Ambitious Olympian is determined to make the new project a centre of excellence
On a tour of his brand new state-of-the-art equestrian centre, Cian O’Connor gives some insights into the world of showjumping.
“I’ve never made any money from prizes – that’s not where the money is. You make money from trading horses,” he reveals, explaining that it’s all about adding value to a horse through further training and education.
When he has brought a horse up to a certain level, he doesn’t hold on to it – he sells it, usually trading around 10 to 12 horses each year.
“Horses taught me strategy,” he says. “It’s what I’m most proud of about this place – that horses have paid for it,” he says, arms outstretched to take in the facility which he describes as “sort of like a Four Seasons for horses”.
That description seems quite modest for Karlswood, set on 68 acres in Batterstown, Co Meath, and named for his grandfather, Ireland’s 1948 rugby Grand Slam captain Dr Karl Mullen, a gynaecologist who, when he retired, was estimated to have delivered about 40,000 babies.
It has been something of a lockdown project for the Olympic showjumper who found himself with a lot more time on his hands when travel and competing were suddenly put on hold and he was home with his wife of 10 years, Ruth Maybin, and their two children Ben (8) and Cara (5).
Ruth is an amateur showjumper herself – “you’d have to be to put up with this,” she laughs, with a sweeping gesture that takes in the grounds which are jaw-droppingly luxe with an international polish.
On the grounds are three impressive Pegasus statues by renowned sculptor Conor Fallon – identical to the ones that stood outside the Independent Newspapers print works on the Naas road for years and which are now in the K Club.
O’Connor offered to buy them but “Michael Smurfit was looking for too much money” and so he asked if he could have them recast.
The stables are quieter and larger than usual, built by Italian specialists but largely designed by O’Connor and Maybin themselves. They include a horse ‘wellness centre’ with a salt therapy room, where a newly acquired horse has become happily becalmed, and a bone-rattling vibrating floor that apparently gets the circulation going. There are UV lamps and a salt-water equine spa aimed at calming inflammation, replacing the custom of bringing horses to the beach – out of bounds now largely due to health and safety considerations – and even an underwater treadmill.
“When Ruth and I bought this place 11 years ago, I had a vision of what I wanted it to be but I thought, you know, I could accomplish it in one or two years,” says O’Connor.
“It’s taken 20 years between the 10 years before buying it and the 10 years since to be able to get it all together.
“But we’re very proud of it.”
O’Connor sees it attracting “North Americans” – wealthy ones – who are happy to send their children to university in the relative safety of Ireland and who want them to be able to either bring their own horse or buy one here. “There are places like this near the airports in Germany but this is the first one here.”
But he also envisages it as a “centre of excellence” employing around 20 staff, bringing on the standard of young Irish showjumpers who will not have to base themselves abroad as he did for so many years during his career.
He is already working with a few who impress him – brothers Max and Tom Wachman who are breaking onto the Irish team and are the grandsons of John and Sue Magnier, owners of Coolmore Stud.
“Ireland is kind of the envy of the rest of the world in how it churns out riders.
“Ireland has always been lucky for me,” he says simply, when asked why he has chosen to base himself here.
“It’s harder to base yourself here because we don’t have the venues like they do in Europe but, for me, home is home and we’ve put down our roots here.
“It’s where we want our kids to be educated and where we want them to grow up.
“It’s harder to convince people to come to Ireland.
“But I’m proud of Ireland. I’m proud of my heritage. I wanted to create something, a legacy for my family. And for later in life as well.”
The grounds feature a full, professional-standard showjumping arena. It could be the RDS and, indeed, the jumps have a familiar look about them. There is the one with the red Georgian doors and the one with the old-style telephone boxes, both from the Dublin Horse Show.
O’Connor is something of a collector – every time he takes a shine to one, or he encounters a jump that a horse finds particularly difficult, he gets a replica made.
“I know a jump maker in Germany,” he explains.
One of his favourites features the much-quoted poem, If by Rudyard Kipling – said to have been written with Dr Leander Starr Jameson in mind, who led about 500 of his countrymen in a failed raid against the Boers, in South Africa.
It begins: “If you can keep your head when all about you. Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too.”
O’Connor’s own brush with adversity has gone down in the annals of notoriety. His horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for banned substances in the Athens Olympics of 2004.
This was followed by a bizarre sequence of events.
It started with a missing ‘B sample’ followed by a late-night break-in at the headquarters of the Irish Equestrian Federation in Kill, Co Kildare, which saw a file related to the positive test of another of O’Connor’s horses to be the only thing taken.
In the end, O’Connor was stripped of his gold medal, though the IEF accepted his version of events and established that “he was not involved in a deliberate attempt to affect the performance of the horse”.
“It was a lifetime ago”, says O’Connor. “But it was like anything, any setback you come back stronger.”
Winning the bronze in the London Olympics eight years later was a “nice redemption”.
“It was not so much for me because I’m fairly thick-skinned about everything but it was more for my family and the people around me.
“And I don’t look back at that period of my life and say ‘God, that’s disaster’.
“It’s just like a progression or another chapter.”
He still has two empty spots on the skylight turret of his stables where the pictures of his three Olympic medals hang – and believes he has two more Games left in him before his target retirement age of 48, with Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.
“You could win Grand Prix all over the world. But the Olympic Games is where it’s at because it touches the man on the street.”
Meanwhile, his ultimate ambition is to jump on the team alongside one or both of his students.
“They have a lot of ability and it would be the dream to be able to have coached people from the beginning up to that level.”