Magic in store as Walter Connors gears up for Land Rover Sale
Aisling Crowe talks to the vendor of Don Cossack and Bacardys
One year ago, the name Sluggara Farm appeared in the list of vendors at the Goffs Land Rover Sale for the first time. The farm broke into the top ten consignors on day one of last year's store sale, and on day two the Waterford operation topped the charts when selling the most expensive horse of the sale and taking the number-one spot among the consignors, both by aggregate and average.
This was no case of beginner’s luck, however. Although consigning under his farm’s own name for the first time, Walter Connors is anything but a rookie. The Dungarvan vet has sourced and sold some of the best National Hunt stars of recent years, including the brilliant Gold Cup winner Don Cossack and Bacardys, a dual Grade 1 scorer over hurdles last year.
Despite his knack for spotting future stars as foals, Connors did not anticipate that his Balko gelding, a full-brother to the 2017 Land Rover Bumper winner and subsequent Goffs Punchestown sale-topper Vision Des Flos, would provoke quite such a reaction in the sales ring.
“Until last year we consigned through Ballincurrig House at the sales but our numbers are bigger now and we felt that we should start selling the horses ourselves because of that. Micheal O’Brien started working with us last year and Una, my wife, does everything with the horses – I just buy them and leave them to her,” says Connors, with more than a hint of modesty.
“We knew we had a nice horse in Etat Des Flos [since renamed Umndeni] but we didn’t expect anything like that to happen. Having said that, when the bidding reached €100,000 I wasn’t jumping into the ring and stopping them!”
If he had, Connors would have cost himself a packet as the gelding was eventually knocked down to Aiden Murphy for €175,000. In training with Philip Hobbs, Umndeni won his bumper at Warwick on debut in April.Bacardys, Connors bought Umndeni as a foal privately in France, while he sourced Don Cossack in Germany, and seven of his 11-strong draft at this week’s Land Rover Sale are French-bred.
But with a family background in breeding National Hunt horses in Waterford – his father Nicholas bred 1992 Gold Cup hero Cool Ground – what prompted Connors to travel to Europe in search of young horses?
Like most matters in modern-day Ireland, the Celtic Tiger years are at the root of Connors’ European expeditions.
“Ten years ago the price of foals here was just too high, we couldn’t compete at that level so we went to France and Germany trying to find something before it came to light,” he explains.
Connors travels to France two or three times a year covering Normandy, central France and the west in the company of Seamus Murphy visiting farms, inspecting foals and picking the ones he hopes will become the future stars of the sales ring and the racecourse.
“Now I’m known, a couple of people might ring me and tell me about foals and I’ve got Alex Donnerstag in Germany, who told me about Don Cossack,” he says.
One of the tenets of Connors’ buying policy is to purchase one or two foals from the first crops of new sires. This year Connors has a gelding from the first crop of Cokoriko in the Land Rover Sale, and having made such an impact with the progeny of Balko and Coastal Path he offers three lots by those sires this week, two by the former and one by the latter.
“The reason I like to buy a foal from the first crop of a stallion is because it gives me a chance to watch them grow and develop and see if they suit our system on the farm,” he says.
“There are plenty of proven sires in France and that’s because the French give a chance to a lot of stallions, they don’t cover big books of mares with their horses. French breeders still tend to cover their mares with local stallions, they might send one or two to a sire in another part of the country, but the majority are bred locally.”
“I’m positive about the situation the Irish National Hunt breeding industry is currently in – I think we’re at a point where the pendulum is about to swing back to Ireland from France,” he says.
“The increased opportunities for fillies encourages people to race them, which in turn has improved trade for fillies, and the more of them who go into training and are raced, the better for the future of the breed because these proven racemares will then be bred from.
“We have lots of Group 1-winning horses retiring to stud here and when the good mares are retired to stud then the horses we’re producing will only improve. I think Irish breeding is in the best position it's been for a decade,” he adds.
Despite the family farm having already bred one Gold Cup winner, Connors says there are no plans to abandon his tried and tested pinhooking methods in favour of setting up a breeding operation.
“I keep only a couple of mares on the farm – I much prefer buying foals to breeding them. I go off and purchase them and then Úna takes care of them, I don’t have much to do with them after that,” he says.
Two of Connors’ best-known graduates, Don Cossack and Getabird, came through the point-to-point route on their way to big-race success. And even though Sluggara Farm has quickly established itself as a leading consignor of stores, Connors still plans on aiming those youngsters who fail to reach the sales ring at the pointing field.
“We’ll always have a few point-to-pointers – that’s our GAA,” he says. “It’s a community we feel part of and going to point-to-points is our family day. There will always be horses that don’t make the store sales for whatever reason and they’ll go into training. We’re lucky to have good trainers and that makes a huge difference, they know exactly what they’re doing and I don’t interfere.”
That policy has proven extraordinarily successful, with six-time Grade 1 winning chaser Don Cossack the epitome of Connors’ model. His final start, which brought Gold Cup glory to the family for the second time, was one of the greatest of days for Connors.
“It was like getting the sixth number on the lotto, not that I’ve ever won it!” he says. “We got a great kick out of it because it’s all about the horses for us. I get more nervous watching the horses we sold run than watching the ones we own.”
The number of nervy days watching former charges compete for new connections is on the rise with the increased number of horses going through his and Una’s hands, but the self-deprecating vet is quick to pay tribute to his regular customers.
“We’ve been lucky with the horses relative to the numbers we have, both in the sales ring and on the track, and with the trainers who bought them,” he says. “You can’t get better than Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins – they’re fabulous.”
Plenty would say that there are few better than Walter Connors when it comes to seeing the potential in the gangly limbs and innocent eyes of a young foal. And there’s nothing lucky about that.
The two-day Goffs Land Rover Sale begins on Tuesday at 10am.
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