By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Recently, I spoke to Irish dual purpose trainer John McConnell about life in the Irish training ranks and some of his lovely horses.
John McConnell began training in 2001 but his first win came at Bellewstown, courtesy of Grand Lili and jockey Brian Byrnes, in June 2005.
Based in Stamullen, County Meath, McConnell is also a qualified vet. He says that his background in this “definitely helps with the early detection of problems, knowing when to call a vet and also when a horse is fully recovered from any problems they may pick up.”
He was surrounded by horses as a child, “My father bred thoroughbreds when I was growing up and we always had some ponies at home. Michael O’Brien, who trained the winners of a Triumph Hurdle, Irish National, along with many more, moved into a yard down the road from our home. I rode out for him most weekends and during the summer.” Michael O’Brien won the Champion National Hunt Jockey title in the US but, in 1974, he was confined to a wheelchair after a fall. However, that didn’t stop him coming home to Ireland to pursue racehorse training. His most well-known horse was Bright Highway, who completed the Makeson-Hennessy double in late 1980. He trained two Cheltenham Festival winners – Shawiya in the 1993 Triumph Hurdle and Kadoun to win the 2006 Pertemps Final. Sadly, O’Brien passed away in 2011 but he achieved remarkable things. McConnell said of his time there, “It was a great learning experience being in the company of such nice horses.”
McConnell, himself, has around sixty horses in and ten members of staff. Staff is something, he believes, is one of the biggest issues facing the industry, “I don’t think there are many yards in the country who wouldn’t immediately take on another skilled rider or grounds person if it was offered to them tomorrow morning.”
In his yard, McConnell has a mixture of flat and jumps horses, some of whom dabble in both codes. Obviously, these horses have to tackle different tests and that means they are trained differently, “You have to be much harder on jump horses at home, sometimes this can lead to them being injured more often. From time to time you can get away with not being 100% fit when it comes to running on the flat.”
Like a few Irish trainers, McConnell isn’t afraid of sending his horses to the UK to seek victories, “It’s slightly easier to win races in the UK. As there are more race meetings daily and the races themselves are less competitive when compared to these in Ireland. As a trainer, groom or owner, the racecourses do a top job class job of looking after visitors.” A good report for the English tracks. I think this says a lot about the way Irish racing is dominated by Mullins, Elliott, Gigginstown, the O’Briens and Coolmore. There seems to be very little room for other yards to break into the top level on a small budget. McConnell touched on this when I asked him about the biggest issues facing the industry, “It’s very much a case of the elite few against the remainder. A lot of small yards are being forced to give up as a result.”
2020 got off to an excellent start for the team with a double on New Years Day. He sent over two runners to Musselburgh with talented conditional jockey Donal McInerney there to do the steering. In race one, the exciting Never Do Nothing made virtually all of the running to win by over five lengths. That was just his first outing over jumps and for the yard, after they purchased him for £135,000 from Andrew Balding. On the flat, the Casamento gelding was never out of the top three and the horse was well-wanted at the sales for a possible international campaign. They have big hopes and he’s entered in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle (Grade One) at the Dublin Racing Festival or he could go to Musselburgh around the same time if the ground is too bad. His principal target will be the JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade One) and he’s currently 25/1. In the next race, Fred The Foot kept on well to land a handicap hurdle by one and a quarter lengths. In my opinion, McConnell is very good at placing his horses and they took advantage of the ground being to his liking and it paid off.
It’s not just those two good quality horses that McConnell has in his yard; he is the trainer of my favourite racemare Pearl Of The West. As you can see from the photo, she’s absolutely beautiful. She first ran for the yard in February 2018 and, like Never Do Nothing, she started out aged four in hurdles. She won on her second attempt by four and a half lengths at Carlisle. I twigged on to her when she won at Bellewstown in the August. Two starts later, she won a good quality conditions race at a Cheltenham. She was also tried in the Scottish Champion Hurdle but finished tenth. Her next win was the one that, out of everyone he’s trained, meant the most to the trainer, “Pearl Of The West winning a graded Hurdle in Punchestown was brilliant. It was at my home track, to get a winner at their festival was just great and the coverage afterwards was unbelievable. She won incredibly well and was partnered by Robbie Power, who McConnell thinks a lot of, “In my view it [the best jockey riding] has to be Robbie Power. He’s riding at his absolute best at the minute. He is everything you need in a jockey.” Pearl suffered a tendon injury at the Galway Festival and she’s been out ever since, however the yard aim to get her back running by the end of the year.
However, McConnell favourite horse he’s ever trained is Go Another One. “Last year he won both a grade three and a listed Hurdle. He’s never finished further back than fifth in any of his twenty two starts for us. He’s a superstar and also not the easiest horse to train. This makes his success even more satisfying. He started chasing last year and went on a small break over the winter as he doesn’t like winter ground.” This September, the horse made an emphatic 31 length debut chase victory and then came second to a horse carrying over a stone less at Uttoxeter. When last seen, he was third to the smart Slate House at Cheltenham. He has an entry in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham but I doubt they’ll run him if the ground isn’t appropriate.
The whip is always a well debated topic, particularly, it seems, in England, and I posed the question of his opinion on it, “The modern whip is harmless, I think the laws are about right now. Those with an agenda shouldn’t be pandered too in my view. The press need to stop drawing attention to it.”
Finally, the customary ‘Do you have any horses for us to watch out for?’ question. His answer… “Hand In My Pocket. She’s a lovely five year old mare by Mahler that we got in a Cheltenham Sale late last year. She should turn into a lovely jump horse.” They bought this mare for £50,000 and she’s nicely related. Her half brother Winter Getaway has won twice for Phillip Hobbs. Already, she has ran in one point to point and finished a good second for Mary Doyle at Dromahane. The winner has since moved to Gordon Elliott. I think this filly could definitely be a nice type and I look forward to seeing her run under rules.
I would like to thank John for taking time out to answer my questions and I wish his yard lots and lots of luck in the coming seasons.