The home of the GAA, which opened its doors to soccer and rugby in 2007, achieved another milestone yesterday as Ireland’s equestrians gathered with Sports Minister Leo Varadkar at the Horse Sport Ireland Awards.
O’Connor was given the honour of completing the first jump over a London bus replica fence and, tongue-in-cheek, he conceded the pressure was almost akin to what he faced in the Olympics.
Perhaps aware of the day’s importance, his mount Carlo, a seven-year-old only acquired a month ago, was a little in awe but O’Connor ensured a red-letter day for show jumping.
“It was really special to be the first show jumper to jump a fence in Croke Park,” he said.
“I was a little concerned that the horse might have been overawed by the occasion, but thankfully he played ball and, who knows, he might win a competition here one day,” joked the Meath-based rider.
“Full credit to Horse Sport Ireland’s chief executive Damian McDonald and the Croke Park management for making it happen.”
Horse Sport Ireland has presented a request to Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney for a share of the €55m distributed to the thoroughbred and greyhound sectors. Yesterday Varadkar noted the importance of the sport horse industry, saying it contributes €700m annually to the economy. He noted that equestrian sport was the only code to win medals at both the Olympics and Paralympics.
He also spoke of the “improvement brought about by Horse Sport Ireland’s anti-doping programme and that no horse ridden by an Irish rider in international competition had tested positive in five years and I know we all want to keep it that way.”
Unsurprisingly, O’Connor was the star attraction, having also featured on the team that lifted the Aga Khan trophy at this year’s Dublin Horse Show, along with Sligo’s Darragh Kerins, Kilkenny’s Richie Moloney and Clones rider Clem McMahon, under manager Robert Splaine. The same team — with O’Connor replaced by Shane Breen — had already won the Nations Cup at Hickstead and each was duly honoured yesterday.
Also feted was the Irish eventing team of Michael Ryan, Joseph Murphy, Camilla Speirs, Aoife Clarke and Mark Kyle, which placed fifth in the Olympics, while Helen Kearney was lauded for her triple medal win on her debut at the Paralympics.