Growing up in a housing estate in Tralee, Michael O’Callaghan would not have been a likely candidate to be a racehorse trainer for Dubai and Qatari royalty. As the Flat season kicks into gear following the conclusion of the jumps season, the 28-year-old reflects on his journey to here and looks ahead to the future.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
— Muhammad Ali
Michael O’Callaghan needed something to distract himself temporarily from the business of training and trading racehorses.
Making model trains wasn’t going to cut it though. If he was going to have a hobby, it would have to not just assume control of his focus completely for the period that he was engaged in it, but get the heart racing too.
He had always been intrigued by flying and having taken a few flights over and back to race meetings and sales in England on a six-seater Cessna last year, resolved to qualify himself for a front seat rather than a back one.
It is a recurring theme in his story.
O’Callaghan started taking lessons before Christmas and controlled his first solo flight in January.
He has around 26 hours clocked, 10 of which are solo. He needs 45 to get his licence and though the demands of the summer mean he has less time on his hands, O’Callaghan intends to get that done in the coming months.
Up in the clouds, you cannot afford to be distracted by what next to do with your best horse or your worst one, the eye-watering bills and the absolute necessity to win big and sell big, in order to keep the business afloat. It is the ultimate stress-buster.
“It gives you a bit of head space,” explains the articulate young handler. “You have to focus completely on it when you’re up there. You have to forget about everything else. I have found it very enjoyable to switch off for an hour or two every so often.”
His face cracks into a wide smile as he considers that ground-breaking solo flight.
“Ah savage. You’re bricking yourself. But the minute you touch down after your first solo landing, the rush of adrenaline is like nothing else. I’d say it’s like riding a winner.”
Or maybe the first time he sat on a pony as a 12-year-old, the first good touch landed at the breeze-up sales, the initial winner or maiden Group victor?
“Yeah, a real sense of exhilaration and sense of achievement. Ah it’s great.”
What is remarkable about Michael O’Callaghan is that all those landmark moments have arrived in a very short space of time.
At just 28, he has improved his tally of winners each season and last year, broke through the €1m barrier for prizemoney accumulated.
In the process, he has established a firm reputation for doing smart business at the breeze-up sales — initially as a vendor but now as a buyer. All this despite not having any natural advantages in terms of environment, and in what is acknowledged as the most competitive era in the history of Irish racing.
Growing up in a housing estate in Tralee, you don’t become a racehorse trainer, operating out of a yard that produced 12 Classic winners in a different era and now houses more than 50 horses, many of them Stakes class operators owned by members of the Dubai and Qatari royalty. It is just the most unlikely progression. But for O’Callaghan, impossible is nothing.
He is the eighth Michael O’Callaghan. It was the sixth, his grandfather, who unwittingly sent him on his current path. After his retirement, grandad had more time on his hands and having dabbled with the odd bet before, now focused on some of the more exotic accumulators. It was small scale, as much about passing the time as anything else. He would pour through the declarations that were printed in the Evening Echo and make his selections for the following day.
The young fella was often around as he only lived up the street. It was his introduction.
“He’d have a bit of interest there for the day, sitting waiting for the result to come through on the Teletext,” O’Callaghan reminisces with obvious fondness. “He’d refresh and if a horse was after winning there’d be an almighty roar out of him. I never got into betting but that was the only reason I was watching racing, if it was on the telly.”
Michael O’Callaghan VII had no interest, apart from chancing his arm on the Grand National like the rest of the country. He and Sandra did everything they could for the children, but money was scarce for the ESB employee and his wife, who was a cleaner in the hospital. So when young Michael took the notion that he’d like to ride a pony, there was nothing they could do. They lived in the heart of the town, had nowhere to keep a horse and couldn’t afford riding lessons anyway. But a friend’s mother sent the two of them to Kennedy’s Equine Centre for a few lessons. He was hooked.
“I knew then that all I wanted to do was ride ponies. It was just taking to it so quickly and the instructor was saying ‘You’re a natural’. Sure I felt great. It was my first time on a horse and after a couple of days I was jumping, doing 360s on the saddle. It was amazing. I thought I was great.”
His parents found McElligott’s Horse Riding Centre, a trekking school in Spa where he could spend the whole morning during his holidays. He quickly advanced to working there, mucking out the boxes and trekking ponies by the beach. By the time he finished at 15, he was leading tours.
“The lady that owned it wanted me to go show jumping but I had no interest in that. All I wanted to do was go faster. A brother of mum’s best friend, Brendan Walsh, was head lad in Tom Cooper’s so he got me a start there in 2004, just a few months after Total Enjoyment had won at Cheltenham. He used to collect me at the house during the holidays. I loved it.”
Farmer’s Bridge was nirvana, an oasis of racehorses that was much rarer than the sight of a scarcely-viewed hurley in this football-mad landscape. By this stage, his father had left ESB and with partner Thomas Fitzmaurice, set up utility infrastructural development company TLI Group that is now employing more than 400 people. In 2004, two years in business, he bought 30 acres in Clahane, just outside Tralee, and built a new home.
With his only son showing such a passion for horses, he began to take an interest himself, wanting to share in the experience. Having gotten some advice from Peter and Des Dundon, cousins of Sandra’s who had been breeders for many years, he bought a mare. She was soon joined by a gelding that had broken down while being exercised at Cooper’s.
O’Callaghan, horrified to learn that the stricken animal was bound for the factory, begged his father for €900 to buy him. And so, Supreme Action, or Johnny as he affectionately known, decamped to Rangefield House.
“We still have him today. He’s great company for the foals and the yearlings on the stud farm.”
Though he was a talented rider, he had no ambition to be a jockey. Before his Leaving Cert results had landed, he was off to Kilsheelan Stud to prep yearlings and moved on to work with the stallions at Castlehyde. A bright future beckoned within Coolmore, where Paul Shanahan was an outstanding mentor but O’Callaghan chose another path when his father sold a Galileo foal for €200,000.
It was decided that that the proceeds would go into establishing themselves in the thoroughbred industry. They would re-evaluate every five years but the bottom line was that it would need to pay for itself. Rangefield Bloodstock was formed and they were officially in partnership. The teenager bought a couple of foals to pinhook (to sell as yearling sales). As the one with the knowledge, he had to leave Castlehyde to oversee that process. In time they would breed a number of winners themselves and the farm is ultra-modern, with a walker, lunge ring, array of paddocks and a vibrating floor that is helpful to horses recovering from injury. It is where many Crotanstown inmates go when they are on the easy list.
O’Callaghan did take the Irish National Stud management course in 2008, which is where he met his fiancée Siobhain O’Sullivan, who is now a key part of the Crotanstown operation. When he was ready to expand his investment in buying and selling young stock, he determined that a return home would remove him from the centre of activities. He needed to be around Kildare.
So they rented Millgrove Stud in Rathangan but it was a one-man band in practical terms, O’Callaghan riding the horses, getting them fit and educated. He kept turning a profit. To cut down on the number of trips to The Curragh, he built a two-furlong circle gallop, in a yard remember, that he didn’t own.
“It was a brave move” he says chuckling. Some might say madness but it paid for itself fairly quickly. He bought a two-year-old filly in Tracey Collins’s yard named Bogini, with a few to breeding from her. She won her maiden in Down Royal and he took her home for the winter. Looking at her out in the paddock, he got the notion to get a restricted licence and train her himself. She won three in a row, the first across the water.
“Martin Brew, who’s still with me, stalled the lorry going up the hill to Bath two or three times. I didn’t think we’d ever get there! The filly went out and she won five lengths. Brew led her back in, tears running down his face. He had trained winners himself and been head man to James Burns, he’s in his 60s now, but he just got a kick out of it and I got a massive kick out of it.”
The next season, five of the colts he sold at the breeze-ups won first-time out, multiplying their value in the process. It dawned on O’Callaghan that he was missing out and should back his judgement in a deeper way, using the Ger Lyons business model as his guide. Buy horse, get form in the book, sell at a profit. And repeat, while improving quality gradually.
In 2013, O’Callaghan moved to Crotanstown. The next year, Rapid Applause ended his two-year-old campaign as a Classic hope and though injury scuppered that dream, people were taking notice.
In 2015, Letters Of Note supplied a first Listed winner and the campaign ended with Blue De Vega coasting to Group 3 success. Now Or Never collected another Group 3 early last term.
The common denominator among that quartet is that they were all purchased by O’Callaghan at the breeze-up sales and sold at a considerable profit. He was showing not just an ability to spot a good one cheap, but also to map a programme and have his charge ready on the big day. Blue De Vega and Now Or Never were both bought by Qatar Racing and finished third in the Irish 2000 and 1000 Guineas respectively.
“The goal when you’re selling horses on is to get to keep them in the yard and that’s why it was great when we got Qatar in and they started leaving horses in the yard. Getting owners like that behind you is great. I’ve five or six for them now. I’ve 12 for Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, who is now my biggest owner. I have some very well-bred horses for him including eight two-year-olds.”
It was Blue De Vega’s Killavullan success that caught Sheikh Mohammed’s eye and now he wants to compete at that sort of level regularly. He is relishing the challenge and having fancied runners in the Classics last year was a vital learning curve.
“It was a new experience but I was comfortable with it and mad keen for it. It didn’t overwhelm me. Both of them finished placed in the Guineas and I was very disappointed that weekend but everybody was patting me on the back.”
He has never forgotten his roots or his journey and it is notable that O’Callaghan looks to cater for every style of owner, establishing a variety of relatively affordable syndicates. It is part of his bid to open up the sport. His website is full of information including winners’ blogs, while typical of his generation, he is very active on social media through which he issues monthly newsletters. He has also published end-of-season magazines in the last two years. His syndicates have regular communication too and there is an open-door policy in the yard. He always felt an outsider, particularly when attempting to get going as a trainer and so wants to make racing more accessible, to demystify it.
“Coming from Kerry trying to get into Flat racing, it was always going to be like that. The only trainer from Kerry to break into Flat racing I’d say was Tommy Stack. You’d go to Goffs and lads hear a Kerry accent, you could see people looking at you. Racing is very closed and even when you get into it, it’s hard to get advice from people. It is real old school and if you don’t know much about it, you needn’t bother asking. You have to learn from your mistakes and you have to learn from your first mistake and don’t make it again ‘cos it’s very costly with horses. As the saying goes, you’ve to pay to go to college. But when you do start to prove yourself and make a bit of an impression, people are a lot more open and a lot more inviting and they accept you a bit more.
“It’s opening up a lot more now with social media and the Young Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association is a great thing. The biggest thing in horse racing is contacts. If you don’t know people, you’re not going to get into places because someone who does know someone will get in before you.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. His ambition and chutzpah got multiple champion Kieren Fallon to kick off last year as stable jockey but the partnership didn’t last as the Clare genius retired when diagnosed with depression. O’Callaghan has no regrets on that score though, revealing that he and his young riders learned so much from Fallon. There is also a sense of satisfaction that it took returning to Ireland and going to the Turf Club’s chief medical officer Dr Adrian McGoldrick for the jockey to finally be diagnosed.
Another test arrived soon after Fallon’s departure when the yard was struck down by a virus. Thankfully, it didn’t linger.
“That was kind of unnerving as it was the first time it happened to me; for them to be running so well and then fall of a cliff. They weren’t very sick but we knew there was something wrong with them. It lasted about six weeks so we ran very few horses in that period. We just battened down the hatches and rode it out. We got them out again and they started to win again before the end of the season and we finished with 19 winners for the year overall.”
Blue De Vega remains the flagbearer. Having initially been thought of as a Derby horse because of pedigree, O’Callaghan is convinced that Blue is now in fact suited to sharper distances.
“There’s something different about him. He just has a bigger engine than anything else, a different attitude and he has a presence about him. I’ve never had a Group 1 winner but he’s been placed in a Group 1 at a distance that maybe is not the optimum for him. We’ve brought him back and maybe if we can find his optimum distance, he can break through at that level. It’s very exciting for us. It’s also great that Sheikh Fahad left him with us and let me try something new with him. Obviously if it does work he’ll be a valuable horse with stallion potential.”
There is pressure in making that call.
“You’re afraid to make a wrong move. It’s a big decision to do that. They’ll go along with me but it’s my idea so if it goes wrong that’s on me. But I don’t feel any of that pressure from the owners. They’re great. You put that pressure on yourself.
“Before coming to that decision you’ve changed your mind a thousand times. You’re going to bed thinking about it, you get up in the morning wondering: ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ I bounce the ideas off the owners, off my father but mostly I’ll bounce them off myself. I’ll tease them out. I might put it out there in conversation with someone, see the reaction, then go home and think about it. You can’t just flippantly make these decisions in fairness.”
It comes with being in the front seat. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Five to follow
BLUE DE VEGA
“This year he seems to be showing a lot more speed. He has filled out and gotten stronger. He’s a bit hard on himself, is very competitive and when he sees other horses around he wants to take them on. So Shane Kelly goes off on his own with him at home and he gets on really well with him. Hopefully that’s the key to him this year. He’s being aimed at the Greenlands and we’ll make further plans then depending on how that goes.”
“He was my first Group performer, rated in the top 50 two-year-olds in the world. At the start of his three-year-old year he got quite sick and we had to give him a long time off. Then his first run back he got a leg and he spent the whole of last year off. He’s five now but I see a spark in him again. It was nice to get him back to the winner’s enclosure and there might be a premier handicap in him.”
DE BOSS MAN
“He’s really muscled up and developed into a proper sprinter. I was very happy with his run in Navan. It was a Listed race but it was more like a Group 2 and he’s a big horse who needs a couple of runs to get the weight off. He’ll be a nice horse for the summer and we’ll aim for the three-year-old only handicap in the Curragh.”
“A two-year-old filly that was second first time out in Navan. She has plenty of size and natural speed. She’s just had a touch of a sore shin but will be out again in a few weeks. She looks a filly capable of picking up bit of black type.”
ACT OF VALOUR
“I was very pleased with him at Roscommon, where he did it easily. He is progressing well and might step up to pattern company now, looking at something like the Hampton Court at Royal Ascot.”
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