Tag Archive for: Darragh Keenan

Monday Musings: Conrad Allen – A Life in Racing

What happens when a self-confessed journeyman trainer suddenly gets the opportunity to go to the sales, armed with the sort of hitherto undreamed-of financial backing to make him a candidate for the best prospects on offer?

That was the situation suddenly presented to Conrad Allen, 36 years a trainer and, apart from three years when resident senior handicapper for racing in Qatar, between 2009 and 2011, a man who has sent out winners every year since 1987, writes Tony Stafford.

Now though, the Breeze-up season was his target as new investor Ify Madueke excitedly looked through the catalogues first for the Craven, then Goffs at Doncaster and, lastly, the Guineas breeze back at HQ.

Ify is the father of Chelsea’s exciting January signing Noni, at £26.5 million one of the club’s less expensive buys in that explosive and excessive January window. Noni is a 21-year-old English player of Nigerian heritage, but one who had nurtured his skill and reputation over three years with PSV in Holland.

Not everyone has been overjoyed at Chelsea’s spending but for Conrad, 63, an avowed Spurs fan who grew up in nearby Edmonton, it has meant a new client coming literally from out of the blue.

“There was no joy for us at the Craven when prices were astronomical for anything I liked, but I picked out two at Goffs the following week.

“I loved the Twilight Son filly, who came up first. Ify said he would go to 200k for her. Unfortunately Richard Brown also liked her, and he got her for 360 grand – we were underbidders at 350! She is now called Beautiful Diamond and won very easily first time for Karl Burke.

“Undeterred, an hour later we were in for a Dark Angel filly, but again there was plenty of competition, Andrew Balding securing her for £340,000. She has had two runs and was a good second in the Hilary Needler at Beverley on Saturday,” he rued.

So now it was down to the least prestigious of the three, the Guineas breeze. Happily, trainer, new owner, and advisor Jim Lovat, a vastly experienced racing man who had been an owner with horses at a high level with former trainer Jeremy Noseda, got their filly. Lovat had owned High Havens Stables when Conrad trained from there for ex-footballer and broadcaster Alan Brazil.

“She was a small, active, typical breeze-up horse, by Cotai Glory and we got her for 65,000 guineas. We also bought a second filly, a daughter of US Navy Flag, who will take much more time.

“From the kick-off, Princess Chizara, named after the owner’s daughter, was quick, and leading up to her debut at Brighton last week, I called Ify and told him I wanted a jockey who was prepared to come to ride her here. That would rule out all the top boys and asked him for Darragh Keenan, brave and very much a horseman.”

The Brighton race was a four-runner affair with a long odds-on shot, three second places on his book. He was Mashadi, a 265,000 guineas yearling purchase trained by Richard Hannon for Amo Racing. As Conrad relates, “Our filly was going down to the start with her head in Darragh’s face and for quite a while behind the stalls it looked as though she might refuse to load. Fortunately, Darragh showed his horsemanship, and the starter was patient with her.”

Headed from the gate for a few strides by the favourite, Princess Chizara then took off, led inside the first furlong, and was never passed thereafter, drawing away to win impressively by almost five lengths in quick time. “Now we must go to Ascot. It was slightly annoying when the coverage on Sky Sports Racing suggested it unusual for me to have a nice juvenile. For much of my training career I would spec ten to 15 juveniles every year, with Harry Beeby of Doncaster sales urging me (and everyone else) on. If I told him I didn’t have any money, he’d say, “Pay for them when you sell them.” That was fine if they were any good, but when they weren’t, you couldn’t sell them and then had to keep them and be stuck with them.

“As I grew older and wiser, I stopped doing that and as you become part of the furniture, new trainers come along. People stop sending horses to you. I recall one example. My wife Bobbie worked as a secretary/assistant to Dana Brudenell-Bruce, daughter of Stanhope Joel (brother of Jim) and sister of Solna Thomson Jones, owners of Snailwell Stud and therefore major breeders.

“Once every month Bobbie used to drive Dana to the races and this day we went up to Beverley together where I had a winner. On our way back she said: “We are going to send some yearlings to young James Fanshawe who is going to start training, to help him.” He had been assistant to Michael Stoute. I knew then, coming as I did from Edmonton, I just wasn’t the right type for these established owner-breeders, and I haven’t been proved wrong since either.

“It was a total fluke that I ended up in racing. As a young child, I spent much of my early days in the company of actors as my father had been in the original cast of Half A Sixpence with Tommy Steele. We moved to New York when the show moved to Broadway, but when my parents split up, we came back to North London. My mother used her contacts in the business to get me loads of work in 1960’s TV adverts, such as Rice Krispies, Bisto and Vosene. I also went for the role of Oliver Twist in the film of Oliver but didn’t get it!

“That convinced me that acting wasn’t for me and the options for a young man from a one-parent family in those days were three-fold, an apprenticeship, in a bank or the Army. I chose banking and for two years I built up experience, soon showing I had the acumen for finance. The people I worked with were mainly very much older and with deaths, retirements and my own progress, promotion was rapid.

“But I had been attracted to horse racing as my grandfather had been a bookmaker and earlier as I had been looking for a challenge, I had decided to go to the local stables and begin riding. At first, I found it difficult, but I was determined to rise to the challenge, so I was soon offering to help at the Trent Park stables in North London in exchange for lessons.

“This continued alongside working in the bank and when I said I wanted to leave, I was assured I could come back when I wished. But one bank manager suggested, as I had improved my riding, to apply to become a jockey.

“We wrote to six trainers and got six job offers. I chose Tim Moloney at Melton Mowbray. At 18, I was older than the other apprentices and at the same time, I took out a mortgage and bought my first house.

“I had three ambitions, to ride in a race, to compete against Lester Piggott, and to partner a winner; and it took me until 21 to achieve all three. After working as a lad for Harry Wragg, I then rode as back-up to Philip Robinson with Mick Ryan. In those days, apprentices lost their claim through age, unlike nowadays, so once I lost mine, after one win as a fully-fledged jockey, I stopped there and then.

“I then took a livery yard at Brinkley, taking people’s broken-down horses and bringing them back to racing fitness. Eventually one contact asked me to accommodate an Anglo-Arab and train her. I had no idea what to do, but finally agreed and we took the horse to Goodwood for an Arabian race. When I saw the opposition, mostly looking like horses straight out of the field, I got rather more confident, and the filly won.

“It was a short step then to training and, by late 1987, I had a licence, never having enough money to buy into the top level but always sufficient contacts to keep the show going. I will, sadly to my mind, forever be known as the man who trained the first-ever winner on a UK all-weather track, and that was a total fluke!

“I thought the first day of all-weather was something to aim at, and entered two horses for the claimer, at Lingfield Park on October 30, 1989, which was due off as the third race. In the end, with multiple divisions, one of ours, Niklas Angel was in the first of 12 races on the card and won the race at 11 a.m.

“Continuing my investing in property, I bought Shadowfax Stables, building up to around 30 horses, with the help of a couple of important owners, who brought in many investors.

“We were the forerunners in stable sponsorship but when both men died from cancer within a short time of each other, the people they had brought in also melted away.  From 25 horses, suddenly I was down to four.

“I had sold my yard and asked Charlie McBride – formerly my assistant – if I could move them to him and that I would ride them out for free. I had been planning to go to the US to train, but first I resolved to clear all my debt with vets, feed and the other outstanding costs of running a racing yard.

“Then one day, Michael Fenton, the handicapper, not the jockey, and a friend of Charlie’s, asked had I thought of becoming a handicapper?

“I said, of course not, I’m a trainer.” He said “Exactly, you act as a handicapper every day of the week,” telling me Qatar wanted a handicapper. They would fly me out there, pay me $8,000 a month, find me accommodation and a car.

“I got the job simply because of Michael’s recommendation and because I told them I could do it. Soon I was travelling around the world attending all the international handicappers’ meetings in Hong Kong, Dubai and Paris and conferences in Sydney, Paris again and Tokyo.

“I could have stayed longer but it was really like a paid prison sentence, so I decided to come back. I did keep my Qatari contacts and trained for them, but it wasn’t something that could be relied upon over any length of time.”

Here I can make my own small intervention. As Conrad told me at the time, if I wanted the job, he could probably arrange it for me. Another opportunity spurned in my life of missed chances? Possibly.

It was over the past couple of years, as he had been chugging along quite happily, that Conrad was made an introduction by Martin Dwyer that has undoubtedly led to this new phase in his career’s becoming possible.

“Martin had become friendly with a young businessman he had been riding for, who had been very successful in the building industry. Having initially started owning a few horses, he rapidly developed a vision of owning 100 within a few years.

“His name was Simon Lockyer, but at the time we were introduced, he had over-invested with his previous trainers and needed a drastic cutting back. He told me he wanted to send me 38 horses. I had 18 boxes at my yard in Hamilton Road, but with access to a similar number further up the road in a livery/spelling yard.

“I said I would take eight, and we chipped away, and he said this was the first time a trainer had ever recommended he reduce rather than increase his string.  We were left with a manageable number of horses that were not only money-spinners at their level, but proved to the business that given the right material I could get results. None of those we discarded ever gave cause to regret those decisions. Unfortunately, Simon, of whom I have a high regard, has had to withdraw from racing for now, but I hope his wish one day to return on a more realistic scale, can be in partnership with me.

“Several of the remaining horses were quickly sold, and crucially, in the case of Tyger Bay, a share went to Middleham Park. Now, as he has done so well, we have Incrimination for them with the promise of another to come.

“But more importantly, when Ify Madueke wanted advice on which trainer to employ, Jim Lovat recommended me. As we stood in the winners’ enclosure at Brighton on Friday, Jim said: “At least now you know you’re a good judge.” I replied, I’ve always been a good judge, but I’ve never had the money to back it up.” He smiled and said, “You have now!”

“Princess Chizara is all speed, so the choice is whether to stay with the fillies in the Queen Mary, probably including Beautiful Diamond, or take on the boys in the Windsor Castle. All those years ago when we had a Queen Mary filly in Toocando I’m sure I went the wrong path taking on Lyric Fantasy. Next time out we were was second to future 1,000 Guineas winner Sayyedati In the Cherry Hinton at Newmarket.

“It’s great to have that sort of discussion to look forward to after all these years,” he said.

- TS