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

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

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.

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