Exclusive interview: Barry Connell’s Cheltenham Expectations, Training Experience & Thoughts On The Dublin Racing Festival

Is The Dublin Racing Festival A Stepping Stone To Cheltenham?

“It has become an event in itself. A lot of English racegoers come over. Cheltenham has got too big for them. Four days is a step too far. People used to be happy to go for three days but now they’d go for maybe two. They like the idea of a top-class two days in Dublin."

“The balance of power is with Ireland at the moment. It is where most of the good horses train. I know these things are cyclical but that is the case."

“For a racing fan based in the UK, they can come over for a concentrated two days and see all the best horses in Ireland that are going to come over to Cheltenham."

“There is no hiding away at the Dublin Racing Festival. The best horses take each other on. It has become a phenomenal success.”

Marine Nationale - "He is probably the quickest horse I have ever had"

“He has won six out of six under rules and will go to the Irish Arkle (this weekend). He is a speed horse and won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle easily last year. He is probably the quickest horse I have ever had.

“What he has proven this year is how he has taken to fences very efficiently. His debut in Leopardstown was about as good as you could get. He is very forward going without being overly keen. When he’s landed over a fence the first thing he is doing is looking for the next fence, ears pricked. He is not going right or left. He is a very straightforward horse.

“He is a horse of a lifetime. In all of my time dealing with horses I have never had one like him.”

Where did you find Marine Nationale?

“We got him during Covid. One of the point-to-point trainers we have a relationship with, Sam Curling, said he had him as a three year old and was planning to get him ready to run him in a four year old point to point. When Covid came along there was nowhere to run these horses.

“Sam said he had this horse with a funny pedigree. He was by a horse called French Navy who was a Godolphin Flat horse with Charlie Appleby. He has a fair degree of National Hunt in his pedigree on his dam’s side but the speed is from the sire.

“Sam brought him up and one of our guys rode him in a trial against one of our better horses. We liked him and bought him as a three year old and brought him on steadily. He didn’t reach a racecourse until last year.

“He is a very unassuming horse. If you saw him walking round the yard you wouldn’t say there’s a Sprinter Sacre there! He is 16 3 hands, a tall athletic horse. He is not a heavy-shouldered horse which is good. It is easier to keep those horses sound rather than those typical big-boned proper NH bred horses. That is a big plus.

“You need three things in order to be a successful race horse. Ability, soundness and temperament. He has all three.

“His temperament is bomb-proof. You could put a child on him. When we went to Cheltenham last year and walked around the pre-parade ring he was walking around like he was at home. He didn’t turn a hair. I have seen so many horses in previous years sweat up and their eyes are popping out of their head and they’d run their race already.

“With Marine Nationale he travels well, eats and sleeps and he loves his job.”

Odds Comparison

Runners not available yet

Expectations For Leopardstown, And Is The Next Step The Arkle At Cheltenham?

“Yes. Last year I was blowing the horse’s trumpet a lot and everybody thought I was mad. He won two bumpers and won a maiden hurdle, not that impressively. Then he went to the Royal Bond in Fairyhouse and that was his first grade one. It turned out to be a very good race. Five grade one winners came out of that race.

“We were taking on Willie Mullins with Facile Vega. I was very confident. I knew we had the best horse in the race.

“Last year we were coming in under the radar as the underdog. This year we are 4/6 favourite for the Arkle at Cheltenham.

“On the basis of what he has done so far I think he will be hard to beat at Leopardstown.

“We think he is in as good a shape and if he puts in the same round of jumping I’d be disappointed if he didn’t win on Saturday and please God we’ll be on the boat then in March.

“I will never come across another Marine Nationale. He is exceptional. He is one in 10,000.

“A yard like Willie Mullins might get one a year or two because they have the numbers and the buying power.”

What Is Your Background As A Trainer?

“I got my trainer’s licence three years ago at the age of 61. It has been a process of evolution.

“I have been going to the races since I was a toddler with my Dad. We went to all the courses and the main festivals. I continued that on through college and when I started working as a stockbroker. I was always fascinated by racing but never thought my involvement would progress beyond being a race goer.

“I didn’t sit on a horse until I was 30. I had a few lessons and then started riding out at weekends where I had horses in training. In 2000 I rode in a charity race in Fairyhouse and won and there was no going back. I decided to take an amateur’s licence out and rode for ten years until 2010. I finished with 34 winners including two winners at the November Cheltenham meeting and finished in the top 10 twice in the Champion bumper. That was a good buzz.”

Why training so late in your life?

“Around the Millennium I set up a hedge fund so I was not working 9-5. That gave me more freedom to ride out five or six days a week. I had horses in training in Ireland and England with Jonjo O’Neill, Emma Lavelle and Carl Llewellyn. I rode a lot on the summer tracks in England before I packed it in around 2010.”

What was riding at Cheltenham like?

“Cheltenham looks on television a good open galloping track but it is not, particularly the Old Course. It is quite tight and very undulating around the back and you have an almost left hand hairpin bend at the top. It can often favour front runners.”

“In England, the bumpers are open to all. I was up against the likes of AP McCoy, Richard Johnson and Timmy Murphy.

“Riding against them it was like a sports enthusiast being able to go into the dressing room at Old Trafford then go out to play and score the winning goal. It was kind of surreal.

“That was in 2003 and I was fortunate enough to win again in 2008. I took my time coming back down that walkway. When you pull up at the top of the chute and walk down it takes about five minutes to get to the winners’ enclosure.

“The English racegoers are tremendous. Whether they’ve backed the horse or not they line up along the rail and support whoever is coming in.

“I never thought I‘d ride a racehorse let alone get to ride in Cheltenham and ride a couple of winners there.”

You couldn’t write your script! People wouldn’t believe it!

“I am not finished yet. Being an owner and winning at Cheltenham was great but not as good as riding winners there I never thought I’d get that buzz again. I had this thought in the back of my mind that I'd like to give training a go.

“I had horses in training in several yards in Ireland and in England. I would go in and ride them out and look at the different training methods people were employing, their facilities. My thinking was if I ever did set up a yard I’d take the best bits I’d learned from the various training establishments I had been in.”

How did you start?

. “About five years ago we bought a property in Kildare about 15 minutes from The Curragh. It is about 40 acres which we bought from a German army officer from the war time who had used it as his holiday home.”

“We have built an operation from scratch. The land is very good. We are about three or four miles from Kildangan Stud which is where Sheikh Mohammed has his biggest operation in Ireland. It is on a very good vein of land. We have our own gallops and also have access to all the gallops at the Curragh which are phenomenal.”

Do you like proving people wrong?

“No. I have an aptitude for risk. If you have a background in financial markets you develop that; controlled risk. Risk and return are both sides of the coin in the financial business. It applies in life the same way.

“If you don’t push yourself and go out and try to do something a little different you are not going to push the boundaries of what you can do. It has been an enormous privilege to be in the position to be able to be involved first as an owner, then a jockey and latterly as a trainer to the degree that I am. I never had a grand plan mapped out that said I was going to do X, Y and Z; It just evolved at various stages of my life.

“I missed the buzz when I retired from riding which put the seed of the idea of training in my head.”

Do people consider you unorthodox?

“No, I wouldn’t use that word either! I would say I am fairly driven. My business life has allowed me to get a lot more involved in my passion which is racing. It has been a process and one thing has led to another. If I do something I want to do it really well and to the best of my ability. There are no half measures.

“I am really proud of the training entity. We have about 25 horses, mostly mine but one or two friends and family. We have amassed a fantastic team of people.

“I don’t want to get too big. We have a boutique operation and are able to give one on one attention to all our horses. We give them the time we need. That is something that sets us apart from a lot of other bigger trainers. We are not a big factory unit.

“We tend to buy horses from the store sales as three year olds. A lot of them won’t run for maybe three years. They are big units and they all develop at different rates. I have seen over the years careers of horses which have been compromised by them being rushed and getting them to run too early. National Hunt horses don’t develop until six or seven. You need to develop their core fitness.

“We are very focussed on the horses as individuals. When they are five or six and we think they’re ready to rock and roll we head off with them on their careers.

“We have very experienced riders who know when we can go forward with the horse or when we need to take a break with them. They can tell if a horse isn’t quite right and we get the vets in and what you can end up finding is that the horse has a little hairline fracture of his pelvis or something that is relatively minor once it is picked up early. But if we hadn’t got that quality of riders and if we were just in too much of a hurry to get on with things, that horse would continue to ride out and within three weeks you could have a catastrophic injury on your hands.

“We haven’t got the resources where we are able to bring in a new batch of horses every year. So we are trying to make careers for these horses where they can have longevity. That is one of the upsides of largely training for myself. We are going to give horses the time they need.”

Celebrity owners doing well like Grame McDowell the golfer is a good story for racing isn’t it?

“Yes, anything to raise the profile. James Nesbitt the actor was involved in Riverside Theatre with Nicky Henderson. It is a hook for terrestrial television.

“We have had a few of the rugby guys involved in horses here like Ronan O’Gara who had a few.”