Jockey Joe Doyle and Make A Challenge have both travelled the long road to Paris in search of Group One glory in the Prix de l’Abbaye on Sunday.
From a family steeped in racing, County Tipperary native Doyle enjoyed success in the pony-riding circuit before graduating to the track to ride his first winner on Inis Meain for Denis Hogan in an apprentice handicap at Leopardstown in July 2012.
After an apprenticeship with Charlie Swan, Doyle followed the well-worn path to Britain and, although it brought success in the form of riding out his claim with over 100 winners, challenges were also presented.
The 24-year-old explained: “It was kind of always the plan for me that when I had my Leaving Cert finished, I would go to England. There’s a lot more racing and it would appear that the lads go over and they do very well.
“I was very fortunate, I had two good bosses (John Quinn and Kevin Ryan) and rode lots of winners. I got a lot of experience out there and it is standing to me now.
“I finished off in England after not a bad season where I think I had 22-odd winners. I found it quite difficult to settle into England and the lifestyle over there. It’s tough to explain, but it’s a different life over there.
“I did light weights the whole way through my claim, but the last season was really tough. I was heavy and I was struggling with my mental health. It all became a bit much, so I decided to come home at the end of 2017 and that’s when I started back working for Denis, just riding out for a year.”
It was a six-month stint after this for breeze-up consignor Niall Brennan in America that helped to reignite the racing spark in Doyle.
He said: “Niall’s originally a Kildare man. I said I would have a go and I went over just riding out – cantering horses, breezing horses and I absolutely loved it. The weight started to fall off me over there because it was so hot (in Florida) and I was riding so many horses out every day.
“Niall has his own private track, so I was working there every day and then when the sales were coming up, he would send me down to Gulfstream and Miami to breeze the horses, which was an amazing experience because you are on the racecourse proper.
“I had to come home when my visa was up. As soon as I landed, I went straight back working for Denis. He asked me to take the licence out and I felt confident – my weight was good and I felt strong from riding 12 or 14 horses out a day in America.”
Hogan teamed Doyle up with Make A Challenge in a seven-furlong handicap at last year’s Galway Festival. The horse was a £6,500 Godolphin-bred cast-off rated 73 with a history of stalls issues and one previous victory for Hogan, but the pair held on by a nose and the improvement since has been nothing short of extraordinary.
“It was magic really. I never thought I would ride a Galway Festival winner after I left for England and obviously the journey that has gone on since,” said Doyle.
It has certainly been an odyssey for the five-year-old son of Invincible Spirit, who has rocketed up the ratings to a mark of 111 after eight more victories, including five at Listed level.
Doyle, who has won eight times on the horse who has rejuvenated his career, travels to Paris for a date with destiny with last year’s Abbaye heroine Glass Slippers.
Make A Challenge’s price is contracting as all-conquering sprint-king Battaash has been scratched from the field due to attritional ground in the forecast for ParisLongchamp.
Doyle, seeking his first Group One, said: “By the sound of things, it is going to be plenty testing. Our lad would love it to be up to his knees – he’s absolutely exceptional on very soft ground. I don’t think I would swap my lad for anything else in the race if it turns up to be very testing.
“I think he has come on from the last day – perhaps he was getting it a little easy at Listed level and I think the last day (when fifth in a Group One at the Curragh behind Glass Slippers) just sharpened him up. He’s going to have to be sharp – take nothing for granted, it is a massive task in front of him.
“The horse is in savage order and, if things go right for us, he could run an absolutely massive race. We knew he was a good horse, but heading for Group One sprints is unbelievable. Credit to Denis and the lads in the yard as the horse has come a long way.
“I think part of the whole thing is that he could have been anyone’s horse really. He was handy money and we are so fortunate to have a horse that good. It’s only really the start – we are only getting to know how good he is.
“I was there two years ago in the stands when Enable won her second Arc, so it will be nice to be in the weighing room this time.”