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'She didn't have to be asked to do that. She’s just a lovely person, from good people'

John Nallen on a magical racing year for the Minella horses and the success of Rachael Blackmore.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after Minella Times won the Aintree Grand National.
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after Minella Times won the Aintree Grand National.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Dec 24th 2021, 3:16 PM

IN A WEEK where Rachael Blackmore has been hit with an avalanche of awards and plaudits, John Nallen offers up his own personal tribute.

It was the year where Blackmore’s profile sky-rocketed, Cheltenham exploits and a momentous Aintree breakthrough introducing her to a world beyond the racing community.

Nallen bought Minella Times, the Grand National hero that carried Blackmore to glory, eight years ago.

His Minella Racing base at Lavally in south Tipperary is only a half-hour drive from where Blackmore grew up in Killenaule.

But success at the famed Liverpool track didn’t sever her connection with her roots.

“She came out here, just the following week,” says Nallen.

“My little lad has special needs, she rode a horse with the pony with him.

“She just rocked on, she said, ‘Where’s Jack? We’re going off for a spin.’

“The two of them go off down the fields, they go around the gallop. She didn’t have to be asked to do that.

“She’s just a lovely person, from good people.”

*****

2021 was a racing year where Blackmore sparkled.

Where Henry De Bromhead dominated the training stakes as he scooped up the biggest prizes.

And where John Nallen was able to roar on the winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Aintree Grand National, two from a group of 10 foals that he had bought at the Tattersalls November Sale in 2013.

John Nallen Source: Twitter - RTÉ Racing

In those early months as Covid brought life to a halt and he had to shut the doors of Hotel Minella, which he runs with his sister Liz, in Clonmel on the banks of the River Suir, racing provided a sanctuary and a release.

“I won’t forget the year, no. A fairytale job, sure.

“I suppose it was a year like no other, wasn’t it? You were in a different world, business closed down, you didn’t know what was going to happen next. The live racing on television, it was nearly the only thing other than Sky News that was live.

“It was a good news story when you saw a winner anyway. Cheltenham was never as big in the country for people really. Nobody could go but the whole racing thing punched above its weight when everything closed down.

“It was mighty. Kept us sane, you’d be going off your head. It was unbelievable stuff.”

This is no overnight success story. Nallen’s relationship with racing is long-running, ignited by a passion in his family.

“My mother was always into horses, she was a Kilmacthomas woman, county Waterford. Her family would have been steeped in horses down through the years. My father was more into greyhounds, but he was into flapping during the War. he was a Banagher man from Offaly.

“We were always going to point-to-points when I was a young lad, going to Waterford years ago, going to the old racecourse in Cashel. You were always hoping you’d have a horse that’d win a point-to-point some time. That was the dream at the beginning.”

The project was pursued further. Land was bought at Lavally and the services of different trainers sought.

“We’d a horse in training here and there, a horse with Michael Cunningham in the ’70s, a horse with Michael Hourigan in the ’80s and Joe Crowley in the ’90s. We’d lots of success with Joe and Aidan (O’Brien, Joe’s son-in-law) when he came there first.

“Horses were cheaper, and the prize money was as good then nearly as it is now. I remember Joe Crowley one evening saying there’s a maiden hurdle that’s worth 10 grand and that’s 35 years ago — you’re lucky if you get one worth 10 grand now. It was big prize money being won then.

“And then, well things changed. If you want to stay in this game, you have to be trading them. You have to keep moving if you want to keep at it. That’s the view we took and we reared them and kept them going.”

So the focus became in unearthing gems and selling them on, as opposed to training.

And when it came to naming the horses, an attachment was formed with the day-to-day business.

“Going back, the boss man (John’s father Jack) had greyhounds and he had a prefix on the greyhounds at the time, they were all Ollies.

“So we named all the horses Minella after the hotel.

“They say they’re toys for big boys, and I’d be hoping that Minella horses are to big boys what lego is to small boys.

“It’s great for the business and it’s great for everything. It’s a worldwide brand now, it’s unbelievable really.”

The ‘90s was a decade dotted with standout moments. Minella Lad finished second in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1994. Hotel Minella was second behind Collier Bay at the Leopardstown Champion Hurdle in 1996, the winner replicating that success later in the Cotswolds. Minella Man was a promising novice that enjoyed a string of victories.

Then Minella Rocco provided a landmark afternoon, a first Cheltenham winner in 2016 in the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup and second the following year in the Gold Cup behind Sizing John.

All that progress was eclipsed by the stars of 2021, Minella Indo and Minella Times.

“I was sitting in reception one night late and I just had naming forms to do, thinking ‘What’ll I call these?’

“Three newspapers were on the counter, the Examiner, the Times and the Independent. I was just looking at the papers, that’ll do, that’s how I named them.

“They were two good foals, came from good farms, well-bred foals. I bought ten foals that year. Notebook (who had already been named) was another one, so there was three Grade 1 winners in the one group.

“Quality stock, well-bred stock. It’s not an exact science but it definitely helped and it helps where they end up as well, that’s very important.

“Lucky enough to end up at Henry’s, and then with Rachael and Jack Kennedy riding them.”

jack-kennedy-on-minella-indo-comes-home-to-win Jack Kennedy comes home to win on Minella Indo. Source: Francesca Altoft/INPHO

He thinks back to the origins of Minella Indo’s story, three years before Gold Cup glory arrived.

“We ran him in Dromahane (in March 2018), he won his five-year-old maiden on a snowy day. He just galloped up the hill, he just went about his business. We knew going that day we had the goods. He won well, he had schooled a couple weeks before that in a race and the horse he beat was Lisnagar Oscar, who won the Stayers’ Hurdle (in 2020).

“The Lisnagar Oscar lads were very disappointed, they wanted to win in Liscarroll (at point-to-point).

“I said to them, ‘Lads ye needn’t worry, ye’ll win in Liscarroll alright. Ye’re okay.’ “

A taste of Cheltenham success arrived in the 2019 Albert Bartlett under Blackmore but after being on board twice at Leopardstown, she made a rare mis-step in her choice last March in opting for A Plus Tard.

“The man that’s training him had everything done to perfection. The word was very good going to Cheltenham. He just went about his business, after he jumped three fences, I said, ‘This horse wins the Gold Cup.’

“He’s a hardy boy, he’s a bit laidback alright but once he makes his mind up, he goes about his business. If you can look at the point-to-point the day he won in Dromahane, the video it’s on the point-to-point website, you can see it.

“Corky (James Carroll) is my main man, Corky runs the show. He laid Corky out, he drove him 40 feet across the parade ring in Dromahane after winning.

“He’s just a big hardy boy.

“It was unreal. Going back through the years, I remember being over there… The Thinker beat us in a point-to-point years ago and he came on and he won the Gold Cup (in 1987).

“To be in that fold, thinking you’re after doing the same thing with just a couple of horses, it was unbelievable.”

Minella Times was a different operator.

minella-times-ridden-by-rachael-blackmore-wins-the-randox-grand-national-handicap-chase-during-grand-national-day-of-the-2021-randox-health-grand-national-festival-at-aintree-racecourse-liverpool-pi Minella Times ridden by Rachael Blackmore wins the Grand National. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

“The day he went to Bellharbour (point-to-point) and stumbled over at the last. He was a fast horse now, always a two-and-a-half mile horse. He wouldn’t be as robust as your man, as Indo, but he was a fast, rapid horse. Great horse to jump always.

“Frank Berry bought him for JP (McManus) after that run. They done the right thing with him, they had him for the National this time last year after he won at Listowel. He had a racing weight, the trainer, his horses were running two stone above averge and the jockey was riding five stone above average, so you had to be fancying him.

“I was coming back from a point-to-point (the day of the National), I stopped at John Harney’s house to see it. I just sat there and couldn’t believe it, everything was falling into place.

“And JP, that man is after putting more money into the whole thing and keeping the whole racing thing going and everybody in racing. The year that was in it for them, to get the result for him was unbelievable stuff.”

His friend Harney recorded Nallen’s reaction as he watched the race unfold, capturing the spiralling emotions as a moment of history inched near. The subsequent footage went viral and the hype has not been dampened down since.

“We were closed in the hotel that time, they were only selling cups of coffee in the garden.

“On the Sunday after the National, it was like the Carnival in Rio with people coming in. It was just unreal. Hundreds of people coming in for cups of coffee, people ringing from all over the world and sending emails.”

Less than an hour down the road from him is Knockeen Stud, where Henry De Bromhead has plotted and planned this magic.

henry-de-bromhead-celebrates-after-winning-with-minella-indo Henry De Bromhead celebrates after winning the Gold Cup with Minella Indo. Source: Dan Abraham/INPHO

“Henry is unbelievable. He just does horses, they jump and they run for him, and they develop for him. He’s just an unbelievable talent, them horses have to end up in the proper place. He’s the man for the results.”

And the local connection to Blackmore has added a special twist to the year.

“It was great, sure her mother and father had the wedding in Minella.

“I buy the feed off her father. Her grandfather was the manager that opened the Guinness account, when the Guinness area manager was the man that called the shots. He opened the account for Minella, father dealt with him in the ’50s.

“It was an amazing story really. They’re great people, there’s no bullshit. What you see is what you get.”

Ask him to choose his favourite between the Gold Cup and the Grand National, and there is no winner.

But the impact of the success has reverberated throughout 2021.

“It’s impossible. Diehard racing person, the Gold Cup is the one, but like, I mean, for the heart, the National is the one.

“We’d a mighty summer. We’d people coming, going out to the farm, looking at horses.

“Hard to get anything done, people want to talk horses the whole time. It’s just an amazing thing, the whole thing.

“Brilliant for all the family. Wife Bernadine and son Jack, and sister, nephews Seanie and Conor, they’d be at the horses every day with me. Unreal for us.”

The spotlight moves on. Minella Indo is entered into the King George at Kempton on Sunday, Nallen will be tuning in like he does in monitoring the fortunes of every horse that passes under his watch.

And it’s not all about past glories, when there is the prospect of future excitement.

“Sure hopefully some of the next ones are coming on, like Minella Cocooner and Minella Crooner and Minella Melody.

“Sure I’m looking forward to the three-year-olds, the winners of the point-to-point, getting the next ones going.

“It’s about the next generation.”

BTL 5

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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