30th Apr 2021
A LOOK through the lists of students who completed the Irish National Stud Thoroughbred Management Course, first held in 1971, is to read a who’s who of the thoroughbred breeding, racing and sales world. Few years have made an impact on the global business like the class of 1984.
The graduates have scattered to the four corners of the world in search of careers, and many are now household names. The year is also remembered, sadly, for one of its members who died in January 1998 at the age of 31.
His name is John Durkan and he most certainly has never been forgotten, whether by family, friends or his classmates at the Irish National Stud all of 37 years ago. One of that year is Henry Beeby, the Goffs group chief executive. He, together with other members of that class, came up with a way to honour their great friend, and The John Durkan Award was born.
Beeby takes up the story. “In 1984, John Durkan was one 30 students to complete the course at the Irish National Stud. Now it’s very easy to say something nice about someone that has gone, but John really was universally popular with everyone he met. He was a credit to his family, to the Irish National Stud and a friend to so many of us.
“John’s ambition was to train, and he was certainly on his way to the top when he was so tragically cut down by leukaemia just months after he had taken out a licence. His legacy was the legendary Istabraq whom he had selected for JP McManus and was to train. You know the rest. It is revealing that Aiden O’Brien always said he was only “minding the horse” for John in his many post-race interviews.
“So, in 2003, we joined together to introduce The John Durkan Award. It seeks to organise a placement with a trainer in Britain for a selected student from each year of the Irish National Stud Course, in order that they can follow John and gain that vital experience to start them on their way.
“In year one the award went to Conor Murphy who was placed with Nicky Henderson and is now training in the USA. The award funds the winner’s travel to and from Ireland and effects the introduction to a trainer, such as Nicky Henderson or the former INS graduate Brian Meehan who has so keenly supported the award since its inception.
“Our year is grateful to Cathal Beale, previous CEOs and the board of the Irish National Stud for their support and enthusiastic backing of this award. It is great that John Durkan’s name lives on.”
The man behind the award
JOHN Durkan, one of nine children born to Bill and Beatrice, was in a minority, one of those rare people about whom people have nothing but good to say.
Honoured annually with The John Durkan Award at the Irish National Stud, and the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown, he rode 93 winners as an amateur. As a teenager he cut his riding teeth schooling his father’s great racemare, Anaglog’s Daughter, who won the Arkle Trophy Chase at Cheltenham in 1980.
He went to England, joining Charlie Brookes as pupil assistant on the recommendation of the late Ferdy Murphy. He also spent time as assistant to Oliver Sherwood and John Gosden. There were so many tributes paid to John on his untimely death, but few summed him up as well as JP McManus did when he said: “John was a lovely man whose concern through his illness was for his family and friends, not himself. His courage throughout was an inspiration and he will be sadly missed.”
The quality of winners of The John Durkan Award at the Irish National Stud is only matched by the winners of the race at Punchestown since 1998. They have been Imperial Call, Buck Rogers, Native Upmanship (twice), Florida Pearl, Beef Or Salmon, Kicking King, Hi Cloy, In Compliance, The Listener, Noland, Joncol, Tranquil Sea, Rubi Light, Flemenstar, Arvika Ligeonniere, Don Cossack, Djakadam (twice), Sizing John and Min three times.
Latest award recipient
ANNA Fairbank, whose name is shortly to be inscribed on the roll of honour at the Irish National Stud, was the 2020 recipient of The John Durkan Award. From Beverley in Yorkshire, she attended Oxford Brookes University after leaving school.
While there she rode out for Eve Johnson-Houghton. After graduating from university she spent six months with leading Australian trainer John O’Shea, before travelling to Ireland to commence the Irish National Stud Thoroughbred Management Course. Upon completion she took up her placement with Brian Meehan and has recently joined trainer John Gosden.
No doubting Thomas’ ability
VISITORS to Tweenhills Farm and Stud will most likely come across their assistant stud manager Ivo Thomas. His early life was spent doing pony club and hunting, and at the age of 14 he started riding out. He rode a winner, New Time, in a point-to-point, though he sounds even more proud of the fact that he rode a coloured horse in his time riding ‘between the flags’.
Ivo originally joined Tweenhills in January 2014, and the following year he was crossing the Irish Sea to commence the Irish National Stud Thoroughbred Management Course at Tully. Having been the recipient of The John Durkan Award that year, he took up his internship with Brian Meehan.
Having completed his time as pupil assistant, Ivo went on to spend two years with Brian as assistant trainer. Wishing to gain more experience, he followed this with a trip down under. Working for almost a year with Matt Cumani.
Back in Britain, Ivo went racing at York and bumped into Tweenhills’ David Redvers. Adopting the Irish saying that ‘a dumb priest never got a parish’, Ivo asked if David knew of anyone looking for staff. Three weeks later Ivo was on the payroll in Gloucester!
From Ireland to America
THE first recipient of The John Durkan Award was Conor Murphy. Now based in Louisville, Kentucky, the Cork native made headlines around the world in 2012 when he won £1 million on a bet at Cheltenham – and it should have been more.
The previous Christmas, allegedly to relieve boredom, Conor had a five-horse accumulator bet for the Cheltenham Festival meeting three months hence. After Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Bobs Worth and FInian’s Rainbow had all galloped to easy wins, Riverside Theatre proved to be a brave but unlikely winner of the Ryanair Chase, getting up almost on the line to win. Bet365’s limits meant the winnings were capped at £1 million.
A year later Conor started training, and pre-training for the likes of Coolmore and Sheikh Fahad, and has saddled the winners of more than $2.7 million in his own name. A recent sad postscript to this story is that Finian’s Rainbow, who retired to Kentucky and was based with Conor, died of colic late last month. The Champion Chase winner was 18.
Extract from the Irish Field by Leo Powell April 2021