Connors has Swail in his sights after good run

FRANCIS CONNORS has become the leading challenger to Conor Swail in his ambition to become Kerrygold Grand Prix League champion.

Connors has come into the picture following his win, second place and fourth in three competitions last weekend.

The Kill, Co Waterford rider garnered his points aboard Bobby Flynn’s Cruise Way and now boasts a total of 54, with Swail on 77.5.

Connors opened his account at Ballina on Friday, coming second to Lieutenant Shane Carey, the Army rider having over a second to spare on Laughton’s Lass. Paul O’Shea and Liffey Valley, the horse owned by the late Hazel O’Callaghan, slotted into third place at the Mayo contest.

Connors went one better at the Limerick and District Show on Saturday. He was the only rider to come home clear in a six-horse jump-off.

Linda Courtney was the fastest of the four-faulters, on Kilrush, with Connors again featuring in third place on Erne Touch. Lt Danielle Quinlivan, riding Abby, Paul O’Shea with Liffey Valley and Richie Moloney aboard Appollinaire made up the minor placings.

The following day, the grand prix bandwagon travelled the relatively short distance to Newcastle West. There, Connors had to settle for fourth place, as Paul O’Shea confirmed his arrival with his debut grand prix win on Liffey Valley.

While Connors is within striking distance of taking over the league leader’s mantle, he is philosophical about his chances of winning the title: “I’ll keep plugging away and, if it comes, well and good, but Conor could just as easily win this weekend.”

At Dungarvan Show yesterday the six-times national champion said he had misgivings about the hard ground, suggesting it could curtail his grand prix campaign, particularly with the Kerrygold Horse Show in the offing.

Connors and Swail travel to New Ross (tomorrow) and Waterford Show on Sunday, with 10 and 15 points, respectively, on offer to the winner. Waterford being Connors’ home turf, he may have the advantage and has won the grand prix there twice.

However Swail, national speed champion in 1996 and national champion in Salthill in 1997, is adamant the league title is one he would like to add to his CVhe says winning the league is a major ambition, particularly as it is a measure of consistency.

The Co Down rider acknowledges Connors is a formidable adversary: “He’s creeping up on me and had a number of good results last weekend. But, in a way, it’s better for the public, as I was running away with it.”

As for the pressure: “Hopefully, I’ll handle it OK. It’s easier if you have the ammunition and, at present, I have a lot of it (in Edward Cawley’s Windgate’s-titled string of horses). Ultimately, if I lose the title, I’ll blame myself.”

Meanwhile, Limerickman Paul O’Shea says he is eyeing bigger fish and will save Liffey Valley for next month’s Kerrygold Horse Show and Millstreet Show rather than compete in the grand prix this weekend.

In winning at Newcastle West (in what was only his seventh grand prix), the 25-year-old Kildimo native had over four seconds to spare with a clear round in a time of 48.59 seconds.

Closest to the target was Andrew Dunlop, who stopped the clock in 52.89, with north Cork rider Sarah Kate Quinlivan third on Dad’s Gold in 53.52.

O’Shea dedicated the win to Hazel O’Callaghan, who died tragically earlier this month while unloading a horse at the Kildare yard of her boyfriend, international rider Cian O’Connor: “I am delighted. I just can’t believe it. I wanted the horse to go well for Hazel’s sake, and it did.”

O’Shea, who comes from a farming background and whose father deals in horses, has been based with Cian O’Connor since returning from Sweden, where he spent seven years honing his skills with riders such as Ralf Goran Bengtsson and Maria Gretzer.

It is these skills he hopes will some day help him realise his ambition: to win a place on the Irish team.

CAMERON HANLEY, riding Claydon’s Phoenix, was the best of the Irish in last Sunday’s Chester Grand Prix, finishing sixth, with John Popely and Luidam taking the plaudits.

Earlier, Hanley and Rodrigo were fifth behind third-placed Corkman Billy Twomey with Anastasia in the DMS Championship. On the dame day, Jessica Kurten rode Preishammer to victory in a two-phase contest at the CSI-A at Redefin, Germany.

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