“It was a huge gamble,” Jim Bolger says, as he looks back to the afternoon in September 2006 when he paid €430,000 for a chestnut colt by Galileo, who was subsequently named New Approach. “I had to put the money down and he didn’t come cheap. All the shrewdies were there and they obviously didn’t think that he was worth that, so I had to scratch my head and wonder, well, could I be right? But we didn’t have to wait very long to find out that I probably was.”
Bolger was 64 when he took his punt on New Approach, an exception to prove the rule that people tend to become more risk-averse with age. It has turned out to be a gamble that keeps on giving, and will pay out perhaps its most satisfying return if Bolger’s colt Mac Swiney joins New Approach, his sire, on the Derby’s roll of honour at Epsom on Saturday afternoon.
Most trainers who put up their hand for a six-figure yearling at the sales already know which one of the impossibly wealthy owners who support their stable will ultimately pick up the tab. What Bolger had in mind, however, was much more ambitious. Fifteen years later, 90% of the horses in his stable have the same owner: Jackie Bolger, his wife. They also have the same breeder: Bolger himself. He has turned much of the conventional wisdom about running a racing stable – that the trainer trains and the owners pay the bills – on its head. A new approach, indeed.
“We started off with our own horses [in 1976] purely because I didn’t expect anybody to send horses to me with my very limited experience,” Bolger says. “And so having started out with them we kept going with them down the years, but it was not as lopsided as it is today.
“Down the years, as I’ve won some big races, I’ve found the phone doesn’t ring as much as it did in the early days when I won smaller races in Roscommon or Ballinrobe or wherever. I haven’t quite figured out why that is, but maybe it’s because the bigger owners with the better horses already have trainers and they’re not likely to change.
“It is what it is now, and that’s what it has evolved into. I don’t feel any great pressure about it, but obviously I’m aware that I have to come up with a good horse every few years, so that keeps me focused.”
Bolger will be 80 on Christmas Day this year, and has 80 mares at his stable and stud farm in County Carlow to supply the racing side of his operation with fresh recruits each season. His fascination with the sheer uncertainty of racing and breeding remains as keen as ever, as does his willingness to embrace new ideas.
He was one of the earliest investors in Emmeline Hill’s discovery of a “speed gene” which indicates whether a horse is likely to be best suited to sprinting (a CC genotype), middle-distances (CT) or staying races. “I don’t make any decision without considering it,” he says. “When you breed a mare and a stallion, except in the case of the sprinter/miler types, you have to wait and see what you get. But when you get [the foal] you need to know what [genotype] it is, and that’s where I find it very helpful.”
Bolger takes as much care with the naming of his horses as he does with their breeding. He takes particular pride in Mac Swiney’s successes on the track, a century after the republican politician and writer Terence MacSwiney died in 1920 while on hunger strike in Brixton prison – a dozen miles from Epsom – during the struggle for Irish independence.
“I think he’s a hero of most Irish people who have an interest in and an appreciation of what those people achieved for us,” Bolger says. “Terence certainly got the word out around the world at the time, but he paid a big price for it.
“I’d thought for a number of years that I’d like to have a horse good enough to take a chance and put his name on it. I was very close to it a few years ago, then I released that we were close to the 100th anniversary so I thought I’d wait, and this is the horse I waited on. The anniversary [of MacSwiney’s death] was the day after he won [the Group One Vertem Futurity] at Doncaster [in October].”
Bolger will not be travelling to at Epsom on Saturday but his daughter Una – whose husband, Kevin Manning, has been the trainer’s stable jockey since 1993 – will be there to collect the prize should Mac Swiney prevail. It is the family business, after all, and Bolger shows no sign of easing himself into the slow lane any time soon.
“I have really good staff and I’ve had them down the years, some of them have been here a very long time,” he says. “And I’ve told them that I’ll keep going as long as I can and they’re very happy with their positions, so it’s working well from their point of view and also from my point of view. And my family are happy enough for me to continue being the risk-taker that I’ve always been.”