WATCH: Early starts and many gallops - a day in the life of a trainer preparing for Longines Irish Champions Weekend
High in the hills that form the natural border between Kilkenny and Carlow can be found one of Ireland's most famed racing operations.
Since the early 1980s Jim Bolger has been breeding and training some of the country's finest flat horses in Coolcullen - Group 1 winners like New Approach, Teofilo, Finsceal Beo and Dawn Approach.
This weekend Wexford native Bolger will saddle a host of prospects for the Longines Irish Champions Weekend in Leopardstown (Saturday) and the Curragh (Sunday).
The likes of Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial Stakes winner Moonlight Magic (QIPCO Irish Champions Stakes) and Stellar Mass (KPMG Enterprise Stakes) will all head into the weekend with hopes of plundering some of the €4.5million prize money.
How exactly does a leading trainer prepare his string for one of the most lucrative weekend's on the international racing calendar?
Last week we took a trip down the M9 to visit the home of Jim Bolger Racing to meet the man himself and chat to his staff about the work that goes into getting their 10-strong team ready for action.
With its long, sweeping undulating gallops, Coolcullen is the perfect breeding and training ground for horses with the pedigree and potential to win on the biggest days. Horses like Park Express (1986) and New Approach (2008), previous winners of the Champions Stakes.
“We knew we were going there with a live chance,” said Bolger of Park Express.
“I don’t think it had been won by a filly up to that time, so we were having to break new ground. But she was at the top of her game, and I was hopeful she wouldn’t be too far away. She won well in the end. It was a very memorable day.
“New Approach (below) was coming back from an injury, having won the Epsom Derby, so we were hopeful he would collect that on his way to Newmarket for their Champion Stakes.”
Bolger is full of praise for the Longines Champions Weekend, which is now in its third year.
“There’s an opportunity there for any horse with a rating of 95 upwards, and there’s plenty of money there to be won,” he said. “Even some for some of the less successful stables, if they happen to have one or two horses that can run there and run well they’re going to help to keep the show on the road.
“It’s nice to be competing with the top owners, who don’t really need the money, because if you beat them you don’t have to feel sorry for them. That’s the situation in the big races, where it’s every man or woman for themselves, and the best horse usually wins – and that’s the way it should be. I do like the cut and thrust of it.”
Bolger is a powerful player in Irish racing - employing more than 100 staff between Coolcullen, Wexford and his new facility in Rathvilly.
He has come a long way from training his tiny string of horses on common gallops in the Phoenix Park and to get an idea of the scale of his operation we spoke to his general manager Brian O'Connor.
"We start at seven, the riding out starts at about 8.15am. We ride three or four lots of 10-15 horses before 9.30am and then we tack up our horses for later in the morning and put them on the walking machines to do their prep. We'll get our breakfast while that is happening for half an hour and by 10.15am we are back on the gallops for another 3-4 lots," O'Connor tells SportsJOE.ie.
Ahead of the Champions weekend, contenders like Bean Feasa and Midnight Magic will not see their routine changed much, unless Bolger and his staff spot some problems in preparations.
"They are in training since early of the year so most of the horses are fit, we are lucky that none of them have had setbacks," said O'Connor last week. "We are 11-12 days out, so we might have two or three more fast work days and then they will just do routine canter days."
Don't miss two great days of flat racing this weekend at the Longines Irish Champions Weekend. Two-day tickets available here for €35, or one-day tickets for Leopardstown (Saturday) or The Curragh (Sunday) for €20.