O’Callaghan seeks his big breakthrough on Ireland’s grandest stage

Michael O’Callaghan with his Matron Stakes hope Now Or Never. Photo: Healy Racing/Racingfotos.com

It’s not only the richest weekend in the Irish racing calendar, it’s also the most significant one outside America for ‘Win and You’re In’ qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup. And Irish Champions’ Weekend this Saturday and Sunday could also be a landmark occasion for Michael O’Callaghan, one of the most talked-about young trainers in the country.

O’Callaghan’s Now Or Never goes into the Matron Stakes, a qualifier for the Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita at the Breeders’ Cup meeting on November 4 and 5, with a great chance of becoming the trainer’s first G1 winner. But more of that later.

The Matron is actually the No.2 race on Saturday’s card at Leopardstown - behind the Irish Champion Stakes (a qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf), which could see a clash between the Dermot Weld-trained Epsom and Irish Derby winner Harzand and Aidan O’Brien’s spectacular six-time G1-winning filly Minding. With French Derby hero Almanzor and possibly Weld’s British Champion Stakes winner Fascinating Rock both out to spoil the party.

The action moves to the Curragh on Sunday and, in all, there are five ‘Win and You’re In’ races over the two days. More of that later too.

But back to O’Callaghan. When exactly did he first spring to prominence? It’s difficult to know. It has been a gradual thing,

Bogini racked up a hat-trick of wins in the summer of 2012, two wins in Britain, a handicap at Sandown and a handicap at Bath, before she came back to Leopardstown and won a fillies’ conditions race. Maybe that was the start of it. Then Bogini went to the Curragh on Oaks weekend and finished fourth in the Rockingham Handicap.

Jouster made his debut for O’Callaghan in a handicap at Yarmouth in Britain, a first-time hood replacing the cheekpieces that had been sported sporadically before that, and duly won.

Sharp learning trajectory

In 2012, O’Callaghan had just one winner in Ireland – Bogini in that fillies’ race at Leopardstown – but he had three in Britain. It is difficult not to draw parallels with top Irish National Hunt trainer Gordon Elliott, who sent his horses across the water to compete in Britain in the early days of his career – he still does – and who trained the winner of the Aintree Grand National (Silver Birch, 2007) before he had had a winner in Ireland.

And look how the Gordon Elliott story is turning out.

Michael O’Callaghan is not from a racing background. Actually, his great grandfather was a farrier, and his grandfather liked a bet. He remembers sitting with his grandfather and helping him to pick four horses for his accumulator, then watching the television or (more often) the teletext to see how the horses fared.

A native of Tralee in County Kerry, young Michael’s first involvement with horses was with ponies at a local trekking yard. The ponies were great, but he quickly knew that he wanted to go a little bit faster than the ponies were able to take him.

He started working for local trainer Tom Cooper, trainer of Arkle Trophy winner Forpadydeplasterer and Champion Bumper winner Total Enjoyment, father of top National Hunt rider Bryan. That was some schooling. Tom Cooper was a great boss and young O’Callaghan’s learning curve went on an exponential trajectory.

An aptitude for pinhooking

But O’Callaghan wanted to learn about all aspects of the Thoroughbred business. He joined Kilsheelan Stud in County Tipperary, where he worked with yearlings, then moved to Castle Hyde in County Cork, where he worked with stallions, all the while expanding his knowledge base. Then he did the Irish National Stud course, where it all came together.

The National Stud course is excellent, you learn a little about a lot, you gain an unsurpassed overview of the entire Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries. As importantly, you work with opinion leaders, and you form bonds with your peers, bonds that remain strong through time and beyond national frontiers.

After completing the course, O’Callaghan went out on his own and started pinhooking, buying and selling a few horses, selling a few as yearlings, then going to the breeze-up sales and selling there.

He quickly discovered he was good at this pinhooking business, and the breeze-up horses in particular were doing well. He was a full-time breeze-up consignor for two years. Then, on the second year, he took six horses to the breeze-up sales, sold them well, and five of them won first time out. They were obviously much more valuable then as maiden winners than they were as breeze-up horses, so he thought, why not have a go at training them himself?

A continuing momentum

One winner in Ireland in 2012 grew to two in 2013, nine in 2014 and 15 in 2015. There’s the gradual thing right there. As importantly, he had headline horses in 2015. He was competing in headline races. Blue De Vega won his maiden at Naas in September by five lengths before going on to win the G3 Killavullan Stakes at Leopardstown by three and a half. Now Or Never won her maiden at Galway by five and a half lengths before finishing second in the G2 Futurity Stakes at the Curragh.

Blue De Vega and Now Or Never were both breeze-up purchases, the former bought by O’Callaghan at Goresbridge, the latter at Goffs UK in Doncaster. Having operated successfully as a breeze-up consigner, the trainer knows exactly what he is looking for as a breeze-up purchaser. He knows how you prepare a horse for a breeze-up sale, he knows how to interpret the times that they clock.

Now Or Never breezed early at Doncaster, but she clocked a really good time, up there with the best of the day, and that was sufficient for O’Callaghan to give £42,000 for her. And he had recruited all members of the Now Or Never Partnership that owned her before he got on the plane to come home that evening.

This season, the momentum has continued.

Some 17 winners in Ireland this season so far has eclipsed his best ever in an entire year before this, and we are only just into September. Now Or Never won the G3 1000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown in May, then went on to finish third in the Irish 1000 Guineas and fourth in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot. Blue De Vega finished second behind subsequent Irish 2000 Guineas winner Awtaad in the listed Tetrarch Stakes, then finished third in the Irish 2000 Guineas. Take A Deep Breath finished second in the G3 Silver Flash Stakes after winning her maiden, Mirdif finished third in the G3 Anglesey Stakes.

Ready to run for her life

And some of the top owners are recognising O’Callaghan’s talents. Now Or Never was bought by Qatar Racing after she won her Guineas Trial, while Blue De Vega is owned now by Qatar Racing in partnership with Sheikh Khalifa Abdulla Al Than.

Irish Champions’ Weekend is a big weekend for Irish racing, but it is also potentially a big weekend for O’Callaghan. Now Or Never is not without a good chance in the Matron Stakes.  

We haven’t seen the daughter of Bushranger since she finished fourth in the G1 Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot, but she only has two and a half lengths to find with Matron Stakes favourite Qemah on the bare form of that run, and she hit the front early in the home straight that day. Her trainer reports her in top form, and ready to run for her life. It’s another opportunity for the young trainer to showcase his talents.

The three other ‘Win and You’re In’ qualifiers this weekend for the Breeders’ Cup are:

The G3 Champions Juvenile Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday (for the BC Juvenile Turf).
The G2 Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh on Sunday (for the BC Turf Sprint).
The G1 Moyglare Stud Stakes at the Curragh on Sunday (for the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf)
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