Donn's Articles » John Queally

John Queally

Al Eile appears to be moving easily up the sand gallop towards you, low sun behind, his long loping stride covering the ground with nonchalance, his hind legs propelling him forward effortlessly. You watch him closely as his momentum takes him upsides you and up the hill away from you again, the rhythm of his thud-thud gallop altered in the same way as the sound of a passing ambulance siren, Doppler effect, John Queally sitting motionless on his back. Two furlongs later he slows to a trot and then a walk. His partner and trainer is happy.

The thing about being the star in a yard that is made up of 15 racing horses, no more, is that you get treated like one. Al Eile is de-saddled and moved inside to the weighing scales. 525 kilos. Queally looks a little perplexed. He was around 520 before he won the December Festival Hurdle. The trainer is only weighing his horses for about six months now, but already it is beginning to make sense to him. You can’t be dogmatic about a horse’s weight, horses mature and grow at different rates and a change in weight can mean different things with different horses, but you have to use every weapon at your disposal in this game that might give you an edge, and this is just one more.

Once off the scales, the horse is led into the swimming pool, three laps right-handed, three laps left-handed. Given the energy that he seems to expend in order to keep his head above water, 14-feet-deep of it, it is easy to see how swimming can have a significant impact on a horse’s fitness level. Then it’s a hose-down, a towel-down, 10 minutes on the walker and a roll in the sand before being loaded up on the horsebox again for home. In fairness to Al Eile, he is entitled to use the facilities at his owner Michael Ryan’s brand spanking new stud farm given that the entire farm has been named after him. Al Eile Stud is like an equine gym and, as it is in Ryan’s home parish of Kilgobnet, Co Waterford, a five-minute drive away from Queally’s yard in Dungarvan, the trainer has the facilities at his perpetual disposal.

“If I ever come back here in the after-life,” says Queally as he punches in the code at the gate on the way out, “I want to come back as a racehorse.”


John Queally has been around racehorses for as long as he can remember. His father trained out of the house in which he now lives with his wife Miriam and their three children, the one that he is currently re-furbishing to the extent that it is occupying almost as much time as the horses. Almost, but not quite. House-building, after all, is not his life.

Queally was one of the most sought-after amateur riders in the country in the 1980s, a vintage era for amateur riders in Ireland with Ted Walsh, Colin Magnier, Willie Mullins, John Fowler and their ilk plying their trade at the same time. Champion point-to-point rider twice, he won bumpers on top class performers Boreen Prince, Corrib Chieftain and Buck House, and when Fred Winter needed a top class amateur to ride Glyde Court in the Kim Muir Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1986, Queally was the man that he called.

Queally shrugs his shoulders, unassumingly. He uses terms like “lucky enough to ride” and “Mr Winter”, and talks about the honour of just being asked to ride for such an esteemed trainer, not to mind winning the Kim Muir for him. It’s just Queally’s nature, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

Training was something that just happened for him when he decided to hang up his riding boots. It was a natural progression. He spent time with Francis Flood, Paddy Prendergast and Mouse Morris before taking over from his father. And he has almost always had a good horse about the place since he began in the early 1980s. Patsy Veale, Cock Cockburn, Merry People and now Al Eile. It keeps you going, he tells you. It makes it easy to get up in the mornings. It’s the same in any yard, in any walk of life even. Tom Taaffe must be bouncing out of bed these days now that Kicking King is back racing.

Ask him about Merry People and he smiles a rueful smile, the smile of a man who had a treasure trove in sight, almost within his grasp, only to see it turn to sand right before his very eyes. Karl Casey’s gelding was bang there with every chance turning for home in the 1999 Aintree Grand National, Bobbyjo’s Grand National, when he fell at the second last fence. Queally grimaces at the memory. He would love to win a National. Maybe that was his chance right there, his only chance, maybe he will get another. In the meantime, a painting of the horse’s head hangs proudly above the mantelpiece.

“On the day, it just didn’t hit me,” he says wistfully. “It wasn’t until possibly months later that I thought about what might have been. He would have been second at worst for sure. But he was a great old horse for us.”

It is the point-to-point field where Queally’s first loyalties lie. Remarkably, he has never been to an AIG Hurdle meeting at Leopardstown before because it is always on the same day as his local point-to-point, in which he is heavily involved. Even today, he will be keeping one ear on events in Dungarvan, particularly at around 2.30 when his horse Where Now, winner of the race last year and third in the Foxhunters at Aintree last April, goes in the open contest. He would need to have a good reason to miss the Dungarvan Harriers annual meeting, and he does.

Truth to tell, the AIG hasn’t really been on the agenda for Al Eile for long. They were thinking about the Totesport Hurdle at Newbury, but he would have had top weight in that, and the last horse to win a Totesport Trophy off top weight was Persian War. As well as that, if the ground were to come up soft at Newbury, he could have been subjected to a gruelling race under a high weight. The trainer is relaxed about today’s race, much more relaxed than he was before the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.

The day before that race, he was relaxing in his sitting room with Michael Ryan, Al Eile’s owner, watching the racing from Leopardstown on television, when a caption with bookmakers’ prices on the following day’s feature was shown: 7-1 Al Eile. Queally couldn’t believe it. ‘Maybe they know something I don’t,’ he said to the owner, ‘but that price is far too big.’

It is a source of constant mild irritation for Queally that his horse is continually under-rated. Al Eile has won two Aintree Hurdles, a Glen Livet Hurdle, a Champion Hurdle Trial and now a December Festival Hurdle. On the flat, he has won a November Handicap, finished second in another, third in a Queen Alexandra Stakes and fourth in a Cesarewitch. He has won a Grade 1 or a Grade 2 hurdle every calendar year that he has been racing, and still he goes under the radar. When the Racing Post pundits were putting up their 10 horses to follow at the beginning of the season, Queally tells you – and many of them did – not one of them put up Al Eile, and it riled his trainer.

“I felt the pressure in December,” he smiles now. “I had kind of put my neck on the line. Michael had backed him and it was well known that I fancied him. But his run to finish second to Harchibald in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, when the slow pace didn’t suit him, was a super run, and I knew that he was very well. It was great that we were able to get Timmy (Murphy) to ride him as well. David Johnson was very good to let Timmy off his commitments to him at Bangor on the day. I was pretty revved up about that day.”

He needn’t have been. The race went exactly as Queally expected it to. He watched from the stands as Al Eile travelled and jumped well throughout on Hardy Eustace’s shoulder, quickened up on the run around the home turn, pinged the last and stayed on well up the run-in.

Ask John how the horse is now compared to how he was before the December race, and he is pensive.

“We haven’t done that much with the horse since Christmas,” he says slowly, “but he doesn’t need much work. I’m happy with him. Whatever handles the ground best on Sunday will probably win it. I’d love if the word ‘heavy’ came out of it, and it went to soft. Having said that, he won on atrocious ground at Haydock. I’m fairly relaxed about it, but I expect him to go well.”

To find out exactly how relaxed, have a look for John Queally in the parade ring before the 2.55 at Leopardstown this afternoon. Maybe by then, he will already have a winner on the board.

© The Sunday Times, 27th January 2008