Equestrian: O'Connor spurred to relive golden moment
Former Olympian targets Aga Khan Cup glory with Ireland at RDS as perfect stepping stone towards redemption at London 2012
Published 02/08/2010 | 05:00
Cian O'Connor is 30 this year. He's only been in the showjumping business in earnest since 1998 -- the blink of an eye in the lifetime of most horse people -- but over the past 12 years he has established himself at the top end of his chosen sport, won and lost an Olympic gold medal and become a lynchpin of the Irish team. He's been around.
A tough work ethic combined with a natural flair for business has been the key to his success. He learned his trade from army riding star Lt Col Gerry Mullins, who once famously told a pupil that if he wanted to ride like Eddie Macken then he would "have to get up a helluva lot earlier in the morning!".
O'Connor is driven and demanding in just the same way as his former instructor. Long hours and meticulous attention to detail are key ingredients in his regime -- nothing, but nothing, is left to chance.
It doesn't always make him the easiest person to be around, but droves of youngsters are inspired by his energy and focus. He attracts huge numbers to his regular training clinics at home and abroad and he has earned the respect of top business people who have chosen to invest in his brand.
And there are many who admire the courageous comeback he engineered following the vicious fallout in the aftermath of that Olympic disaster. It wasn't an easy road, but he took it anyway and last week he was preparing for the one thing that kept spurring him on during those dark days. "Competing for the Irish team in the Aga Khan Cup -- that's what it's all about for me," he says.
When I arrived at his Karlswood Stables, based at Waterside Stud in Meath, it was all-go down in the grass jumping paddock. O'Connor grinned when I mumbled that it seemed the recession hadn't reached this corner of the universe. His team of helpers were stripping the plastic wrappers off a brand new set of show jumping fences and then placing them around the field under his careful instruction.
It was my turn to smile when I noticed 'Boss' inscribed on his T-shirt -- referring of course to Hugo the designer, but wholly appropriate also for this man whose short career has taken so many interesting twists and turns. These were designer showjumps as well -- I recognised them as the work of Frank Rothenberger from Germany, who creates so many of the top tracks around the world. They will be used for training purposes ahead of next week's big fixture and the ones that follow.
"See that one there?" he asks, pointing to an eye-catching set of light blue planks with an unusual wavy design and a circular tray at the centre of it, "that caused havoc when Frank first brought that out."
Horses, of course, are cautious creatures so when something new is introduced -- whether a wheelbarrow placed at a different angle in the yard, a plastic bag flapping in the wind or an odd-looking new jump on a course of fences -- they often baulk at it, and that's not something you want to happen when you are riding down to a fence standing a massive 1.60m high and with a back bar so far away it could almost be in another county.
Familiarity, practice and repetition until the horse is no longer wary is the only answer, so the field is dotted with all kinds of obstacles that test the horse's trust and faith in his rider and the rider's faith and trust in his horse.
As we walk back to his office, O'Connor admits that the last couple of years have been tough in the horse game and that "the Irish market has been really hard hit," adding: "I suppose when I look back at it now I didn't realise how relatively easily it all happened for me at the beginning."
His rise out of nowhere to Olympic level was phenomenally fast for sure, and his business acumen ensured he thrived during the Celtic Tiger era. But by 2008 he could sense the change.
"The money was drying up, people were taking longer and longer to pay -- by early 2009 I could see it was time to take stock," he says, "but it has really picked up again over the last 12 months and outside Ireland things aren't nearly so bad."
The experience has been beneficial, he insists: "a good dose of realism doesn't do anyone any harm."
He has a three-pronged approach to his career -- competing, coaching and finding horses for himself and his clients. Earlier this summer, he had three Spanish riders based at his yard and right now he is putting four young Egyptians through their paces. He has been teaching in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Egypt and when he runs clinics on the Irish circuit they are packed to capacity.
O'Connor often spends his evenings running through videos of horses for sale and that was how he first came across the mare with which he played a major role in the recent historic Nations Cup victory at Aachen. Then known as Olanda K, she looked like she might do the job so O'Connor took a flight to Seville to try her out, and fell for her immediately.
She was inexperienced and an enormous horse at 17.2hh, "but she has such an honest expression and she's really straight-forward," he explains. As we strolled into the stables she was standing looking out the window at the back of her box, her colossal head dwarfing even that of O'Connor's other big ride, Rancorrado, which lives next door. It was with Rancorrado that O'Connor's recent run of form really kicked off when they won the coveted Grand Prix at Olympia last December, but an injury incurred by the horse a few weeks ago put the pressure on the new mare, now named K Club Lady.
And how she has responded to the step up in class she has faced in the three months since Dr Michael Smurfit agreed to buy her. She was clear in the second round of the Nations Cup in Rome just weeks after she changed hands, was second in the Grand Prix at St Gallen in Switzerland a few weeks later and two weeks ago was nothing short of spectacular when producing one of just three double-clear performances on the day to secure the Aachen Nations Cup victory.
Success in Aachen is as good as it gets and K Club Lady made the stiffest test on the world circuit look like a walk in the park. So when I suggest to O'Connor that he may find it hard to hold onto a horse with so much ability, he just nods his head -- that is so often the price of success, and profit is not a dirty word in the jumping game.
O'Connor is one of the five riders listed for Aga Khan Cup selection along with Aachen team-mates Dermott Lennon, Denis Lynch, Billy Twomey and Shane Breen, who was fifth man at the German fixture. Just four will be selected for Friday's big test and, bar a disaster, it's unlikely that team manager Robert Splaine will leave O'Connor on the sidelines.
"We are probably one of the most feared teams in Europe after the Aachen result," O'Connor reckons, "and we have every chance of pulling off a medal at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in September."
He has competed in 78 Nations Cup events so far in his career and eight of those have been on his home soil. He was on the winning Aga Khan team in 2004 and he knows all about the good days and bad days.
"When it goes well it's the best feeling in the world, when it goes badly..." Yes, he knows a bit about that alright. The highs and lows of that Olympic experience -- when he was feted for success and then damned after his horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for a forbidden substance -- will live with him forever. He's not running away from another Olympic moment, however.
"My goal is to be on a team that wins gold at the London Olympics," he says, hinting that he may consider hanging up his boots in 2012 to concentrate on his business interests.
When I say to him that I often think of him more as a businessman on a horse than a horseman that does business, he doesn't seem to know what to make of that. It's not meant as an insult to his riding skills, just that he has a better business brain than most.
"I do enjoy the business end of things and I see myself involved in the horse scene in a whole variety of ways after I stop riding," he admits. Right now, though, top of his to-do list is "winning the 2010 Aga Khan trophy".