Romanised classic coup proves actions speak louder than words. Ken Condon, who achieved a milestone first Classic victory when Romanised won the Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas
Ken Condon is as articulate, intelligent and considered a speaker as you would expect of a student who has moulded himself in the image of his erudite mentor John Oxx.
He talks of keeping faith in the system you’ve developed and staying true to yourself when things are going against you. Like Oxx, he is a soft-spoken, personable connoisseur of the training ranks.
However, as was illustrated to such spectacular effect by Oxx’s bold campaigning of Sea The Stars during that glorious six-month sally in 2009, actions usually speak louder than words. For all of his serene eloquence, Condon also understands that talk is cheap and we must ultimately demonstrate the courage of our convictions. Consider the following manifestations of that reality.
Last year, Condon endured his worst season in numerical terms for most of a decade when he totalled just five domestic winners. He didn’t saddle a single winner from the end of July through to Irish Guineas weekend last week, yet this week he will finalise the purchase of Dessie and Sandra Hughes’s celebrated old Osborne Lodge Stables.
After seemingly hitting the first significant speedbump since establishing himself as an upwardly mobile and capable handler, Condon had sufficient pluck and vision to determine that it was time to move on from his 30-box rented premises at Ridge Manor Stables to more than double his capacity by making the single biggest investment of his life. That’s belief.
He exhibited similar resolve when trusting his instincts with Romanised. Beaten in four juvenile outings when highly tried – including a second to Derby hero Masar in the Solario Stakes – after winning on his Navan debut, Romanised ran well without indicating he was a Classic winner in the making when sixth behind Imaging on his Naas return.
“We had Newmarket on our minds all winter,” Condon says now, “and I’d be very cognisant of what’s required for that. But in the few weeks before it, his work just wasn’t where you’d want it to be. We had to heed the signs, give him a couple of extra days and go to Naas. He didn’t have a hard race there, but it might have been a blessing in disguise.”
But Condon had long been convinced he was the real deal, to the extent it was only the week of Newmarket that he ruled out a tilt at the Qipco 2,000 Guineas.
Instead, he opted for a prep run that didn’t go entirely smoothly. Still undeterred, he pointed Romanised at the Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas. The handsome son of Holy Roman Emperor might have been a 25-1 shot, but Condon wasn’t tilting at windmills.
Shane Foley duly brought his mount wide up the Curragh to foil Ballydoyle duo US Navy Flag and Gustav Klimt to secure one of the most audacious acts of giant-slaying in recent times and in the process justify Condon’s enterprise in grand style.
Condon welcomes back Romanised and Shane Foley after their Irish 2,000 Guineas triumph. Photo: Patrick McCann
On the Tuesday before the Irish Guineas, the Foley-ridden Romanised bossed the Niall McCullagh-ridden multiple Group winner Success Days over seven furlongs on Walsh’s Hill on the racecourse side of the Curragh. Condon, his wife Pauline and their work riders hardly said a word to each other afterwards. “Nobody had to say anything,” Condon recalls. “We all just knew.”
He continues: “With Romanised, there has always been a higher expectation, but he just needed to mature. The challenge now is for him to go and replicate it, and, even if he does that, it might not be enough.
“I know from my time at John’s, those good horses improve a pound or two every month, so he will have to, or else you’re going backwards.”
The St James’s Palace Stakes is next for Romanised, while Condon will soon begin the process of restoring and renovating Osborne Lodge ahead of relocating his equine squad on November 1.
“I guess it could be seen as a statement of intent,” he admits of the move. “The yard was built in 1897 and has produced three Irish Derby winners, 18 Classic winners – not to mention Hardy Eustace – so I’d be very conscious and respectful of that heritage. It is a massive deal for us, and it’s up to us to add another chapter to that history now.”
Asked about pursuing such a brave shift during a lull in results, he adds: “We weren’t happy with last year, but when things aren’t going right you still keep doing things right and trust the system. You don’t start changing things for the sake of it.
“England was actually very good to us last year, and we had four good stakes performers in Success Days, Romanised, Elusive Beauty and Mamba Noire, which is quite a high percentage from a string of 30.
“Stalwarts like Strait Of Zanzibar, In Salutem, Little Arrows and Bold Thady Quill have all finished and, of the 30 here, we have 19 two-year-olds. Only two have run, so there is a transition. It depends on what you want as well.”
Is the desire to maintain a certain degree of quality conducive with the need to make the business viable?
“Realistically, I don’t think you need to have 150 horses to find one – you have a chance every year. It’s the dream of finding that one that keeps us all going. Your personality dictates a lot as well. I’d be fiercely ambitious, but I’m not a hustler who would be out there trying to get horses in. You have to be true to yourself.
Past glories: Bold Thady Quill and Foley score at the Curragh in June 2012. Photo:Patrick McCann
“I’d be compromising myself if I was trying to be something I’m not, so I’d ask, ‘Right, what can I do that will satisfy my ambitions and leave a mark?’ Since I was very young, winning a Classic is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a high bar and a very select club, but I’d have devoured books reading about the exploits of the greats who went before us.
“I’d rather aim to have those stakes horses in the yard, and circumstances have worked in our favour this time. The country is full of good horse people, but it was our good fortune that Romanised came through our door.”
Condon, who isn’t averse to an international foray and whose horses are renowned for their durability, met Pauline when they worked at Oxx’s Currabeg yard during the heady era of Sinndar, Enzeli and Namid.
Under her maiden name Ryan, Pauline flirted with Cheltenham Festival glory when second to Cork All Star in the Champion Bumper aboard James Leavy’s Sophocles.
Condon and his wife Pauline, left, and Shane Foley during the Guineas presentation. Photo: Alain Barr
She still takes the odd ride, but her primary roles these days are her all-encompassing duties in the yard and the care of livewires Olivia (six) and Emily (four). Mr and Mrs Condon are old-fashioned grafters, both from non-racing, agricultural backgrounds.
A native of the north Cork village Ballyhea, Condon swapped hurling and hunting for horseracing in the mid-1990s. He did stints at the Lillingstons’ Mount Coote Stud in Kilmallock, Coolmore, the Niarchos’s stud in Normandy and at Lane’s End in Kentucky, before graduating to a five-year placement at Oxx’s finishing school.
A self-made man who began training in 2002, he is widely recognised as an all-round decent skin. That unassuming demeanour is part of the reason why his Classic triumph has been so well received.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the response,” he says. “It does seem to have resonated, but I don’t think it’s to do with me personally, it’s just the narrative and what it represents.
“We’re all there slogging away, living our lives and trying to pay our bills. We all have our own problems, whether it is a sick child or something at work.
“People are just doing the best they can with life’s trials and tribulations, so we find ourselves rooting for something different or unexpected, whether it’s Leicester City winning the Premier League or whatever. It’s something that people can relate to.”
Romanised storms to Classic success under Foley. Photo: Alain Barr
While the underdog strand is palpable, Hong Kong-based property tycoon Robert Ng (pronounced Ung), who owns Romanised and the redoubtable Success Days, is reported to be one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. He has been a staunch supporter of Condon’s, so the 43-year-old is deeply appreciative of his patronage, although he is also eager to broaden his ownership base.
“Support from some of the established owner-breeders, where you can get to know the families’ traits, would be great,” he suggests.
“If you have sustained access to those pedigrees, you have continuity as to the calibre of horse you’re getting that you don’t get when you’re going to the sales. Okay, it can happen that way but, with the budget we’d have, you’d want to be very, very lucky.”
On this occasion, fortune favoured Condon. It is a mark of the man, though, that he doesn’t view Romanised’s Classic triumph as a climax but a catalyst.
“It would be nice to think we’ll reap the benefit of it,” he muses, “but you can never take your eye off the ball. There’s a saying that has stuck with me since school that I always come back to. ‘It’s attitude, not aptitude, that determines your altitude.’ That’s a philosophy I try to live by and hopefully it will continue to serve us well.”
Foley a thorn in Ballydoyle’s side
Conquering the might of Aidan O’Brien’s artillery in a Curragh Classic was a new venture for Ken Condon but Shane ‘Dusty’ Foley has been here before.
In 2016, he conspired to foil Minding when guiding Adrian Keatley’s Jet Setting to a famous head victory in the Irish 1,000 Guineas. “Everybody knows how strong Ballydoyle are, so to get on top of them again where it matters is big for anybody. It’s great,” says the 30-year-old.
A native of Graiguenamanagh in Kilkenny, Foley’s 12-year formal association with Mick Halford ended last autumn. However, there was no falling out, and Foley rode Halford’s 1,000th winner when driving the Irish Derby contender Platinum Warrior to Gallinule victory on Guineas weekend.
“I couldn’t have wished for it to go better than it has,” he reveals of life as a freelance. “I’m riding for a lot of different stables, often having to choose and keep people happy when I can’t ride theirs. It’s nice to be in demand, but I’m working hard at it.”
Shane Foley, with the Irish Guineas Trophy: judgement, tactical acumen and strength in a finish are among his attributes. Photo: CAROLINE NORRIS
Foley finished second to Pat Smullen in the 2015 jockeys’ championship and his link with Condon goes back to his time as an apprentice. While he wouldn’t be considered a stylist, what he might lack in that regard he makes up for in his judgement, tactical acumen and strength in a finish.
“From an aesthetic point of view, Pat Eddery and Kieren Fallon were the same, but that didn’t stop them,” Condon notes. “Shane is always looking to improve things. The best riders are usually the ones who tell you what they’re going to do in a race, and he always has his homework done.”
Foley adds: “There was no hiding place in the Guineas, and I think mentally and physically Romanised is going to get better. The more racing he gets, the better he will get.”
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