, following the Osborne Lodge colt’s elevation to elite status after his stunning Group 1 Prix Jean Prat triumph at Deauville last Sunday.
A return to the picturesque seaside venue Laws Of Indices clearly relishes is likely to be in the offing first, to tackle the older horses in the Prix Maurice de Gheest next month, with the focus then lying on the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp in October and thereafter, a potential tilt at the Breeders’ Cup Mile in Del Mar at the beginning of November.
“The Maurice de Gheest is on August 8,” notes Condon in the Irish EBF Auction Series Shout Out. “It’s four weeks between both races. We’ll see how he is in the next ten days but that’s where he could go next.
“Longer term, I’d say the Prix de la Foret on Arc weekend is the main target. I think seven furlongs is his optimum trip. If he does go to the Maurice de Gheest, I could see him having a little break and waiting for that race on Arc day. He’d have all the credentials you’d need to run in a Breeders’ Cup Mile as well so that could also be the possibility but I’m sure the Foret is the prime target now.
“The owners are very brave. Their ambition has been rewarded. He’s run in quite a few Group 1s and you don’t do that unnecessarily and I think everything conspired on Sunday to give him his perfect set-up.
“He’s a horse that always turns up. He never lets you down. He looks to be very ground versatile but he wouldn’t have been in love with those very deep conditions (in Ascot and Longchamp last year) and he got probably his perfect set-up the other day; and he got a masterclass from Olivier Peslier from the front. The stars aligned and it was brilliant, fantastic.
“We’re all thrilled. It’s so hard to win these Group 1s. Even to have a horse to take part, it’s a wonderful story. For the owners, it’s dream stuff really. They’re five friends, they spent €8,000, you win a Railway Stakes, you run in Royal Ascot and you win a Group 1 in France… They don’t know what they cost. A great story all round.”
It is a remarkable playlist Condon reels off for Laws Of Indices and one that advertises the calibre of horse available in the middle-to-lower scale of the sales market.
Nothing has illustrated the quality available at a relatively cheap price quite like the Irish EBF Auction Series, which is a staple of the two-year-old programme since its establishment in 2015. Races are confined to EBF-eligible horses purchased at public auction for €72,000 or less, with weight allowances for horses purchased at lower prices.
This year’s total prizemoney is €699,000 through 24 qualifying races over a range of distances from April, with a €120,000 final and an alternative nursery final worth €30,000 in Naas in October.
Condon has won €176,350 since the commencement of the series, with 33 of his 57 runners finishing in the money. He has already been on the mark this term, with €5,500 purchase Harmony Rose landing €14,400 when scoring in the Cork Irish EBF Auction Series Maiden in May and since going on to be placed in Listed company.
Laws Of Indices and Group 2 winner (and twice Group 1-placed) Miss Amulet landed €30,000 between them just from winning Irish EBF Auction Series Maidens at Navan and Cork last year, bought for just €8,000 and €8,325 respectively.
The former has accumulated in excess of €350,000 in total prizemoney, the latter more than €200,000.
“It’s extraordinary. It shows you the strength in depth in Irish racing. There was an Irish EBF auction race run in Roscommon on a Monday evening two years ago now. The winner was Helvic Dream and four and a half lengths behind in second was Champers Elysees. So if you wanted any further proof of what we were talking about, there’s two Group 1 winners. And fellas might be going to Roscommon on a Monday thinking ‘I might have a little chance here with a cheap horse.’ That’s why I keep coming back to the quality.
“It’s a credit to Irish EBF. The proof is in the eating. It allows relatively cheaply-bought horses to get a chance to win some very good prizemoney but as we see, the quality is top class as well. Group 1 winners are there to be found in these races.”
The Harmony Rose Syndicate have intimated their intention to reinvest in a yearling filly after the success of their pride and joy this year, which is a boon to all sectors of the industry and a primary motive of the Irish EBF Auction Series.
“When you see the likes of Laws Of Indices flying the flag for the series, coming up through the ranks, it can only be encouragement for people to get involved. It’s a great series to get involved in.
“I thought Harmony Rose might level out in May or June but she seems to love her racing and to get her Listed-placed last time out, there was great satisfaction involved and the guys got a great kick out of that. She’s not very big. She’s neat but she’s strong and she wants to run and enjoys it. There’s a conditions race in Down Royal next week that might suit her well.”
Meanwhile, Condon is hoping for a big run from Ice Cold in Alex in Saturday’s six-and-a-half-furlong Scurry Stakes on Irish Oaks day at The Curragh.
“All those big meetings at The Curragh are fantastic so it’s always nice to go there with a runner or two with a chance. Ice Cold Alex will take his chance in the Scurry. He’s a horse that it’s been a long time between drinks for. He didn’t win since 2018 ‘til he won at the Curragh Derby weekend. That was tremendous. He’s a great favourite in the yard, he’s been here so long, he’s seven now. He backed that up with a very good run at Fairyhouse (when second). It might be a fraction short of his optimum. The draw is crucial around The Curragh on any given day but he’s in great form.”
Sunday’s Romanised Minstrel Stakes is sponsored by one of Condon’s chief patrons Robert Ng and named after the winner of the last two renewals, who provided Condon with a memorable Irish 2000 Guineas success in 2018 and is now at stud in Haras de Buquetot.
“Romanised is a horse Mr Ng was very fond of, and still is. He’s supporting him at stud. He’s covered 127 mares this year and that part of his career is going well. He’s a fantastic physical of a horse with just that touch of class and acceleration that sometimes is the hallmark of a sire. It’s up to him now. He’s in a good farm and getting plenty of chances.
“He was very good in the race the last two years and it was fitting that Robert Ng was sponsoring and he was delighted to do it. It’s a nice touch and we’d love to have a runner in it, so hopefully Thunder Beauty might run there.”
Irish European Breeders’ Fund, Ballyhane Stud and Horse Racing Ireland have today announced a substantial increase to the value of the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes from €200,000 to €300,000. This increase will again make the median auction race the most valuable two-year-old race that will be run in Ireland this year. The race is aimed at EBF eligible two-year-olds with a sire’s median price of no more than €75,000 from last year’s yearling sales. The race will be run for the second time at Naas Racecourse over 5 furlongs and 205 yards, on Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd August with a maximum field of 24.
The next forfeit date for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes is this coming Wednesday, June 23rd with a final forfeit stage on July 28th. The winner of the €300,000 Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes will receive €150,000 and prize-money will be paid down to 12th place. There will be a 72-hour declaration stage for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes.
To accommodate the large number of entries, the Silver Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes will again be added to the Naas card and will be run for a prize-fund of €50,000 with prize-money paid down to 6th place. This race will be automatically open to all those horses still entered which receive a ballot number in the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes, 48-hour declaration will apply.
Joe Foley, owner of Ballyhane Stud, said: “We are thrilled to again be in a position to reward the owners and trainers who supported the race by increasing prize-money in the main race and staging the extra race, this will positively benefit a wide range of connections. We are looking forward to seeing the build-up to the race from now until August 2nd and if our €50,000 bonus will be claimed this year by a Ballyhane sired two-year-old.”
Jason Morris, HRI Director of Racing, said: “We are delighted that the very large entry numbers have again allowed us to increase the value significantly for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes and to introduce a second ‘Silver’ race, which will mean that up to 48 juveniles will be able to compete for the substantial prize money on offer between the two contests. This reflects the enormous popularity of the concept and HRI is extremely grateful for the continuing support of the Irish European Breeders’ Fund and Ballyhane Stud.”
Trainer Fozzy Stack commented: “Fantastic to hear that the prize fund for the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes race has increased again this year to €300,000. I have a few entered for the race including Cheerupsleepyjean who was placed 3rd in the Queen Mary Stakes at Ascot. With prize money like that on offer, the Irish EBF Ballyhane Stakes will certainly be on the horizon as one of her summer targets.”
The Trustees of the British EBF recently lent their support to the aims of British racing’s dedicated committee tackling issues of diversity and inclusion in the sport. In a Racing Together blog, Rachael Gowland from the British EBF and David Letts from the Diversity in Racing Steering Group, talk about the first of initiative supported by the Trustees – a race to celebrate Pride month.
What is Pride month?
Pride month falls annually to recognise the Stonewall Riots which occurred on 28th June 1969 and were a pivotal turning point for LGBT+ rights across the world. Pride month is about LGBT+ communities and allies coming together to celebrate the progress which has been made whilst recognising that there is still work to do. It is about committing to play our role in addressing the issues which still exist through education and promoting an open dialogue around LGBT+ inclusion.
What is Racing With Pride?
Racing With Pride is part of the sport’s broader Diversity in Racing Steering Group. The Racing with Pride committee aims to further awareness, education and engagement relating to LGBT+ matters and encompasses the sport’s LGBT+ network of the same name.
What is the European Breeders’ Fund (EBF)?
The British EBF is one of the largest financial supporters of racing in the country, contributing over £1.7million to prize money each year, sponsoring across all 59 (?) racecourses In Great Britain. Funded by British stallion owners, it has been an integral part of the racing landscape since 1983.
Why is it important for racing to show its support?
Research has shown that LGBT+ individuals working in racing are less likely to be out in the workplace than other areas of their life (i.e. to family and friends). It also highlighted considerable homophobic language being used throughout the sport, which can make an environment seem unwelcoming for LGBT+ people.
As a result, the British racing industry has been doing a lot of work around LGBT+ inclusion over the last year with the formation of Racing With Pride, the sport’s LGBT+ network and the launch of a specific e-learning module on Racing2Learn. Further projects include the creation of a communications resource pack, webinars and guidance resources and engagement with Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign through Racing Is Everyone’s Sport which saw the creation of a powerful video alongside on-course activation.
Given all this great work, Pride offers the perfect opportunity for the sport to celebrate the work undertaken and visibly show its support for the LGBT+ community.
Why are the British EBF championing Diversity and Inclusion?
“Put simply: there is no down-side to creating a safe, inclusive, fun and accepting environment for people to work or spend their leisure time.” Says Simon Sweeting, Chairman of the British EBF.
“We bridge both the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries and have a valuable marketing tool in our race sponsorship that initiatives like Racing with Pride and the Diversity in Racing Steering Group can benefit greatly from. Our Trustees were unanimous in their support of donating a race to promote the aims of the sport around the theme of Pride, encompassing gender identity and sexual orientation.”
When approached by the Diversity in Racing Steering Group earlier in the year, the British EBF Trustees were keen to show support for the projects developing horse racing as a more inclusive sport.
Alongside York Racecourse, the British EBF were able to offer a high-profile sponsorship opportunity as a platform to celebrate the progress already made and raise awareness more widely across the sport.
William Derby, York Racecourse Chief Executive and Clerk of the Course, said: “York Racecourse is a committed advocate of Racing with Pride and are determined to ensure racing on the Knavesmire is welcoming and inclusive for all. Our senior management team have developed, and committed to, our York Racecourse Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and have all undertaken Diversity training modules and have sought to ensure all departments and areas are as diverse, inclusive and welcoming as possible. Among our existing team, we have members of the LGBTQ+ community who we are proud to have as colleagues. We are actively working within racing, alongside the Diversity in Racing Steering group to ensure our diverse workforce can be confident, comfortable and be part of a fully inclusive community. It is important to us that all our participants and fans feel included and valued.”
What is racing doing more widely?
This month, individuals and organisations across horseracing are coming together to celebrate Pride month. Racing With Pride and Sports Media LGBT+ recently hosted a ‘Preparing for Pride’ webinar to help the sport feel ready to confidently engage with Pride month – the full recording can be viewed here. In response, displays of support including social media activity, race titles and media coverage have been increasingly visible across the sport. In addition, organisations are looking internally at what can be done to foster inclusive environments which encourage new spectators and talent to racing.
We are asking people to continue their support beyond Pride month. Racing With Pride will be hosting a free webinar on Friday 16th July focusing on the importance of Allyship and how we all have a role to play in making sure that racing is an open and inclusive sport for all.
David Letts, academic researcher and Chair of Racing With Pride, commented:
“It is fantastic to see the sport’s enthusiasm for engaging with Pride month, which seems to develop year-on-year. Following our recent ‘Preparing for Pride’ webinar, we have been approached by organisations across the sport who want to demonstrate their support and ensure that they are doing so authentically. We are now working alongside these organisations to create action plans, offer internal training sessions and form ongoing relationships. What’s most reassuring is the recognition that these commitments go beyond Pride month and are seen as a year-round focus.”