It’s a gloriously sunny autumn Saturday afternoon at Leopardstown racecourse and the unseasonal warmth is delighting a large gathering in the crowded parade ring. The field for the first race of the newly rebranded Irish Champions Festival is about go to post and many of the great and the good of international racing have found their way to County Dublin to join the fun.
The Listed Ballylinch Stud Irish EBF Ingabelle Stakes for two-year-old fillies is the least valuable contest of a lucrative card, but there’s a hundred grand in prize-money to be won, comparable with the best purse on offer at Ascot the same afternoon.
The ring is thronged with O’Briens, Bolgers and Harringtons along with the usual massed ranks of Coolmore-istas. All assembled in happy anticipation for a weekend of top-class sport.
There among them is the Italian-born trainer Natalia Lupini, who saddles two of the nine runners, Making Time and Kitty Rose. And she’s feeling very much at home at the heart of Irish racing’s most prestigious Flat meeting of the year.
Natalia Lupini in the paddock at Leopardstown on day one of the Irish Champions Festival Natalia Lupini in the paddock at Leopardstown on day one of the Irish Champions Festival Credit: Patrick McCann The following week, in the chilly rain at her training yard in the luscious pastures of County Down, the balmy heat of Leopardstown is already forgotten. Saturday was poetry but now she’s back to the prose of watching on as her small, close-knit team hose down horses steaming from their morning exercise. Was her day in the sun all a bit surreal?
“I didn't feel nervous or anxious at all to be honest,” she replies. “I was just glad to be there with the owners. I felt quite proud of our work and the work that everybody puts in at home as well. I felt really good.”
Lupini is an atypical presence in the Irish training community and trains Flat horses in an atypical part of the island. This is point-to-point and hunting country, a community of horse and farming people, generally happy to share access to their land and facilities if it helps a neighbour to succeed.
Lupini has made her home in or near these parts for more than a decade and, although her Milanese accent is still dominant, there are frequent excursions into local Northern idioms and inflections.
She tells her story: how she travelled from the land of fashion, football, fine food and Ferraris to this little slice of heaven, near where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
“I was always passionate about horses and about racing,” she says. “I think it first came when one of my friends took me to see the Palio in Siena and then I started to look up on the internet articles about racing in Ireland, the home of the thoroughbred.
"Then my mother let me know about an agency for exchange students who wanted to work in racing in Ireland, so that’s how I came here first. I worked for a family in Armagh, mostly with sport horses and hunters, and they pointed me in the right direction.”
Lupini wouldn’t have known it then, but that ‘right direction’ signposted a route that has transported her to a current position as one of the most promising young trainers in Ireland.
Natalia Lupini is the centre of attention Natalia Lupini is the centre of attention Credit: Patrick McCann “For a couple of years, I came back and forward and finished my studies. That's when I decided to stay.
"I studied psychology in Milan; just a degree in psychology, I’m not a qualified therapist!” she emphasises, while laughingly conceding that her academic background might some day prove to be a handy tool in the Irish racing industry.
“It was in 2012 that I came for good. That's when I bought my horse [the tough and resolute sprinter Abstraction]. I was at the sales with some friends and the vendor was showing him to someone else and I was so impressed, he looked so kind and sensitive that I fell in love.
"There was no way that I was going home without him. It was meant to be. I sent him to a local trainer at first and after he took us to Dubai [in 2014], I decided to take out my own licence.”
Lupini may speak with a polite and gentle decorum but beneath the soft words there is clearly a backbone forged from the toughest of steel. To summarise, she had moved to a foreign country in her early twenties, had the courage to buy a horse and enough adventure to campaign him in the Middle East, and then took out a licence to train racehorses in a sport in which she had no heritage and in which the economic and social barriers to entry are notoriously steep.
The first winner came in January 2016, with Alnahar at Dundalk, but for years little happened. "I was just training my own horses, maybe some friends’ horses," she says. "Then I met up with Craig and we decided to turn this into a business.”
Craig is Craig Bryson, a graduate of the Aidan O’Brien academy of excellence, where he was based for ten years and was work-rider for the great Australia, among others. They met in 2021 when Bryson returned to his locality in Down and are now partners in life, business and, by the end of next month, parenthood.
Natalia Lupini and her partner Craig Bryson Natalia Lupini and her partner Craig Bryson Credit: Patrick McCann “Craig had a lot of experience working with two-year-olds at Ballydoyle,” she says. “Our business model was to buy nice yearlings and try to turn them into sales prospects. I love this job. Just looking at the horses, taking every day one step at a time.
"Then when those big wins happen, that helps you go on to have more nice horses. We try to take every day a step at a time. Even if we're training winners and they become selling prospects, we still get great enjoyment out of that.”
Two of those prospects have now left the parade ring and are at the start at Leopardstown on a sweltering September Saturday. Making Time is a big-priced outsider but the other Lupini filly, Kitty Rose, is second favourite to the Ballydoyle runner, Content. Kitty Rose, an Invincible Army filly, had made a strong impression when winning on her debut at Naas and Lupini was asking her to immediately prove her mettle on this bigger stage.
The outcome was never really in doubt. Billy Lee rode Kitty Rose handily, pushed past the long-time leader Content on the home bend and quickened away from a decent field to win by a snug-looking two and a half lengths. As she crosses the line, the course commentator declares her to be a "filly with a future". But does that future include Lupini?
Kitty Rose, ridden by Billy Lee, wins the Ballylinch Stud Irish EBF Ingabelle Stakes
Kitty Rose, ridden by Billy Lee, wins the Ballylinch Stud Irish EBF Ingabelle Stakes Credit: CAROLINE NORRIS “I know the owners have received a good few offers for her and it's entirely up to them to decide what to do,” she says, accepting the eternally uncertain fate of small yards and small owners who suddenly find themselves with an extremely valuable commodity.
“I only hope that whatever happens she can stay in the yard, but it's entirely up to the owners. Maybe if they sell, whoever buys might decide to keep her in Ireland, and then maybe she can stay in the yard.
"For now we have the Irish Guineas in mind for her. But we have to get there first. We have to continue to work hard.”
Kitty Rose or no Kitty Rose, the hard work is beginning to pay off. Dunum came very close to bookending Lupini's perfect day in the last race at Leopardstown but was collared by a ridiculously implausible late surge by Ryan Moore on Broadhurst. Where next for Kitty Rose?
“The owners are talking about maybe the Prix Marcel Boussac on Arc weekend," says Lupini. "Obviously, we'll see how she is and we'll decide then.”
One of the many English translations for the name Lupini is ‘little wolf’. Clearly, this particular wolf is intent on hunting bigger and heavier prey from her small yard in rural County Down.
If her filly does head to France, then impending motherhood and travel restrictions will prevent her from taking her place among the great and the good in the Longchamp parade ring.
One thing is certain, though. If she were there, Natalia Lupini would fit right in.
It’s a gloriously sunny autumn Saturday afternoon at Leopardstown racecourse and the unseasonal warmth is delighting a large gathering in the crowded parade ring. The field for the first race of the newly rebranded Irish Champions Festival is about