By: Karim Mekawi, Egypt
Speaking to someone like Cian O'Connor quickly makes you notice what a very sharp person he is, but at the same time you also feel how humble he comes across, as he talks to everyone and anyone. My brief yet thorough experience with him left the great impression of an Irish lad from just around the block, and soon enough you forget he's the man with the Bronze from the London Games, riding his 12-year old Landor S gelding Blue Loyd who only walked into his stables in Ireland last November.
Born into quite a successful family, Cian had Karl Mullen - who was a famous international Rugby player - as his grand father as well as being the god-son to another public figure - Sir Anthony O'Reilly. To those who don't know who Sir O'Reilly is, well he's only Ireland's first billionaire in addition to being the former CEO of Heinz (yes, the international Ketchup company), former international Rugby player and leading shareholder of Waterford Wedgwood which was involved with the manufacture of glass, porcelain and china - in other words not the average business magnate!
Cian - over the years - has proven that he has lived up to his god-father's name by running a successful business and lucrative horse dealing yard, producing young talents of both horses and riders by keeping on the grand legacy of Waterside Stud in County Meath after the passing of the legendary Paul Darragh...
Being the god-son of Sir Anthony O'Reilly must have opened a lot of doors for you. In what ways do you think that happened?
"Yeah, Tony has been fantastic support to me throughout my career, and has been a great mentor and friend. However, this support was somewhat over played by many in the sport and by the media. My main horses in my former years were indeed supplied by the O'Reillys which gave me a super leg up and without a doubt fast tracked my career."
Tell us how your career took off when you trained under Commandant Gerry Mullins from the Army.
"Gerry has been a world-class coach and trainer, he has many aspects to his talents such as his great attention to detail, and you learn a lot of discipline with him with everything you do and with your horse. He's more of a life coach than a coach for show jumping - he's a wonderful guy and also another super friend. He was always in the build up and at the games in London."
Buying a horse at the beginning of this Olympic year made it look like you were aiming for it, even though on the outside your chances of getting selected were very slim. How did you feel about your qualification with the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Denis Lynch's de-selection from the Olympics at the last minute?
"Well, the difference between me and others, perhaps, is that you'll say the chances of getting selected were slim but for me its like a glass of water that is half empty but I would say its half full! There were only two places available for Ireland and maybe only four people had a chance of being selected. So, if you did your job, and had your horse jumping well, you'd never know because sometimes another horse can get a knock or a rider can be injured. So, my philosophy is never say never and keep fighting until the end."
"With regards to Denis, however, we have been team colleagues for a number of years and had a lot of success together on the Irish team. Of course, I acknowledge that both him and Billy earned the spots for Ireland so I understand that it was obviously a big disappointment for him. Then again with the benefit of hindsight, Blue Loyd was peaking with me at just the right time. Remembering of course that no other Irish rider has ever won an Equestrian medal at the Olympics, so the decision to send me was clearly justified as I delivered the goods when it mattered the most."
Blue Loyd was ready made when you took him in from Nina Braaten in November last year. What were his weak points that you stressed on to make him improve? And how did you manage to convince Nina to sell him?
"Blue Loyd was always a good horse; he had already jumped the European Championships and had a lot of experience. I had been watching the horse for quite some time and liked him a lot, and it was actually through the owner that I bought the horse. His strengths are that he is super brave, very careful and his weaknesses at that time was that he was a little bit inconsistent and I suppose parts of that would be experience to get him to bigger shows which I have access to, and the other part of that would be his ride-ability, which has improved so much. Therefore, I worked a lot on teaching the horse to stay together in front of bigger fences, and taught him to jump off his hocks."
"Nina had great success with Loyd, jumping double clear at World Cup competitions and did a super job producing him to this level. We ride very differently, as I find it hard to ride against the fence like she does so well. It took us a little time to gel together, although from start to finish, taking 8 months to get to the Olympics is not so bad!"
"Many people wondered when I bought him how much scope and ability he had, to jump bigger fences, but Nina had told me before that he could jump anything and when I watched his cockiness in the ring with her last winter, I truly believed that if I had him, I could get to the Olympics."
Tell us a bit about The O'Reilly-Hylands, the owners of Blue Loyd.
"They're wonderful people - Barbara and Charlie O'Reilly-Hyland and their son Max, who is a junior rider that trains with me and I actually lent him Da Vinci's Pride which he rode on the Irish team at the junior European Championships and won team Gold - which was amazing. They're very good friends with myself and Ruth, and the relationship began through me coaching Max. One evening I was chatting with Charlie about the sport and he said it would be great to go back to the Olympics and maybe aim for Rio de Janeiro, and I replied how about London!? There's always a chance of finding a good horse, and that is when he said go ahead and find the horse and I'll support you!"
After the bronze in London, what are you aiming at with Blue Loyd? Or is he on the market now?
"Well, we achieved our goal of going to the games and I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to ride Blue Loyd, so if the right customer came along, we would certainly look at it seriously. I tend to buy horses, produce them and have some success with them but in the end I'm always a seller. This is the only way I know to fund my operation. I did the same thing with K Club Lady and Temple Road."
Do you think one Grand prix horse is enough to remain at the top of the sport?
"No, but its better than none..."
What can you say about your 7-year old Farfelu De Muze or "Fifi" as you call him? Is he your most exciting prospect ?
"He's very talented! He's got a lovely temperament, and is a great great jumper! I have many good young horses too including a 6-year old called Sydney which we'll probably change his name hopefully for Rio! I bought him through my German friend Ralf Runge, who really believes that this will be my next grand prix horse."
You sold three of your very good horses : Everything, Carpe Diem and Calvaron last March in Florida. Do you think you balance horse sales well with keeping them for a longer time as competition horses?
"Well, I try to balance everything well, but if you have a top sponsor then you can just ride. In my case, I have to coach, buy & sell horses to be able to fund the riding. One thing that helps me is that I'm never afraid to sell, and I hope that when I sell a horse that it goes well for the next person unlike some people who always want to take the last penny. I like to sell a horse and if it goes well I'm very happy - like when I sold Temple Road and he's been very successful with Cassio Rivetti finishing 12th at the Olympic games."
"New money buys new goods then I move forward and run my business, so it is a balancing act. Some say that if you sell this particular horse, you'll never seem to find another one; I'm of the psyche that if you've got an empty stable, you'll always find a good one to fill it - no problem!"
Are you planning to do those shows again, or will you be going to Florida?
"I'll be doing the Emirates and Sunshine Tour actually. The main reason I went to Florida last year was for Blue Loyd and it served its purpose so it would probably be an alternate between UAE and Florida every second year depending on what horses I have."
Which top horse on the international scene have you tried before, and liked very much?
"None, because usually if I like them I buy them."
Seeing younger horses like Bella Donna and Big Star competing at the Olympic games, do you think its a great way to produce horses or do you prefer to have them take their time in smaller classes before going that big ?
"I think the sport has changed so much the last number of years for the better, we've seen many horses competing after this Olympics and were able to have some success quite quickly like Mylord Carthago with Penelope, Bella Donna with Meredith and Blue Loyd again with myself when we came 3rd in the Dublin Grand prix. In former years, right after the Olympics, the horses took a rest because it was hard on them, and they weren't able to do shows for a quite some time."
"Therefore, to answer your question, the Olympics nowadays aren't as numb as the old days, so for Big Star & Bella Donna - these super, talented horses- I don't think that it affects them in a negative way, on the contrary, it will develop them because they're being ridden by world class jockeys and even if the horse would make a mistake here or there they will learn."
How can one keep an older grand prix horse as fit, sharp and sound as ever to continue to jump that level for the longest time possible?
"I think the management is very important, and careful planning of the shows and the breaks is vital. Doing shows every week of the year is not for me even if I had enough horses. In my view, a productive system is to do 3 shows in a row or 3 shows over a month, attack then regroup and then go again, I wouldn't be surprised in the future if a rule came up to cap the amount of shows a horse does in the year which would perhaps increase their longevity."
"At our place, the horses do a lot of walking around the farm which is very useful to keep them fit and strengthen their legs. On a daily basis, the horses are worked on the flat in the morning, usually go to the paddock before lunch. In the afternoon they are either hacked around the farm or lunged, then in the evening walked on hand. I'm a big believer in the importance of good shoeing - the old boys weren't wrong when they said no foot, no horse!"
If you weren't such a success in show jumping, what else do you think you could be? A businessman or Entrepreneur I would say ...
"Maybe I would have been a criminal lawyer (laughs) - I think I'm good at being able to have a point, follow that point and explain it well as I like watching television programmes such as CSI and Law & Order! I always wanted to do Law when I was still at school, but then I got the bug for the horses and the rest is history."
Last but not least, what advice would you give upcoming riders towards attracting sponsorship and new owners as u have been very successful in this area ?
"I think I'd go back to what Gerry Mullins taught me which is paying great attention to detail, being presentable & tidy even in your own dress code. You also have to act appropriately and try to attract the right kind of attention. Social media is now very important and a useful tool to promote ourselves, gives recognition to sponsors and develops a fan base. It's vital to time-manage and to always be pleasant to everyone you meet as you never know where your next sponsor will come from! I also believe that when you have owners that you must know how to look after them and never take them for granted - small gestures often go a long way such as sending a DVD of their horse jumping or even a framed photo. The biggest mistake people do, is that when they're in a circle they think they're in it forever, so when you have owners like that in the sport, you have to keep them there.
"Another aspect which I think is important is to develop your coaching skills when you're young as this has the possibility to open doors for you later on, when I was 18 years old I was coaching others, so even if its amateur or beginner level it's still a starting point which will give you great experience."
"It's important to work hard, stay focused and never lay down - our sport is not for the faint hearted. There will be many bad days, so you have to tackle them head on and deal with everything in an organised and professional way while constantly remembering that this is not just a sport but a business as well...."
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