'People Started To Question Me When The Horses Weren't Running Well – That Was Tough'

John McConnell with jockey Ben Harvey after Seddon won at Cheltenham | Racingfotos.com

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Last year was a big one for John McConnell. He fulfilled a lifelong ambition when Seddon won a race at the Cheltenham festival. That bargain buy went on to win at the Punchestown festival before bringing the trainer to the American Grand National at Far Hills. 

Fennor Cross was another horse to fly the flag for the stable with great distinction. Again, a cheaply-bought recruit, Fennor Cross won races at the Punchestown and Aintree festivals. 

However, in what came as a bitter blow to all associated with the horse, Fennor Cross was killed at home in the spring. 

What started out as a brilliant start to 2023 turned into something of a nightmare as another promising young novice hurdler, Kinbara, suffered a fatal injury while prominent owner Derek Kierans decided to move the talented Encanto Bruno to rival trainer Gavin Cromwell.

Not only that, but the McConnell stable struggled for form in the second half of the year due to aspergillus in the hay. It never rains but it pours. 

Thankfully, things have been going a lot better for the Naul-based trainer, who splits his string between Flat and National Hunt horses, with three winners in the past two weeks alone.

From blooding future Group 1-winning sprinter A Case Of You, wanting to break into the top bracket of the training ranks and dealing with the disappointments that come along the way, McConnell makes for a fascinating interviewee with Brian Sheerin in this week's Q&A.

Seddon | Racingfotos.com

How would you reflect on 2023?

It was a year of two halves, really. It was a brilliant first half of the year but a very average second half. On one hand, we had a winner at all of the top spring festivals–Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown–and then on the other, we lost some talented horses–Fennor Cross (Ire) (Elzaam {Aus}) and Kinbara (Ire) (Mahler {GB})–while Derek Kierans moved a smart horse in Encanto Bruno (Ire) (Mahler {GB}) to another stable and then we hit a bad patch of form. It was very up and down. 

It's the old cliche that this is a game that would tame lions. How do you deal with all of those ups and downs that come with training?

I don't know how other trainers do it but I tend to lock myself away into a cupboard or something to think about what has happened! Obviously I'm only messing but it is very hard for a stable like ours to lose a few 140-rates horses in the one year. They were Saturday horses and we don't have them anymore. Replacing them is not easy. But, to be honest, I think I was better prepared than most people associated with our yard were. I knew we were overachieving with the resources that we had. I was ready for it, but that doesn't mean it was easy to take. What was difficult was how people started to question you when things weren't going well. We found aspergillus in the hay. It was a difficult few months but thankfully we got to the bottom of it and the horses are back healthy and well, which is the main thing. I also think we had a below-average bunch of horses running at the time and that maybe over-egged how bad we were going over the winter. I can remember a pundit on Racing TV talking about my lack of form and he made the point that, if you looked at the prices of the horses running, they weren't running any better or worse than market expectation. I think it was a combination of those two things. You don't become a bad trainer overnight but it certainly tested my view of humanity because there were some people who were wobbling in their faith. That was frustrating.

You feel like you have been over achieving with the horses you have?

Yes, definitely. With the money we have to work with, I think we have done well with the horses. Okay, Encanto Bruno cost a lot of money [£210,000] but, to do what we did with Fennor Cross and Seddon (Ire) (Stowaway {GB}), both of those horses over-achieved. When you don't have a batch of those six-figure horses coming through the system, you know it's going to be hard to hit the heights at some of the bigger festivals, so I am a realist in that sense. It doesn't mean I am okay with that because I am extremely ambitious and I want winners on the big stage. 

You are not on your own, certainly in terms of National Hunt racing in Ireland, in feeling frustrated by not being able to compete at the top level. The Dublin Racing Festival, where Willie Mullins completed a clean sweep of all eight Grade 1 races, is a case in point. 

Ambition is a curse because you never want to settle. It would be worse if I thought I was not capable of training those big horses or if I was underachieving but I don't feel I am. At the end of the day, you need to have the backing and, at the minute, I don't and it's very frustrating. Don't get me wrong, I have some great owners and the majority of them are very supportive and obviously Derek Kierans has put a lot of money into our yard as well. The McNeill family and loads more people have been very supportive of me but, the reality is, the top yards have stacks of six-figure horses and only a small percentage of those horses go on to be good horses. You need the numbers coming through to give yourself a chance. 

I would put you down as a good man to get owners into the yard. 

I suppose everyone has a different mindset and some are hungrier than others. That's cool but I never wanted to be second best. That's just the way I am, be it playing a computer game or training horses. I often wish I was easier to please but I suppose that's what keeps me so driven to keep going and keep searching for that next nice horse. If you looked at it logically you might say you may never get to where you want to be but, the great thing about this game is, it might only take one horse or a couple of different things to spiral and you could be operating at the next level. For all bar about four trainers over jumps in Ireland, it probably looks a long way away. 

What's your approach to getting owners into the yard? Is it as simple as just putting yourself out there?

It's wide scale harassment! I talk to as many people as I can when I go to the sales or the races and I have made contact with a lot of owners through Instagram and Facebook. We have gotten horses through social media, with the McNeill family and Jimmy Fyffe good recent examples of that. You just have to have a brass neck. You are going to get a lot of nos but I find, even if people don't send you a horse, they respect you taking the time to reach out and put your neck on the line. If you don't ask, you are never going to get. 

Just how difficult is it to compete against the bigger stable over both codes in Ireland? 

It's borderline impossible, which is why we try to run a lot of horses in Britain. If you have a 120-rated horse in Ireland, you could run in six maiden hurdles in Ireland throughout the winter and not win one of them. That same horse could win two races in Britain in the same space of time. That's just the way it is and I don't blame Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott for that. They've gotten to where they are on merit.

What did Seddon winning at Cheltenham mean to you?

I probably enjoy it more now than I did at the time. When things were going bad for us in the autumn, it felt like a long time ago. But winning a race at the Cheltenham festival was something that I had dreamt about as a kid so, to go and achieve it, it was better than I ever thought it could be. 

What drives you?

The ambition is to find a top horse and compete on the big stage but, I have to say, when Together Aclaim (GB) (Aclaim {Ire}) won at Dundalk last week, I got a great kick out of that as well. He was a 30-raced maiden coming into the race and, for him to finally get his head in front, it was a great feeling for everyone involved with him. The guys who own him were there and they got a great thrill. I just love horses and love racing and winning. Obviously, I'd love to be winning the big races but I get a thrill out of winning any race. Gordon Elliott is the same. He loves to win any race. It's a bit of an addiction. 

Depending on what way you look at it, some might view it as a weakness to keep a 30-raced maiden on the go. That's the one thing I would say about you, you always look for the positives in a horse whereas plenty of people would have been happy to move Together Aclaim long before his day in the sun came at Dundalk. 

You have to back what you believe in and, what we try and do when it comes to buying horses at the sales, is find angles and horses who may not be obvious, because that's the price range we are dealing in. It doesn't work every time but we have had a lot of success with small-money buys. I know what you mean about Together Aclaim but the syndicate were happy to keep going and so was I.

Well Seddon is an advertisement for what you can do with those second-hand small-money buys. How did you get him to train?

I was in contact with the McNeills and their manager at the time told me that they were moving some others on. The Galaxy Racing Syndicate had expressed an interest in finding a National Hunt horse and Seddon fitted the bill because he had a good enough rating to bring us to the big festivals. I thought he'd win somewhere but I didn't think he'd win twice at Cheltenham, again at the Punchestown festival and then run in the American Grand National. He has been some horse for us. 

What are the plans with Seddon and Coral Gold Cup runner-up Mahler Mission?

Seddon wasn't one hundred percent after America but he seems fine now again and hopefully we'll get him and Mahler Mission back for the spring festivals. Mahler Mission could run in the Grand National at Aintree. 

To a certain degree, A Case Of You (Ire) (Hot Streak {Ire}) put you on the map. I'd imagine if a horse of his ability came through your system now, you would have enough owners to call upon to be able to keep him?

That was a very tricky situation because the horse had failed the vet to go to Hong Kong and America after he won the Group 3 Anglesey Stakes at the Curragh. It became very hard to push him onto owners. If Ado [McGuiness] hadn't come along, we probably would have been able to put together a syndicate or something, but fair play to him for taking a chance and I'm glad it worked out for him. That came at a very different time of my life. For starters, I had never owned anything before, so selling him provided me with some security in terms of buying a home. He did so much for me at the time but, I don't need anything else in life now so, if another A Case Of You came along now, I don't think I would sell him. 

How did you find him in the first place?

I was at Goffs for the Open Yearling Sale and I was standing down at the chute. I can remember this gorgeous horse walking down to the ring and opening up his page and thinking, 'ugh, Hot Streak.' I let him go in and he didn't sell. I ended up buying him privately and he just kept getting better and better. We never trained a Group 1 horse before him but we always felt he was very good. 

That goes back to your outside-the-box thinking. 

A bit like Seddon, we didn't expect A Case Of You to do what he did. We were thinking that, if he was placed in a maiden, we would have been able to get him away for anywhere between 30 and 50 grand and we would have been thinking 'happy days.' He was one in a million. 

Have you worked in many yards before setting up on your own or are you essentially self taught?

I worked for Michael O'Brien when I was younger but that's the only racing yard I have worked in. Obviously being a qualified vet helps and I did a lot of reading about training before I started. But, yes, I am basically self-taught.

There was a long time you were muddling away. What was the catalyst?

I don't know if there was one specific thing. Derek Kierens came into the yard and decided to put a good few quid in which meant we were able to buy nicer horses for a start. That was one thing. I got a lot of good young staff at the same time, the likes of Siobhan Rutledge, Ben and Alex Harvey, Thomas Reilly, Martin Fox and loads of others. That was another. That definitely helped. We have just developed a system that seems to work.

It's a vibrant yard with a lot of young people working for you.

We have great staff and everyone seems to be happy. I like having young people around the place because they are not soured and they are hungry. You can mould them to how you want things to be done rather than someone who has worked in five or six different yards and has their own ideas on how to do things. A lot of what we do is very different from other yards. We are way more relaxed and the lots go out a lot quicker than in other places, even for the jumps horses. When somebody comes to our yard, they think we are on Mars, but it works. They go quite quickly every day but they don't do many hard pieces of work, if that makes sense.

You've trained everything from a top-notch sprinter in A Case Of You to a cross-country chaser in Some Neck (Fr) (Yeats {Ire}). Is there a particular path you'd like to continue down or do you like both codes equally as much?

Not really, I get as much kick out of watching the two-year-olds as much as I do the National Hunt horses schooling. Both would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I love the jumps because it's not as much of a business. I do that more for a love of the sport whereas the Flat is very much business. It's much easier to train on the Flat and you don't get as many injuries. There is something very special about seeing a good two-year-old work. There are pros and cons to both codes and I love them as much. 

And how do you get to the next level in both codes?

Harass more owners maybe! Listen, there's not much more you can do bar keep trying. We've had some Grade 1-placed horses but finding that horse who could take us to the top level is what we really crave. There's no question that, the guys who are doing the best, they have the biggest backing. In many cases, they earned that backing and we just need to try and prove ourselves worthy of similar backing so we can kick on again. 

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