Dressing-room inspires Leap of faith by O'Leary

Grand National glory beckons for a Co Cork trainer whose life was changed by a team talk
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The Independent Online

Thomas O'Leary sat in the dressing room and listened, electrified, as Gerry Ryan implored the men of Ballinascarthy to believe in themselves. "Lads," he cried. "Some of you in here are better than some of the lads I played with for Cork. There's only one difference. They thought they were better. If I could just get you to believe that, too, to know you deserve this as much as the next man..."

Ten years on, aged 35, O'Leary cherishes those words as he ponders the outlandish possibility that his stable of just 20 horses, here in a backwater of West Cork, might house the winner of the John Smith's Grand National. To be fair, they have never left him. Ryan's exhortation changed his life – even though O'Leary was only on the bench the day the villagers took their hurleys to Cork city, for the county semi-final, and played for their lives. As it happens, they lost by the odd point, but the occasion bequeathed a hidden victory.

Previously O'Leary had been a diffident, melancholy youth. "I often told Gerry since, what I'm telling you now," he says. "That I was lucky I was in there that day. It was a turning point for me, went right to my core. Never mind the hurling, that was the day I thought: 'Jays, that's the way to go with everything'."

He is driving his jeep up a steep gallop, past schooling fences carefully constructed to resemble Aintree. At the top, the panorama takes your breath away. To the south, a silver slab of sea. To the north, hills and pasture swaying voluptuously to the green heart of Munster. And, to the west, dozing in smoky sunlight, the distant crags of Kerry.

In years past, hope lay far beyond. It was from this parish that John Ford fled the famine for a new life in a land that would find its ultimate emblem through his own grandson. Henry Ford famously asked himself what his customers most wanted, and answered "a faster horse". To that extent, little has changed Ballinascarthy way.

There were always horses on the farm, as Thomas's father reared half-breds. But when Thomas finally came across a faster horse, it was the height of serendipity. Imperial Call, the 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, had found his way to the valley after the retirement of Fergus Sutherland, and Thomas ended up riding him at work.

It was a young team that had the horse. Raymond Hurley, his trainer, was only 22, while a blonde on the staff, Sinead, caught O'Leary's fancy. Imperial Call could not last forever, of course – O'Leary still visits the venerable beast, in a meadow over the river – but it seemed as though the buzz might. O'Leary tried to get established in England, riding point-to-pointers, and spent time with Aidan O'Brien. But he was chronically lacking confidence and, reconciling himself to that reality, came home as an apprentice carpenter.

Then Gerry Ryan sat him down with the other lads, and began roaring the words that still reverberate through his soul. O'Leary tested the substance of his conversion in a point-to-point, up the road at Bandon. He fired his horse into every fence, won the race, and set to work converting the farm. There would still be other bridges to cross. He found himself taking defeat "like a dog", had to learn how to enjoy life for what it is. He is trying golf, yoga. It is not too pragmatic, after all, to depend upon a Grand National for contentment.

The horse looks the part, gleaming in his stall, nibbling a sprig of furze. Admittedly, his name was not registered with much literacy. But it has done Preists Leap no harm, with successive wins in the Thyestes Chase, emulating Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde in the year before their Aintree wins. O'Leary knew his target 14 months ago, and his satisfaction with four days to go is tempered only by a preference for softer ground.

Otherwise, you might see the hand of destiny in Preists Leap, bought on the only occasion Thomas's father accompanied him to the sales. "A typical stockman," O'Leary says, over a pot of tea in the kitchen. "He knew more or less the day a foal was born what he had. 'Jesus,' he said. 'Pull out that horse over there.' And, in fairness, I'd have walked past him."

John O'Donohoe, from Bantry, had told O'Leary to spend "no more than 30 grand". Without his father at his elbow, he would have obeyed. Tom Costello, the dealer who sold Imperial Call to Sutherland, nodded for 32. O'Leary was aghast. "Go," said his father. And the gavel fell at 33. When he lived in Shropshire, people would tease O'Leary: "Say 'thirty-three,' Thomas." "Tirty-tree," he says now, laughing. "Tirty-tree."

The animal was named after the legend of a priest ambushed by brigands on an escarpment in Kerry. Cornered, he turned his horse towards Bantry and jumped. "In the town there's some rock, with four hoof marks where the horse landed," O'Leary explains. "Only it's four miles from the mountain."

It makes Becher's Brook sound less daunting, but even the leap of faith urged by Ryan has its limits. You cannot make it rain, or stop another horse bringing down yours. Sinead remains one sanctuary, and a few days ago O'Leary found another: a golf manual, of all things, by the sports psychologist, Bob Rotella. "Brilliant," O'Leary says. "To stop you making a big deal out of yourself. Here's one. 'The idea isn't to try your hardest, it's to try your best.' Very good. And here, this one's the best. Quoting Yogi Berra to his pitcher in a tight game: 'There's a billion Chinese who don't care at all what you do here.'" O'Leary is delighted. "Isn't that brilliant? One minute, I think of what Gerry said. It should be me. The next, I think of the billion Chinese. I totally want to win it, like. But it helps to think of them."