Burden of next big thing transfers into safe hands
By purchasing Our Conor, Barry Connell has bought the dream, writes John O'Brien
"We were beaten by an aeroplane" – Trainer Paul Nicholls after the Triumph Hurdle
IN the days before the race Noel Hayes, 31, had a recurring dream. He saw Our Conor, the four-year-old gelding he owned in partnership with his father and four others, approach the last, still in contention, threats looming on either side. He saw a frantic dash up the Cheltenham hill, jockeys asking questions, horses gallantly responding, Our Conor poking his head in front before the line, relief coursing through every microscopic cell in his body.
Nowhere in the dream was the ultimate reality allowed to intrude: Our Conor galloping all over his rivals half a mile from home, his nerveless 19-year-old pilot Bryan Cooper sneaking a contemptuous peak over his right shoulder for dangers that didn't exist, then scorching clear for a victory of consummate authority few had witnessed at the Festival before, let alone in the notoriously competitive Triumph. "He came around the bend," one man said to Hayes afterwards, "like Seabiscuit."
Like the celebrated American thoroughbred, the story had many strands. When the initial delirium had died down and they'd returned to Banagher, where four of the syndicate members hail from, the magnitude of it all finally dawned on Hayes. It was bigger than six people and a wonder horse. There was the jockey and the trainer and those in Dessie Hughes' yard that cared for Our Conor. Others too. The tentacles of a single great success story, Hayes realised, had a powerful reach.
Banagher is home to 1,600 hardy souls, deep in Offaly hurling country, sufficiently stung by the economic downturn to cherish a good news story when it arrived at their door. Everyone, or so it seemed to Hayes, had some kind of investment in the story. "You have six people with six different groups of families and friends. All with a story to tell about the horse. To see their reaction and the joy in so many people's faces was very humbling."
And not just Banagher. Maybe 100 miles or so away, Seán Tiernan sat in his home in Killinick, Co Wexford, and reflected on a satisfying week. On the Friday before Cheltenham, a horse he'd sold for €65,000 to Australia had won and sent its value soaring. Of the three horses he'd originally sold that ran at the Festival – Solwhit, Romanesco and Our Conor – two had won and the other finished second. None brought more satisfaction than Our Conor. "Seeing the potential," he says. "That's what gives you the biggest kick."
Three years earlier, Tiernan had gone to the Tattersalls yearling sales with his friend, Eoin Griffin, to buy a horse for Noel Hayes, a retired butcher from Banagher. They had a maximum of €10,000 to spend and Tiernan won't lie, they were fishing at the low end of the equine gene pool. Hayes wanted a dual-purpose horse: good enough to run on the Flat, sturdy enough to go over jumps. He had come to the right place.
Twenty years before that, Tiernan had bought a horse cheaply for the former Dublin footballer Anton O'Toole, called Majestic Man. The horse was sent to Peter McCreery to train and, after winning four times as a juvenile, started second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. At Tattersalls, his eye had fallen on a hardy yearling colt by Jeremy and, immediately, he'd thought of Majestic Man.
"He reminded me of him," Tiernan says now. "Plenty of white. Four white legs and a white face. A good eye and a good swing to him. But what I really liked was that he'd a great pair of feet on him. Big, big feet. He looked a hardy sort of a horse. That's what we thought anyway."
In the ring the hammer came down at €4,500 and, for good or bad, they had him. Neither the price nor the unfashionable breeding deterred Tiernan. When he'd bought Solwhit in Belgium years before, the horse's German sire, Solon, had yet to produce much by way of decent progeny. Working in America, he'd seen how Wayne Lucas always made a point of looking at a horse first before checking the catalogue. The great trainer preferred the evidence of his own eye.
"I know people will laugh at this," Tiernan says, "but I couldn't give a hoot what the horse is by. Once I know they're not by something that could bring a few problems then they're fine. If they're a nice individual, I'm not worried what they're by."
Tiernan's job done, the horse passed into the hands of Hayes and the five other men who would comprise the Man About Town syndicate. The name captured the essence of why they were in the game: to extract as much fun out of it as they could. "We were taking the piss out of ourselves," says Noel Jr. "Having a laugh at our own expense." The Triumph was far from their minds at that point. The dream was to win a race. Have a nice day out. Be men about town for a day at least.
They had their day out. Then one day became two. Two became three. Hayes remembers Our Conor winning his Flat maiden on his second outing at Roscommon, thinking they were already in payback far sooner than anyone had anticipated. Then he won a handicap at Naas and their first life-changing moment arrived: an offer to sell from a Hong Kong-based owner. "If any of us had owned him individually," says Hayes, "I'd say five of us would have sold. It wasn't a huge amount, but it was significant. I'd have sold. Definitely."
Most syndicates who stumble upon a precious racehorse face the
same dilemma at one time or another. Not just to sell or not to sell. But when to twist or stick. Through the winter, as Our Conor, soared up the juvenile ranks, the compulsion to sell became less not more. The timing wasn't right. "We'd always look for €100,000 more than what was offered," says Hayes. "If somebody offered €200,000, we'd look for €300,000, that kind of way."
Last week, though, the timing was better. The first offer they fielded after the Triumph came from Barry Connell and, with €1m on the table, there was scant cause for haggling. Hayes' mind was crystal clear. Someone told him it was like buying a Lotto ticket with the winning numbers attached and that's precisely how it felt. Romance was all very well, he thought, but if you were ever going to sell, now was the time to do it when the horse was on the up and hope and potential came with the ticket stub. "You have to leave something for the next man," he says. "He's buying into a dream as well."
It felt good to know the horse was going to a good place. In the wake of the deal, a lot of criticism was aimed towards Connell, stringently suggesting that he should leave good horses where they are and concentrate on finding his own young stock. Most of the commentary originated from anonymous online sources lacking a scintilla of the courage it took Connell, a wealthy man admittedly, to splash out so heavily on a young racehorse.
The criticism betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the industry works and sustains itself. Connell's money won't just fall into a black hole. Not all, perhaps, but a good portion of it will be funnelled back into the sport and the path leads back to those at the base like Tiernan who are ever scouring the roads of Ireland and beyond looking for the next Solwhit or Our Conor. More often than not, the circle completes itself.
"The mistake would be to invest and think you can get another one like him," says Hayes of his next move. "But I've two other horses. One with my dad and another with my friend, Jimmy, who's also part of the syndicate. He's won a couple of races in England. You're either in the game or you're out. We'll always have a leg of something."
He thinks of all the messages that flooded in after Cheltenham. One, in particular, resonated. "I hope," it said, "that you're prepared for the responsibility of owning Ireland's next horse." He understood the meaning. Next season they would pay the bills, collect the prize-money but, like Danoli, Our Conor would be theirs in name alone. He would, to all intents and purposes, be the nation's horse.
And now they've passed on that responsibility, that burden. Still he senses the next time Our Conor goes to the tape, the nerves will start jangling, as they always did, and the emotional connection will remain strong and vibrant. "All of us genuinely hope he can emulate Istabraq," Hayes says. "We'd be so happy to see Our Conor win two or three Champion Hurdles. We'd have no regrets. We've had our luck and we want to sell him lucky. We want the horse to be lucky for Barry."
And so the story continues. In different colours, perhaps. But still touching so many hearts.