He has slept rough under the Brooklyn Bridge and rubbed elbows with nobility at Royal Ascot. He has trained the cheapest claimers in the game and has won a $2-million race on the richest day of racing in the world.
His name is Carl O'Callaghan and his rocky road up the ladder to dizzying heights of Thoroughbred success and back down again to sober reality are the subject of a new film making the festival circuit these days. “Chasing the Win,” directed by Laura Sheehy and Chris Ghelfi, chronicles the rise and fall of the charming Irish horseman whose racing career recalls that of Icarus, the man who got burned for flying too close to the sun. It has been featured in festivals in Nice, Madrid, Louisville, Sonoma and now at New York's DOC NYC Festival.
The story of an immigrant who was briefly homeless before rising to win the Dubai Golden Shaheen with the footsore Kinsale King in 2010 is inherently cinematic, and the directors take full advantage, for is there a sport more purely cinematic than horse racing? Although Ms. Sheehy, the daughter of Kinsale King's owner Dr. Patrick Sheehy, himself an Irish born immigrant to America, did not begin filming the story until after the Golden Shaheen and prior to Kinsale King's assault on Royal Ascot, she and Ghelfi chart O'Callaghan's meteoric rise and somewhat extended decline with an inexorableness the subject deserves.
We see owner Sheehy and O'Callaghan using their common heritage to hit it off from the start. Kinsale King, then a 4-year-old, had been bought by Sheehy for $67,000 at the Barretts 2-year-olds in training sale in May 2007. He shows immediate improvement under the care of his new conditioner, who worries over his charge's tender feet. Fortunately, all main tracks in California at the time were synthetic, providing a more forgiving surface than dirt for a horse like Kinsale King.
But who could have expected a gelding who had begun his career in a maiden claimer to win Hollywood Park's Grade 3 Vernon Underwood Stakes and Santa Anita's Grade 2 Palos Verdes Handicap, thus establishing himself as one of the country's best sprinters and earning a trip to the big international stage in Dubai?
Kinsale King's half-length triumph over Hong Kong's redoubtable Rocket Man in the Golden Shaheen gives us a chance to relive O'Callaghan's unforgettable victory dance in the Meydan walking ring. It is a moment that brings to life what Jim McKay on “Wide World of Sports” once called “the thrill of victory.” Enjoy it while you may, for the “agony of defeat” is right around the corner.
The close-up examination of O'Callaghan begins with the decision to send Kinsale King to Ascot for the Royal Meeting's most important sprint race, the Golden Jubilee Stakes. The filmmakers err in making it seem like Queen Elizabeth herself invited the horse to Ascot. Theoretically, she is in charge of Ascot Racecourse, but the invitation came from the track's international racing director, Nick Smith, who comments succinctly on the challenges facing the American invader.
The biggest of those was Starspangledbanner, the Aidan O'Brien-trained Australian-bred who cost Coolmore $10.25 million. The film doesn't hesitate to play up the David and Goliath aspect of the race, but this is not Hollywood. There is no fairy tale ending as Starspangledbanner beats a gallant “Kinsale” into third place. A subsequent run in the Group 1 July Cup at Newmarket sees “Kinsale” fade to 10th behind Starspangledbanner, who would be named Europe's champion sprinter in 2010.
The film excels at pertinent comments from O'Callaghan. As he leads Kinsale King into the paddock at Newmarket, the trainer quips, “I feel like a cat in a dog shop.” Sheehy provides his ideas on how best to get bloodstock value at a low price, and the film is noteworthy for delving straight to the heart of the issue, for example, the differences between racing on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. Sheehy's brother Denis lends a sobering note after the July Cup loss. As further losses mount up – O'Callaghan would soon go eight months without giving Sheehy a winner – the phlegmatic Denis states bluntly: “The party's over. If people are not good, get rid of them.”
After a series of setbacks, Kinsale King is seen winning a small allowance race at Golden Gate where O'Callaghan does a subdued version of his famous Meydan jig. That run is good enough to earn a second trip to the Dubai Golden Shaheen. But the agony of defeat rears its ugly head when the horse must be scratched on the eve of the big race with a swollen ankle. An ill-advised run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs off a 4-month absence, the only time he ever ran on dirt, puts a virtual end to the Kinsale King saga.
From there it is all downhill for O'Callaghan, although the film fails to directly address his dismissal as Sheehy's trainer. It also neglects to point out O'Callaghan's failure to pay $10,000 worth of feed bills, an indiscretion that caused him to have his license suspended in California. But O'Callaghan is nothing if not resilient. Now reinstated, he currently has 11 horses in training at Penn National. That's not Meydan, or Ascot, or Santa Anita, but it is a living made with horses, even if the trainer does not hesitate to state flatly: “I'm broke.”
Chasing the Win is a refreshing change from fictional racing films like “National Velvet,” “Kentucky” and “Broadway Bill,” or even non-fiction films like “Seabiscuit,” in which impossible underdogs overcome all odds to win the big race and everyone lives happily ever after. It is a story that most trainers with a handful of cheap horses only dream about. And it is an unsentimental object lesson about the vagaries of a sport that rewards success hugely and punishes failure brutally.
“Chasing the Win” trailer.
Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life.
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