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Barry Connell

Barry Connell sat on a pre-Cheltenham Evening panel in The Castle Inn in Newcastle last March. As is usually the case with these events, every member of the panel was given a €50 charity bet that they could have on the horse of their choice for Cheltenham. One by one, the charity bets were struck: Bobs Worth for the Gold Cup, Sir Des Champs for the Gold Cup, Our Conor for the Triumph Hurdle.

Then it was Connell’s turn to nominate his bet. He took the microphone in his hand and looked at the audience.

“What price is Our Conor for the 2014 Champion Hurdle?”

Connell didn’t own Our Conor at the time, but there was no mistaking the regard in which he held him. He was at Navan when the horse won his maiden hurdle, he was at Fairyhouse when he won his Grade 3, he was at Leopardstown when he won his first Grade 1, and, of course, he was at Cheltenham when he turned the Triumph Hurdle into a lap of honour.

The thing that set Our Conor apart in Connell’s mind was the fact that he improved as he stepped up in grade. Each time he went up in class, he was more impressive than he had been in the lower grade. Not many horses do that, he thought. This fellow is special.

And driving to a point-to-point the week after Cheltenham, the thought struck him that this horse was going to be sold. Owned then by Noel Hayes’ six-strong Man About Town Syndicate, there was every chance that an offer would be made and that the syndicate would sell. He called the horse’s trainer Dessie Hughes and asked him if he had been sold. Not yet, was the answer.

“I wanted to make the syndicate an offer that would make it attractive for them to sell,” says Connell. “I had heard that they had had offers before. There was talk about offers after he won his Grade 3 race at Fairyhouse. So I made the offer, it was a good offer, but I still wasn’t certain that they would sell. A couple of days later, they accepted it and the horse was mine.”

Connell had owned good horses in the past. From his first winner, Fairtown, who was trained by Tony Mullins to win a handicap hurdle on Galway Plate day 1989, all the way to Shinrock Paddy and Mount Benbulben and The Tullow Tank this year. But Our Conor is different in the owner’s eyes, you feel. A machine, he says.

He finished fourth in the owners’ championship two years ago, he finished fifth last season and he is fifth again at this juncture this term. Not bad for a fellow who had no family involvement in racing, except for the fact that his dad used to take him to the races as a youngster. He loved going to the Phoenix Park and Balydoyle, and he marvelled at the jockeys.

A career in finance got in the way of racing in a sense. He spent 13 years with NCB Stockbrokers, before leaving to become one of the founder members of Merrion Capital, and then setting up Rockview-Merrion.

Still the racing flame burned strongly. When Connell got a few pounds together, he bought a couple of horses and put them in training with Tony Mullins. He started riding out with Ted Walsh with the objective of riding in a charity race at Fairyhouse in November 1999. When he got up in a photo to win that on his horse Bushman’s River, he was hooked. He wanted to take it to the next level. So he took out his amateur licence, started riding out three or four days a week, and started to ride in bumpers.

He had some memorable moments during his 10-year-long riding career. Ballytobin was his first winner as an amateur rider under rules, at Limerick in July 2003. Then he went and rode The Posh Paddy to land the bumper at Cheltenham’s November meeting later that year.

That win passed him by a little, he tells you. His first at Cheltenham. It all happened so quickly. He wanted to go back and do it again, take his time this time, walk around at the pull-up, savour the moment, the achievement. So he did, on Shinrock Paddy in the same race at the same meeting five years later. That was the best ever.

An injured shoulder means that he doesn’t ride in bumpers any more, but it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t ride out five or six mornings a week. It’s great to be able to go down to trainers’ yards and sit on his horses, ride them out in the morning. In that regard, he is an unusual owner.

He understands the plight of riders. His friendship with Shane Broderick brings home to him the dangers of the game, the risk that jockeys face every day that they go to work. That was why, at that unique day at Limerick Races last October which was set up to raise funds for injured riders JT McNamara and Jonjo Bright, Connell pledged that all prize money that Our Conor earned this year would go to the Jockeys’ Emergency Fund.

“I wanted to do something that would go beyond the day,” says the owner. “This way, hopefully every time Our Conor wins some prize money, attention will be drawn to the fund and to the riders.”

It has not been all plain sailing with Our Conor this season, mind you. The initial intention was to run over hurdles at Tipperary in October before going on to the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. Unfortunately, the Tipperary race came just about a week too soon. Plan B was to run on the flat at Naas later in October. That should have brought him forward nicely for the Morgiana Hurdle. Alas, things did not work out like that.

“The Naas race was a rough race,” says Barry. “He got knocked into, his leg swelled up, and he had to have three weeks off. Luckily it didn’t affect the tendon, because it could have been a disaster. So we won’t be going back to run him in a flat handicap again. I’d sooner run him in a beginners’ chase than in a flat handicap.”

Danny Mullins rides Our Conor these days. Indeed, Danny Mullins rides all Barry Connell’s horses these days. There was mild surprise when the young rider was announced as Connell’s rider last year, but the owner had been thinking about if for a while, and he is delighted with their agreement.

“Danny is a really good young rider, and he is improving all the time. He never gives a horse a hard race unduly. Have a look at The Tullow Tank’s two Grade 1 wins. Danny hardly gives him a smack at all. Or Mount Benbulben’s win at Punchestown last April. He’s a sympathetic rider, and that is ideal for me.”

Mullins will be on board Our Conor again this afternoon in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, Round Two against Jezki and Hurricane Fly.

“He will improve from his last run, no question. It was effectively his first run of the season, whereas the other two horses had had runs. Our horse will improve from today to Cheltenham, because that is how he is being trained, Dessie has the template for that. But I think that we can win today.”

8/1. That’s what price he is for the 2014 Champion Hurdle.

© The Sunday Times, 26th January 2014