Selvaratnam wants more glory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

Sri Lankan-born trainer looks to relive the Vincent O'Brien good, old days with Seihali

Whatever fate awaits trainer Dhruba Selvaratnam with his Champions Mile candidate Seihali on Sunday, there'll be nothing to match the surprise he received on his first visit to Dubai around two decades ago.

Selvaratnam, now 55, was assistant to the legendary Vincent O'Brien, one of the greatest racehorse trainers in the history of the business. And the Sri Lankan-born horsesman's role in the champion stable of Europe had ensured his own fame had spread beyond the borders of County Tipperary.

He was asked to visit Dubai by Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the youngest of the four Maktoum brothers and, like most of that famous family, a passionate racing devotee.

'At the time, Dubai was little more than desert,' Selvaratnam began. 'Sheikh Ahmed took me out, showed me some land that was basically two massive sand dunes, then turned to me and said: 'This is our land, and on it I want you to build me a racetrack that's the equivalent of Epsom, the home of the Derby'.'

Surprise is too mild a word for the trainer's reaction. Stunned silence might be a closer description.

'I realised he was absolutely serious, so that's what we did. We created a racetrack for Sheikh Ahmed's horses and, like Epsom, it is a very undulating track,' the trainer said proudly.

Selvaratnam is now in his 16th year as the Sheikh's trainer in Dubai. When Seihali won his last race at Nad Al Sheba, it gave him win number 982 since making that sweeping decision to leave 'MV', as O'Brien was affectionately called, and move to the United Arab Emirates.

Selvaratnam was originally assistant to his father, the champion racehorse trainer Renga Selvaratnam, in Sri Lanka - at the time known as Ceylon. But when the ill winds of reform closed racing in Ceylon to foreign-bred horses, the Selvaratnams moved to the lucrative Pakistan circuit.

'It was a wonderful era for racing in Pakistan, a very high standard of racing and some very good quality horses,' Selvaratnam explained. 'I trained a lot of classic winners and in particular, we had a champion filly called Fantastic, who won both Guineas, the Derby and the Oaks.'

By the time Selvaratnam decided to move to England - where his first position was assistant to Ian Balding, trainer of the fabled champion Mill Reef - he had three Pakistan trainers' premierships on his CV.

Working with Balding has led to an unexpected twist as far as Sunday's Group One race is concerned because Balding's son, Andrew, winner of the Hong Kong Vase with Phoenix Reach in 2004, is here again with Vanderlin and a rival for the Champions Mile.

'I used to be babysitter to Andrew and his sister Clare when I was working for their dad in the 70s, so things have changed,' Selvaratnam smiled. His work with Balding led to the approach from O'Brien, the famous master of Ballydoyle and, at the peak of his powers, the most feared and revered trainer of all.

Some of the more famous horses in the yard at that time were the top sprinters Thatching and Solinus, the Irish Derby winner Law Society and the champion two-year-old Storm Bird - 'the best two-year-old I ever saw,' Selvaratnam adds. Storm Bird, by the way, became a then-record US$36 million stallion syndication and was the financial rock on which the present day Coolmore Stud was founded.

Then there were the O'Brien yard's 'serious horses' - four-time Group One winner Sadler's Wells, dual Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged and the mighty Royal Academy, hero of the 1990 Breeders Cup Mile. So many great horses, so many wonderful memories. And like most true horseman, the dream still burns brightly for Selvaratnam, who is on his first equine expedition to Hong Kong with the handsome bay Seihali.

'He's there with a live chance, and we have a great big-race jockey in Weichong Marwing - he has beaten us often enough in Dubai to know that,' Selvaratnam mused. 'The horse's last run in the Dubai Duty Free was excellent. I'm sure he'll give a good account of himself.'