THE RACE THAT STOPS A NATION

Kildare's Mark Power talks Melbourne Cup, lockdown ... and much more

Win no. 2 for Mark (and Joseph O'Brien) as Twilight Payment emulates Rekindling's big win

Thomas Callaghan

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Thomas Callaghan

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Kildare's Mark Power talks Melbourne Cup, lockdown ... and much more

Mark Power with the Melbourne Cup

It was over two years ago since we last spoke to Mark Power, an interview we conducted for the Punchestown Festival back in 2018. Native of Caragh, a member of the well-known Power family, and nowadays Assistant Trainer to no less a man that Joseph O’Brien.
The main topic of conversation on our last chat was of course The Melbourne Cup and the brilliant win of the O’Brien trained Rekindling, and as I reminded Mark here we are again, a few seasons on, another Melbourne Cup and in true Power quick-fire wit he instantly replied “hopefully you make contact again in the next year or two after we bring up the treble.”
Mark, along with four other lads from O'Brien's Owning Hill establishment in Kilkenny, have been in Australia for the best part of eight weeks, along with four horses for Australia's greatest race — the race stops a nation — as they like to say. However, like most places these days it is the coronavirus that has stopped the nation as that country's big day out was held behind closed doors, no racing fans, not even owners allowed.
The four lads along with Mark included two lads from Naas, Sean Corby and Neil Bashford; MJ Doran and Aintree Grand National hero, from Kilcullen, Leighton Aspell.
Before we ever knew anything about coronavirus when a horse this neck of the woods is heading Down Under, it must quarantine for two weeks before travelling and is not allowed to run for two weeks when it arrives, can't move from the stable it is assigned to.
However as Mark explained when we spoke last week in Melbourne, this time around he, and the four lads, from the time they arrive in Sydney were put up in a hotel for a two weeks, and not alone must they stay in their separate room, they are not even allowed to open a window.
And on top of that their three daily meals are delivered, in a brown paper bag left outside their door with absolutely no contact.
That must have been tough I enquire.
“Very tough on the ‘ceann’,” admits Mark. “I reckon I have seen more championship games on the telly, both from Kildare and Wexford, than even you have seen this year back home” he says with a hearty laugh.
Mark lives these days in New Ross and only a few seasons ago transferred from the famous colours of Raheens, — his dad, former TD and Junior Minister Sean won a Leinster Club with them back in 1981 — to Rathgarogue-Cushinstown, going on to win the Wexford Junior Championship only last year; adding the Leinster Club before losing out to Na Gaeil of Kerry in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park.
When Mark and the lads had their quarantine done they headed off to Weatherby, near Melbourne, sharing a mini bus with Willie Mullins, David Casey and Rachel Robins where they finally joined up with Joseph's (O'Brien) quartet of horses.
More covet tests and quarantining before getting down to the real work, training and preparing their charges.
Did you honestly believe, or even think for a minute, that Twilight Payment, which was after all a 25/1 shot for the big race, had any real chance in a race that carried a €2.7 million first prize.
The Caragh man, thought carefully before saying “actually I thought he had a real good chance, despite the odds.
“You must remember he was only with us (O'Brien's Yard) from last year; we got him before the St Leger, so we only had him for a few weeks; didn't know a huge amount about him, even though he was an older horse but once we got a full year's training into him this year; getting him into our schedule and routine and all that , I felt he improved a fair bit.
“He and Master Of Reality worked together back home and they also worked together at Weatherby and I felt his work was sharpened up an awful lot; doing it all a lot easier; he was a good bit lighter this year than he was last year” he said enthusiastically.
“He is one of those horses you need to keep the foot down on, keep the accelerator on him or he would be inclined to get heavy on you so you had to keep the pressure on him; he is one those horses you just couldn't give a day off or he'd go back on you so you had to train him and train him hard all the time.
“That was something we learned over the year we had him so in reality I'd say he was simply a fitter horse this year and you have to remember he wasn't too far away last year either.”
Twilight Payment was trained by both Jim Bolger and Godolphin before ending up in the Kilkenny yard.
“Jim Bolger sold him to Godolphin and then bought him back from Godolphin before we bought him off Jim for owner Lloyd Williams” another twist or turn in a fascinating story.
Ironically Lloyd Williams, also owned Rekindling and Twilight Payment was in fact his seventh Melbourne Cup victory which really for a such a huge race is an absolute incredible feat.
Ireland has now won this race no less than on four occasions; twice by Dermot Weld with Vintage Crop, ridden by Mick Kinane in 1993, and with Media Puzzle in 2002 ridden by Damien Oliver, both horses owned by Michael Smurfit.
And now Joseph has won it twice, also for the same owner and in another twist beat his dad, Aiden into second place each time, in 2017 defeating Johannes Vermeer while last week just holding off the late challenge of Tiger Moth.
And did Mark think that Aidan's horse was going to get up to deny them?
“To be honest” he replied “I have to say our lad (Twilight Payment) got the perfect ride; he isn't quick, he just stays going; sometimes in Australia they (horses) jump and go, put up the handbrake and then go again, it is the way they are inclined to race over here but our lad jumped and went, stayed an even gallop; picked it up five out and then just kept it solid; kept picking it up; we were watching the race down by the railings and while Tiger Moth was getting to him, our lad wasn't pulling up either I thought.”
Aidan O'Brien, who has yet to win this prestigious race, lost 2019 Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyke when jockey Hugh Bowman, had to pull him up with a terrible injury that necessitated him being put down.
This particular race has certainly hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, over the years with no less than seven horses having had to be put down in the last eight seasons. O’Brien (Aidan) also suffered back in 2018 when Cliffs Of Moher fractured a shoulder in the race and was subsequently put down; there does not seem to be any logical reasoning for so many fatalities but the authorities are once again looking into to see if anything can be established that is the cause.
Mark Power is with Joseph O'Brien since the young trainer, just 27, began his training career, originally with some 120 horses in the yard; that number has now grown to around 200.
“There is more emphasis on flat than national hunt at the moment but having said that we have a few promising national hunt horses as well and hopefully we will seem them make a mark this or next season.”
So you are one busy man no doubt and has your role and/or responsibilities changed over the past few years?
“From my point of view, not much has changed over the last few years; I am Joseph's Assistant; Brendan Powell does a lot of the racing; I’d be at home so if Joseph was gone away I’d know what all the horses are doing, basically their training; Kevin Blake is also there more or less involved in the race planning side of the operation and then I’d marry it all together, knowing what the races are going to be; work out their training schedules for those races.”
Has covit affect the training and the general day-to-day running of the operation?
“Ye, mostly with the actual racing; of course more restrictions around the yard, social distancing and all that involved; I don't do racing myself in Ireland any more (only the exotic trips to Melbourne and the like) but at the racing there are definitely a lot more restrictions and responsibilities but in fairness we never really had to pull; there was no jobs losses; everyone was kept in a job even during the racing lockdown, so we were all very lucky in that regard.”
One more runner in Flemington (last Sunday) before Mark, the lads and the four horses head back home.
“The plan is we head back come Wednesday; another two week quarantine but this time at least I will be back home, no knocking on the bedroom door, no eating the dinner out of a brown paper bag” he laughs.
And maybe a bit of a celebration when the all clear arrives?
“Well we did have a small celebration” he laughs “after the big race but sure we'll see but it has been another incredible few weeks, to win one Melbourne Cup is exceptional but to win two is simply incredible.”
No one can tell what's around the corner, especially in the times we live in at the moment, but have no doubt we have not heard the last of Joseph O'Brien, Mark Power and the all the lads and lassies from the Owning Hill establishment.
And that’s for sure!