Friday 18 January 2019

My kingdom for a horse

If LIFE were a person, I'd send it to see a shrink. Why? Because so often the devious devil reveals itself to be decidedly schizophrenic, gutting you, for example, with one hand while giving you a gift with the other.

Take the case of Cian O'Connor. In July 2002, his girlfriend, Hazel O'Callaghan, died as a result of a tragic accident, and a month later he had the kind of career high -- literally, by jumping 2.25 metres on Irish Independent Casper over the puissance wall at the Dublin Horse Show -- that would remain his most memorable moment for years. Until the Irish showjumper, who once boastfully wrote on the side of his horse truck 'Working Towards the Summer Olympics 2004', then did win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, only to have it taken back when his horse Waterford Crystal tested positive for a prohibited substance.

Then again, Cian's "Olympic saga", as he now calls it, may be one of the best things that ever happened to the guy. At least in the sense that it took the edge off his boastfulness and, basically, gave him a crash course in the elusive art of growing up -- at the age of 24.

Better still, O'Connor is not bitter. In fact, his passion for horses, showjumping, and helping to run the Karlswood Stables -- where he buys and sells horses and trains young riders -- is palpable. He is also still working towards winning gold at the Olympics. Specifically, London 2012. But where did it all begin for O'Connor? No, not his life -- that started in Dublin, he has two sisters -- but his virtual rebirth after discovering horses, and more so, presumably, the adrenaline rush of showjumping?

"Horses are like a bug and I got that bug at 14," he responds. "I began to ride my dad's hunting horse, even though I didn't enjoy hunting that much because you can be out for hours and don't do anything until the fox runs. But I liked the competitive part of it and understood quickly about the same aspects of showjumping, so at 16 I started to jump.,Cian's father, Tadgh, "bought and sold secondhand cars and is now in the property business" and his mother, Louise, is a chef. However, his parents parted when he was a boy.

"I remember my sister, Susannah, and I talking when I was five and she was seven and I said, 'it won't be too bad, at least we'll get two Christmas presents'," says O'Connor.

"Yet the actual break-up occurred when I was seven and I grew up with mom, though I stayed close to dad. My parents have been very good to me, and I get on great with both. So, although it is unfortunate that any family breaks up, we were lucky because we were a strong family and both our parents handled it well.,That said, Cian's mother was "keen on the idea" of her son going to college, but he had "come across a guy with horses in Copper Alley Stud", he "got involved" and "the idea of college went by the board". However, he did get his Leaving Certificate and suggests all showjumpers should do the same.

"A lot of people in the equestrian world leave school early because they have to go to shows, or whatever, but I don't think that's right. You should at least get the Leaving. Because this job is not just about riding, it's about being able to deal with people such as sponsors, sourcing horses, putting deals together, preparing a package for a syndicate, being able to communicate in writing and deal with the media -- which is a job in itself.,But 'Aye, there's the rub', to quote Shakespeare. And here's where we must address the clearly contentious fact that Cian's godfather is Anthony O'Reilly. Towards the end of our interview, O'Connor claims that this family connection has been "far more positive than negative". However, he's not blind to the negative ramifications of having such a famous and influential godfather and seems as anxious as hell to address them, even in the Sunday Independent. Particularly "the whole, mistaken notion" that his career has been "totally bankrolled" by O'Reilly and that he has "had everything in life too easy".

In fact, O'Connor admits that before his "Olympic saga" softened his attitude to this and similar personalised attacks, he was prone to get on the phone and tear somebody's head off.

"I understood where the attacks were coming from," he says. "For instance you'd have people who'd been working hard, maybe struggling for years in this business, then along comes this guy who'd started riding at 14, has a good car, has a good lifestyle, good horses, so they probably would feel 'he never had to work for anything in his life.',Meaning 'O'Connor was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and even horses such as Casper and Waterford Crystal were bought for him by Independent Newspapers'?

"Exactly, but they wouldn't say that to my face and there probably still is that perception in a small section of the equestrian world," Cian continues, his old anger resurfacing slightly.

"But, OK, I was fortunate, early on, to get a leg up in the purchase of good horses but there's plenty of guys who had horses bought for them and made nothing of it. And I can assure you, dealing with the O'Reilly family, if you weren't pulling your weight, doing the job right, they'd say 'thank you very much' and after the first horse you'd be gone. And I remember the first time I told Tony I wanted to get into this game and put a proposal to him regarding a horse and said it might be a good investment. He laughed and said, 'look out in the field, there's lots of horses there and they are not good investments, they only eat money'.

"But he also said, 'do your Leaving, do well, get a plan'. So, I went away and, later, came back with the proposal that we try and go to the Junior European Championships. Independent Newspapers bought a horse called Impressionist, I went and won the Grand Prix at only 17. But it was great to be able to go back to Tony and say, 'there's the press clippings, I did what I said I would'. That's where it all started for me.,Cian pauses. Then clearly attempts to lay to rest this 'O'Connor got everything easy and probably got everything from Tony O'Reilly' myth.

"Some people think that all the activity going on in my career is the result of a blank cheque book," he asserts. "Now I don't want that to come across as if I'm not getting enough from the O'Reillys. It was, as I say, a great leg up, to have the horses they bought and they paid those horses' expenses. But after that, in my dealings, whether that is buying and selling horses, running my business, buying a truck, day-to-day stuff, I am my own man. It is solely Cian O'Connor. But that didn't always come across and that's where I got most of the stick.,Cian is also proud of the fact that he "found" Waterford Crystal. It became "the leading horse in the world in 2002 in the Nations Cup and later won Ireland's only Olympic medal".

He also adds, "and, by the way, Waterford Crystal was wearing the Independent logo at the Olympic Games and you couldn't buy that kind of publicity.,However, before the Olympics came the death of Hazel, after she was injured while trying to unload a horse from a trailer, it shied, throwing her off the ramp and she died, aged only 22. They had been together, on/off, for about two-and-a-half years and "yes, absolutely", Hazel was Cian's first love.

"I was good pals with her before we went out together and I'll never forget the first time I saw her," he says, suddenly smiling at the memory. "It was in 1997, at a show in Limerick and she won the Teenagers Classic Competition. Then I met her a few months later and she said, 'I know you, I saw you at Newcastle West and Gerry Mullens was screaming at you, you were brutal'. Gerry was my trainer and she was just slagging me! But Hazel really had a good oul' sense of humour and I was attracted to her cheekiness from the start and thought she was a lovely girl, very special. But I was cheeky myself so I asked her out. We went together for a while and then she got rid of me! She said, 'you're in Dublin and I'm in Cork and I'm busy'. But, seriously, I was gutted and had to force myself not to ring her.

"But then we met again in July 2000 and we were together until she died. And we were getting on so great at the time and she'd even moved her horses up to Dublin, which was a big thing for Hazel to do.,Cian suddenly explains that he is "still in close contact" with Hazel's parents and doesn't want to say anything to upset them. "The accident happened on June 19 and Hazel passed away on July 3, having been in a coma. Yet, it was horrific and the funeral was unbelievably tough for her parents and family. And, as for me, it felt like a big hole had appeared in my life. Even so, the funeral was on a Saturday and I went to a show on Sunday, competed, and heard people say, 'Jesus, look at him, there's no remorse in him, he's a cold bastard'. But that was my way of coping -- keep moving, go to shows. I don't believe in hanging around, letting yourself stay depressed.

"I also felt going to a show is what Hazel would have wanted me to do. And when I won the puissance, I felt she was right there with me. I still miss her and still have pictures of her in my office and I would often be sitting there at my computer, working away, look at her picture and have a little cry to myself.,That said, when we turn to the subject of the Olympic Games, Cian says winning gold there was "a greater high than" the puissance victory.

"Because by going, I fulfilled the ambition I wrote on the side of that truck and did what I told Tony I wanted to do from the start. Then things obviously went wrong -- and that's been covered extensively in the newspapers so I'm not going back over it. But, summing up, the Olympics were in August 2004 and in May 2005 I went through a gruelling 13-hour hearing in Zurich with the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) and a panel of 12 experts on both sides.

"In the end, they agreed there was no deliberate attempt to affect the performance of the horse and that I wasn't guilty of doping the horse but that the horse was over zero tolerance in his system -- he got a medication way in advance of the Olympic Games and a fraction of a millionth of a gram was still in his system -- and though this had no effect on his performance, the rules state if a horse is over zero, you have to forfeit the competition. And I had to accept that and, in time, move on.,Yet moving on wasn't easy and Cian -- hoping he doesn't sound like "a moan" -- believes the equestrian "backlashers" he "created, in part, by being so cocky" had "a field day" and tried to "bury" him and his career.

"In other sports, such as rugby, when people have issues they close ranks and do whatever they have to do behind closed doors and outside they present a united front, but what made matters worse in my case was that our sport is the opposite. I was screwed by a small minority within my own sport. They created media stories, gave stuff to journalists that wasn't true. And showjumping is a strange sport. Other sports, again, like rugby, are team competitions but if we go to, say, a show like Dublin, there will be 15 competitions where we jump as individuals to cut each other's throats and there's only one time we come together as a team, to jump the Nations Cup. So, I did have my enemies and I did draw that to myself in a way by writing 'Working Towards Olympics 2004' on my truck. Things like that did make some people want to see me fall, bring me down and when the Olympic Games broke they were more than happy. But actually, I don't think my career is done as a result of the Olympic Games. I'm probably more famous for losing the medal than if I'd kept it! And the public, overall, have been totally supportive.,So did Cian get a rap on his knuckles from the godfather?

"No," he says. "I met him afterwards and he told me 'it's only a hiccup in what's going to be a long and distinguished career'. That was the best thing I could have heard. And he was supportive throughout, as much by the things he didn't say as the things he did say. I would have expected something like , 'Jaysus, you're some bollix, what are we going to do now'.

"But there was none of that. And that helped because for the six months between the Olympics and that hearing I was out there fighting the war, dodging bullets. Even the Indo went with the flow and probably were under pressure to do so. Though, then, other people went for me because they presumed Independent Newspapers would automatically be on my side. It really was a hard time.,Maybe, but at the time Cian was with a new girlfriend, Rachel Wise, and says "she, too, was supportive during the Olympic saga". They met in April 2003 but broke up last January. Why?

"After four years you get to a stage where if you go on any longer you have to make big decisions about your future and we just weren't ready to go there so we agreed to take a break" he says. "Of course, later in life, I'd love to get married and have children and have my own home but I am only 27 so there's no rush! Besides, first I'd love to open my own stables.,And go for gold in 2012? "Right now, my sights are set on being part of the Aga Khan team at the RDS in August," Cian responds, smiling. "But, ultimately, because Beijing is too soon, that is what I'd love to do!, © Joe Jackson

Cian O'Connor rides in the Premier Series Grand Prix at the Mullingar Equestrian Centre today

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