Amongst those in attendance at yesterday morning’s launch of the 2016 flat season at the Curragh were the legendary figures of Jim Bolger, Dermot Weld and Johnny Murtagh who, true to form, entertained as they spoke of past, present and future, often throwing and receiving good-humoured jibes.
One figure present who has the potential to scale the same heights is the upwardly mobile Michael O’Callaghan, who trains out of the Crotanstown Stud yard on the plains.
There’s nothing unusual about the best part of 25 years separating trainer and jockey, except, perhaps, when it’s the rider with the quarter of a century more experience than the handler.
Such is the case of the rather surprising but effective partnership which the 27-year-old O’Callaghan has forged with six-time champion jockey of Britain Kieren Fallon.
And, in 10 days’ time, the two could be celebrating classic success together – O’Callaghan his first, Fallon his umpteenth.
“This is a good move for me,” insisted Fallon, when news broke of his agreement to take the position of stable jockey to the up-and-coming handler. And nothing since has changed his mind.
Speaking at the yard, he confirmed: “It’s great, and there are plenty of nice horses here, plenty to look forward to. It has been a little bit of a slow start to the season, but things are going to pick up from now. And we’ve got a serious filly for the Guineas.”
Asked if he had to think long and hard about the move, he replied: “I was happy in California, and deep down didn’t think I would (make the return). But then I came back to see the kids, and when I came over here I was impressed.
“Michael is young, he started with a handful of horses and now has a yard full of horses – that doesn’t happen by chance. He’s very sharp, has a great eye for a horse, doesn’t spend a lot of money but gets a lot of success – he reminds me of Kevin Prendergast, that way.”
O’Callaghan, as precious a trainer as some of his juveniles proved to be in 2015, recounts making first contact with Fallon: “I took a chance, and it worked out. But it still hasn’t really sunk in.
“The first ten times I said it in my head, I thought it was mad, but I just chanced it one day. We were getting bigger, and I would like to have a rider who could come in in the mornings and ride work and ride them on the track.
“You might think it was a big call, but it wasn’t. I remember the evening I rang him, around Christmas time, I was rattling picking up the phone to ring him, but he was so good, and said he’d love the opportunity. And we’ve hit it off since.
“Kieren is a massive team player, is in every morning, and all the young lads look up to him. He’s been there, done that, got it wrong, and got it right a lot of times, as well.
“He’s a big kid – the biggest messer in the place. There’s a fierce happiness around the yard when he’s here, but he instils it in the young lads that they have to be professional.”
Very early in the partnership, the most serious business of classic potential has arisen and Fallon’s experience could prove invaluable as they bid for Irish 1000 Guineas success with Now Or Never on Sunday week.
“Every year I look at the Classics, because they’ve been lucky races for me, especially in England,” said Fallon. “Between the 1000 and 2000 Guineas in England, I’ve won them nine times and I was hoping, if the ground had been right, Now Or Never could have gone there.
“The way it has worked out is probably better as she has had time to come to herself. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I don’t really care what’s in the race. I’m going there with a live chance.
“I was thinking of retiring a few years ago, but then I got on a good horse in Dubai, and then came back and won the Guineas on Night Of Thunder for Richard Hannon. That kick-started me again, so hopefully this filly will keep it going.”
O’Callaghan, who consigned horses for the breeze-up sales prior to taking out a training licence, has maintained a strong link with those sales, and gets particular satisfaction from the fact Now Or Never and Blue De Vega, amongst many others at the yard, were sourced through the same channels.
Being a classic contender may be old hat to Fallon, but it’s new ground to O’Callaghan, who is relishing the prospect: “It’s hugely exciting. This is why you start training, and I get a great kick out of buying the horses myself. Last year I only bought three breezers, and two of them are running in the Guineas in less than two weeks’ time.
“You have to put the odds in your favour by putting the work into how you select the horses. That’s why I like the breeze-ups so much. I was a consignor before I started training, and had inside knowledge how it works, and how important some factors are in what happens in a breeze.
“It allows you to rule out some more ‘what-ifs’. There are no walking races, so when you can see them gallop it’s a bit of a no-brainer to buy from the breeze-ups. It’s working out with Now Or Never and Blue De Vega, and we have some nice two-year-olds this year which have come from the breeze-ups.”
Of Now Or Never, who completed her Guineas prep with a scintillating performance in Sunday’s trial at Leopardstown, he added: “Her work is over, really. You take that race as her last major piece of work. She’ll do a half-speed next Tuesday, and that will leave her right.”
Back in the 1800s, reveals the trainer’s impressive website, ocallaghanracing.com, the stud was the home of legendary gambler Buck Whaley, and the tradition, it would seem, lives on as there have been some nice touches landed since O’Callaghan took residence.
But it is the emulation of another former employee of the yard which is foremost in O’Callaghan’s mind. The site also reveals that Fallon’s former boss, Aidan O’Brien once worked with PJ Finn, who operated from the same yard in the ‘80s.
There are hills to be climbed, bridges to be crossed, and long and winding roads to be negotiated before O’Callaghan can be spoken of in the same breath as the master of Ballydoyle, but every indication thus far suggests this resident of Crotanstown Stud is another Classic winner in waiting. As soon as Saturday week, perhaps.
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