Marine Nationale makes waves in Fairyhouse thriller

Barry Connell claims first win as trainer as Michael O’Sullivan enjoys first Grade One victory as jockey

A new Grade One team announced itself in style on Sunday when owner-trainer Barry Connell and claiming jockey Michael O’Sullivan joined forces to land a dramatic Bar One Royal Bond Novice Hurdle success with Marine Nationale.

Unable to use his 5lb claim in a top-flight contest, O’Sullivan needed no allowances made for him as he put the 5-1 winner’s nose in front of Irish Point practically on the line.

The 22-year-old UCD graduate was appointed top rider to Connell’s small but select team in September and could hardly have hoped for a bigger boost to a still fledgling career in the saddle.

It was the Cork rider’s first Grade One victory of any kind and although Connell, 60, enjoyed top-class success in the past as an owner, the satisfaction gained from his first as a trainer was obvious.


“It’s brilliant. I’ve ridden Cheltenham winners, I’ve owned Cheltenham winners, but this is a different league altogether,” admitted the well-known Carrickmines businessman who made it big as a fund-manager but whose passion for racing saw him learn to ride just shy of his 40th birthday.

What began as a hobby turned into a career as an amateur rider and a major investor in bloodstock, and he eventually made the final step into training from a base near Nurney.

As someone who described himself as a “contrarian” in business, Connell opting for a claimer as his jockey fitted in with plenty previous form for doing things his own way, admittedly with mixed dividends, especially during a tumultuous 2014.

Having spent a reported €1 million on Our Conor, the horse was killed in a Champion Hurdle fall at Cheltenham. A month after that he endured watching a horse he’d sold on, Pineau De Re, win the Grand National.

Such knocks didn’t shake his devotion to the sport, however, nor did it affect the sort of perspective that, also in 2014, saw him voluntarily remove The Tullow Tank from the Cheltenham Festival once charges of possession of unlicensed medicines were made against his trainer Philip Fenton.

The Tullow Tank won the 2013 Royal Bond, and Marine Nationale’s success in the same race represented vindication on a number of levels, most obviously justifying the call to run at all, given that heavy rain turned the going soft.

“I thought the ground had gone for him,” admitted Connell, who has never hidden his regard for the unbeaten French-bred gelding. “It was his first time off the bridle, and you never know what they’ll find. But you’d love the way he battled and toughed it out. He’s a genuine Grade 1 horse.”

Layers cut the winner to as low as 7-1 for Cheltenham’s Supreme Novice Hurdle, where O’Sullivan’s perfect timing could be tested again.

“The rain falling all day didn’t help. I rode him to get home and he go there in time,” said the rider.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column