Speaking to the Irish Examiner as he prepared to board a flight from Germany to Canada for the prestigious Spruce Meadows Masters meeting in Calgary which begins today, O’Connor said that the previous Irish approach of trying to gain a high enough placing at the WEG to qualify for the Olympics has now been set aside for a more ambitious target of finishing in the medals.
“Now we’ve won a championship, and we’re a team to be feared by the others,” he said. “Sometimes winning becomes a habit. Let’s go there and try and win a medal and by doing so we’ll qualify as well.”
Ireland didn’t qualify for the last three Olympics, missing out most unfortunately last time when chasing the final slot via the 2015 European Championships in Germany. A clear round from O’Connor and Good Luck would have secured it, but with the pair coasting around the course at Aachen, their round was disturbed and they knocked the next fence. The four faults incurred saw the Irish miss out by less then one fault. However, O’Connor does not believe such bad luck was the reason for the long-running lack of championship success. Frustration among riders over their lack of involvement with the Irish governing body (HSI) was one thing that needed to be addressed. A number of riders, including O’Connor, approached HSI early this year and found an understanding ear in interim CEO James Kennedy.
The result was a new high performance committee of Taylor Vard (Show Jumping Ireland), Michael Blake (rider representative and development manager) and Gerry Mullins (chairman). By March, a new team manager, Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa had been appointed, and a new plan was put in place with championship success and Tokyo 2020 as the targets.
“Pessoa delivered on his promise,” O’Connor said. “He insisted on certain sacrifices with various horses and riders during the year in order to achieve this goal.”
He believes that Pessoa’s decision to save Shane Sweetnam’s horse Chaqui Z for Gothenburg, bypassing the Aga Khan at Dublin Horse Show, was one such sacrifice that helped Ireland win gold.
It is such planning that is the way forward for Ireland, as riders, owners, and management seek to find the right path between jumping at individual events for big purses and lining out in nations cups which are less lucrative but offer the more direct route to championship qualification.
There is so much on the calendar that it is easy to overdo things without proper planning, O’Connor says.
“There are so many shows with good money, like Aachen, Calgary and Barcelona. There’s $3m (€2.5m) on offer in Calgary this week in one class. It’s not necessarily doing more classes that helps you win more — you need a good plan.”
That plan must include the Olympics, the London 2012 bronze-medalist maintains. “The Olympic Games touches the man in the street and that’s where we want to get to. The Europeans is great, the World Championships is great, but it’s all about the Olympics. There’s no money if you win an Olympic medal, but there is much more that comes out of it. If you have medals, it opens other doors.”
The new-found confidence after the European Championship win does not mean there isn’t still work to be done. “We have to nurture the people that are already involved. It’s always easier to push an open door. I think in terms of the Irish federation there’s work to do in giving the owners something. There’s a new CEO (Ronan Murphy) and he’s very keen to look at everything. There’s already been discussion about how to make owning a horse for the Irish team something unique. That’s important — to nurture the owners that we already have. Obviously looking for new ones is important too but we’ve also got to mind the ones we have.”
O”Connor will be competing with his European team-gold and individual-bronze winner Good Luck this week, the horse he understandably describes as one of the most consistent in the world.
“It’s exciting times, but we are all only as good as the horses we are riding. The onus is on us to keep looking for that wonderful horse and then find a way to keep him.”