AFTER a couple of requests to do the Big Interview were politely declined by Barry Connell down the years, I find the Dublin native generously accessible and as intriguing as I’d imagined when he welcomes the press for the launch of the Bar One Fairyhouse Winter Festival on Wednesday.
It’s a stunning morning in Boherbaun Stables, just outside Nurney, 15 kilometers south of the Curragh. Barely a cloud in the sky, but cold enough that the steam is clearly visible from the horses after they come in from their exercise.
Even more aesthetically pleasing is this purpose-built establishment. Most here have never seen anything like it, a mini Ballydoyle. There are state-of-art turn-out stables alongside an immaculate deep Wexford sand gallop. The courtyard is pristine, with each stable painted with silver anti-bacterial paint and a chimney and window built in at the back, designed to maximise air flow. There are 45 acres for 40 horses. It’s a mini equine paradise.
“This parcel of land came up for auction about four or five years ago,” Connell explained. “It was a German guy who was here before - he was 101 when he died. His widow was selling the land so we bought it and it went through German probate.
“There was nothing here, only a little cottage, a few outbuildings and a few local farmers used to keep cattle on the land. From talking to the farmers around here, they knew the guy, they told me he used to be in the German army. We were doing the maths, he would have been about 24 or 25 by the time of second world war was on. We think this was his holiday home so we reckon he might have been using it as a hideaway!
“That’s how we came to get the parcel of land anyway but it’s an ideal size for what we want. We’ve 40 horses here now and the idea is to keep the quality levels as high as we can.”
It’s a superb job but it isn’t a surprise. Connell has never lacked for ambition or investment in racing. Bitten by the bug when he was just two years of age, it’s been his main source of interest outside of his highly successful financial career. Having never sat on a horse until well into his 30s, he became competent enough to ride his own horses in races for years, and still counts his two wins around Cheltenham as his biggest buzz.
He’s owned Grade 1 winners such as Shinrock Paddy, The Tullow Tank and Mount Benbulben, while Our Conor was cruelly taken away from him when he suffered a fatal fall in the Champion Hurdle.
“I got a great buzz out of riding and when I retired from that, I thought about getting something set up,” Connell explained. “I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that training might be something nice to do down the road. When I was going around to all these yards, I was keeping an eye out as to what were the best bits. So when we came to put this project together, we had a good few ideas as to what way I wanted the place set up.
“It was about getting the right place and putting the staff and the facilities together. Like without the staff here this operation just wouldn’t work. The people we have here are gems, they really are. They’re all local and that’s a big help.
“I’ve an office here and an office at home. I’m still involved in the financial end of things, on my own account, I don’t work for anybody else. I kind of nip in the office here in between lots and keep an eye on things. I live in Carrickmines which is just at the back of Leopardstown. It’s 45 minutes down to here.
“Myself and Rory (son) come down here everyday. We finish up in the mornings here around 12:30 and then we go home. I’d come back down in the afternoons when we have vets in or other things that need to be done.”
We are here because Connell is having an excellent season (nine wins from just 24 runners) and has a live hope in two of the three Grade 1s, the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and Drinmore Novice Chase, on a card most generously sponsored in full by Bar One Racing.
Marine Nationale is a dark horse now stepping into the limelight. He beat the much-hyped Demandrivingdouvan at Punchestown last May, added another bumper success in facile fashion at Killarney in August and looked slick on his hurdles debut back at Punchestown last month.
Connell loves him.
“I’ve never had a horse like him before in all my career of racing, I just think he’s different. If you go back and look at all of his races, he’s never looked like coming off the bridle, he’s just doing a half speed.
“He’s only won two bumpers and a maiden hurdle but it’s the manner of the way he goes through his races. He’s very exciting. I think he’s a Grade 1 horse, that’s why we put him in a Grade 1, but he has to step up.
“It’s the impression he’s given us and what he’s shown us to date. I might be wrong, he might hit a ceiling, but at the moment we’re all dreamers in this game and it’s fantastic to have this guy.”
It was on the son of French Navy that jockey Michael O’Sullivan first became associated to Connell. The young Cork rider rang the trainer up to see if he could have the ride and it was as simple as that. The pair struck up a partnership and it was Connell who suggested O’Sullivan should go pro earlier this year, and that he’d have all his horses to ride.
O’Sullivan still claims 5lbs but Connell thought nothing of booking him to ride Enniskerry in a Grade 3 race last time (where he couldn’t use his claim) in the Kilbegnet Novice Chase at Roscommon, which the pair won smoothly.
Enniskerry will step up again in the Drinmore but has earned that right.
“He was a solid, 130-135 hurdler over hurdles,” Connell says. “He hasn’t got a rating over fences but if you were going to assess him through Midnight Run and Sole Pretender, he’s probably rated a solid 150. He’s a bit like Marine Nationale, he wants nice ground and he’s versatile between two miles and two and a half miles.
“I think he is going to be very competitive in the Drinmore. He’s an exuberant horse, he’s not a hold up type. He got a lead off Sole Pretender the last day so he doesn’t have to lead but he’s a very efficient jumper.”
Connell hasn’t set any specific target for the season, the goal is to simply maximise the ability of all of his horses. Having experienced riding his horses, owning them with other trainers, now he’s getting the biggest kick of all as his own man training his own horses.
“The horses will be here three years before they even get on the track, that’s our system,” Connell explains. “It’s the culmination of four of five years but when you’re lucky to have a couple of top-class horses, it’s really a great sense of achievement.
“You’re there the whole way through. You see the highs and lows. There are more downs than ups. It’s a rough game, a very rough game, but if you’re bitten by the bug it really is hard to get away from it.”