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Chantry House on his way to victory in the Cotswold Chase
By Aisling Crowe
In half a century of breeding horses, Limerick man Mike Conaghan has never before known an afternoon like the one he experienced on Saturday.
The octogenarian, who will celebrate his 83rd birthday in February, watched in astonishment as two horses bred by him at his aptly-named Evergreen Stud in Bruff met the challenge posed by the Cheltenham hill in their own unique way and, not for the first time , tasted victory on the hallowed turf.
Paisley Park’s scarcely credible victory in the Cleeve Hurdle was preceded by the dogged success of Chantry House over Santini and co in the Cotswold Chase.
While Paisley Park’s success denied another Limerick man, JP McManus, a win with Champ, the triumph of Chantry House was reportedly the 4,000th of McManus’ lifetime of owing racehorses – and Conaghan has his own connection to the famous green and gold silks.
“They are good sportspeople – JP is a great supporter of the game and to think that I do a bit of part-time work driving mares to coverings for his daughter Sue Ann Foley and the horse I bred beat the horse he named after McCoy! ” says the delighted breeder with the hoarseness in his voice of a man who has been receiving lots of calls from well-wishers.
The messages of congratulations pouring in included those from members of the McManus clan, who were quick to pass on their good wishes to Conaghan and his family.
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Paisley Park after landing a third Cleeve Hurdle
Saturday’s big-race breeding double will take a good while to sink in.
“It’s unbelievable, all you could do is dream about it, you couldn’t plan it,” says Conaghan. “All my life I was trying to breed a horse just good enough to go to Cheltenham but since 2019 the number of Graded races we have won is unbelievable, and both Paisley Park and Chantry House have won Grade 1 races there.
“It’s all happened at once and they are the stars of the show. I was very fortunate that the good ones went into the right yards; they have good owners and good trainers and that means a lot.”
Conaghan did breed a horse who made it to Cheltenham 30 years ago – Nancy Myles, who was trained by Francis Flood for Irish folk music duo Foster and Allen, and named after one of their most famous songs.
Nancy Myles ran in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1992, but her greatest success came in Punchestown’s Morgiana Hurdle, one of three Listed successes for the mare who was an elder half-sister of The Last Bank, the dam of Chantry House.
After a lifetime’s involvement in breeding, it is only in the last three years that Conaghan has reached the summit of the National Hunt world through two Cheltenham Festival winners, with both Paisley Park and Chantry House enjoying Grade 1 success in March.
Conaghan and his grandson Micheal, who he describes as his bloodstock and IT adviser, were there in person to witness Paisley Park’s Stayers’ Hurdle triumph in 2019, an experience neither will forget.
“I have to say the people in Cheltenham treated us like kings, they looked after us so well,” he says.
Micheal runs his own yard in County Kildare and prepares the Evergreen horses for the store sales. One potential highlight of their draft this year is the Kingston Hill half-brother to Chantry House, who the pair hope to sell at Tattersalls Ireland’s flagship Derby Sale.
They also have a three-year-old Westerner filly out of a half-sister to the Marsh Novices’ Chase and Mildmay Novices’ Chase winner.
If there is a cloud on the horizon, it is the advancing years of both horse’s dams. The Last Bank is 25 and enjoying a relaxing retirement at home at Evergreen Stud, while Presenting Shares, dam of triple Cleeve Hurdle hero Paisley Park, is a couple of years younger but also no longer breeding.
Conaghan did retain the final foal produced by Presenting Shares, and the Soldier Of Fortune four-year-old filly is in training with Patrick Turley in County Down.
Turley also produced Gaelic Park, the Ocovango half-brother to Chantry House, to win a five-year-old geldings’ maiden at Loughbrickland in November for Conaghan.
Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
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Chantry House on his way to victory in the Marsh Novice Chase
Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Gaelic Park had been offered for sale as a weanling at the Tattersalls Ireland February Sale in 2017, prior to the emergence of Chantry House.
Chantry House and Paisley Park were sold as foals by Conaghan at the November National Hunt Sale, with both bringing down the hammer at €12,500.
Despite being just weeks short of his 83rd birthday, Conaghan is still busy working on the stud, where he has 16 horses including a Flemensfirth half-sister to Chantry House who has gone past her due date. She is carrying a foal by Chantry House’s sire Yeats, but the evergreen Conaghan draws the line at foaling the relation to one of his stars.
He says: “Her time is up, she’s carrying a three-parts sibling to Chantry House but I’m sending her out to foal because I don’t want to be staying awake at night worrying about her!”
With six decades of experience to call upon, Conaghan’s wisdom and knowledge are impeccable, and success at this stage of his career is richly deserved. With the pragmatic resilience that is the hallmark of his generation, the breeder shrugs off any suggestion that his daily routine and the labor involved in caring for horses is anything remarkable for a man of his age.
“The way I look at it is there are a lot of people down in the graveyard who would love to be out doing what I’m doing,” he says.
“What else can I do? I haven’t decided to sit down and watch television all day long, I’m not that sort of person.”