THE WORLD famous Aga Khan trophy could be making its way to Clare next month to mark the role of a Tuamgraney man in Team Ireland’s victory in the Nations Cup last week.
The glittering prize is one of the most sought-after in international equestrian sport and was donated by Aga Khan III in 1926.
Chef d’Équipe, Tuamgraney’s Michael Blake, ensured that Ireland took back the coveted cup for the first time since 2015 in after a tense, but thrilling, jump-off against France.
An elated Michael, who is also celebrating early qualification for the Olympics in 2024, told The Champion the nail-biting finish was a little tighter than he would have liked.
“We did take our foot off the gas at point, but when it came down to the penalty shoot-out, we showed we could put the ball in the back of the net,” he said.
On returning to Clare last Monday, one of the first things Michael did was to visit the grave of his parents for a moment of reflection and thanksgiving.
“After the pandemic, it was a great year to win the Aga Khan, but it didn’t just happen last Friday,” he said.
“This is the result of years of work, including on the part of farriers, vets, breeders, grooms, Horse Sport Ireland (HSI), myself and the riders. I’m just the train driver, but I do know where I’m going.”
Michael is now intent on getting the trophy to Tuamgraney.
“I’m going to get it,” he asserted. “We won it, it’s ours. It did take two security guards to get it to The Four Seasons, so there will be some details to iron out to get it to Nuala’s.”
With a trip to Warsaw already on the diary, Michael estimated that mid-September might be a good time for a homecoming.
“This is the most famous cup in world showjumping,” he said. “It would be comparable to bringing the Liam McCarthy to Clare.”
The presentation of the Aga Khan trophy, before a capacity audience at the RDS, was all the sweeter after a seven-year gap for Team Ireland.
As Michael noted, the famous golden prize was presented by one Clare man to another.
“We won the Abu Dhabi Nations Cup back in January and that was presented by a sheikh, but at the RDS, we had our own sheikh in the shape of Michael D Higgins,” he said.
“The President was delighted to be making the presentation to a fellow Clare man. It was also a case of presenting the cup from one Michael D to another, as that’s my own name too.”
Tickets for the Dublin Horse Show had sold out well in advance. With an audience of tens of thousands at the RDS, Friday afternoon’s atmosphere was electric.
“I think people were just delighted to be back after the pandemic,” said Michael. “The atmosphere was certainly very special. We are really grateful for the crowds for their support.
“For us, it was the culmination of years of work. As Chef d’Équipe, I’m conscious I’m in a position of trust. I’m the only selector for the team. I have a committee who can advise, but if I make the wrong call, that’s on me.”
Michael has proven his skill in strategising and his expertise in the highly technical elements of the sport.
“If you’re playing football or hurling, you could miss five shots and still win,” he said.
“In showjumping, there is no margin for error. It’s highly technical and you wouldn’t believe the playbook the team must work to.
“I get 20 minutes to walk the course and my task is to analyse it as accurately and quickly as possible, to calculate the number of steps between jumps.
“I communicate that the riders, but they have to trust me on what’s needed. They have around 85 seconds in a round and they have to get it right.”
Celebrations in Dublin took place at The Intercontinental Hotel on Sunday night.
“I was back in my ‘office’ at the RDS at 9am on the Saturday to get ready,” Michael said.
“Preparations for Sunday night were like organising a small wedding.” A noted tenor, Michael also sang for the capacity audience and gave riders a chance to savour their victory before thoughts turn to future goals.
Team Ireland included Down’s Conor Swail with Count Me In; Tipperary’s Max Wachman with Berlux Z; Cork’s Shane Sweetnam with James Kann Cruz; Meath’s Cian O’Connor with Kilkenny and reserve, Kilkenny’s Jack Ryan with BBS McGregor.
“I hitched my wagon to a couple of young people and, at just 18 years of age, Max is surely one of the youngest, if not the youngest to compete at this level,” Michael said.
“We put ourselves under some pressure, but we pulled through. We have now won on several continents this year and that’s some achievement. It really is a team effort and the team goes far beyond myself and the riders.”
The Nations Cup victory at the Dublin Horse Show marks the 24th time that Ireland has won the Aga Khan since it was inaugurated in 1926. It is one of the highlights of an outstanding season for Irish horse sport which has been marked by several European and World Championship medal wins, as well as team qualification for the Olympic Games in Paris in two years’ time.