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Michael O’Callaghan

Michael O’Callaghan gives Now Or Never a pat on the neck.

“She’s in great order,” he says.  “She’s so laid back.  When we got her first, we were doing all these tests on her to see if there was something wrong with her.  But there wasn’t.  She was just laid back.”

They only got her last April.  Michael arrived at the breeze-up sale at Doncaster just a couple of minutes before the first horses breezed.  This Bushranger filly breezed early, but she stuck in his mind all day.  As a breeze-up consignor in a previous existence, he knew what he was looking for.

“I always clock every breeze.  I suppose it’s an advantage coming from that world, knowing how you prepare the horses, knowing what times mean.  I need precocity and I need speed, and she was quick, she was in the top four or five times on the day.  And physically, she looked a bit like she does now.  As you see, she’s a big filly, she’s got size about her and she will improve with time.  So for a filly like that to be able to clock the time that she did, that was enough for me to give 42 grand sterling for her.”

He phoned his good friend Noel Hayes, who took a leg in her.  He took a leg himself, his father took a leg and, two phone calls later before he got on the plane home, all legs were gone and the Now Or Never Partnership was born.

“I never had a horse sold as quickly.”

Initially, things didn’t look promising.  She was laid back, and she wasn’t showing anything at home.  O’Callaghan was thinking that he wouldn’t be able to run her this year, that he would have to leave her off, bring her back as a three-year-old.  So much for precocity and speed.

Then, in the space of a week, she clicked and she started showing the ability that her trainer believed she possessed.  It had been just a growth phase that she was going through, and she was ready to run in early June.

“Even before she ran in her maiden at Fairyhouse, I was thinking she could be a Moyglare filly.  She was working well with nice two-year-olds, and every now and again I’d sneak a nice three-year-old in with her, and she’d work just as well.  I hoped that she’d win on her debut, and initially I was disappointed when she got beaten.  But she was drawn wide, she was wide all the way, and Fairyhouse can be a daunting place for a debutante.  So I quickly came around to the idea that she had run a very good race to finish a close second to Vitello, the pair of them clear.”

Despite some assertions to the contrary, Galway wasn’t the plan immediately after her debut.  She was declared to run at Naas a couple of weeks later, but Michael walked the track before racing and decided that the ground was too fast.  He just didn’t want to risk her on fast ground.  You don’t take chances with good horses.  It had been fast enough at Fairyhouse, and she had felt it a little.  She doesn’t want bottomless ground, but a little bit of cut, ground just on the easy side of good, is ideal.

Michael checks his phone.  Rain forecast for The Curragh on Sunday morning.  Perfect.

It was only after Naas, from about three weeks out, that Galway became the plan.  The seven-furlong fillies’ maiden on the second evening of the Galway Festival is always a hot maiden, Legatissimo won it last year, Tarfasha won it in 2013, and subsequent events have proven that this year’s renewal was as strong as ever.  But Now Or Never pulverised her rivals on the evening, making most of the running and bounding five and a half lengths clear up the hill.

“We were delighted,” says O’Callaghan.  “And a lot of people took notice of her that night.  She caught the imagination of lots of people.  I suppose she’s different, it’s different ownership, it’s a syndicate that owns her.  And she came out of the race really well.  I couldn’t get her out of the feed pot when I got her back that evening.”

The Group 2 Debutante Stakes was the plan after that, but the weather scuppered that plan.  Again, the ground was just too fast.  O’Callaghan trusted Met Eireann’s predictions, declared her for the Futurity Stakes against the colts the following day, and, as predicted, the rains arrived.

“We probably got a bit more rain than we wanted,” he says, “and it wasn’t easy for her taking on the colts.  There were only four runners, and it looked like it was going to be a muddling race.  The last thing we wanted was a muddling race, so I told Emmet (McNamara) to let her roll along if nothing else was going to make it.  In the circumstances then, she did very well to finish second to Herald The Dawn.  He’s a high-class colt and he probably had a better run through the race than we did, but we were still very happy with her run.”

After that, the Moyglare Stud Stakes today was the plan.  Actually, the Moyglare was the plan after Galway, but that plan was buried deep in Michael’s head.  Tell God your plans and he’ll scupper them.

Michael’s plan to work with horses was hatched at an early age.  He is not from a racing background, but when he sat up on a pony at a local trekking yard close to his home in Tralee, a young lad who could hardly reach the pony’s withers, he knew what he wanted to do.

For starters, he knew that he wanted to go faster than the trekking ponies could go, so he got a job with local trainer Tom Cooper.  That was a great grounding, great to work in a real racing yard, and Cooper was a great man for whom to work.

“I got my father into it as well,” says Michael.  “We moved from a housing estate in Tralee to just outside Tralee, about 30 acres of bad land, so that my dad could have a few broodmares.  I remember my grandfather used to do an accumulator every day. That was my first knowledge of racing.  I used to watch him picking his horses and help him pick his horses.  Sometimes racing would be on television, but mostly we were waiting for the results to come up on the teletext.  My great grandfather was apparently a very well-known horseman in Tralee, he was the farrier.  He’s the only horseman that I know if in the family.  My dad says that that’s where I got it.  But my dad is a big part of it all now as well.”

O’Callaghan left Tom Cooper and joined Coolmore, worked with the yearlings at Kilsheelan initially before moving to Castle Hyde and working with the stallions.  After that, he did the Irish National Stud course.

“It was all great experience.  Paul Shanahan was great to me at Kilsheelan, and to work with stallions at Castle Hyde was brilliant.  I was only 18, it was like all my Christmases had come at once.  It wasn’t like work at all.  And the National Stud course was great, you learn a little bit about a lot of things there, and you make great contacts.  I am still in touch with people all over the world that I met through the course.  And I met my girlfriend there, Siobhan O’Sullivan, and I still get on with her.  She is an integral part of everything here now too.”

He started pinhooking, selling a few horses as yearlings, selling a few as breeze-up horses.  He quickly figured out that he could do better with breeze-up horses than he could with yearlings, but that he could do better still with racehorses.

“I was a full-time breeze-up consignor for two years, until one year I sold six breeze-up horses, and five of them won first time out for their new connections.  They were obviously more valuable then as maiden winners than they were as breeze-up horses, so I thought, why not keep them myself?  I had a restricted licence, so I stopped the breeze-ups and started to train.  Thankfully, it started well, and it has continued to go well since.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, mind you.  State Of Emergency, bought for €30,000 at Goffs last year, won the first maiden of this season at The Curragh in March, then followed up by winning a winners’ race back at The Curragh in May.  Sent off as third favourite for the Group 3 Marble Hill Stakes at The Curragh on Irish Guineas weekend, he got struck into during the race, and the dream ended.

“That’s racing,” says O’Callaghan pragmatically.  “One minute you’re up there with an exciting two-year-old, dreaming of Royal Ascot, the next minute it’s all over.  We put him down that day.  I came back home, I sat there on that couch there, and I shed a few tears for five minutes.  Then I got up and got on with things.  Find the next one.  From the day I got into horses, I have always known that there are more downs than ups, but it is the ups that keep you going.”

He could have one of those ups this afternoon.

 © The Sunday Times, 13th September 2015