At home with Tom Busteed in his "nursery" for young racehorses
When I visited Audra and Tom Busteed in Cork freak gales were ravaging the coastline. Tranquil was hardly the best word to use; yet down at the bottom of the steep four furlong woodchip gallop, set within a wooded glen, was a peaceful stream in which many a Cheltenham hero had paddled as it carried its first ever rider. Slow, calm, meandering; oblivious to the storm of the outside world. This is indeed the tranquil nursery of Tom Busteed, the master tutor of the horse.
There is nothing rushed about Tom's preparation of a horse. "We do a lot of driving," Tom explains, "groundwork is so important. It keeps horses balanced and they can tell you when they're ready. We take our time. We like to have them for twelve weeks and those weeks are the most important of their career. We ride them like showjumpers, improving their head carriage, which helps to keep a horse well-balanced.
"These are tried and trusted traditional methods. I was fortunate enough to work with very good horsemen such as Tommy Ryan, Eddy O'Grady's head man, Tim Finn and Fergie Sutherland. Fergie is a great man, great patience with a horse, I rode many point-to-point winners for him." Tom puts his experience and knowledge to good use. "We assess the horses and also advise the owner whether they should go straight into training or have a break. It's usually better to give a horse a rest after breaking. The whole process is very stimulating for them and to then go straight into another new environment can be stressful. They mature so much quicker if they go away for a break between here and training.
"I'll ride eight or nine myself a day. It's not like work, it's a passion. And I feel very proud to have taken such a decent part in shaping these horses. Good horses are few and far between so it's rewarding to see them and know that I helped in some way. Sizing Europe, for example, is a serious chaser in the making. People say his jumping is a problem. It's not a problem at all, he's just such a natural big jumper, he's in the air for that extra bit of time."
"We are so lucky," agrees Tom's wife, Audra, "we see them arrive as ragamuffins straight from the field and then they're transformed into glossy muscular racehorses." Keen Leader, Asian Maze and Sizing Europe are just some of the illustrious names to pass through their academy. "It's very rewarding to change a horse around, to smooth out awkward traits. We start them over trotting poles. They haven't a clue when they first start, then after four sessions they're so clever. Loose schooling is vital, they learn how to correct themselves, when to shorten and when to lengthen. It's a natural progression for them then to fences."
Tom ensures that the horse progresses at its own pace, but there is one vital factor that can make an immense difference to his work. "If a horse arrives with us very well done it stands them well. The weight falls off them when they begin to work. If they've simply been left grazing in the field they are very backward and wouldn't usually be ready to race at their best until six or seven. A two year old that has been well fed as a yearling would have been in training in September and cantering by December. If they're broken in December they've no chance of a summer run. It's easy for a backward horse to get lost in this system. By April or May they'll start to fall away and they'll be dismissed very early on the Flat. It's good to break National Hunt horses early at two and then bring them back each year to educate them further, it matures them quicker. It's a method they've always used in France."
When it comes to formative education, Tom has just as rich a pedigree. "I started in ponies and hunting; my first venture into racing was in Newmarket with Gavin Pritchard-Gordon. That same summer Eddy O'Grady was looking for an amateur to replace Mouse Morris who'd turned professional. I started riding for him in 1973 and rode my first winner at Mallow on Prolam that year. In five or six seasons I rode 60 or 70 winners " point-to-pointers and bumpers. My fondest memories are of the very nice people I was lucky enough to ride for. Your first winner is always special, but another highlight would be riding a winner at the Curragh on The Arctic. It was one of the very first bumpers to be run at the Curragh so to ride a winner there was very special."
Tom also had a couple of spins for Nicky Henderson in Britain before finally finishing up with Eddy O'Grady in 1978, when returning home to Ireland. In 1979 Tom married Avril Hitchmough, who sadly lost her battle with cancer seven years ago. "I started training point-to-pointers," Tom says of those early years, "we had our first son, Desmond, three years later. Desmond is a keen showjumper."
Tom himself is very much an all round horseman. "I did a lot of showing for Captain Tom Morgan and his wife Elsie, who have hunted with the West Waterford for thirty years. It has all helped to make me a better horseman." It's this natural skill that gradually established him in a niche market in which he has been happy to settle. "I was asked to take a lot of horses to break. I had work from J P McManus, young horses to break and quite a few in training recovering from injuries. Horses could be here for up to three months recuperating from tendon injuries. We recently started to break horses for Yorkshire owner Alan Potts. It's been widely documented how Alan travelled around the west of Ireland buying horses. His trainer, Henry de Bromhead, approached us and asked if we'd break them for him. And one morning they all arrived in a large lorry, Sizing Europe among them.
"If we built more boxes we could fill them, but I made the decision from the start that I wasn't going to pack them in and just put them on the walker," Tom says, "so we have twenty-one boxes, for pre-training and mature horses, with a maximum of nine at any one time to be broken. This week six or seven were ridden for the very first time. We had tried to cut down on the number of horses for breaking, but demand has shifted the emphasis back, with about half the horses coming in to us requiring breaking. We always have a waiting list and the business has been very busy for about eight years now. I'm happy that I've found a niche. Racing is so competitive and it's difficult to get a start in training, I've never really been tempted to go down that route."
Through his good friend, Enda Bolger, Tom met Audra six years ago and they've been married four years. Their first child together, Joshua, was born at the end of April. Audra is an accomplished horsewoman in her own right, competing in eventing and point-to-points, and has recently taken out a restricted licence, which means she can train for up to four different people. "That's useful for horses who are settled and their owners don't want them to leave here," Tom explains. Looking around, it's very easy to see why.
"Our facilities have improved a lot over the last year, we have a four furlong woodchip gallop on the hill, a sand arena and both an indoor and outdoor school. We also have a very good team working with us. Jordan Reidy from Mallow has been with us seven years and really knows the art of driving and breaking horses. Michael O'Connor and Melanie Forbes are very important to us, and Tom Drynan comes in regularly to ride for us, he is a very good horseman." In this respect Tom is lucky. "Yards are under pressure for staff and horsemanship is a quality that has become very rare. This means that the bigger yards need the young horses straight in and broken. I can see no point in this shuttle system of breaking."
Surprisingly, Tom reveals that the Flat horses are much easier to pre-train than National Hunt horses. "They don't need half the work and are much easier to handle. The National Hunt horses are strongly built, bullish and very unpredictable. We do a lot of groundwork with them to encourage calmness. When it comes to breaking in, Tom does things slowly, gently and traditionally. "Everything is devoted to care and attention and safety. I've broken over five hundred horses and I can count on the fingers of one hand the horses who have given us problems. We back them for the first time indoors. We get up on them for the first time, just lying across their backs, in the coral, which has very high rubber sides and deep sand. Safety for horse and rider is very important. We then take them down to the glen and they're ridden for the first time in the stream. It's the first time they're taken down there, so it's all new and interesting for them. The stream runs through a lovely wooded glen, so it's very peaceful and calming. They're so fascinated at watching their feet in the water that it takes their attention off the rider. They're given two or three days in the stream, then their first trot and canter is up the woodchip.
"You do sometimes ride a horse for the first time and be given a great feel. It's very exciting and it's lovely to give an owner that news, I'll often be picking up the phone just after getting off! Many live abroad and can't visit their horses, so we like to keep them involved and enable them to stay in touch. We take plenty of photos - the first time they're driven, the first time they're ridden, photos of their trips away, the â€˜picnics'." Tom is a great believer in taking the horses out in the box for a change of scenery. "We take them to the sea. Fergie Sutherland calls them â€˜picnics'. Pat Breen has a jumping facility at Ardmore, which is invaluable to point-to-point people, and we'll sometimes take horses there." A high priority for Tom is good head carriage in a horse. "And the first thing I do when they arrive is have their teeth checked. It's amazing the number of horses who have never had their teeth checked and they're not eating right."
Not every horse will go on to racecourse success and Tom's pre-training assessments are vital to owners. "Racing at all levels is so competitive now, you can't even expect to pick up a point-to-point with a moderate horse. It's a bad situation, with maiden races for seven year olds and up, and even they are being split into three divisions. The abolition of low grade races is a very good thing, over-production will have to end when there is no longer a market for moderate horses. It's ludicrous that owners fail to win with a filly then have a go at breeding from her instead. Lots of hopeful owners send us some poor horses and we recommend they go in a different direction.
"It's lovely to see horses successful in other roads," he says, "it's good to see owners giving them a chance elsewhere. We do a lot of restructuring for showing, it takes a lot of work. There are no shortcuts. They need to be perfectly balanced and a good ride. But it's good to see owners allowing them the time and work and channelling these horses in a new direction." And that really sums up the ethos of Tom's academy. His horses are educated not just for the racecourse, but for life.