The luck of the Irish breds

Robert Cleary and Oakwood Ardan are creating a stir at The Meadowlands.

by Debbie Little

When trainer Robert Cleary brought Oakwood Ardan IR to the U.S. at the end of 2023, he thought he had found a nice overnight horse.

But Oakwood Ardan had other ideas.

Since crossing the pond, the Irish-bred 5-year-old gelded son of Sweet Lou—Trend Setter is eight-for-nine and just a neck shy of being perfect.

“Don’t get me wrong, I thought he could win non-winners of 2, 4, 6, that’s why I bought him; I didn’t think I was buying a high-end horse,” Cleary said.

Cleary, who moved to the U.S. from West Cork in Ireland 10 years before Oakwood Ardan, has always kept an eye on the racing scene back home.

“I go home for a week every Christmas, but I don’t touch any horses when I go home,” said the second-generation horseman. “But I watch the replays from Ireland and England throughout the season. I have a lot of good friends over there, too, that I chit chat with.”

One of the horses who caught his eye was Oakwood Ardan.

“Well, I noticed him racing at 2, 3 and 4 in England and he always showed high speed,” Cleary said. “And I knew he was a well-bred horse because he was a half-brother to a good horse over here, Ideal Cowboy [p, 5, 1:49.1f $848,660].

“So, I made a call to purchase the horse in October of last year and the man that owned him wasn’t super keen on selling him and he asked me for what I thought was a lot of money for the horse.”

Thinking back on that conversation now, Cleary said that asking price wouldn’t be a lot for who the horse is now, but at that time, it seemed like too much.

“So, we didn’t make a deal, but he asked me if I’d be willing to train him and I said, ‘For sure, I’d like the opportunity to train him,’” Cleary said. “So, he sent him over to me and he got acclimatized and when I got to training him fast, I realized there was a hell of an engine there. So, we qualified him twice. Both Andrew [McCarthy] and Jordan [Stratton] liked him.”

McCarthy sat behind Oakwood Ardan in his first qualifier at Harrah’s Philadelphia on Nov. 28, while Stratton qualified him at The Meadowlands the following week.

Oakwood Ardan was set to make his first pari-mutuel start on Dec. 16, but with most of the top Big M drivers taking some time off, Cleary had to think outside the box.

“So, I thought about [James Haythornthwaite] that used to train and drive him in England and I asked him if he’d like to come and start the horse,” Cleary said. “It was short notice because it was Wednesday morning when I called and [Oakwood Ardan] was racing Saturday.”

Haythornthwaite did not pass up the opportunity to drive the horse again. He jumped on a plane, got to New Jersey, and got licensed.

“I was very confident with the way he had trained and qualified that he would race really well that night,” Cleary said. “I didn’t expect him to have to go in [1]:50 and a piece in his first race, but I was really happy.”

Oakwood Ardan won in 1:50.4 with a final quarter of :25.3.

“I said, ‘Wow,’” Cleary said. “For a horse that’s not even tight yet, I thought it was a hell of a mile.”

Cleary felt certain that there would be more interest in Oakwood Ardan and that a sale was imminent.

“I just really wanted the horse to stay in my barn and Royal Wire Products [Bill Peshina] have been my main owner for the past seven years, so I put a call through to Bill, who had been watching his qualifiers, and Bill really liked the horse and we were fortunate enough to get a deal done,” Cleary said.

Following Oakwood Ardan’s aforementioned first start, McCarthy has been his partner on the track.

“I was extremely impressed [the first time I sat behind him],” McCarthy said. “I qualified him at Chester and just took him around the track and went a slow mile [1:56.4]. But he just gave me a really, really good feeling and I was just super impressed with him from Day 1. He just felt like the type of horse that whatever you asked him to do, he was going to do it for you.”

Cleary said when he first came to North America to work for Tony O’Sullivan, McCarthy was starting to drive for Alagna.

McCarthy said driving for Cleary is terrific.

“You know, he’s a stand-up guy that really, really cares about his horses and he wants you to drive with that in mind and I really appreciate that,” McCarthy said. “It kind of suits my style. There’s no pressure. He just pretty much wants you to race the horse the way that you think without abusing the horse, bringing back a horse for next week. And I think that really suits both of us.”

To date, one of Oakwood Ardan’s most impressive races was his lone loss, when he was beaten a neck by Red Right Hand. They went 1:50.3 on a sloppy track with a -2 variant with Oakwood Ardan coming home in :26.

“Oh, yeah, it was exceptional,” McCarthy said. “He actually pulled a hind shoe that night and came down on the toe clip, so, he came out of that race a little bit sore in one foot. So, to do what he did with those circumstances was truly incredible.”

Oakwood Ardan took off about two months following that loss, but when he came back, he went right back to winning.

On May 18 at The Meadowlands, Oakwood Ardan won his sixth race of the year, and second straight off that two-month layoff. It was a particularly special night for Cleary, who won the following race with the 6-year-old gelding Churchviewfrankl, another Irish bred.

“Churchviewfrankl was a champion in Ireland and England at 2, 3 and 4,” Cleary said. “He won the Breeders Crown [UK & Ireland] at 2, 3 and 4 and basically every other stakes race the horse was ever in. I thought he was the best horse over there ever to get exported, to be honest with you.”

Both horses are in to go on Saturday (June 1) at The Meadowlands, when Oakwood Ardan will face his toughest test since coming to the U.S. In race 10, he drew post 6 in a non-winners of $20,000 in their last 4, with Primary Colors, Nicholas Beach and Allywag Hanover outside him, respectively, in the nine-horse field.

When it was mentioned to Cleary that Oakwood Ardan would be swimming with the sharks this week, “He’ll be okay, he’s got sharp teeth.” was his response.

Oakwood Ardan is the 5-2 second choice on John Rallis’ morning line, behind only Allywag Hanover as the 2-1 favorite.

“He’s pretty exciting,” said McCarthy of Oakwood Ardan. “He’s been beating good horses, but he’s still got to take that next step. So, we’ll just take it one week at a time.”

Unlike their Down Under counterparts, horses bred in Ireland and Great Britain have not grabbed as much attention, but Cleary thinks that may not be the case moving forward and that’s good news for a trainer whose barn is currently built on Irish breds.

“It seems like in the past six, seven, eight years, the top sires from America are available to the mares in Ireland and that looks like it has changed the game,” Cleary said. “You have Always B Miki, Sweet Lou, Tattoo Artist, and some more top sires available with frozen semen over there.

“So now you have the availability of the top American sires and the biggest thing is Irish people have some patience. They all don’t race at 2; they all don’t go fast at 2. It’s a great climate to race horses over there. They get the best limestone grass and the horses are healthy and strong when they come over here and it makes a big difference.”