The link between GAA and horseracing has always been significant, long before Willie McCreery was galloping up and down Croke Park and then becoming a Group One-winning trainer.
There is no great mystery to it, given the GAA’s predominance in rural areas, and those rustic landscapes invariably being inhabited by a horse or pony of some nature.
Clare is not your traditional breeding ground for racing professionals but citizens of this parish will know all about the grá that exists for the equine sport from the enthusiasm of Irish Examiner columnist Anthony Daly.
When Daly lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the second time in 1997, Clare were completing an unimaginable double at Croke Park, having earlier won what remains the county’s only All-Ireland minor title.
Brian McMahon, cousin of senior deity Seanie and brother of long-serving Bannerman Diarmuid, was among the teenagers that made history that day but falling in with some racing nuts in college changed his life and he is now establishing a reputation as a shrewd trainer while working full-time as a biochemist.
Ger O’Loughlin was another of Daly’s compadres and ‘The Sparrow’ went on to succeed him as Clare manager.
O’Loughlin was luckier than his brother Victor, who soldiered many years for the county but missed out on the glory days. Their sister Sharon is married to another Clare hero, the current Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald.
Victor’s son Gearóid grew up dreaming of Croke Park but now Cheltenham is his Holy Grail. As manager of Chris Jones’ Killeen Glebe farm just outside Dunsany and trainer of an expanding string stacked with quality, he is an operator to stay on the right side of.
Perhaps surprisingly, he has never gotten the band back together to form a racing syndicate.
“Dalo would be the first one in”, chuckles O’Loughlin. “I must do it because I am flat out looking at horses around the country at the minute. It is a great time to buy a horse.
“Myself and Sparrow would keep a share or two in a horse. He is mad keen on it. But at the same time, he wouldn’t be throwing away money. You would have good oul’ craic with them.
I asked Davy before a good few years ago. I was only talking to Sharon earlier, she was saying, ‘You must give Davy a few tips!’ So he’s interested alright. The thing with them lads, is do they ever have time to go racing?
His education has been rich and varied, spending time under the wings of Tom Costello, Enda Bolger and Martin Brassil before running a yard of 25 in Coolcullen for Jim Bolger. Little wonder he got the job as farm manager, pre-trainer and assistant to Andy Lynch. When the opportunity came to succeed Lynch, he jumped at it.
A 200-acre farm, Killeen Glebe is a business. The training side is only a part of it. Jones is a very successful businessman but he does not vie for €400,000 point-to-point winners. That isn’t to say he won’t look for value from that sphere but predominantly, he participates in the more speculative but significantly less wallet-lightening route of buying foals.
They are reared and gradually educated by O’Loughlin and his team. Some go on to be trained by others, most notably Henry de Bromhead. Others will be sold and one or two will stay in familiar surroundings.
Even those based in other yards return to the Meath air on their holidays and begin their conditioning there again before commencing their new campaigns from their normal bases. It might be frustrating if you were of a particular mindset but O’Loughlin knew the job and what’s more, having proven his ability to reinvigorate the likes of Space Cadet, who won the Ulster National for him just before lockdown, he has been supported by the boss. The number of promising neophytes remaining have been kept at home but the headline news is the relocation of Group Two-winning hurdler and Triumph Hurdle runner-up, Coeur Sublime from Gordon Elliott’s yard, after his form trailed off last term.
“There have been excuses for Coeur Sublime, for the Champion Hurdle and maybe even for the day he was third in Leopardstown. I have a lot of work done with him now since then. He is after turning into a lovely horse. I am delighted with him. I ride him myself every day. He is back to the way he was in Down Royal when he won so impressively last year and he’ll be following a similar route.
“I am as busy now as I would be all year, pre-training, trying to get a few of them out to trainers. Largy Debut is a lovely horse we bought off Stuart Crawford. He will go to Henry. There are some other nice horses that will go out as well. But I can’t complain. The likes of Coeur Sublime and Cedarwood Road are only five-years-olds. Then I have four or five horses that should be gone to the sales but they are still about.
“We sell horses on the farm and keep the farm running. There are five three-year-olds now. I can’t see a sale happening in Ireland. I would be delighted to have one or two of them. It costs a few hundred thousand to run the farm every year. If you can have six foals running around the place on 200 acres and we can manage them and pull them in and turn a few quid on them, then it makes sense. But it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Cedarwood Road is one who has never left the farm and was a Listed scorer at Naas over hurdles in March. He is bound for the larger obstacles and is another with vast potential. Given O’Loughlin schools all his horses over fences from the time they are three, the Stowaway gelding won’t want for experience on debut.
I think he would be better for going chasing. If you look at him jumping a hurdle, he is hurdling well, but he is a little big. If you have to step up to big-boy territory hurdling, that might be costly. He would be better over fences. He is a beautiful horse over fences.
Mitchouka and Sidetracked are two more he is optimistic about in the season ahead having relished the less hectic routine of Killeen Glebe, along with Space Cadet. Noble Endeavour and Mala Beach are two other old favourites currently with him, though retirement may be looming for the latter. And there are one or two juveniles that have him dreaming of winter and spring glory.
Naturally, every plan is discussed with Jones and O’Loughlin has found de Bromhead, Elliott and Arthur Moore very generous with their counsel. Elliott is the ideal role model, proving that a background in racing isn’t necessary to reach the top of the ladder.
Galway’s seven-day summer festival gets underway this week and O’Loughlin will have a few representatives.
“Jarob might run in the three-mile handicap hurdle. Whatsyourstatus, a horse I own myself, he loves Galway. He was third in the handicap there last year. He hasn’t ran since. And I have another filly that I like, Fanoir, who will run in a mares’ bumper. She is sister to Whatsyourstatus.”
Whatever unfolds, one suspects that the best is yet to come. With or without the hurling legends.