Tom O’Connor: ‘We’re only picking them out of lucky bags. You never know’

It wasn’t just the connections of Lilshane that were smiling when the 11-year-old pulled away to win the veterans chase at Navan on Saturday by six lengths.

Tom O’Connor: ‘We’re only picking them out of lucky bags. You never know’

It wasn’t just the connections of Lilshane that were smiling when the 11-year-old pulled away to win the veterans chase at Navan on Saturday by six lengths.

These are the type of contests the racing public REALLY enjoy, the contestants not being any younger than 10 and thus well known by virtue of longevity, if not always consistent success. That is one of the enduring attractions of the national hunt sphere, in stark contrast to flat racing, where the policy of retiring successful two-year-olds to stud is being deployed increasingly.

Lilshane is what is known euphemistically as a ‘character’ or ‘loveable rogue’. Were he to have never won, he would not be associated with any of those admiring colloquialisms. The commentary would be much more severe and he would almost certainly not be a racehorse by now.

But racehorse he is, cared for as if he were Galileo by his 72-year-old trainer, Tom O’Connor and his grandchildren in Dirha, Listowel. Because he puts it in to good effect just enough, he is like those messers in class that teachers secretly enjoy – no bad in them but good craic.

O’Connor is a well-known former businessman around Listowel, where owned a dry-cleaning operation as well as the popular pub, The Kingdom Bar. He had always dabbled in horses as a pastime, though initially focusing on show jumping.

Around 15 years ago, he retired and turned his attention to racing. It was never with a view to taking on the world though. It remained a hobby but one he could put a bit more time into. He bought a few horses of his own and took out a restricted licence, which means that he can only ever have four in full training at any one time.

Kilcummin and Radical Treasure were his first runners, Minnie Turbo his first winner in a lady riders’ bumper at Killarney in 2004. Such occasions have arrived only sporadically since – indeed O’Connor has entered the winner’s enclosure just seven more times, albeit from very few runners.

The last six of those victories have come since the start of 2015 however, and are all courtesy of Lilshane. The 11-year-old is certainly quirky. He has planted himself at the start and refused to race on occasion, run out a couple of times and just made no attempt to put his best foot forward on others. Yet those six wins maintain his credit rating. The first two were in O’Connor’s own colours but Lilshane is now owned by Shane Pegley, a native of Newcastle outside Dublin, who lives in Abbeyfeale.

“I liked his size and scope and he has a beautiful temperament at home” says O’Connor of what attracted him to his stable star.

“When he’s on song he’s good. We gallop him around the fields, along a cross-country course, into a stream along the end of my place up along the back road. He’s getting sweeter as a result of that. He’s getting a bit more independent.

“The advantage of being a small man, you can give them that extra bit of attention. He was grand when he was riding with other horses. You could never put him riding on his own. So that’s changed. We put blinkers on him and practically covered his eyes at home. The big yards wouldn’t put up with that kind of hassle.

It’s a mental thing with him. It’s not that he’s ungenuine but he gets himself so wound-up once he hits the parade ring that he’s capable of anything.

“His first few races, he was okay but when he knew he was racing he got wound up. When the bell would ring in the parade ring, he could carry you anywhere really.”

Fellow Listowel man, Kevin Brouder appears to get a particularly good tune out of Lilshane and Saturday’s triumph was his third on board the Beneficial gelding. It was the first time they had renewed acquaintances since winning at Limerick over Christmas. Lilshane’s form figures in between read REF, PU and PU so though it hasn’t been plain sailing for O’Connor’s young neighbour, who has been unseated twice as his old mate made a sudden decision to alter course and run out, it is apparent that Brouder has as good a chance of relaxing him as anyone.

“I was up in the stands and I watched him jumping the first fence and I knew when he jumped that well his mind was on the job. Kevin started here with me when he was 10 years old. He’s got two brothers as well that are jockeys, Gavin and Gearóid, who rides on the flat. They’ve been with me since they were children.

“Kevin is a good rider. He’s got a very good racing brain. He lives at home and so he can come into me but he rides out a lot in the Curragh as well, and does a bit for Paddy Neville and Davy Fitz(gerald), and rides out a lot for Charles Byrnes.”

Unsurprisingly, O’Connor is a big fan of the veterans’ chases and the opportunities they give older horses that may be caught between two stools.

“It’s given the likes of him another life. Some of them are very sound, those older jumpers, and he is like that. We’d be delighted if there were a couple more of them on the programme and there are plenty of horses for them, that are caught a bit. Jumpers at that age tend to be very sound. They wouldn’t be racing otherwise. They’re injury free most of their lives. This fella has hardly ever been injured.”

Madaboy Cross is one of two full sisters to Lilshane that Pegley owns – the other being Aimin For Anna – but she got injured in the course of running quite well when seventh of 17 at Punchestown last month. She is receiving physiotherapy treatment at the moment and O’Connor believes that she will follow in the footsteps of her brother and register at least one victory.

Looking to the future, he has recently broken in a Trans Island gelding but knows the odds are against him.

“It’s hard for the small man. The big boys with deep pockets are buying winners. We’re only picking them out of lucky bags. You never know. But you’re always hoping.”

So why, at 72, is he doing it?

“I’m fond of the horses and I’m retired. I’ve been in horses all the years and I’ve time to do this now. It was always a bit of a hobby.

“We have room at the moment for two horses and I’d take them if someone is looking to send horses somewhere. We have our own schooling round and our own gallop, and a gallop beside me that is four and a half furlongs.”

Whoever might arrive at the yard though, Lilshane will be the boss.

“There are very few options for him when there aren’t those veterans’ chances. I think there’s a race in the 18th in Fairyhouse for Navan for novices and we’ll have a go at it. He handles every ground bar heavy so that’s a positive as well. He’s pretty versatile that way.

“There’d be days you’d be fit to kill him and give up on him, do you know what I mean? But that’s the way he is and he’s good enough to win races when he wants to. You’d be fond of him now. He’s an oul’ pet here. The grandchildren do be grooming him and rubbing his belly. Sure it’s great.”

That it is.

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