The Irish Champion Stakes is the highlight on the opening day of Irish Champions’ Weekend and in its 40 years (first run as the Joe McGrath Memorial Stakes), has produced many outstanding winners.
However, unique on a very special roll on honour is the mother and son duo of Park Express and New Approach, who won the race 22 years apart and were both trained by Jim Bolger.
As part of the build-up to this year’s Irish Champions’ Weekend, Course-Specialist was hugely privileged to speak with Mr Bolger about the sparkling career of New Approach.
The chestnut colt was the result of a mating between 2001 dual Derby winner Galileo and Park Express, who Mr Bolger had trained to win the 1986 Lancashire Oaks, Nassau Stakes and Irish Champion Stakes.
“The Burns family at Lodge Park Stud made the match and I bought New Approach at the Goffs Premier Sale,” Mr Bolger says.
New Approach had what can fairly be described as an unconventional upbringing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining some of his quirks.
He was the final foal that Park Express produced and by the time he was on the ground, the mare was blind. New Approach wore a bell so that his dam knew where he was and spent his formative months surrounded by cattle rather than horses, developing a strong independent streak.
His breeder, Seamus Burns, owner of renowned Lodge Park Stud in Co Kilkenny, once explained: “It was for Park Express’s safety. Without sight she could not defend herself against any disagreements among her own species. And cattle are placid, much more so than horses.”
Along the way, New Approach developed one or two quirks and his antics were readily apparent at Goffs:
“At the sales he was going in and out of his stable door at great speed, charging the door, so we knew we would have to deal with that,” Mr Bolger remembers.
“I had seen this behaviour before but not to that extent. We folded a quarter piece (rug) to about 18 inches wide and put that in the doorway.
“He would have a good look at it and then walk in. After about two weeks he was walking in fairly sensibly.”
Having been broken in at Coolcullen, the young protégé did not take too long to make his mark at home.
“We knew from the word go that he was fairly exuberant and we concentrated on setting him to drop the bridle and take things easy over the first six months. It would have been May of his two year old season before he was working and when the brisk canters began.
“He wouldn’t take much work to get fit and was a very clear-winded horse and quickly learned to gallop in a straight line. Most of his work was solo, although not at the beginning; he had to learn to come between horses first.”
Another test awaited New Approach as he had to familiarise himself with the starting stalls process.
“The first time we went to the stalls we were very careful with him,” says Mr Bolger. “When we asked him to go in the first time he stood still and we just left him standing there. We had a suspicion that he might have an issue with the stalls and brought along a hood which was placed on him and he walked in immediately and always wore a hood at the stalls for all of his races.
“Apart from his quirks and exuberance he was a very normal horse after that and was never coltish. He was a very nice horse to deal with and had a nice temperament and great constitution.”
Another measure was taken to help quell his exuberance at the races, when he acquired a partner, stable mate Metamorphosis, to take him down to the start of each race.
New Approach made his racecourse debut a winning one as he beat Lucifer Sam by two lengths in a Curragh maiden in mid-July of 2007. Just under a fortnight later he made it two from two as he won the Group 3 Tyros Stakes at Leopardstown by two lengths from Brazilian Star.
Those two promising runs mirrored the same race victories accomplished by Mr Bolger’s Teofilo and when New Approach headed to the Group 2 Futurity Stakes at the Curragh in August for his next run, the similarity was glaringly obvious that this was a horse of real substance. The year older Teofilo had gone through his juvenile campaign unbowed in five starts, culminating in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket and the crown of Champion Two Year Old Colt for 2006.
However, Teofilo’s victory in the Futurity had been achieved by a head, while New Approach slammed Curtain Call by three lengths.
The pattern of symmetry continued when New Approach lined up for what looked a hot renewal of the Group 1 National Stakes back at the Curragh in September. He faced a field including Myboycharlie, Famous Name and Rio De La Plata, beating the latter by 1 ¾ lengths to establish himself as Ireland’s top two year old colt.
The following month he headed to Newmarket for the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes, where his ½ a length defeat of Fast Company and Raven’s Pass confirmed him the Champion Two Year Old of Europe in 2007. It also matched the accomplishments of Teofilo, as Mr Bolger recalls:
“New Approach followed exactly the same programme of races as Teofilo and gave us a perfect ten from them. The two horses were very similar.
“The plan during the winter was to go for the Guineas and then on to the Derby. He was always a big horse; he was 16 hands as a yearling and didn’t grow a lot over the winter.
“He got into a great routine in the winter he would go on the treadmill every other day and would then hack canter on the alternate day and spend time in the paddock.”
Mr Bolger aimed New Approach straight at the 2,000 Guineas, but he lost his unbeaten record in a thrilling finish by a nose to Henrythenavigator.
“Fitness got him beat,” Mr Bolger says. “He wasn’t 100 percent fit and probably had that as an excuse. We had contemplated taking him for an away day at the Curragh but the ground was bad and he missed his intended gallop.
Whilst fortune had perhaps not favoured New Approach in the spring, fate played an extraordinary hand in perhaps his greatest triumph at Epsom in early June.
“I was supposed to take him out of the Derby and it was my fault he was left in. When the runners came out, he seemed to be very well.
“I didn’t say anything for a while and then got the idea that he was very well in himself. I phoned John Ferguson and said I felt he was well enough and I was keen to go. He contacted Sheikh Mohammed and within two to three hours he was given the green light.
“He was there because of human error and all I said was 100 percent true. It was wholly fortuitous, but of course the media made it a big issue of it.
“He proved fairly difficult for Kevin (Manning) to settle, he got a bump near the start and that set him alight and Kevin had to use his skills to get him to settle.”
In the home straight Manning switch New Approach to the inside and with clear daylight, he passed Tartan Bearer for a memorable victory.
“We were all tremendously happy afterwards, although the celebrations were not excessive. We were delighted and winning the Derby was up there with the very best races we had won.”
The plan after Epsom was to head to the Curragh for the Irish Derby, but once again, fate played its hand.
“We were going to go for the Irish Derby, that looked a distinct possibility for him and I didn’t see any horses capable of beating him. But he pulled a muscle in his hip and had to stand in his box for quite a while after because it was a bad tear.
“He recuperated back on the treadmill; he had gotten to love that over the winter. He was 80 percent fit before we were brave enough to take him to the gallops.”
New Approach was back cantering about a month before his intended next race, the Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes at York. However, the vagaries of the British summer intervened and amid almost unprecedented scenes, the high profile Ebor Festival was abandoned due to severe flooding, with the big race switched to Newmarket the following weekend.
In what proved a controversial race, the smart four year old Duke Of Marmalade added the Juddmonte International to his King George victory, with Phoenix Tower second and New Approach 3 ¼ lengths back in third.
“He ran very well but was not 100 percent fit that day. It did put him spot on for Leopardstown.”
With the Juddmonte International Stakes rescheduled and later in the calendar than usual, the gap between that race and the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes was just fifteen days.
New Approach took up the running early in the home straight but had to work to repel the challenge of Traffic Guard by ½ a length.
“He was a bit idle, he was a bit lazy in that race, but improved leaps and bounds after that run.”
Whilst the manner of New Approach’s victory had not been as impressive as many had anticipated, he had won a Group 1 on home soil at both two and three years and had confirmed himself over his injury.
His next stop was to be a return to Newmarket’s Champions’ Day, where he had landed the Dewhurst Stakes the previous year.
What followed was an absolutely stunning performance and one which banished any lingering doubters of the true capabilities of New Approach.
Upton Grey set the pace and New Approach proved scintillating as he took up the running and stormed clear to beat subsequent dual Champion Stakes winner Twice Over by six lengths.
“To this day I’m very grateful to John Gosden for the pacemaker and to Rab Havlin, who got it spot on.
“I don’t think any horse on that day would have caught him barring perhaps Sea Bird!”
It was to be the final racecourse appearance of New Approach and a magnificent note on which to bow out.
Reflecting on Park Express and New Approach, who both won the Irish Champion Stakes more than two decades apart, Mr Bolger feels mother and son had very different characters:
“Park Express was very straight forward and had a wonderful temperament. He was quite different to her, the main difference was he was so exuberant and wanted to get on with it.”
Asked of his abiding memories and feelings about New Approach, he says:
“Day one, when he won, was very satisfying as we felt he was a very good horse and you don’t like to see them beaten. Then the second race was as good and then National Stakes and then he won the Dewhurst Stakes and became Champion Two Year Old. They were all wonderful days.”
New Approach retired to stand at Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket, where he has proved a success, siring the likes of Royal Ascot winners Newfangled and Tha’Ir, Dante Stakes winner and Derby runner-up Libertarian, Oaks winner Talent and Group 1 Nassau Stakes winner Sultanina.
However, his most memorable son to date was trained by Mr Bolger, Dawn Approach. Chestnut, like his father, Dawn Approach went through his two year old season unbeaten, winning the first flat race of the 2012 Irish flat season, taking in the Coventry Stakes, National Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes as he emulated New Approach.
He also went one better in the Newmarket 2,000 Guineas the following spring and for good measure added the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes.
“Some (of his progeny) can be firey, you have to be careful and keep them settled from day one, but apart from Dawn Approach none I have trained has had similar ability. I haven’t had more than six of them each year and would always like to be sent more.
“I am confident there will be more very good ones to come,” he concludes.
Jim Bolger has been actively involved in a great fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society, assembling a team of GAA and horse racing stars to take on Davy Russell’s team for a special annual hurling match.
To find out more about the fund raising activities and subsequent work undertaken, please visit www.cancer.ie