‘No way would we sell – people would never forgive us’
Colm O'Connell, son of Un De Sceaux's owner Eddie, tells why they rebuffed some 'fierce offers' to sell the 'people's horse'. Richard Forristal reports
It is one of jump racing's most precious quirks that the individuals who grace its highest echelons are so accessible. A sport that epitomises the old saying about there being only six inches between a pat on the back and a kick on the backside ensures as much. Remember day one of last year's Cheltenham Festival?
Ruby Walsh had won the card's first three Grade Ones in sensational style aboard Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen. He looked certain to plunder the fourth as well, only for Annie Power to crash out in spectacular fashion at the final flight. It's often said that it's a game that would tame lions, which is doubtless what keeps its elite protagonists so grounded, if you'll pardon the pun.
Willie Mullins, of course, still completed the fabulous four-timer when Glens Melody clung on in Annie Power's absence. His omnipotence is unparalleled, yet he remains as approachable as ever.
Colm O'Connell, son of Un De Sceaux's owner Eddie, tells a story of how they initiated contact with the great man. "I got his number off the Goracing.ie website," he recalls with a disbelieving laugh.
"I rang the office and asked would Willie be there on Saturday morning? His secretary said, 'Oh, he is here every Saturday morning". That Saturday, myself, Eddie and my brother John arrived on spec. We just walked in! In the kitchen, Eddie said to Willie, would you find me a festival horse? Willie said, 'Grand job. I know what you're looking for, leave it with me.'"
Originally from the point-to-pointing heartland of Liscarroll, Eddie O'Connell had kept a horse or two for nearly 30 years. His award-winning logistics company O'Connell Group that is based near where he now lives in Glanmire to the east of Cork city had long been a leading sponsor at the local racecourse in Mallow. They also sponsor the hugely successful local GAA hurling team, Sarsfields. His family are steeped in sport and the community.
"We'd buy a horse for €20,000 or whatever in those days and try and get it to win a point-to-point or a bumper - that was the level we were at," explains Colm, who represents his father at the races.
"But we felt the point-to-points were too competitive. The cost of training a point-to-pointer is the same as for a bumper or a maiden hurdle, but you're only running for €1,200, whereas if you win a bumper or a maiden hurdle, you get €6,000. You might as well be training for those. We are indebted to the likes of Trevor Horgan and Liam Burke, who trained for us back then, because they were perfect for what we were doing. Eddie had a new plan, though, and Trevor suggested that Willie might be better suited for what we were thinking about."
The first horse that O'Connell had with Mullins was Up Ou That, which Horgan had saddled to win a point-to-point in 2009. Then Mullins sourced Turban for them in France, a horse that has amassed €113,000 in prize money and could yet be Crabbie's Grand National bound.
O'Connell Snr now had a taste for the action.
"Willie is unbelievable," Colm enthuses in his inimitable east Cork lilt. "We wouldn't be big owners. But we gave him a budget and himself and Harold Kirk went off and bought a horse for what was very small money to us. Four horses failed the vet, and Eddie was ringing up going, 'Have you any horse for me?' He was pushing him, like! Five months later, in September, we got a call.
"We had to move, fast, though. Willie asked us to wire the money to France straight away.
"When we spoke to him after he said that the horse was a bit headstrong, and that we'd put him away. Un De Sceaux didn't run until February  and, sure, the rest is history."
"To think that you can pull in off the street and trust someone like that with your money, to work it like it is his own. It didn't matter who he was buying for."
"We have Bachasson, which will run in one of the novice hurdles, now as well. Willie was nine months looking for him! Sure he is after winning €69,000 already. It's unreal, absolutely fabulous."
In 2014, despite Un De Sceaux's growing reputation as a relentless force of nature, Mullins advised against a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. He opted to play the long game with a free-running horse that always seemed to be on the edge of sanity. It was the making of the horse.
"Every fella has an opinion," O'Connell reflects of the debate at the time. "We kept our mouths shut. I mean, why ask a man to buy and train a horse for you and then tell him what to do? We'd have been happy to go there, but I got a call from Willie the week before Cheltenham, and he said we'd go to France instead. I opened the wallet and shredded my ante-post bet!
"Un De Sceaux is the horse that he is today because of Virginnie Bascop - she lives and breathes that horse every single day, constantly working on him mentally. He is a handful, like. There is nothing of him; he is short and stumpy but a pure ball of muscle. Willie has described him as just a pure freak.
"I think that's what grabs it; that a small owner can go into Willie's yard and get a horse like this. It's a dream come true. Eddie owns him, but the springs on the bandwagon are going to give way from the rest of us! There could be 30 or 40 of us in Cheltenham - it brings the whole family together."
"He is a Cork horse and a Glanmire horse. When you have a horse like this you come out of Mass on a Sunday or after buying biscuits in the shop, and all you get is, 'how's the horse?' You could be dead yourself and they'd still want to know how the horse is! People relate to the horse because we're ordinary people - he's the ultimate people's horse."
"There were fierce offers to sell the horse, especially when he went over to France and beat Gemix - the phone was hopping. He'd never win what we were offered anyway, even if he won three Queen Mothers. But no way would we sell. We couldn't do it. People would never forgive us."
And so, Un De Sceaux, one of the most exhilarating two-mile chasers that we have seen in recent times, will on Wednesday go toe-to-toe with established champions Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy and Dodging Bullets. He has long been odds-on to add the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase to last year's emphatic Arkle Trophy success and stretch his 100pc record in completed starts to 15.
O'Connell is wary of being complacent, but he doesn't deny that he struggles to keep a lid on the excitement. Indeed, he feels fate might yet play a part.
"Look, it's Cheltenham, something is going to come at you," concedes Colm, whose candid fervour is infectious. "There is nowhere like it, but I'm starting to think that it might be written. I'm reading too much into this, but I will turn 37 on the day of the Champion Chase. I know I'm getting carried away, but I'm giddy thinking about it - it would be some birthday present!"