Pleasingly, the Raceweb church attracts a diverse congregation. One might even, in the context of this article, be tempted to suggest it is catholic. I recently mentioned in these pages the famous Irish priest and Festival racegoer, Fr Breen the other day, and no sooner had the electrons dried on the screen than Raceweb member, Julian Armfield was in touch.
By way of introduction, Julian lives in Newmarket-sur-Mer, Barbados, was a long-term doyen of the racing press room; a contributor to the Irish Racing Annual; publisher of a racing magazine, and BBC World Service Racing Correspondent. I have played bad and costly poker with Armfield, (hence my poker handles of The Sponsor). He has also cost me several thousand pounds when he failed to enter our selections for the first Trifecta held at Goodwood. Hence his nickname – which was later changed to Trifecta.
“Talking of Fr Breen”, he wrote, “would you like the attached?” and there was a copy of his article, written for 2006 Irish Racing Annual, and which I have much pleasure in reprinting below.
“The Breener” – An Irish Racing Legend
Julian Armfield meets the irrepressible Fr Sean Breen, Ireland’s racing padre and founder of The Heavenly Syndicate
Most racehorses that start their careers as two-year-olds compete in about 50 races before retiring four or five years later. Many endure lengthy periods off the track through ailments. Others never even set foot on a racecourse. So, when a horse emerges that is still running at the age of eleven, following more than 100 starts and having had just one brief spell on the sidelines, it is something of a miracle.
Describing the extraordinary achievements of One Won One as a miracle may be putting it a tad strongly but bearing in mind that the gelding has been owned throughout his career by The Heavenly Syndicate, it is not beyond reason that he may have received a little divine assistance along the way.
Step forward jovial Fr Sean Breen, Ireland’s racing padre and leading light of The Heavenly Syndicate. The 68-year-old parish priest of Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare, keeps mum about the number of prayers he has offered up for his marvellous gelding but the gleam in his eye indicates that he has not swerved from using his influence in high places.
Breen is known to all as ‘The Breener’, a name given to him, and to a horse because its sire was The Parson, by his good friend Arthur Moore. The horse found its way to Oliver Sherwood’s Lambourn yard and provided him with his first winner as a trainer in 1984.
The (human) Breener avoids using the obvious cliché by describing his pride and joy as ‘a Christian of a horse’. Instead, he says: “One Won One could have been called One In A Million. He has been a tremendous servant to us over the years. He’s competed all over the world, from Ireland to New York and from Dubai to Hong Kong, and has won almost 500,000 euros in prize money – not bad for an animal that cost just US$13,000!”
The unfashionably-bred One Won One was bought in Florida by Jack Doyle, the legendary bloodstock agent and a close friend of Fr Breen’s: “Jack was a gas man and used to say that I was the only bit of faith he had left. I asked him to find me a National Hunt horse but he rang me from the States to say he had found a good dual-purpose animal and that I should buy it,” recalls ‘The Breener’.
Finbar Cahill, another friend of Breen’s, John Clohessy and Andy Madden bought one leg collectively, leaving three for the priest, and The Heavenly Syndicate was up and running. The obvious colours of black and white were registered and One Won One duly arrived at the stables of Joanna Morgan.
“My association with Joanna went back many years so there was no doubt where our new purchase would be trained”, says Breen. “I first met Joanna when she was stable jockey to the late Seamus McGrath. I used to go and watch Seamus’s horses on the gallops when I first got hooked on racing and I admired Joanna for becoming Ireland’s first successful lady jockey. She booted home over 200 winners during her career and was the first woman jockey to ride at Royal Ascot but will always be best remembered for the famous day at Phoenix Park when she short-headed Lester Piggott in a finish.
“But it was through a horse named Nobody Knows, which I owned jointly with another priest, Fr Dick Brown, that Joanna became my trainer.We gave the horse that name so we could have fun when people asked us what our horse was called and we would reply ‘Nobody Knows’. ‘Don’t be silly,’ they would say. ‘No, really, Nobody Knows’ we would repeat! Anyway, Nobody Knows was trained by Florence Mills, and she turned him out to win the prestigious Barna Handicap at the Galway Festival one year. It was a huge thrill, but a stewards’ enquiry was announced.
“Sadly, the horse lost the race in the stewards’ room. We were in the depths of despair because we thought the stewards had been harsh and that our horse should have kept the race. Then, out of the gloom came Joanna, who said that she would find us a horse to win the Barna another year.”
True to her word, Morgan bought a horse named Foxtrot Tango for The Breener. Two years later, Foxtrot Tango, ridden by his trainer, danced away to a 24-lengths success in the Barna spurring Michael O’Hehir, Ireland’s most famous racing commentator, to voice one of his immortal comments ‘If Joanna looks around any more, she’ll get a crick in her neck’.
Morgan had just launched her training career but was still race-riding. Though thrilled to accept One Won One, she took one look at the colt and called him ‘a brat, a desperate tramp altogether’. But a gelding operation settled the horse down, and Joanna rode him in all his four races in 1996. He failed to score in that opening campaign but strengthened into an imposing 3-year-old and won two of his 5 starts at Galway and the Curragh with his trainer in the saddle.
Breen recalls: “We were pleased enough with his progress, but it wasn’t until 1998 that it became clear that we had a serious tool. He ran eight times that year and scored three successes, two at the Curragh and one at Navan, all under Kevin Manning. He was in the first four on seven occasions, only failing in the Wokingham Stakes at Royal Ascot – he hated that place.”
In 1999, the big names of the Flat jockeys’ weighing-room began to circle One Won One and among his illustrious partners on the racecourse were Pat Eddery, Kieren Fallon and Mick Kinane. All failed to get him home in front, but the gelding still scored two victories, under Kevin Manning and Johnny Murtagh. It was time to lift the crossbar.
“We decided to tackle the big boys and girls in Millennium year,” says The Breener. “One Won One ran mostly in listed and group races and gave us some great thrills. His finest hour early on that season came in the Gladness Stakes at the Curragh, where he finished fifth to the mighty Giant’s Causeway, beaten only by just over three lengths. He performed with great credit all year without getting his head in front. But he did finish in the first four on seven occasions.”
One Won One, The Breener and Joanna Morgan then set off an adventurous journey around the world, taking in the United States, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Wherever they went, they brought colour and excitement to the local racing scenes: “I suppose there is nothing unusual about a racing priest in Ireland, but I think I was a bit of a novelty abroad,” explains Breen.
“The folks we met in those countries were amused to hear about how I say Mass at the Punchestown and Galway Festivals every year and at Cheltenham when St Patrick’s Day falls right. I told them how I usually give out a tip, or two, when Mass is over. I should explain to those who have not attended my racing Masses that we always get the important business over before I put my tipster’s hat on – there’s a suitable gap between the spiritual and the temporal proceedings.
“They’d have laughed if they’d known what happened at the last Galway Festival when I tipped up Uhoomagoo, who duly obliged at 7-1. A bookie came up to me afterwards and, with a smile, asked me not to be giving out any more tips! I think a lot of the congregation backed the horse and they were happy enough even before the race because there was no collection at the Mass! Perhaps I should have taken one because collections in my church had been going down ever since One Won One started winning.”
The world tour started at Belmont Park, New York, in October 2000, where the apple of The Breener’s eye ran an honourable fourth in the prestigious Kelso Handicap. The ride given to his horse by an American jockey did not please the priest: “He told me he would have nearly won if he hadn’t tried to go up the inside rail. I replied that this information was of little use to me and that while he had come from up the road to ride in the race, I had made a 7,000 miles round trip!”
One Won One was out of luck in his next outing at Meadowlands, Florida but that didn’t stop Breen taking up an invitation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club to run in the Hong Kong Mile in December. The six-year-old flew the flag with pride behind the mighty New Zealand mare, Sunline. On to Abu Dhabi and another ambitious target – the H.H. The President Cup, in January 2001.
“We really didn’t know what to expect in Abu Dhabi,” says Breen. “But we booked Kieren Fallon and he gave our hero a tremendous ride, winning the race by a head from Swiss Law. We were given great hospitality out there, as we were everywhere on our travels, and the horse’s victory resulted in an invitation to run in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai. But the horse hated the dirt surface and finished last.”
Back in Ireland, One Won One ran several blinders during 2001, his finest hour coming at Leopardstown, when he defeated the highly-rated Bach in the Glencairn Stakes. In 2002, he notched up two more successes and was beaten only on the nod by Bahamian Pirate in the Phoenix Sprint at his beloved the Curragh. There were those who said that age was beginning to catch up with the gelding after that but statistics do not lie and while One Won One may not have set the world alight in his more senior years, he has won 4 times and made the first four on 13 occasions.
So what now for the old horse? The Breener does not think he’s ready yet for retirement: “He still tries to kick his box down anytime he sees a horsebox come into the yard. He can’t wait to get off to the races! But as soon as he doesn’t want to run any more, we’ll put him out in a field.”
As to Fr Sean Breen, he will continue to be a familiar and popular figure on Irish racecourses for many a long year and he plans to continue making his annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham Festival: “I first went there when Arkle won his first Gold Cup in 1964 and have only missed two years since. I used to bless some of the Irish runners, especially those trained by Eddie O’Grady and I gave a blessing to Kicking King before the last Gold Cup.”
Irish racing should be counting its blessings that it has such a kind, personable and fun-loving padre as Fr Sean Breen, a man who embodies the fundamentals of his faith.