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THE BIG INTERVIEW: John O'Connor
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: John O'Connor
on 10 July 2020
With racing well and truly back, Ballylinch Stud's John O'Connor tells Ronan Groome he is optimistic for the Irish racing industry for the rest of 2020

JOHN O’Connor is sitting down in his office on Wednesday afternoon, talking in depth about last weekend’s Prix du Jockey Club.

There are solid links between Ballylinch Stud and the Chantilly classic. Lawman was the first Prix du Jockey Club winner to stand at the famous Kilkenny stud. Then came Lope De Vega and the latest ‘French Derby’ winner to join Ballylinch is New Bay.

Sunday’s race produced another link when Mishriff, a son of another Ballylinch sire Make Believe, shot clear to win impressively.

“We were obviously delighted with that,” O’Connor says. “We were cautiously optimistic but it was the manner in which he won the race that was very impressive.

“He had to extricate himself from a pocket and he quickened up like a very good horse. I think he is one of the top, if not the top three-year-old colt in Europe.”

O’Connor’s optimism came from a belief he had in Mishriff, having followed John Gosden’s colt last season. That belief stems from an even stronger confidence in Make Believe, now a second-season sire.

He continues: “Equally, that is not a one-off for Make Believe. He has a whole bunch of other good horses like Rose Of Kildare who is an incredibly tough and sound group-winning filly in England. She won two two-year-old group races last year and I’m expecting her to win another one this year.”

Twenty-four hours later, Rose Of Kildare, who cost just €3,000 as a yearling, bolts up in the Musidora at York. And already, it’s evident that when O’Connor backs something, it would be foolish to doubt him.

French connection

The stallion roster at Ballylinch has rarely been so strong and he has been instrumental in developing it, having sought the sires and supported them with Ballylinch mares.

The French connection is evident but also not coincidental.

“I suppose we’ve gone back to the scene of where we found good horses before,” O’Connor says. “You tend to go to where you’ve found success before but also in France there are more independent owners who have horses racing at the top level. Sometimes that creates an opportunity for an independent stud like ours to stand one of them as stallions.

“I think it is probably fair to say that sometimes French form has been underestimated by people outside of France. That has never been a problem for me. I worked in France when I first qualified as a vet. One of my first jobs was in Normandy so I know plenty of people over there and am very familiar with the racing and breeding scene.”

O’Connor’s comment on Mishriff’s standing as the best three-year-old colt in Europe now is interesting. It ties into an increasingly popular view, one that was put forward in some quarters last week, that the mile-and-a-quarter Prix du Jockey Club is a more preferable classic to a Derby or Irish Derby, with regard to a potential stallion’s breeding prospects.

“Galileo himself was a Derby winner so it didn’t stop him becoming a great sire,” O’Connor asserts. “Winning the Derby shouldn’t be any disadvantage to a potential stallion. I always felt that the change in the distance of the French Derby was going to attract the horses that were a little bit speedier.

“You can see from the history of that race since it was reduced in distance that it tends to attract French Guineas winners, and some of them like Shamardal, like Lope De Vega, have been able to win both races.

“Regularly the winner of the French Derby will have gone close to or won the French 2000 Guineas – Le Havre and New Bay fit that particular formula. I think it is a challenge to both the Epsom Derby and Irish Derby to respond to that but I think things ebb and flow in this business. There will be a time post Galileo that things will re-balance again. I think you’ve got to take a long-term view on it.

“It certainly merits plenty of discussion and thought, but you don’t want to make decisions based on one year’s racing. I think at this point of the year it’s too early to make a complete assessment of the quality of the Derby.”

Many believe that the most sought-after horse is the horse who is going to be a good two-year-old and end up being a Guineas horse the following year. Is this the case?

“It probably is,” O’Connor says. “But plenty of the great races in the racing programme are for middle-distance horses so there should always be somebody looking to buy those horses.

“What has happened is that costs of getting a (middle-distance) horse to that level have increased and a lot of prize money hasn’t increased in tandem with that.

“It creates a challenge for horses that are taking longer to come to hand but that is something that can be dealt with by tailoring the race programme to reflect that it costs more to get a horse to its maximum as a three-year-old rather than an early two-year-old. That is a challenge for the industry to look at.”

Covid-19

It hasn’t been a long time since O’Connor featured on these pages but it probably feels like it has, a worldwide pandemic lodged in between. We’re still not through Covid and likely won’t be for some time, but some dust has settled and it’s worth taking stock now with the delayed breeze-up sales nearly finished, before attention turns to the yearlings in a couple of months.

“It has been a big challenge for people in the breeze-up sector because the normal calendar for the sales has been thrown into disarray but I think with this business, people are very resilient and very versatile,” O’Connor says. “I think people respond to the challenges put in front of them, whether you’re in the breeding business, the breeze-up business or the training business.

“Inevitably for other businesses, other than the horse business, the coronavirus pandemic has implications in terms of finances of the industry, but I do think we have done the best we could as an industry.

“Having racing back on is significant. Not only because it generates prize money and betting revenue, but because it was a big step in the right direction towards normal. Racing has a big positive effect. It’s changing every day, new stars are emerging, big races coming up, it gives a consistency to people’s interest.

“I’m pretty optimistic in general for the industry. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any implications for trade, whether that is at breeze-up sales, yearling sales or broodmare sales. I’m certain that there will be some implications, but the more that racing is up and running the less of a downside there will be for trade.”

And what for the yearling sales later this year?

“I think this is one of the imponderables at the minute to know what stage we will be at in terms of Covid-19,” O’Connor says. “I think the sales companies will do the best they can. I think all vendors will be cautious with their expectations and rightly so. It will be a surprise if there wasn’t some negative impact but people have retained their interest in wanting to have horses, so the better horses will still sell well.

“It may be a challenge further down the economic chain. I do think it is important to say that not every horse who doesn’t make a good price is a bad horse. Sometimes you hear people say: ‘Good horses sell and bad horses don’t sell’, but we know from retrospectively looking at the results every year that plenty of horses that don’t make a lot of money turn out to be good horses.

“It happens every year but it may be a little but more pronounced this year. There will be opportunities for people who are in the position to pursue them.”

Promising

Ballylinch will be well represented at the yearlings sales. There have been promising signs already in the first-season crops of Fascinating Rock and New Bay. Make Believe is becoming the story of the stallions so far this season and Lope De Vega continues to go strength to strength, solidifying his reputation as an elite stallion.

Now 13, the son of Shamardal has been a star at Ballylinch. Having first stood for just €12,500, he earned his sixth consecutive increase this year to €100,000. He has provided 70 stakes winners including 10 Group/Grade 1 winners, most recently Newspaperofrecord, who won her second Grade 1 at Belmont Park two weeks ago.

O’Connor recalls: “He is one of those horses who took off right from the very start and he probably surprised everyone with how much speed and precocity he transmitted.

“We sent him one of our good mares, Danaskaya, and we bred Belardo from her, who was European champion two-year-old from his first crop, so immediately he was recognised. But also from that crop, he bred the winner of the Cornwallis Stakes, Royal Razalma, which is probably unprecedented for a French Derby winner, to get a group-winning two-year-old over five furlongs.

“He is one of those horses that is very versatile but obviously he has continued to build on that and he has 100 stakes horses already. Now he is covering mares that correspond with his standing, so his record, in my opinion, will only get better. His future is very secure.”

New Bay has a long way to get to the level of Lope De Vega but it’s very promising that he has produced six-furlong winners already and the same for Fascinating Rock, who was another late two-year-old.

“I think New Bay has a very good chance of making into a top sire,” O’Connor says. “He is a beautifully bred horse and he is another French Derby winner who is getting winners over sprint distances.

“Fascinating Rock wasn’t a precocious two-year-old either but his progeny are showing really nice signs of being good two-year-olds and I know there is a whole bunch of them to run shortly who could further enhance that reputation.

“He has been very well supported by his owner/breeder Maurice Regan. We’ve got a couple of nice ones ourselves, in fact we bred his first winner, so we were delighted to do that.

“We try to make sure that every stallion that we stand is given the support of our own broodmare band to help launch them. We hope that gives other breeders plenty of confidence that they can follow on with that.”

Arc winner Waldgeist is an exciting addition to the Ballyhale roster this year and O’Connor reports that he has received the same support as Lope De Vega, who was also bred by Dietrich von Boetticher.

Brexit

Given the strong French influence at Ballylinch, potential post Brexit regulations are a concern, with the majority of French breeders using Britain as a land bridge to Ireland.

“A lot of mares that come to Ballylinch are still based in Ireland but we get plenty from France, Britain, Germany and to a lesser extent Italy. The success of Newspaperofrecord in America has attracted US breeders to use Lope De Vega also.

“Post-Brexit protocols won’t make logistics any easier,” O’Connor explains. “This is an area Ireland is going to have to negotiate very strongly on. I have confidence that the Irish Department of Agriculture is conscious of this.

“And we’re also well represented by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association and European Federation of Thoroughbred Breeders’ Associations.”

But for now, it’s time to concentrate on racing. The stallion roster at Ballylinch is strong and so is the trainer one. In the last five years, Ballylinch has supported 15 different trainers in Ireland. Connections to other big breeding and racing operations like China Horse Club, mean that the stud’s ownership vehicle has also been well represented in Britain and France also.

More horses in training, more connections with other owners equals more trainers with the aim of attaining as much blacktype as possible.

Just keep doing what you’ve been doing was the message from American billionaire businessman John Malone when he took over Ballylinch and Castlemartin Studs in 2014. Malone has been a huge support to O’Connor and both teams since then, investing in the infrastructure at both farms.

The amalgamation of the two studs has allowed for better management of stock and land.

Away from Ballylinch, O’Connor is as busy as ever. He is chairman of the Irish European Breeders Fund, and so was very much part of the decision to increase the Fund’s contribution of prize money to HRI to €2.5 million this year, up €300,000 on last year. The view he and the other governors took was that with the challenge of Covid, this was the time to give extra support to the industry.

O’Connor was also integral to the formation of Irish Champions Weekend, and remains on the organising steering committee. He concludes: “This is obviously a very different year in terms of what crowds will be allowed on the track and therefore having to plan for that but I think the race programme itself has developed into a really good weekend of racing.

“I think it’s something that all racing people can look forward to because we have a fantastic weekend of racing coming up at a time when we hope more people will be able to participate and enjoy it properly.”

‘Dam line is very important’ - John O’Connor’s guide to assessing a potential stallion

YOU’RE looking for everything and of course you can’t have everything, so then it’s a question of prioritising. The more restricted your budget is, the more you have to compromise on things.

Presuming you have a strong budget, we try to buy a good racehorse obviously. I think a stallion should be a good racehorse. I think he should have a good pedigree for sure and into that, I would place plenty of importance on the quality of his dam and dam line; I think that is significant in a stallion.

You’re then looking for an athlete, a good looker, one with the right kind of attributes in terms of movement. Temperament is important. I certainly like an honest, genuine, generous racehorse. That would be fairly high up in my list of attributes.

When we were purchasing Lope De Vega, I had a high regard for Shamardal as a stallion and a lot of people didn’t know about him at the time. Lope De Vega came from his first crop.

I was aware that he had been a very high-quality two-year-old, he had won his first two starts very impressively and then he got beat on his next start in a Group 1, but I knew he was a good two-year-old. He came back and showed the speed to win the Guineas and the toughness and the stamina to win the French Derby.

When we bought Make Believe, we compromised a little bit on his own sire Makfi, who was a very good racehorse and a very capable sire but wasn’t in high fashion at the time.

But I thought Make Believe himself had so much talent, I’d been watching him when he won the French Guineas and when he won the Prix de la Foret and broke the track record. I thought that ability coupled with a very good female line, and his physique, and the fact that he is a grandson of Dubawi. Sometimes people don’t look far enough into pedigrees.

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