Acorns from oaks

For Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Mark Dwyer, readying horses for breeze-up sales is akin to teaching children at prep school

For some of us the name Mark Dwyer conjures images of two Cheltenham Gold Cup victories, rather than his successful consigning operation known as Oaks Farm Stables.

That says plenty about the imprint Gold Cup winners make in the memory bank, because Dwyer hung up his whip 20 years ago and since then has been concentrating on making his Yorkshire base a successful buying and selling operation. He leaves breeding to others, preferring to pinhook foals to sell as yearlings and yearlings to offer as breezers, and he is not averse to trading a jumping store or one that wins a point-to-point or bumper.

Dwyer was still riding as a jump jockey when using his skill in the saddle to begin prepping his own breezers, but he soon aligned himself with Willie Browne of Mocklershill, widening his knowledge of the breeze-up trade and pooling financial resources.

Browne says: “We’ve known Mark since he was a young jockey. I remember coming back from Tralee races one day, and the following morning he rode a bit of work for my father – he was due to go to England the next day.

“We kept in touch while he was riding there, and after he made plans to go down the [breeze-up consigning] route we bought a couple of horses together. Being a famous jockey may have helped him get started, but I was never in awe of him or him of me, and in nearly 20 years since there hasn’t been a cross word.

“Because he started with me, learning what I know and don’t know, he’s tuned into my kind of horse – that may not always be the right kind, but we usually agree and more or less like the same animal.”

Dwyer, left, bandaging a young breezer before exercise

Dwyer concurs with his colleague, saying: “We both have input, but if one of us likes a horse and the other doesn’t we’re happy to say ‘go ahead, you buy it’. The sales companies will give you a bit of credit, and if we see a horse we really like we’ll push the boat out – we’re not tied to a budget, and we might go a bid or two beyond our valuation. When it comes to that situation Willie is the stronger one of the partnership – he’s braver, or more foolish! I leave it to Willie because I would walk away before him.

“Most of what I have learned in this business has come from Willie, from conformation to the type of horse that is required, and looking ahead to what the next man wants.

“I am involved in 16 or 17 [breeze-up] horses that are being prepared at Mocklershill this year, in addition to some stores, and Willie has shares in some of the horses we have here. If we buy in Ireland it stays in Ireland, particularly with foals, and any we buy at Donny or Newmarket tend to stay here.”
Dwyer is preparing 12 two-year-olds at Oaks Farm, some to sell under that name, others to join Browne’s consignment. Mocklershill is offering about 65 breezers this year, which is similar to last year, but slightly down on past numbers.

Has the budget for buying risen due to competition from other pinhookers? Dwyer says: “Not for the last few years, and you have to really like a horse to pay a big price. You only have one day and 20 seconds in which to trade on, and we’ve been in the creek without a paddle on occasions. But it’s never about one horse, but the package of horses – it’s a numbers game, and that’s how we view it.”

Neither man is a fan of timing breezes, believing it skews valuations, and Dwyer is keen to underline that the process of educating a horse to breeze should leave something for its forthcoming trainer.

Browne says: “It was tough buying yearlings last year, and it has become tougher for us on the basis that we don’t spend quite as much as we used to on higher-value horses. I’ve been known to spend £200,000 on a yearling, but those days are past – when you bought a horse for that sort of money, and it had a nice pedigree and was a good mover, you could get your money back, but the game has become very time-reliant, so a lovely horse will be penalised if it doesn’t do a quick time.”

The two men say the recent Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream sale emphasised the point. Browne reckons a fraction of a second was making a difference of $200,000 to $300,000 to a horse’s value, while Dwyer says: “If you had a horse that did 10.3s it might as well have stayed in the stable, if it did 10.2s you had a nice horse and probably got him sold, and if you did 10.1s you did good business – it’s unbelievable.”

Rescue led to a Yorkshire life
Dwyer started putting down roots in Yorkshire after leaving Ireland to take a position as first jockey to Jimmy Fitzgerald, and he was just 21 when they teamed up to land the 1985 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Forgive’n Forget.

Before that Dwyer had been a member of Liam Browne’s academy, taking Ireland’s apprentices’ title before turning to jumping. In addition to Gold Cup wins for Fitzgerald and Peter Beaumont (on Jodami in 1993) he also won a Champion Hurdle on Richard Price’s Flakey Dove (1994), took two Scottish Nationals, was placed in a couple of Grand Nationals, and was twice runner-up in the jockeys’ championship behind Peter Scudamore then Richard Dunwoody. He reckons about 1,000 winners came his way on the Flat and over jumps.

Following Fitzgerald’s death in October 2004 a Daily Telegraph obituary quoted the late trainer describing Dwyer as, ‘a jockey you never had to give instructions to – he knew instinctively what to do’.

A fall at Kelso in 1996 converted his elbow into a jigsaw puzzle, and subsequently led to retirement, and the small-scale breeze-up operation he had been running parallel to his riding commitments became his full focus. Why did he stay in Yorkshire, rather than return to County Meath?

He looks at his wife, Jane, and says: “There was a secretary in Jimmy Fitzgerald’s office – that I rescued…” and with three grown-up children of their own, a base that is handily placed just off the A64 near Malton, and a bunch of mates that make a trip to the pub or golf course a pleasure, Dwyer is happy in the north of England.

The subsequent acquisition of land adjacent to Oaks Farm has enabled him to create a breeze-up training ground that is easy on the eye, with broadleaf trees and manicured beech hedges that create windbreaks while giving an air of thoroughbred sophistication.

A vast grass field that rises gently into the distance provides Dwyer’s embryonic racers with a chance to feel turf beneath their feet, while Malton offers similar options.

Of his breezing regime, Dwyer says: “They all learn to canter upsides, and initially we send them out in a group before slowly weaning them off each other, teaching them to gallop alone. I like to get them all away from home three times before they sell – the first time they’ll just have a look at where we want them to gallop and give them a nice strong canter, next time they do a bit more, and nearer the sale they do a final gallop.

The game has become very time-reliant; a lovely horse is penalised for not doing a quick time

“You are preparing them for the next man, and they’ll be expected to go out in a string, so they need to be ready for that – and we put them through stalls as part of the process. This is their prep school.

“We try not to buzz them up too much, and don’t fit them with gags or gadgets like that – we set our stall out to keep them relaxed and in a good frame of mind. That can be a penalty for us, because sometimes they are not revved up to get that fast time, missing that kick at the two-furlong pole, but a good jockey will always be aware and ready for such eventuality.

“The whole process is about the individual horse, and our ability to get them to the sale ready to do their best – some are backward, some are not even two, and we have to work with them, aiming for a good time, while leaving a bit for the buyer to work on. We are very conscious of that – it’s a fine line and can be confusing at times, knowing whether to push on with a horse or back off.”

Is there a conflict of interest in being a consignor of yearlings, but also a buyer of yearlings that are pinhooked to breeze? Dwyer says: “You couldn’t run your business if people thought you kept your best yearlings to breeze – we take them all to the yearling sales and if they don’t sell we have the option of breezing them, but it’s not in our plan. We buy for the purpose. Fillies without pedigrees are very hard to sell at any level, but if they breeze well that helps – and if we fail to sell a breezer they have to go into training. Once the colours come out the die is cast, but there is always a buyer if they show a bit of ability on the racecourse.”

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