Exclusive interview with Punchestown's new General Manager

Connor O'Neill talks racing, life, work and his arrival at Punchestown

Tommy Callaghan

Reporter:

Tommy Callaghan

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tommy.callaghan@leinsterleader.ie

Exclusive interview with Punchestown's new General Manager

Conor O'Neill, General Manager, Punchestown

It has certainly been one momentous year in the life of one Conor O'Neill. A year when he was elected Chairman of the Association of Irish Recourses; followed that up by being appointed General Manager of Punchestown, taking over from the legendary Dick O'Sullivan. And than as Conor says himself, “I decided to go for the treble and got engaged to Limerick native, Laura, that will see the happy couple walking down the aisle come October this year.
So who is Conor O'Neill, where did he come from; what is his background and how did he land the big job at the home National Hunt Racing at Peerless Punchestown?
Conor takes up the story himself.
From Ballyknockan in Co. Wicklow, a mere 25 kilometres from his new headquarters at Punches-
town, Conor comes from a family that has no back-
ground in the racing game, although “like everyone else in the area we did attend the Punchestown Festival every year.”
He attended school in the Cross & Passion in Kilcullen and it was probably here he got his taste for racing, or to be more precise, bookmaking, for at an early age he set his heart in becoming a bookmaker.
“When I was about 14-years-of-age I decided I wanted to be a bookmaker so I took off one Sunday to the Curragh and approached a gentleman, and I suppose I was very fortunate who I chose, not knowing a whole lot about it, but I approached a fella by the name of Justin Carthy who was Chronicle Bookmakers at the time, probably the biggest on-course bookmakers in England and Ireland, so I said to Justin that I wanted to become a bookmaker and could I go and work for him to get a bit of experience.”
To Conor's surprise Justin readily agreed and they decided meet the following weekend, ironically, at a Punchestown meeting.
“Needless to say this was to my mother's disgust as I was still at school but I stayed at the books while at the same time linking up with Justin, every weekend.”
I started working with Justin the following Saturday in Punchestown and for the following ten years I travelled around with him to every racecourse in Ireland and the UK including to Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot, them all basically; a fantastic education and you meet with all sorts of characters; all shapes of life; it was great said a very enthusiastic Conor as we sat in his office at Punchestown a few weeks prior to the start of next week's Festival.
Under pressure at home, Conor decided that while he was sticking with the weekend work 'standing' with Justin Carthy, he signed up to do a degree in Equine Business, “which was the compromise as far as I was concerned.”
Part of the first year entailed a three month placement that summer which he did at HRI headquarters with Margaret Davin, who was the financial controller there at the time.
Conor readily admits that he was extremely fortunate with the people he got to work with where “I got an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience along the way, without which I would certainly not be where I am today and that's for certain.”
During his third year in college an option came up for a 12 month placement, which the Wicklow man jumped at, and lo and behold his placement was to Punchestown, under the tutelage of one Dick O'Sullivan, Richie Galway and all the gang there.
So it was a delighted Conor who headed off to Punchestown as he explains.
“I would have know Dick O'Sullivan and Richie Galway from my involvement with Chronicle Bookmakers; not well, but I knew them, and they gave me the opportunity to come here to Punchestown which I jumped at and I certainly got a great handle of the business that year.
“I came in July, just before an Oxegen Concert; I did a few months in the accounts department and got a great grasp of the business, every aspect of it, from the ground up; but Oxegen and everything else that was going on showed me that Punchestown was not all about racing and that it needed events such as the concerts to remain viable and sustainable throughout the year.
“It is a fantastic facility here but the fact that we don't race from the middle of May until the middle of October, is a huge cost and we have to sustain the place, but it was a great eye opener particularly to see the running of the entire place from a completely different angle.”
Conor admits that he really had the best of both worlds, learning the ropes at Punchestown while at the same time continuing to work at weekends with Justin Carthy and Chronicle.
Then when his 12 month placement was completed Dick O'Sullivan asked him to stay on, while at the same time finishing his final year in college.
Having graduated with his degree in Equine Business, Conor was then offered a full time position by Dick O'Sullivan, which again he had no hesitation in accepting.
“The fantastic thing about Punchestown, and you know how some people get tight up on job roles and job titles and specific roles, but Punchestown is different; it is a great team effort; no such things like that's not my job; we all row in make it happen.”
In all the years I have been going out to do pre-Festival interviews at Punchestown, that is the one thing that props up time and time again; everyone works together, everyone mucks in, if there is a job to be done, regardless of what it entails, who ever is available takes the role and there is no doubt that that is something that Conor O'Neill will not be changing.
Two years full time in Punchestown, while still linking up with Justin Carthy, it was at that time Chronicle decided to sell the business to Ladbrokes and Justin asked Conor to join him full time in the Ladbrokes business so when the deal with Ladbrokes eventually got over the line, part of that package was that he (Conor) had to work with Ladbrokes for a year, which he signed up for.

It was a completely different role from the role he had with the betting side of things with Justin; this was a big Plc and Conor soon realised that maybe this was not for him as he missed the buzz from the betting ring and was coming to the conclusion that the role with Ladbrokes was not for him.
It was coming up to the end of the 12 months of my contract when an opportunity came up for theposition of General Manager at Limerick Racecourse, which I applied for, and got.
“My contract with Ladbrokes ended on the Sunday of Derby weekend at the Curragh and I took up my new role in Limerick the very next morning.
“I was in Limerick for three years, a fantastic place, and I really enjoyed my time there, it was a relatively new facility; the community were great for me; very proud sporting people; really got behind the venture; Shannon Airport came on board to sponsor the Christmas Festival which is Limerick's major meeting; we got RTÉ coverage for that and it really helped to raise the profile; only last Christmas they got their first Grade 1 and I was delighted for everyone involved there” said Conor, adding “it was there I met my wife to be (Linda Bolger) and we are due to get married in October this year.
Meanwhile Conor was in touch with Dick (O'Sullivan) and Riche (Galway) on a regular basis. “They were great mentors of mine, regularly on the phone and then one night I got a call from Dick wondering if I would do a Cheltenham Preview and would I mind going down to a local pub in Blenerville in Kerry; a great Preview night, and I have done it every year since.”
Conor explains that after that Preview he went back to Dick's place and over a cuppa and a long chat Dick suddenly said to him: “Would you ever consider coming back up to me and Punchestown, join up with Richie and all the gang again.”
The job in Punchestown was evolving at the time explained Dick said “I think there could be great opportunities for you up there in the years go come.”
I thought about it; said Conor adding “I did not have to think too long and I agreed but said I was going to stay in Limerick up until the end of the year as I wanted to get the next Christmas Festival over the line for Limerick.”
That was not a problem as far as Dick was concerned and so Conor O'Neill returned to Punchestown in 2018 as Commercial Manager; Richie was focusing on the racing side and Conor was asked to look at the commercial and the events side of the business.
2018 was a very busy year; the revamp of the entire facilities; the highlight, the building and opening of the new Hunt Stand, a mighty addition to the Punchestown facilities and one Conor says “epitomises everything that is great about everyone in Punchestown but it will stand in time as an epitaph to Dick O'Sullivan and all that the has achieved here over the years.”
It was before last year's Festival that the position of Chair of the Association of Irish Racecourse came vacant and Conor O'Neill decided to put his name into the hat for that prestigious post.
Conor was elected and explains that there are a few roles in that particular job.
“You automatically become a Director of the Board of HRI and you take the role of Chair of the Media Rights Committee, a vital role which essentially is what keeps the 26 race courses in the country going; so absolutely vital funding.”
After the 2018 Festival, Dick, who had been in charge of Punchestown since 2003 when he came to Kildare for a scheduled six month stint to try and sort out the mess it had found itself in, and what a success he has made of it turning it around to what it is today.
Anyway Dick had decided to take a step back somewhat and as Conor explained that he knew when leaving Limerick when that (GM) job eventually became vacant it would be Richie Galway who would be the automatic choice to replace the great Kerry man with Conor stepping up to back up Richie.
But there was another twist on the way when Richie, son-in-law to top trainer Jessica Harrington was contemplating stepping up his role back home with Jessica.
Again Conor explains: “Richie no doubt had a conversation with his wife at home and with his involve-
ment in Jessica Harrington's yard, which has and continues to enjoy tremendous success over the years; a business that is really growing and he (Richie) felt he needed to get more involved with that but it was without doubt the hardest decision Richie Galway ever made.
“He spoke to me and to Dick about his plans and in the end he made what I believe has been one of the hardest and toughest decisions in his life when deciding to leave Punchestown.”
That was one long week confides Conor, everything happening, lots changing and all very suddenly.
Dick came to me and said “the car has come off the road, we have to get it back on it and I as have made my decision to take a step backwards I am now going to the Board and propose that you be given the position of CEO of Punchestown and take over my role.”
The Board backed Dick all the way; the position was ratified by the Board of the Kildare Hunt Club and Conor O'Neill was appointed the last day of May as the CEO of Punchestown.
And so as we look forward to the Punchestown Festival of 2019, Conor O'Neill can certainly look back on the last 12 months that has not only seen major changes in Punchestown but monumental changes in the life of Conor O'Neill.
A man that has come a long, long way from the day he headed off to the Curragh Races, seeking to become a bookmaker. Little did he know that that was his initial step to becoming the CEO at the home of National Hunt Racing.
We wish him well for the week ahead; for the years ahead and in particular on his big day when he ties the knot with fiancé, Laura Bolger.