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THE BIG INTERVIEW: The Man from Minella
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: The Man from Minella
on 21 June 2019
Daragh Ó Conchúir talks to top National Hunt producer and hotelier John Nallen

THE joke he keeps hearing from his English contacts is that it is only a matter of time before there is a cross-channel race comprising runners boasting only the Minella handle. There are 142 on the irishracing.com database, and the Minella Racing website lists 55 that have won.

Indeed, just hours after the interview has been agreed, Minellacelebration beat Minella Daddy in a handicap chase at Aintree in his first run in 13 months.

John Nallen is particularly pleased for Katy Price, a trainer he rates highly but what is notable is that he readily claims to have gotten it wrong in terms of how he campaigned the son of the late King’s Theatre – a sire whose stock he has always coveted.

He is straight like that. Nallen did not become a successful educator of horses, or indeed, proprietor of the thriving Hotel Minella (along with sister Liz Bowen), without taking life’s lessons on board however. Patience is a virtue, he has learned.

“You have a higher conversion rate with five-year-olds.” Nallen notes. “You will get less money but they are more likely to do the business because they haven’t been gunned. The one five-year-old we’d left this year, Minella Trump, he won at Ballycahane and we sold him at Aintree (for £90,000). He’s gone to Donald McCain. He’s a good horse.

“Minella Indo could have made it at four but I didn’t want to take the chance. You want to do right by the horse too.”

Personality award

The hotel played host to The Irish Field Point-To-Point Awards recently and fittingly Nallen was presented with Healy Racing Personality of the Year award, though he admits that “they caught me rotten”, having had no clue at all what was coming.

It was well deserved. Horses are in the genes, his mother Babs Lenihan having been reared in a hunting-mad family around Ballylaneen in Co Waterford, while “The Boss”, Jack Nallen hailed from Banagher, Co Offaly. He was immersed in flapping during the 1940s and maintained an interest in horse racing subsequently.

He loved greyhounds too and it was the sale of one particularly good racer in 1961 that funded the purchase of an old Georgian property in Clonmel a couple of years later. The Minella name came with it.

They bought land at Lavally and began to educate young horses themselves. In the ‘90s, they raced them with Annemarie O’Brien, then her husband Aidan and when they moved on to Ballydoyle, Annemarie’s father Joe Crowley. Hotel Minella, Minella Man and Minella Lad filled the No 1 slot regularly.

After a while, they trained the horses for the track themselves but around the turn of the century, logic prevailed.

Trading on

“You wouldn’t sustain keeping them unless you were selling them so we started trading them. If they’re too good you can’t afford to keep them and if they’re too bad you can’t afford to keep them. That’s about the size of it. They’re toys for big boys and you just keep moving them on.

“We’ve been very lucky over the last eight or nine years. We try to buy good stock. Sometimes we buy three-year-olds but mostly we buy them as foals and rear them. Maybe an odd time you might skip a year, you might think you’ve too many or they might be too dear. The foals is the best job as you have the first of them. The three-year-olds can be trickier. You could end up with a three-year-old that’s a very valuable store but you couldn’t buy him as a store because he’s too expensive.

He smiles when asked how he operates at the sales.

“You’re there late at night, going through the catalogues, making marks on it. If you came back and look at all the marks you put on it and then what you came back with… it’s like fellas years ago at discos, going around saying ‘I wouldn’t talk to her’ or ‘She wouldn’t talk to me’ and next thing you see him bringing her home!

“I was very lucky with King’s Theatres. I would go down the line of a sire I was lucky with. There’s no such thing as a perfect horse. The way they walk, the way they carry themselves is important. They have to have a fair front leg but you have to forgive some things. If they’re going in four different directions you’re in trouble regardless!

“There was a thoroughbred breeders’ thing here about five years ago and Mark Johnston gave a talk. He said when he started off 40 years ago, an old-timer told him that 50% of the races are won by horses from blacktype families, or blacktype mares. He said only 2% of the stock sold are blacktype. That means that 98% are running for 50, and 2% for the other 50, so you try and keep the right side of those odds as you can.”

‘Corky’ Carroll is a key member of his operation, as is Nallen’s nephew (Liz’s son), Seán Bowen. Seán turns 14 shortly and had his first ride in pony racing last Sunday in Castleisland. His brother Conor is a rugby player and though he doesn’t ride, is “on the ball” when it comes to knowing about the hroses. Rhys is an excellent rower.

Jack’s horse

Nallen and his wife Bernardine have a 14-year-old son Jack, who is a constant presence.

“Jack has special needs but he is great with the horses. I bought a cob for him about eight or nine years ago for €900 and he’s the most valuable horse in the place. Jack’d go up on him and canter around the gallop on him. He would go out and pick a fella at the sales and go out the next day and know him again. He loves it.”

Minella Indo was the second of Nallen’s graduates to be triumphant at the Cheltenham Festival last March, Minella Rocco having broken the deadlock. The latter was bought by J.P. McManus, who also purchased subsequent Paddy Power victor Minella Foru among others.

Gigginstown have never been buyers, apart from Notebook, who had already been named when Nallen acquired the well-bred son of Samum.

“Michael O’Leary said ‘I’m not advertising your hotel for you’,” he says with a laugh.

He acknowledges the investment O’Leary made in racing and that some will be hit hard initially by Gigginstown ending their involvement, but is convinced that the sector as a whole will be fine, citing the Land Rover Sale as early evidence to that effect.

“It might just open the thing up a bit for more people to get into it. Racing won’t be any less competitive but there will be more different people involved. I’d say there were a lot of fellas sitting on the fence the way it was gone and they’ll go back in.

“It will affect some fellas for a while. They spent an awful lot of money and they paid everyone. They put colossal money into it but they got good success too. They had their spin and they’re not gone yet but I think it will open it up.”

He came away with five stores from Goffs.

“I bought a couple of well-bred horses last week. One of them cost five grand more than he was as a foal and the other cost four more. Now I’d still rather have him as a foal but a lot of fellas that had expensive foals made no money and that was a good sale. At that point you’re as well off to get the form when you’ve taken them that far. That’s what I’d rather do anyway.”

In all, he tends to buy between eight-to-10 horses each year. Of those he has that will be looking to win their maidens in the autumn, he points to progeny of Rail Link, Beat Hollow and Shantou that he is hopeful about.

“When you’re looking at them going into the last and you think you’re going to win a four-year-old, and you’re saying, ‘this fella could be worth the price of a small farm, I hope he gets over it.’ That’s some feeling. And a fella says, ‘he was a certainty, why didn’t you back him?’ When you’re sweating on the value of him coming to the last!

“The best thrill is bringing them off, looking at the ones you bought last week, even if it’s just a 12 inch pipe, seeing how they jump it today. If one of them will attack it, another will be cowardly. Notebook is probably the best horse to jump we ever had. He was no star this year but he could be anything over fences next year I think.

“It’s about getting them over the line. Find out as much as you can about their ability without wrecking them.

“They have to do well on the track after. They have to deliver the goods. You can’t come in here (to the hotel) and go out hungry. For Minella Indo to win in Cheltenham and go on and win the Grade 1 at Punchestown after, that’s as good as you can ask for. It’s gas because I buy the feed off Rachael Blackmore’s father so his feed would have reared him!”

On a broader note, he is anxious about the quality of tracks available to some hunt clubs and believes that there is an obvious solution.

Losing land

“Tracks are a big issue because the hunt clubs are losing land the whole time. So it would be great to get some of the large landowners involved in the business to provide some of that good land to produce tracks. It would be great publicity for them supporting the grassroots and it would be brilliant for the point-to-points to have good tracks and community involvement.

“There’s a mighty opportunity for communities to run a meeting like Dowth Hall. It’s run fantastically and gets big crowds.

“You could do that anywhere, get everyone involved, local charities, local GAA clubs. Run the meeting with them and split the takings with them. You take Liscarroll, Killeagh, Inch on the Wednesday, you can bag them. There’s an atmosphere there and every man, woman and child in the village is involved in them. Regardless of whether I have a runner or not, I go to Inch every year.

“As well as that, I think the most valuable race of the day should be the six-year-old maiden. They should be worth €1,500, because that gives the fellas in the pub the incentive to keep an older horse and that gives everyone else a chance. The likes of us with the four-year-olds, you run your horse, you load up and you’re gone again. A four-year-old maiden should be worth €50 because your reward for winning that is coming.”

Locals

He would also run a pony race on every card and have it in the middle of the programme, rather than at the end, when most of the punters have gone home. It all comes back to involving the locals.

“It’s the only thing you can’t look at on your phone at the moment. People have to go to see the action but you have to give them a reason.”

Words of wisdom

“IF you come in here to me looking for grub, I’m not going to tell you you’re not hungry. If you turn up to a fella with a stallion, he’s not going to tell you your mare is no good.”

***

“If you’re going and you’re sure today’s the day, ‘twas the day you found out you were sure was the day you should have been there. To be sure is not a good idea because to be sure, you’re after pressing the button the wrong day.”

***

“Sometimes they jump out at you the minute you see them. Minella Indo was a a Beat Hollow and a good family but the mother was 22 and people said ‘how did you buy a foal out of a 22-year-old mare?

“We bought two Beat Hollows that day. One was Minella Beat and we always thought he was better than your man (Indo) but we got him beat in a bumper. He’s with Jamie Snowden now and he’s very happy with him.”

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