Much Better Late Than Never For O’Connor

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ITBA Hall of Fame inductee John O’Connor | Emma Berry

By Emma Berry

It would be boring to be completely perfect but it seems that the only bad thing many of his colleagues in Irish racing and breeding can say about John O’Connor it that he’s a poor timekeeper.

Arriving fashionably late appears to have become a trademark for O’Connor, who was recently inducted into the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Hall of Fame at the annual ITBA Awards. But one can hardly blame him for this minor flaw when considering the number of meetings his various roles in the sport must compel him to attend.

“Timekeeping isn’t one of my strongest points and I wouldn’t argue that point with anybody,” he laughs after being the subject of some light-hearted leg-pulling in a beautifully made film to mark his Hall of Fame entry.

O’Connor is a fitting inductee for 2018, the year which marks the 30th anniversary of his arrival at Ballylinch Stud, initially as stud manager and resident vet, and latterly as managing director. His highly successful association with one of Ireland’s foremost breeding establishments, first in the days of the late Dr Tim Mahony and currently under the ownership of John and Leslie Malone, has shaped his standing in the Irish breeding community as he himself has strived to shape the future of 101-year-old farm which is steeped in Thoroughbred history.

O’Connor’s assured stewardship of Ballylinch has placed him in great demand for a number of key roles within the sport he loved from a young age. A former ITBA chairman and current council member, he has also been involved with the HRI Flat Pattern and race programming committees, the Irish Champions Weekend committee, and is currently chairman of the Irish wing of the European Breeders’ Fund. He is also a successful breeder in his own right and his experience in all manner of bloodstock roles includes him being the pinhooker of a 3-year-old National Hunt store back in 1975 who would go on to be named Silver Buck (Ire) and win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“I have a fairly strong belief that if you can do so then you should put something back into the industry that you make your living from, and that if you can make the industry better for everybody then that’s something worthwhile,” says O’Connor. “I was very lucky in a sense that although I was running a busy operation I had the support of first the Mahonys and then the Malones, which allowed me to put some of my time back into industry bodies.”

O’Connor’s neighbour and fellow breeder Harry McCalmont endorsed his Hall of Fame nomination, saying, “He put heart and soul into the ITBA and is now chairman of the EBF. When Joe Foley and myself went to him with the idea about Champions Weekend he picked it up and ran with it. He was wholeheartedly behind it and has been a major factor in the success of that weekend.”

Other notable names such as John Halley, Willie Mullins, Dermot Weld, Joe Foley and Brian Kavanagh were united in their praise of O’Connor, whose own ethos when it comes to the various committees with which he has been involved is for unification within the industry.

He says, “I think we’re lucky in Ireland that people generally pull together very well when there are challenges to be faced, and also in the sense that we don’t have so many competing interests–the racecourses tend to work together and prize-money is centrally funded to a great extent.

“I’ve always found in any of the organisations that I’ve been involved with that having a united front for the industry is of enormous importance so in all the things I’ve done I’ve always tried to make sure that I’ve listened to everybody and that we’ve tried to carry to the entire industry with us when we were making decisions.”

During his 30-year tenure at Ballylinch, O’Connor has been responsible for building up a first-class broodmare band for Tim Mahony, and later embellishing that established herd for the Malones, who bought the farm and its stock from the Mahony family in 2014. His astute judgement is reflected in the roll call of major winners to have been raised in the Kilkenny paddocks. Priory Belle (Ire) (Priolo) became Ballylinch Stud’s first Group 1 winner in the Moyglare Stud S., her dam Ingabelle (GB) (Taufan) having been secured for the stud from breeder Tom Lacy. It’s a dynasty which has spawned the multiple Group 2 winner Very Special (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire}) and her even smarter half-sister Chriselliam (Ire) (Iffraaj {GB}), the second of two Breeders’ Cup victors bred by Ballylinch after the Turf winner Red Rocks (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), a grandson of G1 Phoenix S. winner Pharaoh’s Delight (Ire) (Fairy King).

Other early broodmare purchases by O’Connor have led to Belardo (Ire), a grandson of Majinskaya (Fr) (Marignan), bought by Ballylinch for 190,000gns in 1997. Belardo is of extra note as the first Group 1 winner for Ballylinch sire Lope De Vega (Ire). The appropriately named top-class sprinter Wizz Kid (Ire), by another former resident of the Ballylinch stallion yard, Whipper, is a grand-daughter of Lidanna (GB) (Nicholas), who was bought the year after Majinskaya.

The accruing of such bloodlines has enabled Ballylinch Stud to be consistently among the best breeders in Ireland, but the farm also deals with breeders of all sizes through its stallion roster, which currently numbers six, with Dream Ahead (Diktat {GB}) stationed in Normandy. To this end, O’Connor is not immune to the pressure that comes from an increasingly commercial marketplace.

“We shouldn’t get confused by headline sales,” he says. “It’ always important to analyse more deeply how the whole market is evolving and performing. Sometimes we talk about the bottom end of the market like there are no good horses in that sector but that’s not necessarily the case. There’s a lot of polarisation where some extremely wealthy people want to buy what they perceive to be the top horses in any one sale and that end of the market is extremely strong. Anybody who is lucky enough to have stock that fit into that category can be very optimistic about that.”

He continues, “The most popular sires are full and over-full with waiting lists. There are plenty of capable sires further down the list who are not full yet. There’s polarisation taking place between the very top horses and, I would say, the rest of the market as opposed to saying the bottom end of the market. The very top end of the market is extremely strong and the rest of the market is much more chancey.”

As the son of small breeders and passionate horse-people, there was perhaps little chance that O’Connor would follow any other path but he arrived at stud management via a detour through veterinary practice, and met his wife Angela while they were both studying at the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine. He cites fellow vets Kevin Doyle and Jean Plainfosssé as early mentors, each of whom gave him opportunities to work abroad in Australia and France. When O’Connor eventually returned to Ireland, it was to become the resident vet at Baroda Stud, then owned by Sean Doyle, whose influence and untimely death steered his protégé towards his destiny.

“I worked closely with Sean who was a very enlightened and forward-thinking stud manager at that time and I learned a huge amount about the bloodstock business from him,” he recalls. “Sadly he was killed in a riding accident after I’d been at Baroda for a couple of years and I found myself thrust into becoming the resident vet and the manager for his executors, and that’s what kind of pushed me into stud management.

“When Sean’s executors sold Baroda, Dermot Weld introduced me to Tim Mahony and I was intrigued by the challenge of building Ballylinch back up again on his behalf. So I came down here and never left.”

That longevity has been not only to the stud’s benefit but also to a number of current stud managers who cut their teeth at the farm.

O’Connor says, “Down the years, one of the things that has made me the most pleased and proud is some of the young people who’ve worked with me have gone on to do really well running their own studs and I’ve really encouraged that. Nick Bell runs Haras de Meautry for the Rothschild family, James Byrne runs Ballygallon for Roy and Belinda Strudwick, Andrew Hughes runs Thistle Bloodstock for Jim Long, Jonathon Smithers runs Car Colston Hall Stud–they’re all people who came through the system here and there are others. It’s lovely to see them running their own operations and I’m still in contact with them all.”

He is also adamant that there’s no replacement for hands-on experience at all levels of the business despite the rise of courses available to youngsters wanting to work in the racing and breeding industry.

“The most important thing is for young people to get their heads round the fact that this is a business where you will only get ahead by hard work,” he says. “They need to get used to the fact that we work long hours–whether it’s on the farms or at the sales–and if that’s something which doesn’t appeal then they won’t be successful in this business. They need to be passionate about the game and try to be as well educated as they can be, before then associating with people who will put the time into teaching them and who will want them to succeed.”

Clearly O’Connor himself fulfils this latter requirement and he points to another man in a similar position to himself as one he particularly admires. In fact, it was that man, Ballyhane Stud owner Joe Foley, who proposed O’Connor’s induction to the Hall of Fame.

“I have great regard for Joe because I have huge regard for anybody who can make things happen from a standing start without huge resources,” he states. “Joe not only has made a huge success of his own business but he has put a huge amount back into the industry and we’ve worked together both in the ITBA and the EBF. I don’t think he gets the credit he ought to–he’s one of the really clear-thinkers in our business. It’s very important that the Irish industry keeps working closely with the industry in Britain and the European industry. Strength in any industry comes from the cohesion of people involved in it. Equally, I think you can see that where it becomes scattered, or you have internal division, people from outside the industry have opportunities to take pot shots at it and that’s why we all need to work together all the time.”

In one area recently he has disagreed with Foley, however, and that was in the bestowal of the ITBA honour.

“I was a bit taken aback,” he admits. “I did my best to talk them out of it but Joe Foley is an extremely persuasive man and I wasn’t able to change his mind. I was trying to put it off as I was kind of thinking it was an award for old people and then it slowly dawned on me with awful realisation that I am one of them myself.”

While it’s certainly nowhere near the time for O’Connor to be reaching for the pipe and slippers, he can allow himself a moment or two to reflect on working life well lived to date, though, in a manner regularly adopted by Aidan O’Brien, he immediately deflects praise and congratulation to those around him.

He says, “The things that I have achieved have been entirely dependent on the people who work with me. I have excellent teams around me at both Ballylinch and Castlemartin and without that you can’t succeed. But the most important person of them all is Angela, who is a huge support to me, and in our own lives raising our family and keeping our own farm on the move. Without her this wouldn’t have happened.”

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