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Dermot Weld and Harry the dog take Trailblazers to a happy place; Steve Dennis joins a band of newcomers as they enjoy a privileged insight into Irish racing.

THE N7 may not be the long, long trail a-winding of which the soldiers of the Great War sang, but it does mark the route of the Thoroughbred Trail and - if you're that way inclined - it will take you to the land of your dreams.

The highway west from Dublin airport is the road to ride if you want the Curragh or Punchestown, and as the miles go by the hills of Kildare rise above the roadside light industry, forty shades of green all agleam with the rain that does nothing for the chances of Profound Beauty in the following day's Irish St Leger.

I am on the Thoroughbred Trail, a scheme jointly devised by Failte Ireland and Horse Racing Ireland to give outsiders a glimpse of the inside, to allow them a brief and heady access into the inner circle. This is the fourth Trail weekend - the next one is in mid-November, when the agenda involves a visit to Dessie Hughes's yard and an afternoon at Punchestown - and I am bound for the Curragh and acquaintance with Dermot Weld, whose Rosewell House yard practically overlooks the racecourse.

Tonight is spent in Naas, where every television in every pub appears to be tuned to At The Races, where the rainslicked street is as empty as those pubs are full. Guinness spills over the lips of pint glasses as readily as the horse talk spills from the bright bar into the shadowed corners, Zoffany this, Sans Frontieres that, attention easily distracted by the next race from Down Royal on the big screen.

Without the horses Naas might be only a one-horse town - I walked for five minutes and saw five betting shops - but it is an ideal base for those on the Trail, who pay between EUR214 and EUR365 for their weekend depending on the swishness of their accommodation. There are plenty of us staying in the modern Osprey Hotel, my affections bought by an upgrade to a suite that is larger than some flats I have lived in.

We go to sleep with the rain rattling at our windows, a soft night and no mistake, and wake to the sound of the Irish Racing Post hitting the carpet outside the door.

Tour guide Trish waves us aboard the coach that will carry us to the Curragh and the chance to know the owner's privilege of a morning on the gallops, although a 10.30 start militates against that. There is a compromise to be drawn between getting the most out of the weekend and feeling as though you're in racing boot camp, but by the time we've picked up other Trailers from other hotels it's 11.30, and the Curragh - and the cupboard - is bare.

Poor Frances Crowley, former champion amateur rider and Classic-winning trainer and now the Trail guide, has the unenviable task of making something out of nothing. She employs the traditional angle of asking for questions, but then finds herself embroiled in a discussion of how easy it might be to switch one horse for another and run a ringer. A look of relief crosses her face, like the rainclouds passing over the Curragh, when she has us all back on the coach and heading for Weld's.

The success of these weekends depends largely on the willingness of the big names to give their time freely, and Dermot Weld exceeds our expectations. Having just said goodbye to a visiting Sir Robert Ogden, no doubt after a spot of 'my horse will beat your horse today/no it won't' banter, Weld entertains like an old hand, an avuncular ringmaster positively twinkling with bonhomie.

Out comes Ascot Gold Cup winner Rite Of Passage, shiny as a new penny, standing patiently on the lawn while Weld gives us chapter and verse, patiently and painstakingly answering questions as though he had nothing better to do all day than stand in a rare sunbeam with us, the pressures of the imminent Irish St Leger invisible.

We're given a mini stable tour, with grooms Ray and Tom bringing out one famous name after another including Famous Name, whose forthcoming trip to Canada for the Woodbine Mile prompts much discussion.

Weld explains the nature of the horse's roundabout journey from Dublin to Toronto via Folkestone and Rotterdam, amiably answers more questions he no doubt privately considers foolish, elucidates again for the benefit of those at the back. He's upstaged only by Harry, a well-padded circus dog of a Jack Russell who effortlessly snares everyone's attention.

It's solid gold; we get our money's worth in the first 15 minutes and the rest is free. Guineas winner Bethrah, Cesarewitch contender Majestic Concorde, imposing bumper champ Hidden Universe all take a turn round the statue of Blue Wind, the slightly unexpected answer to the question 'who's the best horse you've trained?'.

Even Profound Beauty, muzzled against hunger pangs scant hours before her big test, is paraded along with her lead horse Designated Decoy. Weld fancies Designated Decoy in today's sixth race, and most people make a careful note.

Everyone has forgotten about the barren Curragh gallops; Weld has saved the day. If Designated Decoy wins he'll have paid for it, too. The trainer stands with Harry in his arms as we leave, and for a brief, glorious moment we're treated to the sight of one of the world's true greats waving his dog's paw in farewell as the coach rolls back to the racecourse.

Lunch beckons, part of the package that includes the two nights' accommodation, one evening meal and reductions on entrance fees for those who fancy a Sunday jaunt to the Irish National Stud and nearby stately Russborough House.

Before we make the difficult decision between chicken or salmon (the horse who never was) we're joined in the Generous suite by champion jockey Pat Smullen and ATR pundit Kevin O'Ryan for a swift appraisal of the afternoon's card.

This brings silence down upon the heads of the 40-odd Trailers, the only sound that of ballpoint scrawling on free racecard. This, for many in the room, is the pivotal point of the weekend. Seeing the horses was nice but a few tips from those in the know is what they've been waiting for.

We hang on every word as Smullen underlines his chances in the opener on Good To Follow, confesses that the rain is working against Profound Beauty, points out that Harriers Call is down in grade in the sixth race and may well defy top weight. O'Ryan chips in with each-way poke Katla in the Listed race. Around the room, the details are being written down with all the solemnity of a young Garda at his first burglary.

Lunch is interrupted by several visits to the balcony to watch the horses go by. Edmond Ledingham and his wife Kay were given their Trail tickets as a 30th anniversary present - many of those here were made a gift of the weekend - and reckon it fantastic value even before Smullen brings home the bacon on Good To Follow. Almost everyone in the room has backed it.

Betty O'Brien, taking a break from organising the forthcoming festival at the Wexford Opera House, puts Katla in her trio for the second race and strikes gold. The booze is flowing now, everyone has backed a winner of some description and we're all having a great day at the races despite the rain.

For many it's their first visit to the Curragh, for more than a few it's their first time racing, and the combination of Weld's warm welcome and the success of the tips provided by O'Ryan and Smullen is a winning one, wins them over, ensures that they'll go back home and spread the good news. Martina O'Dwyer, of Failte Ireland, is already looking forward to the next Trail, eager to build on initial success.

The last race comes too soon. Trish expertly sweeps up the stragglers, some swaying their way down the corridor, others deep in conversation with new friends. As Roy Rogers used to say, happy trails.


Harry the Jack Russell at Dermot Weld's Rosewell House stables Dermot Weld (centre) discusses his Ascot Gold Cup winner Rite Of Passage with visitors on the Horse Racing Ireland Thoroughbred Trail
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 19, 2010
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