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My Racing Story

My Racing Story

John McConnell

John McConnell John McConnell
© Photo Healy Racing

I'm from Kildare originally, a place called Two Mile House which is between Naas and Kilcullen. Both my parents were Dubs and migrated down to the sticks back in the 70s! We were very small-time breeders, maybe four or five mares as more of a sideline really. We had ponies and that was how the horses came into it. Michael O'Brien moved in beside us when I was seven or eight and we got to know him very well. I used to ride out for him in the summer time. He was a really good trainer. I had a strong interest in the racing anyway, but it brought my interest to the fore. Jessica Harrington would have taught me in pony club, she was obviously a very good eventer. She was a very, very good teacher and I have a lot of respect for her. Education was always drilled into us, so there was no way I was going to get out of going to college! My brother had already done veterinary. I considered other options, but I love animals and wanted to be a vet if nothing else. It became apparent from my teens that I wasn't going to be light enough to be a jockey. I had training in mind from a very young age. How I was going to get there was going to be a different story because my parents are Dubs and we had no history in the game.

I qualified as a vet in 2000 and was working as a vet in a practice in Naas. I wanted to train a couple of our own, so that's why we got the permit at the time (2001). I was training from home and using Michael O'Brien's gallops. I actually had bad luck if anything at the start. We had a fun little horse called River Tempest who broke his leg in Clonmel coming down the hill as he was just about to take it up (September 2001). We didn't have a huge amount of luck, but I enjoyed it. We literally started with one. I used to work as a vet until lunchtime, rush home and ride out, and then do the evening consultations in the vets practice.

I had moved to Monaghan when I had my first winner because my son Cillian was born and I wanted to be close to him. Monaghan is not really a thoroughbred base and I was training two horses at the time. The man who I bought my feed off asked us to buy a horse for him and we bought Grand Lili in Newmarket. She was a really nice mare actually, she was a Linamix and they are quite strong. She was very, very keen. It was a great day when she landed my first winner at Bellewstown in June 2005, and it is ironic that Bellewstown is where I am settled now. I think the overall feeling was one of relief that I could actually do it, quickly followed by fear that it wasn't a fluke! She was going to be placed in a Grade 3 in Tipperary (in October 2005) and broke down at the second-last and finished fourth.

It gradually built up to seven or eight and I made the decision to go full-time at it. At that stage I was working in the Department of Agriculture in the north. It was one or the other - I actually took a career break, but I haven't been back! I went to the Curragh in 2008, but the recession hit straight away and we were paying a lot of rent. We had some winners, but it was a real struggle. I got the opportunity to move in 2010. We are two kilometres from Bellewstown. When I arrived, we had 44 boxes and a very good sand gallop and everything we needed. Subsequently, we are up to 100 boxes now. It is a lovely area, a very horsey area, and it is pretty central.

I do enjoy being a dual purpose trainer. I'd hate to be relying on one of the codes at our level. We don't spend huge amounts of money on horses. You can very easily have a very average year if you are not spending loads of money. I kind of get the same rush seeing a two-year-old work well as I do maybe seeing a horse school well. The jumps is a far tougher game in terms of training and injuries and keeping them sound. At the same time, it is not quite as business-minded as the Flat game, so it has that attraction. I do love both codes. We are lucky that we have a lot of good, young staff. That's the way I like it - I like fresh blood coming in, hungry people that work hard and want to get on. I suppose I have returned the favour by giving them chances - people like Siobhan (Rutledge) and Ben (Harvey)and others. We are in the 100 mark now (horses) and we have a few out in pre-training with Thomas Coyle and a few others. We try to have horses that are in full work in the yard.

A Case Of You was our first Group-race winner on the Flat (Group 3 at Curragh in October 2020) and it was fairy-tale stuff really for what we paid for him and how good he was. People wonder am I sad that I sold him, but I'm not as he was always bought to sell. I hadn't made a lot of money out of the game at that stage. I hadn't much security, so it allowed me to have a little bit of that anyway. I remember saying to Ado (McGuinness) that it was killing me that he is going 10 miles down the road, but Ado did a great job with him and he proved how good we thought he was. I think he was backed on the day (morning price 25/1 to an SP of 6/1), but it wasn't by us. It was just a case of whether dropping him to six furlongs was going to bring improvement and obviously it turned out he was a very good sprinter. We turned down offers after he won his maiden in Down Royal, so it was a risk to keep going. Siobhan named him after a Joni Mitchell song, it is a very good song. It was played a lot that night!

Seddon and Ben Harvey win the Magners Plate Handicap Chase at CheltenhamSeddon and Ben Harvey win the Magners Plate Handicap Chase at Cheltenham
© Photo Healy Racing

I can vividly remember that I had mixed emotions watching Mahler Mission in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham last March. I was watching it in sort of awe at how he was jumping and kind of ripping the field apart but, at the same time, I was thinking he has gone too soon. I felt he fell because he was tired. I felt he was the best horse in the race and, even if he had stood up and hadn't won, I still would have felt he was the best horse in the race. There was an awful lot of pride and enjoyment out of it but at that moment it was like I was never going to have a Cheltenham winner. Then Seddon came along two days later. People with knowledge probably knew Mahler Mission was just going a little half stride too quick the whole way. The owner came in and said 'we know he is a good horse now'. Although we were disappointed, we weren't going to moan too much about it. It was a good run in Newbury when runner-up in the Coral Gold Cup last month. The winner (Datsalrightgino) was stepping up in trip, so he probably improved a lot for that. It looked like he did anyway. He could be anything himself. Mahler Mission travelled with a lot of class through the race, so we were delighted with the run. He had a good break after it. He's bouncing now, so we will see how he is around March time and make a call on it (run over hurdles before the Grand National at Aintree). He wouldn't need the run if it didn't come up. I wouldn't be afraid of going straight there. Crossing the Melling Road, I think he'll be there. Who know after that? I don't think the fences will be a problem. Obviously, he has to take to them and stuff, but he is a very good jumper bar that one mistake in Cheltenham. He is entitled to go there and take his chance and have a chance of running well. When you have that opportunity in the Grand National, you have to take it.

Seddon has been brilliant for us. We didn't do anything fancy to rejuvenate him but, whatever he liked about the place, he certainly came right back to his best. When we bought him, I said to the guys (Galaxy Horse Racing Syndicate) he would take them to Cheltenham in October, and he'll win a race. I was thinking of Perth in June at the time which would have been fine. For him to do what he did (in the Plate at Cheltenham last March) was unbelievable. He was probably unlucky in America (third in American Grand National at Far Hills in October) - things didn't go 100 per cent over there in the preparation and we got held up and I'd say it probably cost him the race. Listen, if he doesn't do anything from here on in it wouldn't matter because he doesn't owe us anything. I went out to Far Hills a few days beforehand. Amy (Crook) went a week before and looked after him. It was a great experience and I would definitely do it again. It was probably a little bit tainted because of the hold up we had and we knew we probably weren't 100 per cent. Then we were just relieved he ran so well because it is an expensive trip. Cheltenham is on the agenda then Punchestown. I do have a sneaky regard for running him on the Flat, I think he would run well over long trips on the Flat. He's getting on now, so we will just have to mind him. Veterans' chases are a big thing now, so that could be something we look into as well.

We are always open to new clients and new horses. I'd love to improve the quality of what we have. I love coming to Dundalk and the low-grade end of it as well. I like winning with average horses, it probably gives me as much pleasure as winning with the good ones, but it would be great to have more good ones because if something goes wrong with one of them, you really feel it. I'm just happy to get the best out of what we have. I think as a vet it maybe helps that I see something maybe a little bit earlier than maybe others would. It maybe reduces the vets bills a good bit! It is definitely an advantage, and I have learned the physiology of the horse and I'm sure that is a helpful tool.

I love working in the Irish racing industry. There's a lot of great people in it, a lot of very hard-working people. it is a tough game dealing with horses and injuries and owners expectations but, when you are standing watching 15 or 20 horses go by you on a sunny morning, it is hard to beat compared to sitting in an office. It is a way of life and you want to make sure that you enjoy it. I think if you do enjoy it, you'll get a lifetime of enjoyment.

John was in conversation with Michael Graham

About Michael Graham

Michael has worked in horse racing journalism for more than 15 years, having also written a weekly betting column on Gaelic football and hurling for a newspaper. He is involved in writing the My Racing Story features on this website. He spent a year in South Africa completing a Diploma in Business Administration and also studied Newspaper Journalism in Belfast. He enjoys playing 5-a-side football on a regular basis.

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