I'm on the Kilkenny/Carlow border and my post is Carlow but I'm a Kilkenny man. The nickname 'Shark' came from a hurling game when I was 18 in Kilkenny. I was playing full forward - I wasn't much good but I was big and awkward and kept a full-back busy. A couple of balls came in and I was lucky enough to catch them and throw them to the corner forwards to score goals and Pa Dillon shouted on the sidelines: "Would someone cut the head off that shark and we can all go home now?!" I remember we won that final and came back to Paulstown, and they said the man of the match was the shark. From that day on, I've been known as the shark.
My grandfather and my father and myself all dealt in cattle all our lives. We are neighbours of the Mullins' and I went to school with the boys. I ended up getting into a leg of a horse with George Mullins and that's where it all started from. Myself and George owned The Crazy Bishop - he was as crooked as the day was long! He had no straight legs but he was a good runner! I don't think any of the four legs were the same but he was well able to run and won six or seven races for us.
He won the Waterford Crystal Chase in Tramore, it must have been 25 years ago (1997). I remember we went on the drink that night and the staff at the track put the Waterford glass in the boot of my car. We didn't get home until the next morning but I forgot about the Waterford glass. I was over at the mart the next day and I heard something rattling in the boot and then I realised it was the glass. It could have got broken a million times. The money was good at that time as the race was nearly 20 grand and the glass was worth 10 grand. I was a young lad and the Waterford glass didn't mean a lot to me then but it means a lot to me now. When i opened the boot, it was full of Waterford glass and it all survived, somehow. We still have it to this day.
I worked for George driving a lorry for a year and then I spent time with Tony (Mullins) and that's where I met my partner, Rachel. She was riding out for Tony at the time. We did our time. When the foot and mouth came into Ireland (in 2001) our business nearly shut down for a year and a half. I started doing one horse myself then two and from there it took off, I suppose we were very lucky to have a couple of nice horses of our own when we started. We started pre training horses for point-to-points. We were renting a house down below Gowran and there were only two cattle sheds there. We used Donal Fogarty's gallop at dinner time or in the evening.
The first horse I had was a horse called Wolseley Lady and she won a point-to-point for us. We went from there to a bumper in Tramore - I had no track licence at the time and she ran for Tony Mullins. She was our first winner and Barry Connell rode her on New Year's Day (2005). We got the licence in 2007 and the following year we kind of retired from the cattle end of it and turned some sheds into stables.
I remember I bought a horse I liked in Newmarket one day when I was driving a lorry for George. I bought him for six or seven hundred quid. We brought him home and I asked Dermot Weld if I could work him with his horses as I thought he wasn't too bad, but didn't know too much about the Flat. He agreed and I brought him up and he worked well and Dermot said to bring him back up next week. We brought him back up again and he worked well again. I brought him back again and he asked me if I wanted to sell him. When I said what I wanted for him, he said he wasn't worth that and, on the way home, he rang me and said will you bring him up again next Tuesday! Pat (Smullen) sat up on the horse and he liked him, and Dermot gave me what I wanted for him. I went in for a cup of tea with Dermot afterwards and he said: "John, there's one thing I can't understand - you've been up here working the horse and never asked me what he worked against" and I said I got great advice years ago from my grandfather and I never forgot it - when a man minds his own business, he'll always have a business to mind! Dermot got a great thrill out of that and nearly died laughing! The horse was called Diman and lucky enough he sold him to Dr Michael Smurfit.
Luska Lad was a very good horse and won a lot of races for us including graded races. We have been lucky since we started training because every year, or every two years, we are able to pull one out of the pot somewhere. In any yard if you haven't got a nice team of horses coming on to take over from the others, you are in trouble. He ended up going back point-to-pointing for my two young lads Paddy and Sean and won a few point-to-points for them. Barry Connell was very good in giving them back the horse when he was finished racing. Paddy is pony racing at the minute, he loves horses. Sean is going to be a bank manager and he can lend money to the other lad!
Hidden Cyclone was very good for us. Andrew McNamara was very good on him and got a great tune out of him. He won a lot of races but he never won a Grade 1. He won plenty of Grade 2s and was second in a Ryanair (at Cheltenham) and a Paddy Power (in Leopardstown). He was a very good horse and was just unlucky not to get a Grade 1. Andrew said to me one day that he was retiring. I asked him when, and he said "today!" I said he couldn't give up the boots today as I had a horse (Most Honourable) that would win in a week to 10 days' time in Tramore! Andrew didn't retire, and his whole family landed in Tramore, and the horse did the job and won for him. For me it was a great thing to be able to do after Andrew was so good to me on Hidden Cyclone. That was his last ride. Rachael Blackmore was to ride the horse and I asked her if she would mind if Andrew rode the horse as he was retiring and she said to work away. She then rode the horse in Clonmel and rode her first winner. I bought that horse in Doncaster for about £600
That's the same money I gave for Skyace. It meant a lot to me to get a Grade 1 (in the mares' novices' hurdle at Fairyhouse last year) with her after we were knocking on the door with Luska Lad and Hidden Cyclone and we couldn't get in. That day was something special for me and for my family and for everyone involved in the yard. It was a dream come true. She is going to get a little break now and will be back to race probably in October or November. I'm eyeing Cheltenham next March. We were very unlucky we didn't get there this year, she got a little injury in Sandown. I'll probably go the same route to Sandown and then on to Cheltenham next March for the Mares' Hurdle. Then she'll go to the breeding sheds for TJ (McDonald, new owner). We'll see, she might go chasing - she is big enough to go chasing. If she runs respectably at Cheltenham, we will probably give her a season chasing and then breeding. It is great for TJ to buy a great mare like her because it is very hard to buy a graded mare for the price he gave for her.
We have around 40-45 in. I'd love to get another couple of good horses. I could just do with a real star again, it will come along. I took Hewick to Uttoxeter the Saturday after Cheltenham (for the Midlands National) and a loose horse took him out. He was running a cracking race after hitting the front and the loose horse brought him to a standstill. He is another cheap horse and only cost 800 quid. TJ McDonald that now owns Skyace owns him as well. It would be great to see him win a big pot to pay for the mare. He wants three and a half or four miles and is still a young horse. He could be our next star. I'll target all the Nationals with him.
There's a lot of good people in the racing industry. The good thing about the industry is that you meet so many different people, it is not the same as going in and sitting in an office with five other people! When you go racing, you meet so many people and the best characters in the world. We are lucky to have so many good people and so many good owners. It is not a cheap game and any man that buys a horse doesn't know if it is going to be a star or no good. We are all living the dream!