For those that follow horse racing passionately, the name Michael O’ Callaghan will be a very familiar name. Growing up in Tralee, Michael took the road less travelled to pursue a career in something he was passionate about. Years later he is one of Kerry’s greatest success stories at a young age of 33. Michael kindly sat with us to tell readers of Connect about his journey so far.
Michael can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you found yourself in this career?
I grew up in the town in Tralee with my parents Michael and Sandra, and two sisters Nicola and Robyn, we lived in Knockmoyle until I was eight and then we lived in Cahermoneen, before moving to Clahane when I was about sixteen. Growing up the only horse related stuff around the house was Grandad Mike used to have the odd lucky 16, he’d regularly have a small bet, but that was about the extent of the horseracing background I would have had, none really. A friend I had at the time, Alan Johnson, we were at his house one day at a loose end, and of course getting in his Mom’s hair! So she decided to send us for a riding lesson in Kennedys which was only around the corner from their house, I think I was about 12 at the time? I fell in love with horses then, but riding lessons were expensive so we found a way around facilitating my interest in them by going out to Fran McElligotts in the Spa. She had a riding and trekking centre out there, for the summer I used to take tourists down the beach on the ponies. She soon noticed though that I wanted to go faster than her ponies were able to! I then went on to work for Tom Cooper who actually lived in Cahermoneen so I knew of him, one of moms best friends Kathleen, her brother Brendan Walsh was the head lad for Tom at the time and he got me in there just to give a hand initially. I ended up working there during all my Summers, weekends and freetime, falling more in love with horse racing all the time. In the later years in school I started thinking that I wanted to get into horse racing somehow as a career, so as soon as I finished the leaving cert I went to work for Coolmore. I was only 17 at the time and leaving home was a big deal, I had recently spent time helping my dad build the house where they are now. I remember fondly being given days off school to help with the labour and dad putting it down as practical Construction Studies experience! After a year in Coolmore I completed the Irish National Stud Thoroughbred Breeding course and knew straight away I wanted to continue into a horse racing career, but not coming from a horse racing background I didn’t have any direct path to take. It’s a difficult industry to get into but if you love something enough and believe that you’re able to do it you’ll make it happen and that seems to just be the way it worked out for me. After doing the National Stud course, I stayed on to run a yard in the Irish National Stud for 12 months and it just took off from there.
With all that going on for you how did you find time to meet your wife Siobhain?
Siobhain is from Brannockstown just outside Nass; her family would have always been involved in horses. She actually did the Irish National Stud course the year before me, and funny enough the year I was doing the course she was working there as a yard foreperson and sure there used to be a few skits going on that I was getting higher grades because I was going out with one of the yard forepersons! I was lucky enough to be an award winning graduate on the course. It then came to a point of either coming home or staying in Kildare and working in racing, but at that stage the ambition outweighed the draw home so I decided to rent a farm at 20 years of age, a 70-acre farm! After a few years, having got the business off the ground, Siobhain left her position at the Irish National Stud and came to work alongside me on the farm I was renting, and she has been working alongside me ever since. Nowadays, as well as looking after most of the day to day running of the yard, Siobhain actually does a lot of the racing; she really enjoys getting the horses ready and turned out for the races. But outside of horses we have slightly separate interests, such as myself, I
tend to have lots of other pastimes when time allows, as I’m someone who needs a bit of variety to stay fresh, such as racing cars in Mondello, funny enough I actually won my first race in Mondello this year in Formula Vee. I also learned to fly a few years ago.
Explain to us the next stage of your career?
When initially renting the farm at 20, I started keeping mares for different clients such as Italian and English breeders, but myself and Dad had started dabbling in a bit of buying and selling horses so I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in long term, instead of boarding other people’s stock. That was only to pay the bills but I always just wanted it to go so that myself and Dad could start trading horses on a more commercial scale. One thing led to another from buying and selling, I never served an apprenticeship I just learned as I went along. The best way to learn, in my opinion, is to learn by your mistakes. I made plenty of them but managed to keep it going. After 4 years I started to train racehorses, I had never initially wanted to go training but as things developed that’s the direction my career went. I saw the opportunity to trade racehorses as a trainer because of a very strong international market for them off the track. There was a flooded market of thoroughbreds for sale in the youngstock side of things, but there weren’t a lot of trainers, training solely for the purpose of selling them on, so I saw an opportunity to come at it from a different angle. It’s a tough game to operate in and at the end of the day it has to be a viable business, it’s taken a while to get it to where it is today and there have been tough times along the way, but some fantastic days too. The majority of the time we have to sell the best of our stock, that’s the name of the game. This year alone we’ve sold 4 or 5 horses to Hong Kong, along with several others to the U.S and other countries. Good horses when getting the right form into them can increase them in value massively, sometimes over 1000% percent in value, so it can be a very lucrative market when you get it right, but they can always decrease in value too!! I’m training now for the last 7 or 8 years and the trading of our own stock is as big a part as ever, along with training for outside owners. It can be hard to make a name for yourself when you continuously have to sell your best horses, but best case scenario is selling them and getting to keep them to train for their new owners, for example we had Blue De Vega and Now Or Never both placed in the Irish 2000 and 1000 guineas respectively a few years ago after selling them to Qatar Racing. They were two horses that I’d bought as unraced two year olds, the majority of good horses I’ve had, I would have sourced myself, and that is the reputation I’ve built for myself is being able to source good horses.
It’s lovely to see, as a local person, you do so well in such an unusual career path. Would you have had much resistance or support from established trainers seeing as you were just a young man new to the scene?
There would have been some of that alright as in you wouldn’t have been greeted with open arms, especially when I started to beat them it was like “who’s this lad?!’. But that only inspired me more to go out and beat them knowing that I could do it. Even this year alone, I finished 5th leading 2-year-old trainer in Ireland ahead of the likes of Jim Bolger and Dermot Weld, which is very difficult to do, to take on these powerhouses and beat them. But look, it’s good for us in terms of business that the majority of the horses I’ve had have been sold so next year we will stock up and just build it year on year hopefully. At the end of the day it’s nice to be winning the races and getting the recognition for it, but the business side of it is the main thing for me. With Twilight Jet this year, he was bought at the breeze ups in May, I campaigned him quite aggressively, he danced every dance in some of the biggest 2yo races in Britain and Ireland, and won the Cornwallis at Newmarket, before I was then able to trade out of 50% of him to an American owner to run at the Breeders Cup, hopefully he could have a stallion career down the line. One of the few horses we’ve hung on to is “I Am Superman” in Australia, he was a horse that I bought as a yearling and carried him through to his 3-year-old year where we had him sold for a lot of money to Hong Kong but he failed the vet on an issue with his X-rays. We had to decide then to either sell him at a fraction of what he was worth or to figure out a way of him generating enough income to justify keeping him, so we decided to send him to Australia, The reason being is that the prize money out there is the best in the world, he’s out there 18 months now, and on Saturday night he runs in a million-dollar race. I’ve trained nearly 130 winners since I started which is a hard thing to do in Ireland, and making a name for yourself in Irish racing isn’t easy, but finishing 13th overall out of 365 in the Irish flat trainers championship this year was a great result.
What support structure have you put in place over the years to help in the management and daily running of the business and how important is it to you to have it?
When you’re starting out it’s far more labour intensive, but as the business has grown we’ve built a good team around us, which is a big help. With Siobhain here, we work together as a team full time, it works well. Without her I’d have struggled at times. Just having that support structure around you is very important, and none of it would have been possible without the support from family and friends. The daily routine is a lot simpler than people think? It’s as easy or as hard as you make it, you feed them well, keep them healthy and train them hard and you rest them when they need to be rested. Try and keep it as simple as possible really? The simpler you do things the less there is to go wrong, that’s something that has helped me as in not coming from a traditional horse racing background and just learning along the way.
Do you get disheartened going into race meets maybe knowing that your particular horse isn’t the best there and maybe 5th or 6th down the line?
You know before you go to a degree, the end of the day all you can do is to prepare your horse to be the best they can be and know that they have a fair chance, because as the year progresses and your own horses take part in more races you build a line of collateral form with that particular group of horses in that year, it gives you a good handle on where your horses are at. But I’d never be afraid to take anyone else’s horse on. As time goes on you learn every race day is just another day in the office.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to just concentrate on progressing the business side of it, buying and selling horses. We all like to have a successful business but to just keep finding nice horses. Twilight Jet is a nice horse that gained massive experience in the Breeder’s Cup. It was my first time there with a runner and he ran a great race. It was a different type of race that he’s used to running, his 11th start of the year. It was a shot to nothing really, it was part of the deal with the man that bought 50% of him that he was to run there so thankfully he’s the type of horse that came out of it well, I feel like we’ve a lot to look forward to with him next year. He’s having a well-deserved break now! He’s getting his pick of grass and a hand walk every day. The break usually lasts for about a month and then we will start his prep work, building him back up steadily. He has an ambitious campaign next year so I’m looking forward to that along with going out next spring to find a few more like that in the breeze up sales. People often ask me how I choose my horse’s; do I study the catalogue? But in my mind, you can’t train a piece of paper so I prefer to go in open minded and study the horse in front of me.
How do you choose your jockeys?
Well I’d have one jockey, Leigh Roche. It’s something I’ve found that when you have so many 2 year olds it’s nice to have someone that knows them? He’s in day in, day out, every morning and there are a lot of jockeys that wouldn’t do that. But I’d be someone that is very loyal and you’d expect it in return.
They show up every day and are in your corner, they get up on your horse and try their best for you instead of flip flopping to who’s hot at that given time. This year especially the partnership with Leigh has really clicked. We are two similar sort of guys both coming from non-horse backgrounds, we’ve gone against the tide really!
What advice would you give to young fellas starting out?
To just experience as much as you can experience. To not get ahead of yourself, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth closed most of the time but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Observe people that are successful. Don’t just listen and take advice from people whose advice isn’t sound. Trust yourself and work hard, when you feel that you don’t deserve it or things aren’t going right just stick it out. I was very lucky to grow up with the family I had around me. You can never let your circumstances stop you from doing anything in life. I was lucky to have the people around me which had when I was growing up, to them I owe a lot.