THE cards are still coming in. Boxes of them. From all over the world. They haven’t stopped since Minella Times crossed the winning line at Aintree last April. John Nallen has a few behind the reception desk as a constant reminder of a year like no other. A year when all his dreams came true.
“All sorts of people, from top to bottom, from everywhere. People that saw us on telly and people that stayed in the hotel 30 or 40 years ago,” he says.
Nallen has been buying and selling horses for more than three decades, always naming them in part after his family business — the Hotel Minella in Clonmel. In 2021 he hit the jackpot. First, when Minella Indo won the Gold Cup in March and then a few weeks later as Minella Times prevailed in the Grand National.
He went viral online for good measure after a friend videoed him watching Rachael Blackmore win the big one at Aintree.
“Fairytale stuff,” he declares. “You’d be thinking, ‘are you still dreaming? What planet are you on?’ The name Minella is now to jump racing, the same as what Lego is to children.”
Everything comes back to the hotel and that name. Blackmore’s parents Eimir and Charles were even married there many years ago – but more of that later.
In 1961 Nallen’s father Jack ‘The Boss’ sold a couple of greyhounds for decent money and bought a neo-classical mansion on the banks of the River Suir that dates back to the 1860s. That became the Hotel Minella — now home to Nallen and his wife Dr Bernadine Rochford and their son Jack — and provided a name that would become part of jump racing folklore.
John Nallen and James 'Corky' Carroll \ Healy Racing
“If you looked back, I called the horses terrible things. I’d be sitting there in the evening and I’d pull out the naming forms and just fill them in. I would’ve sent back forms with wrong spellings and everything. I called one horse Minella Blog one time and it went in as Minella Bogs.”
This kind of guerrilla marketing isn’t popular with everyone. Michael O’Leary told him he wouldn’t advertise Nallen’s hotel with his colours and refused to buy any horses from him that carried the Minella name.
“He wouldn’t deal with me, with the name. He wouldn’t promote anyone else’s business. He’s a mind of his own, I’ve a mind of my own. There’s no bother,” he says, laughing.
Notebook is one that he did sell to the Gigginstown House Stud figurehead, but only because it had already been named. The horse was one of a bunch of promising foals Nallen bought at the sales in 2013 that ended up in the yard of trainer Henry de Bromhead after being watched by Neil O’Donnell.
Among the others were the foals that would soon be named Minella Times and Minella Indo, named after two of the three Irish daily newspapers sitting at the reception in front of him.
“Minella Indo’s a big strong horse, big hardy divil. Never flash, but always kept doing it. Kept grinding it out always. The first day we put reins on him on the gallop, he got away. He was going 40 minutes and we couldn’t catch him. Eventually he stopped after about 40 minutes. 40 minutes galloping. He galloped and galloped and galloped.”
It was a sign of things to come. Indo was bought by Barry Moloney after a win at a snowy Dromahane under John Barry, the day after St Patrick’s Day in 2018.
“We gave him plenty of time, he wasn’t going to make a four-year-old.”
Nallen follows every horse that has passed through his care, but never gives a second thought about what might’ve been if he’d hung on to them. Selling is his game and the better the horses do after they’ve left, the better it is for his business in the future.
“If you did hold on to one, you wouldn’t be able to sell anything. You won’t have customers. You wouldn’t stay going. Why would someone buy my dinner if I’m not going to eat my own dinner? You have to keep them moving.”
One owner who has never had a problem with the Minella name is J.P. McManus. The Limerick billionaire has a long association with Clonmel and the hotel going back decades and his wife Noreen was a regular guest there for the annual coursing championships for many years.
“He’s different gravy. J.P. is a gentleman. When they want your stock, they just buy them end of story. There’s no messing.”
McManus purchased Minella Times after a run at Belclare, the horse making a big impression despite a fall at the last when surging clear of the field.
“He was a different sort of horse, he was a sharper horse.”
Minella Times was first off the mark, winning a maiden hurdle at Kilbeggan under Mark Walsh in May 2018 and he made steady progress over the next three years as McManus slowly plotted a route to the Grand National.
Indo was third in a bumper at the 2018 Punchestown Festival but didn’t register a win until the following March. When it came, it was a big one. Under a composed ride from Blackmore, he sluiced up in the 2019 Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham. The starting price was 50/1, but this was no fluke.
“We thought he was the real deal after that bumper at Punchestown,” says Nallen. “Then I remember the day he won the novice at Cheltenham. He was running away with it and I says, ‘he’ll keep running, this fella is not for stopping.’”
Indo was mugged by Champ the following year at Cheltenham in the 2020 RSA, but Nallen always felt more was to come.
“He lights up over there. Nobody only Barry Geraghty would’ve beaten him that day.”
A path to the Gold Cup began to reveal itself for Minella Indo — even if it was still just a dream for the man who named him, reared him and readied him for the racetrack.
“You’re looking at a Gold Cup and you remember Burrough Hill Lad, Forgive ‘n Forget, Desert Orchid… You remember all those names and then you find you’re in the driving seat and it’s hard to believe.”
Fast forward to Cheltenham 2021 and Blackmore was having a Cheltenham Festival for the ages — leading the jockeys’ standings after sweeping up a string of high-profile winners with a series of ice-cool rides.
But on Gold Cup day she opted for another de Bromhead runner in A Plus Tard and had to settle for second as Jack Kennedy booted home Minella Indo to land the Cheltenham showpiece.
“He just galloped away. Jack Kennedy gave him a great ride, he was positive on him. He was committing him. Jack was confident in the horse and the horse was confident in Jack.”
Nallen watched the race alone in the Hotel Minella. It was during a lengthy period of lockdown when the hospitality sector was shut down and the outlook was bleak. He’s thankful he had the horses to keep him occupied.
“Only for the racing you’d be gone off your head. It was just scary. Nobody in the place. We were lucky, you’d animals to look after, things to be doing. Hopefully we’ve come through it now. But it was scary stuff.”
During the quiet days of lockdown he came across old diaries of events at the hotel going back decades. In one ledger was the details of Charles and Eimir Blackmore’s wedding.
“They had lamb,” he says, laughing. “I found the diary for their wedding. The menu, the whole shebang. And written down everywhere was: ‘Make sure the priest doesn’t pay for anything’.”
Nallen breaks into laughter again. “No fear he was going to!”
The connection with the two families goes back even further — back to Eimir’s father and Nallen’s dad Jack ‘The Boss’ and the early days of the Hotel Minella.
“Eimir’s father was a Guinness area manager in Tipperary when ‘The Boss’ opened the hotel. At that time a Guinness area manager would’ve had the same clout as a superintendent or a parish priest. If he decided you weren’t getting Guinness, you wouldn’t open a business. But ‘The Boss’ knew him from beforehand and off it went.”
For years now Nallen has bought the feed for his horses from Charles Blackmore and has watched as Rachael progressed through the ranks as a jockey.
“You could see what she had from early on. You could always see she was serious about horses jumping.”
That family connection made it all the more special when Blackmore lined up on Minella Times at Aintree in the 2021 Grand National in the colours of McManus.
Nallen was at a point-to-point in Mallow that day but stopped at a friend’s house to watch the race on the way home and got more than he bargained for. As Blackmore expertly guided Minella Times around the marathon course, the friend fished out his phone and started videoing Nallen.
“I’ve a buddy, John Harney. He’d be into gadgets and all that and he done it.”
The joyous clip of Nallen cheering home Blackmore and Minella Times quickly went viral when unleashed on social media. He then made appearances with Nick Luck on Racing TV before the RTÉ Nationwide cameras came down to the hotel during a whirlwind few weeks.
“I’d say half the people we had stay in the hotel over the summer was as a result of the publicity. The effect it had on people and what it meant to people was amazing. Someone stopped me at the traffic lights one day and just says, ‘thanks for giving us the lift.’”
The owners were pretty pleased too.
“The horse wasn’t gone out of the parade ring in Aintree and Noreen was on the phone to me. And J.P. rang me on the Monday. He was in Barbados. I’d say I was an hour talking to him on the Monday after the National.”
When the dust settled, Blackmore came down to visit and went riding with Nallen’s son Jack. The 17-year-old has special needs and comes into his own around horses.
“He understood the whole shebang, he knew what it meant. Rachael gave him her goggles and he was over the moon with the goggles.”
But just a few weeks after the highs of Cheltenham and Aintree came a terrifying incident that left the family shaken when Jack fell into the River Suir. An onlooker raised the alarm immediately as the teenager was carried down river and Nallen is forever grateful to the emergency services for saving his son’s life.
“You don’t realise those people are there to help you until you need them. It was an unbelievable 50 minutes but thank God everything was alright. The emergency services, when push comes to shove, they stop at nothing.”
Thankfully Jack made a full recovery and was back in school a few days later and back at home enjoying the horses.
“He rides the pony and he loves them and he’s no fear of any horse. The horses would know him as well. There’d be horses out there that would give me a kick, but they wouldn’t kick him.”
Bernardine is a GP in Clonmel and has been flat out ever since the pandemic started back in March 2020. But while the hotel was eerily quiet during the long periods of lockdown, the work of finding new star racehorses never stopped.
Corky Carroll and Nallen’s nephews, Sean and Conor Bowen are all a big part of the operation that has taken the world of National Hunt racing by storm. They even have their own merchandise now.
Nallen says hard work and following a hunch is the secret to their success as they keep looking for the next diamond in the rough.
“It’s a Lotto job. But I suppose if you’re not fishing in the right pond, you won’t catch a fish,” he says. “It’s not an exact science. If it was an exact science, the other man would own them all.
“You look for pedigree, presence. You have to weigh it up, but you either want them when you see them or you don’t. If they have to grow on you, you don’t want them. If they look too pretty, they’re always going to be too pretty. Are you looking for winners or something to look at?
“Minella Indo, the night I saw him at the sales, ‘he’ll do me,’ I says. Someone says to me afterwards, ‘why did you buy a foal out of a 22-year-old mare?’ To be honest I didn’t even know the mare was 22. Hopefully we’ve a new crop coming on now.”
He’s still waiting for a free newspaper subscription from the owners of the The Irish Times and Irish Independent for all the free advertising at Cheltenham and Aintree, but in the meantime, he will continue naming his new recruits after his hotel.
“We’ve made a brand out of it. Conor, the other nephew, he’s doing gilets and jackets of the Minella champions. Minella Times, Minella Indo. They’re going all over the world. Australia, Canada, all over the place.”
And after the year that was, things will never be the same again at the Hotel Minella.
“A fella came in the other day, a retired fireman from New York, Irish-American. He came in for grub and he says, ‘can I get my picture taken with you? I want to bring it back to the lads in the pub in New York.’
“It’s amazing. The people that it’s hit. Everyone needed a lift. Hopefully it’ll keep going.”
They may need another shelf for the cards.
This article is featured in the Irish Racing Yearbook 2022 (€28.75/£25.75), which is on sale now in all good newsagents and bookshops and can be ordered online (www.irishracingyearbook.com) or by phone (+353 85 7280169).