DAMIEN and Colin Kelly grew up in Lusmagh Co Offaly and had impressively attended every racetrack in Ireland before their teenage years.
Their ownership journey started in 2014 when the pair started pinhooking store horses to sell on after a run between the flags, and their pinhooking graduates have gone on to have great success under rules with the most notable being West Balboa, a Grade 1-placed mare for her new connections.
The Kelly brothers are now enjoying success on the National Hunt scene themselves with the five-time winning son of Mahler, The Big Dog, who claimed the Munster National and Troytown Chase on his only two starts this season.
Another Christmas trip to Chepstow beckons for Damien and Colin Kelly as they plan for The Big Dog to line-up in this year’s Welsh Grand National for a second year running.
How did you get into racehorse ownership?
We grew up in a household with a strong interest in horse racing. Our late Dad John and our Mum Mary brought us racing most weekends.
Dad was always involved in horses and it was probably inevitable that we would get into the industry and own horses ourselves at some stage.
Our first horse was purchased back in 2014, a three-year-old by Westerner, who was later named Reilly’s Minor.
We raced him once in a point-to-point before selling him on and re-investing the proceeds, a process which has granted us some luck over the years.
What was your best day at the races and why?
Watching our first horse run for the first time was a great thrill. Reilly’s Minor had the point-to-point at his mercy when falling at the final fence.
However, our best days racing must be back in 2018 when The Big Dog rewarded us with our first winner. It marked a very special day for our family. He had been placed in a bumper four weeks prior to this win and our trainer, Peter Fahey, gave us plenty of confidence approaching the race.
What is the biggest drawback about being a racehorse owner?
Injuries are always hard to take. As an owner, you tend to plan races and dream about running your horse on certain days, but it can often be blown from the mind just how fragile of an animal horses are.
The Big Dog has had some niggles, which ironically have allowed him to mature and have ultimately been a blessing in disguise. It’s easy to say this now with the bigger picture on display but at the time it certainly didn’t feel like a blessing.
In your experience, which racecourse in Ireland treats owners the best and why?
Winning naturally clouds the judgement but we’ve had very positive experiences at Naas, Punchestown and Navan.
The level of inconsistency across racecourses when treating owners and connections after a winner never ceases to amaze me.
Flat or jump racing, which do you prefer and why?
Our leaning has always been to jump racing. I take a passing interest in the flat but wouldn’t be a regular flat racing attendee.
What qualities do you look for in a trainer?
Honesty, openness and communication are the key characteristics for me.
We’ve been very lucky to have met and dealt with Peter Fahey. Peter, Ber and all the team are very accommodating of stable visits and give us regular progress updates on The Big Dog.
We are frequent visitors to their Monasterevin base and it’s great to understand the training regimes first hand.
The more you see the more you realise how much work is required by stable staff and trainers in order to get your horse to the racetrack and provide you with the ownership excitement.
What improvements would you like to see racecourses in Ireland do for owners?
We’d like to see more consistency in the facilities/ treatment offered to owners on race days.
Moreover, we’d like topics such as ground conditions discussed more and monitored on a closer scale.
I appreciate the fact that we live in a climate which makes ground predictions challenging but with rising temperatures we need to increase human intervention.
We need to ensure winter racing in the future continues to be done on traditional winter ground.
What can trainers or HRI do to encourage owners to keep horses in training at the moment?
Balloting seems to be a huge challenge facing owners and I think more initiatives like the Connolly’s Red Mills series are needed.
It’s not about prize money for the vast majority of owners, and the chance to run against horses bought with similar budgets is hugely incentivising.
Any dealings I’ve had with the HRI owner’s department have been extremely efficient and professional. I think more could be done in terms of soliciting feedback from owners at all levels of the sport.
Horse racing is a great product and it is very important that its offering remains current.
Aside from keeping owners of today happy, we also need to turn our attention to the next generation of the sport.
I love the current initiatives aimed at secondary school students, such as the transition year programme ‘From Foal to Race’. Too many people associate racing with betting and it really undersells the sport.
There are many life lessons in racing and the more benefits of the sport that we can portray to the wider public, the stronger the industry will become.
What significance do your colours hold?
Like a lot of people involved in racing, we’re avid GAA followers. The design doesn’t have any significance but the red and white are the colours of our local GAA club, Lusmagh in Co Offaly.
When buying a horse, what do you look for?
We tend to start out with a big list of characteristics in terms of conformation, walk, sire, siblings and size.
The market over the past number of years has meant we can be less particular and individuals have moved up our list just for being within budget!
When buying horses for the point-to-point field we’ve always consulted Aidan Fitzgerald and when buying a horse for the track we’ve always consulted Peter Fahey.
It’s a better start for the horse’s career if the trainer at least likes them physically. After all, they’ll be the ones looking at them every day.
What horses do you currently have in training?
Just The Big Dog at the moment.
What’s next on the agenda for your horses?
The Big Dog will go to Chepstow for the Welsh Grand National on December 27th. He ran in the race last year but didn’t have any luck. We are looking forward to experiencing a non-Covid Welsh National, all going to plan.
The Big Dog may end out being a horse for the Grand National at Aintree in 2023, but he’s a horse that’s very ground dependent so we can only make a call on that closer to the time.
Have you any young horses to look forward to?
Damien and I have a couple of young horses which we bought as foals. They will go to the store sales in the coming years.
What do you do with your racehorses when their racing days are over?
Prior to The Big Dog, we tended to run our horses in a point-to-point and sell them on. The Big Dog is the first horse we’ve raced properly and he’s certainly earned a long happy retirement in Lusmagh when his racing days are over, God willing.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a racehorse owner?
Owning a horse is a great experience and one that’s magnified if your horse is lucky.
My key advice would be to find a trainer you can have a relationship with and enter into ownership for fun rather than success or financial return.
Damien and Colin Kelly were in conversation with Sophie Mellett.