How did you get into racehorse ownership?

As a child, I was brought to Kilbeggan, Roscommon and Galway races during the summer holidays. The real spark came when one of my uncles, the Hennigans from Athleague in Roscommon, purchased a filly called Bornacurra Ella, through their good friend Tom O’Mahony.

From my recollection, she won six or seven races; the most memorable being a hurdle race on their home track Roscommon. The whole place had her backed and hats were flung in the air as she passed the winning line under jockey Kevin O’Brien. So, the main reason I got into ownership was to try to relive that feeling of elation and pure excitement.

What was your best day at the races and why?

I’ve had some great days with the High Spirits Racing Club but the pinnacle for me was Cask Mate running in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham last year. Even though it nearly turned out to be a disaster as he fell at the second last, just the air about the place was amazing and to rub shoulders with the elite of NH racing on Gold Cup Day was amazing.

Last week, the Ciaran Murphy-trained Walhaan, owned by the Ask Dot Syndicate won his maiden hurdle at Leopardstown. The syndicate consists of some very close friends and people I got to know as fellow owners with Ciaran.

How did your syndicate get its name?

Fairly simple really; as that’s what we have been doing for years when we visit Charlestown. We ask Dot (Love) what’s the story with such and such a horse or jockey and the answers she gives always gives someone like me more knowledge.

I love listening to Dot when she talks about jockeys and how she outlines their style of riding and how it suits certain horses. So “Ask Dot Syndicate” is a tribute to Dot and as she is also a member of our syndicate, winning with Walhaan this week made the occasion even more special.

What is the biggest drawback about being a racehorse owner?

I could say not having enough money but that really isn’t true, as I enjoy racing with a horse that cost €10k or less in Kilbeggan, Sligo or Ballinrobe as much as I would at the Festival meetings of Punchestown, Galway or Leopardstown.

For me it’s cost prohibitive to spend big amounts of money on purchasing a horse and then take on the cost of training, so I have to get my kicks out of involvement as an owner through syndicates.

The one rule I have for being part of a syndicate is it must be with family or close friends and that we all know the pitfalls and go into it with our eyes wide open and with the expectation of losing money. Anything after that is a bonus.

In your experience, which racecourse in Ireland treats owners the best and why?

Galway: the facilities they provide to owners, especially during the Festival, is second to none. The meals are substantial and amenities are next to all the activities such as parade ring and bookies, so an owner doesn’t have to go to some inner room under the stand away from where all the atmosphere is.

Flat or jump racing, which do you prefer and why?

For me has to be NH. It’s what I was brought up on; it’s what my relations and farming neighbours kept broodmares for. For some reason, flat racing does not create the same buzz, air of excitement or atmosphere that NH racing does.

In my opinion, from the NH side of the fence, a lot more public money seems to be pumped into flat racing even though it seems to have a much smaller public following.

What qualities do you look for in a trainer?

Honesty and for the trainer to make the hard calls. In our expectations, the horse we give a trainer is a Cheltenham horse but more often than not, that is not the case. I have to have the confidence in our trainer to tell it as he sees it, as it costs the same money in training and vets fees whether they have ability or not.

What can trainers or HRI do to encourage owners to keep horses in training at the moment?

The EBF scheme is very good at keeping mares in training but something has to be done to get younger people involved. I love the initiative taken to introduce the student days and the atmosphere they create on those days is great.

Can trainers or HRI work with student bodies to somehow incentivise them into ownership, whether that be getting a horse sponsored in training for them or even lease a horse on the day to run in their college colours?

Can you imagine the excitement of them watching their own horse running or even winning? It goes back to my first experience of me getting hooked by the excitement of watching my uncles horse winning in Roscommon.

When buying a horse, what do you look for?

I view this as being the most crucial part of racehorse ownership. I don’t have the expertise, so I leave that to my good friends Liam Gavin, Tom O’Mahony and Ciaran Murphy. You have to know the pedigrees and if they can’t walk properly, they can’t run properly! Tom O’Mahony once told me its best to buy a foal out of a big field, as at least when they are running around you can quickly tell if they have a wind problem.

What horses do you currently have in training?

I am involved in three horses. High Spirits Racing Club have Cask Mate in training with Noel Meade. He has won four times which is a real tribute to Noel and his team, as this horse has had his fair share of injuries. Ask Dot Syndicate have Walhaan in training with Ciaran Murphy. We got our first winner this week, so now the pressure is really on to see how much further he can progress!

The Real Dirty Dozen has Princess Sophia, which Cora Cronin has kindly leased to us, in training with Ciaran Murphy. The connection here goes back to Tom O’Mahony who put me in contact with Cora. I value his knowledge today, as much as my uncles did all those years ago.

What’s next on the agenda for your horses?

Cask Mate and Princess Sophia will campaign over the summer and both should be ready to run near the end of April or start of May. Walhaan has an engagement in the Grade 3 Kingsfurze Novice Hurdle at Naas on Sunday but whether it will be too soon after his exertions at Leopardstown, only time will tell.

There is another novice in Naas at the end of the month and if he shows improvement again in either race, I have no doubt he will be targeted either at Fairyhouse or Aintree.

What do you do with your racehorses when their races days are over?

The mares have all gone to the breeding paddocks, while the horses have been rehomed as riding horses by Ciaran and Dot.

What would help make Irish racing more competitive for the smaller owner/trainer?

Conditional races for trainers who only have had x amount of winners and conditional races for horses that have been purchased below different valuations.

The value of the prize money for these races would have to be maintained or even increased with a series of qualifiers ultimately ending in a race at one of the top festival meetings.

What advice would you give someone thinking of becoming a racehorse owner?

I could only say jump at the opportunity. Just remember there are both highs and lows. I cannot fully describe the excitement of your horse not just winning but the preparation on race days etc. is magic.

If you are joining a syndicate, do so with family or close friends and try to be involved in the full process.

Understand from the off, that you are investing your money in a leisure pursuit just like joining a golf club.

John Cunningham was in conversation with John O’Riordan