Conor calling the shots at Punchestown
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF TALKED RACING WITH CONOR O’NEILL FROM BALLYKNOCKAN, ONE OF THE SPORT’S MOST INFLUENTIAL PERSONALITIES AS MANAGER OF PUNCHESTOWN RACECOURSE AND ALSO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE ASSOCIATION OF IRSH RACECOURSES
THE driveway leading up to the offices where Conor O’Neill works could be the approach to an up-market golf club. With its wellkept lawns and its bushytailed fox logo on eminent display, Punchestown racecourse is clearly a classy joint. It is also a venue with a considerable sporting pedigree as a series of prints in the bright and airy boardroom illustrates.
The room, with its large windows, is a very modern meeting place, but the prints hark back to the good old days of 1872. They show the field for that year’s staging of the Conygham Cup at Punchestown, dedicated to the honourable Marquis of Drogheda. The jockeys among the field for the event included three captains, presumably drawn from the ranks of the British Army stationed nearby on The Curragh.
Horse loving members of the Crown forces were to the fore in setting up one of the longest established sports facilities in Ireland, back in 1823. And the old traditions of amateurism and enthusiasm are kept alive through the stewardship of the Kildare Hunt Club. They remain owners of the place more than one-and-a-half centuries after it all began.
Into this bastion of hallowed heritage bounces an endlessly energetic 30-year-old wearing a pink jumper – no suit, no tie. Conor O’Neill from over
the border at Ballyknockan in County Wicklow is manager of Punchestown. His job is to build on the richness of the past to produce a commercial future for the racecourse.
The informality of the pink jumper signals that the place is out of season at the moment for National Hunt Racing. The next meeting is not scheduled to take place until October, though this does not mean that there is nothing happening.
The flags and trade stands of an organisation called the CQMS have moved in to display their wares. The initials stand for Construction and Quarry Machinery Show and welcome paying guests who help to keep Punchestown ticking over.
Conor arrives into the boardroom for the interview with the reporter from the ‘People’ accompanied by a Kerry native called Dick O’Sullivan. Now in his eighties, Dick held the post of manager for 15 years up to the recent appointment of his young successor.
The older man recalls that the course was not the vision of prosperity it is now when he took over at the behest of his former Kerry Foods boss Blaise Brosnan. Rather than allowing him slip into retirement, Horse Racing Ireland chairman Brosnan persuaded Dick to go to County Kildare. Punchestown in the early noughties was in danger of sinking into liquidation beneath a weight of accumulated debt.
The new appointment steadied the ship and a tenure of office originally slated for six months somehow became extended for many years. In the meantime, Conor O’Neill, the young man from the Granite Village of Ballyknockan near Blessington, was building up a unique CV.
‘I am Wicklow born and bred,’ he confirms proudly, ‘and I went to school in Valleymount. ‘I had a fantastic childhood in Ballyknockan and it is a fantastic place.’
He spent some of his time sailing on the reservoir as a chap but it was another sport which really grabbed his imagination. He recalls that as a youngster, he and his classmates would be given the day off lessons so that everyone could go to the racing at Punchestown.
Though his family had no background whatsoever in the sport, young Conor soon caught the bug.
Son of Anne and Shane O’Neill, youngest sibling of Aoife, Daire, and Ronán, he went on to Cross and Passion School in Kilcullen to receive his secondary education. He was still in his early teens when he took up a precocious extra-curricular activity, deciding that he wanted to be a bookie.
So, one Sunday, at the age of 14, he went to a meeting at The Curragh and approached the ring. He happened to pick the right man when he marched up to Justin Carthy of Chronicle Bookmakers and made his
adolescent pitch for work. The experienced operator immediately spotted talent in the schoolboy and agreed to take the young man under his wing.
‘That was the biggest break of them all,’ muses Conor. ‘I asked Justin could I work with him and learn about the game. He said yes. It was an education in life – the buzz and excitement of it all. We travelled throughout Ireland and the UK. My mother was horrified.’
The new recruit spent Monday to Friday in the classroom and then headed for the thrills of the racecourse at weekends. He attended his first Cheltenham in 2005, when Kicking King won the gold Cup for Tom Taaffe, while working as bookie’s runner.
Conor recalls being at Royal Ascot on one memorable occasion when Justin sent his eager runner off to look after a party of racegoers. An Irish developer had taken a box for the occasion but he and his guests proved to be tame gamblers.
The bets he was handling were no more than fivers and tenners, hardly worth the teenager’s while. He wandered out on to the balcony overlooking the course and fell into conversation with the party in the adjoining box.
They turned out to be what he describes as ‘proper punters’ who kept him busy and did not seem to mind losing a few bob. Armed with no more than a race card and a biro, he finished the afternoon with £10,000 or so stuffed into his bulging pockets, much to the surprise of his delighted boss. Small wonder that he found it difficult to concentrate fully on his studies.
He remembers hastening from the Leaving Cert exam hall to catch a flight for a big meet in the UK and he would have been more than happy to abandon formal education at that point. Instead, his mother and his employer connived to insist that college would be a good option.
The reluctant student was persuaded to enrol on the new equine business course at Maynooth, which at least offered some relevance to his primary passion. Studies and lectures on campus were balanced with work experience at Punchestown where he arrived in 2009, as Dick O’Sullivan recalls.
‘Conor always stood out as capable. He was mannerly, with a good personality and bright as a button. And he has cop on.’
While passing his exams at Maynooth was a close run thing (‘I got the better of a photo finish’) he managed to finish the course. His time with Justin Carthy and Chronicle Bookmakers was coming to an end as the business was sold to Ladbrokes and Conor followed, to an office in the Dublin’s financial services heartland.
He found himself a fish out of water. ‘Ladbrokes was a completely different operation and some of the joy went out of it for me, I wasn’t getting the same buzz out of it.’
He saw a position as course manager at Limerick advertised and decided to put his name into the hat, securing the post at the outrageously early age of 25. He helped to make the Christmas festival in Limerick a major event, with RTE coverage and he promoted non-racing activity to boost revenue.
Then he chanced to meet his friend Dick O’Sullivan at a Cheltenham Festival preview in Blennerville. A cup of tea with his former mentor led to an invitation to return to Punchestown, though there were complications.
Moving from the top job in Limerick to be number three on the management team at Punchestown was not an obviously attractive option. But Dick was poised to step down while his deputy Richie Galway was not eager to take on added responsibility. And O’Sullivan persuaded Conor’s fiancée, Limerick lady Laura Bolger, that the switch was the right one for her man.
Conor returned in 2017 and moved seamlessly into the manager’s office in May of last year, with his predecessor remaining a good-natured presence under the title of president.
The Wicklow man has also been elected chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses, at the cutting edge of keeping racing commercial as he negotiates TV deals. He is clearly happy in Punchestown which has become his spiritual home, though the operation presents plenty of challenges.
‘The business we run here is one of the worst business models imaginable,’ he says with smile, ‘with 85 per cent of our turnover generated in five days,’ he points out. The annual festival is an internationally renowned event rivalling Cheltenham, which puts the other dozen racing days at the course into the shade.
It is scarily dependent on the weather and side-line income from truck shows, concerts and obstacle races provides only limited insurance. The youthful manager claims that he has been every side of the racing game and that he has matured along the way.
Where once he perused ‘The Irish Field’ to check runners and riders, now his attention is more likely drawn first to editorials and the business stories. Conor O’Neill is surely poised to be at the heart of that business for some considerable time to come.
THE BUSINESS WE RUN HERE IS ONE OF THE WORST BUSINESS MODELS IMAGINABLE, WITH 85 PER CENT OF OUR TURNOVER GENERATED IN FIVE DAYS EACH YEAR
Conor O’Neill (right) with Brendan McArdle and Shona Draper at this year’s Punchestown Festival.
Conor O’Neill, General Manager of Punchestown, with his predecessor Dick O’Sullivan.