Magazine article The Spectator

A Yard on the Up

Magazine article The Spectator

A Yard on the Up

Article excerpt

Lambourn trainer Sylvester Kirk retains the distinctive tones of his native Donegal/ Tyrone. There was just one moment during his eight years as assistant to Richard Hannon, a period which coincided with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when he wondered if the accent was going to leave him alive.

Deputed to drive the Hannons to Windsor for lunch with the Queen, Sylvester became confused driving out of the castle premises. Suddenly he was brought abruptly to a halt, the stable-spattered car surrounded by armed men with weapons cocked which definitely weren't loaded for pheasant. 'At that point, ' he says, demonstrating an impressively anodyne mumble, 'I feared I might get shot simply for opening my mouth.'

Fortunately, nobody fired, his explanations were accepted and he lived to set up as a trainer in his own right in Upper Lambourn, where he and wife Fanny, one of Hannon's six children, bring up their own two sons in the friendly Cedar Lodge yard, where you can watch the horses having a pick from the kitchen window.

Before becoming assistant to Richard Hannon, Sylvester worked at the Irish National Stud and as a stallion man for Coolmore, travelling horses to Australia. His father Syl was a small-time Irish trainer - 'It was a winner a month if we were lucky'but he never had any doubts about wanting to follow him. 'I was too big to get into racing any other way.'

He remains full of admiration for Hannon, both for his instinctive training skills and for his sociability. Sylvester spoke in tones of incredulity about a trainer who complained recently of being 'peopled out'.

Like most in a profession working ever harder for its share of the leisure dollar, he knows that getting on with potential owners is as important as training the horses. 'You end up with people you have an affinity with and who trust you. You need the same sense of humour' - a sense of humour which in his father-in-law once extended to running real life 'Find the Lady' competitions with wagered tenners pinned to the nappies of the Hannon triplets, of whom Fanny was the only girl.

His background ensures that Sylvester has handled good horses. But in the middle ranks he has to settle mostly for the cheaper livestock on the premises. 'You'd like to go out and buy a BMW but mostly you end up with a Mondeo.' By sticking largely to the Hannon template of buying strong, earlymaturing horses - 'Though it would be nice to be dealing with the kind of horses you spend a year and a half bringing to their peak, I try to buy the sharpest I can' - he sends out 40 to 50 winners a year. …

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