1941 – 1950

Increasing risks of both submarines and floating mines in the Irish Sea reduced the 1941 raiding party to the Newmarket duo, Easy Chair and Lynch Tor, neither greatly feared to overcome the defending team headed by Sol Oriens, supported by Irish 2000 Guineas winner Khosro, set to concede 5lb to Sol Oriens. In the even that weight concession proved decisive, Sol Oriens besting Khosro in a dingdong battle to the line. The rock hard underfoot conditions terminated Khosro’s racing career, while a subsequent easing of gong enabled Etoile de Lyons, third on this occasion, to obtain his revenge in the Irish St Leger.

A second Irish Derby winner for trainer Colonel AJ Blake, in succession to Rosewell (1938), Sol Oriens carried the colours of ‘Mr J Dillon’, otherwise AP ‘Percy’ Reynolds, an accountant by profession, appointed by Sean Lemass as chairman of the newly-formed national transport monopoly Coras Iompar Eireann (CIE). Despite enjoying notable success in racing, Percy Reynolds soon forsook the Sport of Kings in favour of his first love – accountancy.

‘Never run after a woman, a bus or an education theory. There’ll be another one along shortly’ – old adage. So it proved in the case of Irish Triple Crown winners. Just seven years after Museum along came Joe McGrath’s unrivalled champion – Windsor Slipper. Unbeaten in his three juvenile starts for Conyngham Lodge trainer MC Collins, the light-framed son of Windsor Lad reappeared to win the Irish 2000 Guineas in a common canter from Grand Inquisitor, long odds-on to do so. That classic success formed the centrepiece of a day to remember for McGrath, Collins and stable jockey Morny Wing, who combined to carry off five of the seven races, all five backed in to favouritism. Strangely, the very next day all four McGrath-Collins-Wing favourites got turned over.

Despite his overwhelming superiority, Windsor Slipper faced a dozen home-trained hopefuls in the Irish Derby. Long odds-on once again, the champion left them for dead, six lengths clear of Grand Inquisitor as he passed the winning post pulling up, but nevertheless beating the record for the race previously set by Dastur. His performance drew ecstatic praise in one national newspaper. ‘Nothing more impressive than Windsor Slipper’s Irish Derby win has been seen on an Irish racecourse for a long number of years, and yesterday’s huge crows fairly gasped when the champion sprinted away from Grand Inquisitor and Coromyth in the last quarter of a mile.’

A triumphant McGrath immediately issued a challenge to the owners of the best three-year-olds in England to try conclusions with his brilliant colt over the Irish Derby course. Of course it was an empty challenge, for the British had other things on their collective mind in 1942, principally the very real prospect of Nazi invasion. As it turned out, Windsor Slipper’s participation could not have been guaranteed, for he fell prey to the coughing epidemic that swept through the Curragh stables later that summer. Happily, the unbeaten champion recovered in sufficient time to complete his preparation for the final leg of the Triple Crown – the Irish St Leger, on 17 September. But McGrath needed reassurance that Windsor Slipper’s unbeaten record should remain just that. His final trial took place inside the racecourse, but over the full St Leger distance, pitted against the best in Collins’ stable, with a high-class sprinter jumping in to take him over the final five furlongs. Satisfied that Windsor Slipper had accomplished more that the race itself could possibly demand, McGrath let him take his chance. The layers duly assessed that chance as being 100-to-8 on, 25-to-1 bar one in a field of eight. Having won by ten lengths in a common canter and with nothing left to achieve, Windsor Slipper was retired to the historic Brownstown Stud.

A somewhat stop-start stud career on top of a necessarily isolated, domestic racing record inevitably diminished Windsor Slipper’s place in the pantheon of champions, though hardly in the estimation of his sole racecourse partner, multiple Irish champion jockey Morny Wing. ‘Windsor Slipper may have been the horse of the century, but it is certain that he was the greatest horse of the century in Irish racing.’ Only the second winner of Ireland’s Triple Crown, Windsor Slipper is assured of being the last, the Irish St Leger having been opened to all ages since 1983.

Windsor Slipper was the first and finest of many champions to carry the ‘Green, red seams & cap’ of Joe McGrath (1895-1966), already established as the largest and most successful owner in the history of Irish racing. Physically powerful and assertive by nature. Joe McGraht had begun his remarkable career selling newspapers on the streets of his native Dublin. A brief period in an accountant’s office was followed by a stint in the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union, selected by labour leader James Larkin as his ‘minder’ during the bitter General Strike of 1913. His subsequent role in the Easter Rising of 1916 saw him interned in Frongoch, where his close association with Michael Collins led to that leader appraising his trusted aide thus: “Joe is 100 per cent reliable, and he thinks quickly in a tight corner.”

Elected to the British Parliament as a member of Sinn Fein, McGrath devoted his considerable energies and talents to the Dáil, the underground Irish Government, poised to assume overt control when Britain should at last withdraw fro its oldest colony. Intimately involved in the Treaty negotiations, which led to the formation of the Irish Free State, Joe McGrath stood firmly on the side of the signatories, who settled for a 26-county, partitioned Ireland, which in turn led to civil war. President WT Cosgrave appointed him Minister for Labour.

Somehow, Joe McGrath found time to join forces with bookmaker Richard Duggan and promoter Spencer Freeman to persuade a sceptical Government to licence what became world famous as the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes, initiated in 1930. He was quoted at the time as having successfully secured “a licence to print money.” So it proved.

Inspired by Dick Duggan’s racecourse success with dual Irish classic winner Smokeless, Joe McGrath proceeded to invest in bloodstock on a scale never previously seen in Ireland. Windsor Slipper was but one of eighteen individual winners to give Joe McGrath the first of his eight Irish owners’ titles between 1942 and 1959, in addition to the greatest number of races won a similar number of times. In addition to seven Irish classics he carried off the 1951 Derby with Arctic Prince, inspiring headlines in the British dailies – ‘former IRA gunman presented to Her Majesty.’ It was a moment that ’Boss’ Croker, McGrath’s predecessor in Glencairn, would have savoured.

Never one to let his heart rule his head, Joe McGrath never lost sight of th costs of his Turf patronage, admitting: “I should have quit if I didn’t breed and sell horses to the United States.” Sales such as that of Arctic Prince in 1956, for a reputed £315,000, doubtless helped to balance the books.

When over sixty, his reputation and personal fortune secure, the highest peaks of business, politics and racing conquered, Joe McGrath decided the time had come to link the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes to Irish racing. The vehicle chosen was the Irish Derby, approaching its centenary, but still insignificant in the theatre of international racing. As the most powerful figure in Irish racing and an administrator of the Turf Club, McGrath had little difficulty in securing the authorities’ agreement to allow the Irish Derby become the Irish Sweeps Derby, in return for an initial sponsorship of £30,000.

Keen-eyed Corkman Michael Collins came to the Curragh by way of America. Very soon runners from Osborne Lodge began to strike fear into the Ring. Always partial to having his money down, Joe McGrath swiftly recruited Michael Collins – shades of a former alliance – to take charge of his ever-expanding string in Conyngham Lodge. With Morny Wing as stable jockey what became known as the ‘Unholy Alliance’ was complete. Throughout World War Two they remained invincible, heading their respective tables virtually unchallenged. Just as ‘Boss’ Croker had done forty years previously, in 1946 Joe McGrath transferred is lengthy string from the Curragh to Glencairn, employing his son Seamus as private trainer. The ‘Unholy Alliance’ was at an end.

Any fears that Windsor Slipper’s retirement at the end of his three-year-old career was going to leave a void in Irish flat racing had already been allayed by the time that happened. That assurance took the form of a handsome bay son of Chateau Bouscaut, owned and trained by Dublin-based insurance broker Frederick Spencer Myerscough who named his 290-guinea yearling purchase The Phoenix. Successful on his Phoenix Park debut in July 1942, The Phoenix went on to overturn the McGrath hot pot, Fabulous, at the Curragh less than a week later. The manner in which The Phoenix completed his first season when winning the Phoenix Park ‘1500’ led Joe Canty, his vastly experienced jockey, to wonder aloud whether this might not be the first real racehorse he had ever ridden.

Confined by circumstances – as Windsor Slipper had been – to a domestic campaign, The Phoenix faced the cream of his generation on his seasonal reappearance in the Irish 2000 Guineas, sharing favouritism with Joe McGrath’s Solar Prince, successful at an earlier Curragh meeting. Solferino, likewise already successful, was also strongly fancied. Both Solar Prince and Solferino were in receipt of 7lb. As the market indicated, this trio fought out the finish, The Phoenix getting home by half a length and a length from Solferino and Solar Prince. Joe Canty’s mount had maintained his unbeaten record, but only just. Allowing his colt time to recover, Fred Myerscough brought him back to the Curragh for an exercise spin, intended to obliterate any lingering fallout from that Guineas battle.

Such was his appearance and composure in the paddock before the Irish Derby, The Phoenix was sent off 5-to-2 on to confirm his superiority over old rivals Solferino and Solar Prince. This he proceeded to do, once again conceding 7lb to each and winning by a length from Solar Prince with Solferino less that that distance back in third. What could now prevent The Phoenix emulating Windsor Slipper in retiring as an unbeaten winner of Ireland’s Triple Crown?

In the final Irish classic The Phoenix was once again opposed by Solferino, two no-hopers completing the field. As in their two previous encounters, The Phoenix had to concede 7lb to his only conceivable danger. He was sent off 8-to-1 on to do as he had done twice previously. Unable to back their fancy, the Curragh crowd gathered to cheer the champion home. Those cheers died in throats as Solferino caught the champion inside the distance, going on to win a completely one-sided encounter by fully five lengths. Among those who could hardly believe the evidence of their eyes was a little-known trainer PJ Prendergast, who promptly dubbed winning trainer John Oxx ‘Merlin’.

Retired to the Ballykisteen Stud in Limerick, The Phoenix became an instant and then enduring success, so much so that his syndication in 1949 for 160,000 guineas constituted a European record. Ballykisteen’s policy of using resident stallions exclusively to cover their own mares in time established one of those comparatively rare bloodstock ‘nicks,’ in this case the offspring of the younger incumbent, Will Somers, with daughters of The Phoenix. Bloodstock agents down the ages have come to regard the successful identification of such combinations as Heaven-sent.

‘It is an ill wind that turns none to good,’ veteran Curragh trainer Robert ‘Bob’ Fetherstonhaugh (1873-1950) might reasonably have reflected at the outbreak of World War Two. The ensuing disruption of racing in Britain led owner-breeder Dermot McCalmont (1887-1968) to honour a promise made many years before to Bob Fetherston’, then assistant to Stockbridge trainer ‘Atty’ Persse. “Should I ever have horses in training in Ireland, you shall get them to train.”

One such was Slide On, homebred in Mount Juliet and winner (dead heated) of the 1944 Irish 2000 Guineas for Loughbrown Cottage, Curragh trainer Bob Fetherston’ and stable jockey Jack Moylan. Slide On was sent off odds-on for the Irish Derby. He duly won, though only with a head to spare from Water Street. Successful over the following two seasons, Slide On was bought for 7,000 guineas by the BBA, acting on behalf of the Swedish National Stud.

Born in Chuchtown, County Cork, Jack Moylan (1898-1949) was the fifth of ten children, three of whom became jockeys. Initially better known as a jump jockey, Jack was crowned Irish champion in 1926. While he and ‘Bob’ Fetherstonhaugh had combined to win the 1939 Irish St Leger with Skoiter, neither could have anticipated the World War Two windfall that came their way courtesy of Dermot McCalmont’s honoured promise. An Irish Oaks, a second Irish Derby and a further Irish St Leger ensured a prolonged career for both trainer and jockey.

Slide On had been entitled to start favourite twelve months previously, but Piccadilly, representing the same owner-trainer-jockey combination in 1945 had no such pretensions. Home-bred in Mount Juliet, Piccadilly had managed two third placings from three career starts. Stalino, successful in the Irish 2000 Guineas, started favourite to provide the Heath House stable with its eighth Irish Derby success, following Sylph (1883), St Kevin (1885), Portmarnock (1895), Gulsaberk (1896), Oppressor (1899), Rosewell (1938) and Sol Oriens (1941).

Displaying form that he had never shown before, nor never would again, Piccadilly swept home at 25-to-1. The judge gave it to him as a length, though four lengths would seem nearer the margin. A maiden before the Irish Derby, Piccadilly failed to add to his score and was exported to South Africa at the end of his four-year-old career. This was the last of the ‘glorified handicap’ Irish Derbies in a year that saw the transfer of the National Stud at Tully, Kildare, to the Irish nation and the establishment of the Irish Racing Board; a watershed year for Irish racing and breeding.

The Racing Board, chaired by Mr Justice Wylie, became responsible for the finances of Irish racing, funded by control of the Tote and a 5% levy on on-course bookmakers’ turnover. The 1946 Irish Derby saw colts set to carry 9st and fillies 8st 10lb. Public interest was further stimulated by the first English challenger since 1941 – Royal Tara, trained at Chilton by John Beary and ridden by his brother Michael.

Connections of Slide On and Piccadilly were double-handed in their quest for an Irish Derby hat trick, Jack Moylan opting for Cassock over Skylighter. The market said that Irish 2000 Guineas form – in which Claro had narrowly beaten Cambyses and Royal Tara – should carry the day. Bright News, indolent at home and unpromising in public would have started longer than he did were it not for trainer Darby Rogers persuading Morny Wing to take the mount.

In the event Wing conjured a decisive burst of speed in the closing stages that saw him home by half a length from Wing’s arch rival Joe Canty on Claro. In a rare interview after his retirement the taciturn Yorkshireman revealed that his record sixth and last Irish Derby success had given him more personal satisfaction than Ballyheron (1921), Waygood (1923), Rock Star (1930), Rosewell (1938) or even the great Windsor Slipper in 1942.

Bred in Monaghan by Lt-Col Evelyn Shirley, this half-brother to Stalino carried the colours of ardent Scottish Nationalist James McVey junior, who had already enjoyed Irish classic success when Solferino overturned The Phoenix in the 1943 Irish St Leger. McVey’s decision to disband his private stable at Summereat, while retaining the Woodpark Stud, saw Bright News transferred to Darby Rogers’ Curragh Grange stable. Bright New reappeared to win the Champion Plate in July. Rtired to stand at the Woodpark Stud, Bright News died aged oly ten.

Younger son of the legendary JT Rogers, Darby had returned to Ireland in 1940 to oversee the dispersal of the family’s Crotanstown stable following the death in action of elder brother Bryan and the subsequent death of their father. Recognizing that the Turf in Britain held little scope until World War Two should end, Darby set up his own stable in nearby Curragh Grange, enjoying immediate and lasting success. His son Tim created the Airlie Stud empire, while younger son JM ‘Mickey’ Rogers became the first Irish-based trainer to succeed since Orby when sending out Hard Ridden to win the 1958 Derby.

The combination of the longest and most severe winter in living memory and the necessity to win what was now a prestige event determined Newmarket trainer Frederick ‘Sam’ Armstrong to dispatch Sayajirao in search of Irish Derby honours. This half-brother to wartime Derby winner Dante had fetched a record 28,000 guineas as a yearling when knocked down to high-rolling Indian sportsman HH the Maharaja of Baroda. Winner and twice placed from his three juvenile starts, Sayajirao had been slow to come to hand in 1947.A moderate third to Tudor Minstrel in the Two Thousand Guineas, he had won the Lingfield Derby Trial and then finished third in the Derby itself to Pearl Diver and Migoli.

Desperate to gain classic success for his wealthy but capricious and demanding patron, Armstrong sent Sayajirao over to the Curragh on what was effectively a retrieval mission. Sent off even money favourite ahead of the Irish 2000 Guineas winner Grand Weather and ridden by ice-cool Australian Edgar Britt, the favourite gave his supporters no cause for concern as he cruised home ahead of his nearest market rival. Indeed, the clamour that greeted Sayajirao’s return to the unsaddling enclosure – then immediately outside the weighing room – necessitated Garda intervention to see the colt’s safe removal. Two further outings netted victory in the Warren Stakes at Goodwood as a prelude to St Leger triumph. A third and final campaign saw Sayajirao successful in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Spurned by commercial breeders as likely to beget stayers in his own mould, Sayjirao nevertheless repaid those who could ignore fashion dictates by siring such as Gladness, Indiana, I Say and dual Irish classic heroine Lynchris, all flat performers of the highest class, in addition to Brown Lad, the only triple winner of the Irish Grand National.

The success of the Racing Board in those immediate post-war boom years saw the 1948 Irish Derby offer the greatest prize in Irish racing history - £6,882 10s. Inevitably the English invaded in strength, providing five of the twelve-strong field and duly dominating the market. Though shaded for favouritism, Nathoo represented the potent Aga Khan – Frank Butters combination. Moreover he was ridden by French-based Australian ace Rae Johnstone (1905-1964), seeking to complete the English-French-Irish Derby treble in the space of three weeks. That he achieved, Nathoo romping home five lengths to the good from fellow Newmarket raider Star of Gujrath.

However, the enforced absence of Beau Sabreur undoubtedly eased Nathoo’s path, appoint proved when Nathoo returned to contest the Irish St Leger, going down by a head to Beau Sabreur, the best of his age in Ireland in 1948. Homebred at nearby Sheshoon, Nathoo was by the talented but temperamental Nasrullah. Champion sire in Britain in 1951, Nasrullah went on to become the first to head the lists on both sides of the Atlantic when also champion in the United States five times between 1955 and 1962. Only the second grey to win an Irish Derby – following Baytown in 1928 – Nathoo was sold to race in California, subsequently proving successful as a sire.

The Nathoo team was represented twelve months later by Hindostan, successful at Liverpool but down the field behind Nimbus in the Derby, as was fellow Newmarket raider Brown Rover. The latter started favourite, but had to give best to the heavily-bandaged Hindostan, a game winner on ground far faster than he favoured. Rae Johnstone’s characteristic late winning swoop gave the Irish crowds an opportunity to realise why the French had long since dubbed the Australian ‘Le Crocodile’, lunging late to gobble up his hapless prey.

Homebred at Sheshoon, Hindostan proved difficult to keep sound, a characteristic inherited from his sire Bois Roussel. Having run just once more Hindostan was retired to stud in Ireland. So little patronage did he attract, Hindostan was sold to Japan in 1955. There he headed the sires’ list with one interruption every year between 1961 and 1967. On his death the most successful stallion in the history of Japanese racing was stuffed and put on display on one of the principal racecourses in the Land of the Rising Sun. Brown Rover returned to gain consolation when awarded the Irish St Leger on the disqualification of Rae Johnstone’s mount, Moonstone.

Pardal, the first Irish Derby challenger from France, might have been still a maiden. However, ridden by Rae Johnstone, the Marcel Boussac colour-bearer almost inevitably went off favourite, marginally ahead of impressive Irish 2000 Guineas winner Mighty Ocean. Pardal failed to lose that maiden tag, only third to Dark Warrior and Eclat. Carrying the colours of well-known bloodstock agent Francis ‘Frankie’ More O’Ferrall, Dark Warrior signalled the arrival of Rossmore Lodge, Curragh, trainer PJ ‘Paddy’ Prendergast, whose firsthand admiration of Australian jockeys had led him to persuade JW ‘Jackie’ Thompson (1922-1992) to forsake his native land and come to Ireland as stable jockey. Their combined success saw trainer and jockey head their respective leagues in 1950. Nevertheless, Jackie Thompson’s aversion to the Irish ‘summer’ ensured that his first northern hemisphere stint was also his last. Dark Warrior failed to win subsequently and was exported to Brazil as a stallion.