THERE are almost as many equine heartlands in rural Ireland as GAA ones so it is no surprise that Walter Connors regularly uses references from the latter walk of life in relation to the former.
The Dungarvan veterinary surgeon is a producer of renown, buying foals and selling the majority of them as three-year-olds, although a select few have gone through the sales from point-to-pointing, having been trained by Colin Bowe, Pat Doyle, Liam Burke and Sam Curling.
Horses were a way of life for him from as long as he has memory.
“We grew up listening to the Suils, and the Flynns racing, and the McGraths racing and the Kielys racing,” Connors recounts. “They made it very easy for us to get into it. Dungarvan was always a horsey town.”
The Connors’ are an intrinsic part of that. Walter has heard stories of ancestors who sold troopers to the army. His own father Nicky – also a vet – started breeding half-breds and moved onto thoroughbred mares, while also breeding show jumpers – Loughnatousa WB was a dual Hickstead Derby winner.
Walter’s brother David moved into the show jumping sphere successfully–- their second cousin Francis is also well known in Irish show jumping circles – but he veered towards racing himself.
Unlike Nicky, Walter eschewed breeding and began pinhooking. He has grown the operation significantly, with a proven record of educating horses to perform to a high level on the track. Bacardys has two Grade 1s on his CV and Getabird is a talented operator who was just denied in top-flight competition last Christmas. Angels Breath garnered a Grade 2 on his first racecourse appearance off the point-to-point field.
Then there are Sluggara Farm’s Cheltenham Festival-winning duo from last March, Espoir D’Allen claiming the Champion Hurdle in resounding fashion and Envoi Allen rubber stamping his potential as an exciting horse for the future with his triumph in what may well have been an above-average renewal of the Champion Bumper.
These weren’t his first Cheltenham winners of course, Don Cossack having bagged the Gold Cup in 2016. This was the family’s second victory in the blue riband, after Nicky bred 1992 hero Cool Ground.
That a product of the point-to-point circuit, Adrian Maguire was on board that day only added to the lustre of that occasion.
Point-to-pointing is the hobby, albeit one he has done well from in the past, Envoi Allen making £400,000 after his 10-length demolition job in Ballinaboola in February 2108. It is where the aforementioned families, friends and neighbours convene, compete and hop as many balls as they possibly can.
“We would love to beat them but we would always shake their hand when they beat us. You can’t have good sport if you haven’t a bit of rivalry.
“But at the end of it, (even) if we thought a fella would beat us, if he was broken down on the way, we would give him a spin.
“There would be times when we would be disappointed when we wouldn’t win. But Ted (Walsh) was right when he said if there is not great disappointment at losing how can you enjoy winning?
“The only rivalry is in the race. The sales are our business, but the bit of racing is our hobby. It’s our GAA. It’s what we do on the Sunday.”
The development of the business angle hasn’t changed the environment in that sense at all, he insists.
“Before the four-year-old maiden, and you would be saying there is a lot at stake, but you would still see the trainers standing together and chatting. There is no such thing as not talking to the other fella.
“That is the appeal of it. It is a bit like our GAA.
“It is a day where we can go with the lads, you will meet someone and you will come out of it after hearing something funny that will make you laugh, even if you haven’t had the winner.”
He agrees “100%” with John Nallen, who suggested on these pages that prize money should be increased for six-year-old maidens and mares’ races, to keep people involved. Getting form in a four-year-old maiden brings far greater rewards than a few hundred euro in prize money.
“If I think of it at all, I just tell them in the tent, ‘don’t bother sending that (cheque). The committees have a tough enough job to make it work. I often thought that the sponsorship that they collect should be to sponsor the race.
“There should be no prize money for the four-year-old and five-year-old maiden, and give twice as much as much to each of the four other races.
“Especially even the likes of the young riders. It is not fair to expect them to ride those four-year-olds, the pressure that they would be under. The same time, if you have a young riders’ race, he will have five friends and they will all get their parents to give them a spin. Then every young rider is responsible for five cars going to the point-to-point.
“I would be wholly in agreement with some kind of a structure, there needs to be some reason for those horses to be in training. They are the future of the lads riding as well. The future Davy Russells.
“It is all very well to talk about the quality, and that’s brilliant. We are all for that. But the general person with the young fella starting off who has the interest in it; he can’t afford that quality.
“You have got to incentivise him. He is the future of the lads in the yard. The quality horses are no good if they haven’t the staff. That is what Ireland was always renowned for, the quality of horse people and staff that they had, and the riders that they had.”
He is passionate about point-to-pointing but the business is based mostly around the store sales. Gigolo’ Dai Dai was top lot on the first day of the Derby Sale, the Al Namix gelding (related to Petit Mouchoir) purchased for €190,000 by Kevin Ross Bloodstock for Chris Jones.
And as referred to, while not purchasing exclusively in France, it is where he has been ahead of the curve and with the market continuing to be interested, where he still concentrates.
Having consigned through Ballincurrig House for years, Connors brought Micheál O’Brien on board and began seeing the entire process through himself under the Sluggara Farm banner. O’Brien attends to the sales preparation, while Connors’ wife Úna is a tremendous horsewoman who does a lot of the hands-on work and David also lends a hand.
“When Micheál came to work for us, we had a few extra horses. It took the hobby out of it in a way. The financial thing is based around the stores really. Our maximum numbers now are 15 or 18 sales horses and four or five point-to-pointers and maybe one or two horses in France.
“There is always some reason why a horse won’t go the sales. We had one the other day and he was lame the week before the sale and it just stopped him going. Rather than going back in August and selling, we will point-to-point him.
“We will look forward to him. But our point-to-point numbers will always be curtailed. We will never want to have more than four or five point-to-pointers.
Tying up capital
Buying foals and selling as three-year-olds means you have a lot of capital tied up. You have three years of stock on hand before you have something to sell.
“When our numbers slipped up that little bit, it was more horses for sale rather than horses for point-to-pointing. Then when those horses are sold, hopefully it takes the pressure off the horses in training.
“I am full of admiration for the lads depending on form for everything.
“We have 20 or 22 foals, around that each year. We have no desire to go any further. We think it is important not to overstock the land with horses.
“The farming of them is fairly vital to do that properly. We are lucky enough to be on a golden run at the moment with the horses that we sold. It will be someone else’s turn the next time. We are old enough to appreciate it and not assume it will happen.
“It is a smaller industry in comparison to the flat. It is more of a parish. Everyone knows everyone in it.”
And there is joy in that. But business is business and he wasn’t sharing the intel when he struck out for France before it was popular, thanks to a good relationship with a veterinary client, Séamus Murphy. The contacts are well established now but he has always been willing to look beyond the box.
When foals were very expensive during the Celtic Tige erar, he met a German-based agent, Axel Donnerstag, who compiles a list for him annually.
Luckily for him, Eddie Hales, Gigginstown House Stud, Gordon Elliott and Bryan Cooper, Don Cossack was on one of those lists.
With more buyers wise to the French angle, there are opportunities with the Irish-breds again and Connors will not miss out.
“Seamus Murphy has a couple of foals he got for me. He is sourcing away in France, if he can. It’s difficult, the competition is keen. It would be naïve of me to say that there are not good Irish foals there. There is going to be 1,000 foals in the sales in November. The one thing that ever stopped me from buying a horse was money, not that there wasn’t a horse available.
“But there are several newish stallions in Ireland there now. Their foals are there, and we are starting to see the benefit of more of those mares after winning and being tried. I am looking forward to trying to buy some of those.”
He is optimistic that he has had “a good bunch of horses” again this year.
“You never know. We were pleased with how the market received them. We will be looking forward to them next year.”
Of those already racing, Angels Breath is one he expects to see more from. Espoir D’Allen is a champion but will only be six next March.
“Some of those people in France, when we buy the foals off them they would like if we would send an odd one of them back, to have him in training there it would make them premium eligible.
“I bought the two of them, Envoi Allen and Espoir D’Allen off the same man (Bruno Vagne) and he just asked if I would send one of them back. That was how he came to race in France first for us. And J.P. (McManus) bought him off of us after he won a bumper as a three-year-old.
“He is the first five-year-old for a long time to win a Champion Hurdle. He is coming off a National Hunt pedigree so you would be hopeful that he is not coming for burnout. But as one fella said to me, he is champion for a year now, and he is the only one.”
He is looking forward to Envoi Allen turning heads novice hurdling before being unleashed for his true calling over fences.
“It is fabulous that he has done what he has done. But at the back of your mind you are thinking the next road, the next step. We all know it is a very fragile place to be when you look at the likes of Samcro, who had the world at his feet, and then a year further down the line. That is what makes National Hunt attractive, it’s a year-on-year basis.
“But he would be a horse of a lifetime, if he was to maintain the progress. You can never assume anything but you would have no interest in racing if the likes of him wouldn’t excite you a bit.
“When you look at him, you look at his physique. He is massive. This is just his education. You would be hoping that he would be your T.J. Reid of the future.
“There is always that dream, particularly with National Hunt horses. You would be excited looking forward to him and still nearly a bit nervous. that he would achieve what we would hope he might achieve.
“We get great enjoyment out of the likes of him. It is a business, the day we sell them at the sales, those store horses.
“But once the first of October comes around and you start reading the entries for the maiden hurdles, and all the rest of it, that is the enjoyment of it.”
No doubt about it, whoever said you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, never met Walter Connors.