The relentless spread of Covid-19 has touched every facet of the racing industry, but trainer Leanne Breen has shown an ability to navigate her way through the challenges posed by lockdown as she starts out on her fledgling career.
Breen, an equine management graduate of the College of Agriculture Food & Rural Enterprise in County Antrim, was sparked into applying for her training licence after stints with leading trainers David O’Meara, James Cummings and Willie McCreery.
It was the last stop with North Yorkshire-based Mark Johnston, though, that led to her making the leap.
“When you were watching him training, you were thinking ‘I want to do that’. You couldn’t sit still in his yard, it is a very intensive finishing school before going training,” says Breen.
“I went over there as a yard manager, but when I said to them I was going to go home and start training they said ‘if you want to do it, just go do it’.”
The family land in Warrenpoint, County Down already had a handful of stables, but Breen set to work installing a gallop, a walker and new stables to get her yard up to standard.
The training course was completed in July last year, and Breen enjoyed early success through Latchet at Dundalk in October.
“My local owners want to have a winner at Dundalk as it is only 20 minutes away,” she says.
“Latchet had already won at Dundalk, the Curragh and Leopardstown. I think she just needed a change of scenery.
“When Gavin (Ryan) won on her, he said ‘she is freshened up’. She nearly did two on the bounce, but got beat a nose the second time in Dundalk.”
With eight horses in training and a victory banked, Breen was looking forward to the Flat season but found herself in limbo as the coronavirus pandemic took hold leading to the suspension of Irish racing in March.
The unprecedented crisis would have been more than challenging for experienced trainers, but Breen attempted to use the time off to focus on the conditioning of her string.
“Most of our horses were tuned up to run at the start of the season. You were really left with these horses that were well and fit and you had to wind them down again,” she explains.
“We did wind them down quite a bit – I threw all the all-weather ones out for a week of grass, and then what I tried to do was put condition on for the first four weeks of lockdown – no fast work just slow work, endurance work.
“Some of those horses put on 20kgs during lockdown. Now they have all slimmed down obviously because of the fast work we have been putting in. They are all great weights to go forward with and continue with throughout the season – they are not gunned where you get one or two runs and then they are boiling over.
“I thought lockdown was a good opportunity just to get them freshened up, to get conditioning on them and to have them ready to go when racing came about.
“No-one could have predicted that happening, never mind in your first year of training. It was just something to get over and everyone was in the same boat anyway.”
Her approach was rewarded when Parkers Hill – who could run at Dundalk on Saturday – comfortably landed a six-furlong handicap at 18-1 when racing resumed at Naas in June.
“Shane (Foley) said when he got on him and cantered him down that he was moving that well that the horse had changed a bit. That horse put on 20kgs as well,” she says.
“That horse was a late-maturing horse. You could see that when we first got him and he just needed a bit of time. He’s a lot bigger and stronger.
“He’s a nice horse to have because a lot of our horses are handicappers – you know their winning mark but with him we don’t know yet. He could go on to win some nice races hopefully if he keeps progressing.”
Breen’s modus operandi has been to pick up horses from larger yards with a view to revitalising them in her small stable.
“We are getting sprinters at the minute and it is working – the horses are coming from big yards and maybe getting a bit sour, and we try to sweeten them up to pick up their old form,” she says.
“I noticed after Latchet won the phone never stopped, and after Parkers (Hill) won the phone never stopped. It’s very important to get winners on the board this year to get owners in.”
The trainer has plans to set up a syndicate for the winter series in Dundalk to increase the number of horses in her yard.
“You need the horses to get the winners. I’d love to get more horses into the yard. It’s quality more than quantity – we still want to have horses that are able to win nice races rather than struggling at the bottom end of things, but all the horses I have in now I’d be confident they could all win a race,” she says.
“It costs as much to keep a bad one as a good one.”
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