Everyone has those people in their lives – a celebrity, an athlete…whoever – that they've never met, but for reasons known or unknown, they put them up on a pedestal above most others. For me, and for many others who have followed his doings both on and off the track, one such person is Carl O'Callaghan, trainer of newly retired Group 1 winner Kinsale King.
A native of Ireland, Carl first came to America on holiday for the summer at fourteen years of age as a horse-crazy teenager. He'd grown up around horses and from an early age was riding jumpers and eventers, gaining a good seat on a horse and a wealth of experience around them.
Enamored by Thoroughbreds, Carl came back to the states soon after and began working at a farm in New York, starting young Thoroughbreds under saddle. Eventually, Carl transitioned to the racetrack, first working for Susan Duncan and later John Kimmel and Todd Pletcher at Belmont Park.
Carl made his way to California as a freelance rider, galloping horses in the mornings for some of the top trainers on the west coast, and by 2009, he made the decision to take out his trainer's license and go out on his own.
It wasn't long after that he first met the horse that would bolster his career and change his life: Kinsale King.
“King had been with previous trainers before me and had broken his maiden,” said Carl. “His owner was keen to let him go on a claim. When I rode him, I said, ‘This horse will take us to Dubai next year.'”
King was quirky, and describing it as such is a major understatement.
“He came to me on a Monday at Del Mar and I jogged him,” said Carl. “The next day I went to gallop him and he wouldn't go, so I jogged him again. He's like a ballerina at the jog – very light and athletic – but he doesn't like to gallop, so I walk, jog and breeze him. That's it.”
The unorthodox regimen seemed to do the trick. The horse, who had at the time only recently shed the shackles of his maiden, began winning. In his first start with Carl, King won an allowance/optional claiming event at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet by an easy three lengths. Next time out he took the Vernon Underwood Stakes, a Grade 3 event at Hollywood Park, by a game neck. He did all of it with just walking, jogging and breezes to hone his fitness – no galloping.
It was that win that punched King's ticket to Dubai.
“I'd been to Dubai previously with other horses,” said Carl. “I knew the amount of pressure, and I knew I had to take a good horse to win – a special horse.”
The travel, according to Carl, is the most important part of taking a horse from America to Dubai and winning on racing's biggest stage.
“It's a long flight,” said Carl. “When we got on that plane, King laid down. I went to sleep with him and soon after we woke up, we were there. I only took him to the track one day when we were there, and that was to stand in the gate.”
It was just a few days later that Carl and King earned the first Group 1 victory for both of them, taking the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan in 2010.
“This horse changed my life,” said Carl. “He showed me and my owners that this is what I was born to do – train horses. The hardest part in the whole situation is that it happened so early in my career. It's hard to find a good one, and he's my only stakes winner so far.”
King took his connections around the world and back, running third at Royal Ascot and also competing in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing seventh.
“Talking about this horse makes me very emotional,” said his owner, Dr. Patrick Sheehy. “I've been in the horse business for 40 years. When a good horse comes along, they are magic. You take good care of them. He was a hard horse to keep sound, but from the beginning we knew he was special. We never pushed him. All of us…we always did what was right for him.”
Carl dealt with King's on again – off again soundness issues all through 2011 and he won one of four starts that year. In 2013 he made one start, running second in an allowance on June 21 at Hollywood Park.
“We were prepping him with that allowance for his stakes campaign, but after his last work we noticed some swelling on the back of his ankle,” explained Carl. “We check this horse twenty four-seven. He's the first horse the vet looks at in the morning. We noticed swelling the size of a penny on the back of his ankle. It didn't look bad, but it didn't look good.”
Carl had his vet take x-rays and an MRI, the latter of which showed the cause of the swelling.
“There was some edema around the ligament that attaches the sesamoid to his ankle,” explained Carl. “There were no tears or adhesions – nothing was broken, but had we not done all of the vet work, something could have been missed and he could have been badly hurt. We pay attention to the details – that's what it's all about.”
Carl made the call to Dr. Sheehy about what the findings were, and both agreed it was in King's best interest to retire from racing, agreeing that they were nothing but thankful that the horse who had afforded them so many memories was retiring with a bright future ahead of him.
The next day, King was at the track again, but he was sporting a very different look.
“I put Western tack on him this morning and took him out to watch the two-year-olds train,” said Carl, who, just like most mornings, was perched on his back. “He will stand around for hours and watch things, or just eat junk food. He's quiet, so quiet that the blacksmith pulled his shoes today and he just stood there in the shed row without anyone holding him. How many horses can be a racehorse one day and the next day you put a Western saddle on him?”
Carl was quick to point out that King is not going to have an official “second career,” but rather will be Carl's pet and partner in adventures both at and away from the track.
“I want to buy a trailer and take him camping, swimming in the ocean – I just want to do stuff with him,” said Carl. “I'm sending him to a farm next week, where he'll get 30 days of ground work and flat work, then he'll be good to go.”
Reflecting on King and great horses that have come and go throughout the years, Patrick compared him to the best human athletes.
“That combination of being cool in the head and talented physically…it's amazing how smart they are,” said Patrick. “They have an enthusiasm that's uniquely different…they intuitively live for what they do, and love it.”
Carl's connection with King was understandably different. While he appreciated and revered his athleticism and accomplishments, that was only a fraction of what King means to him.
“I owe thanks to so many people, from King's vet, blacksmith, chiropractor, masseuse, acupuncturist, his groom Carlos, his hot walker, the Sheehys, all of my staff, and his fans – I'm so grateful for all of them,” said Carl. “I mean, I'm with him all the time. He knows me inside and out, and I know him. We've drank many a beer together, this horse and I. I love him…he's my best friend.”
Name: Kinsale King (a.k.a “King”)
Born: May 30, 2005
Height: 16.3 hands
Color: Dk b/br
Sire: Yankee Victor
Dam: Flaming Mirage
Sale History: Sold as a yearling at KEESEP in 2006 for $27,000; Sold as a 2-year-old at BARMAY in 2007 for $67,000
Race Record: 16-6-1-2
Race Earnings: $1,517,129
If you have or know of a retired Thoroughbred with an interesting story to tell, we'd love to hear about it! Just email Jen Roytz ([email protected]) with the horse's Jockey Club name, background story, and a few photos.
Jen Roytz is the marketing and communications director at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. She also handles the farm's Thoroughbred aftercare efforts. She currently owns two retired Thoroughbreds: Point of Impact (by Point Given; a.k.a. Boomer), who retired from racing in late 2011 and is just starting back under saddle to find his forte as a riding horse, and Shotgun Shine (by Tale of the Cat, a.k.a. Gage), who is in training as a hunter/jumper. Contact Jen on Facebook and Twitter.
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