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Ireland team manager Michael Blake, MC Brendan McArdle, Team Ireland riders Max Wachman share a joke on stage during a celebratory event where the Aga Khan trophy was brought to Tuamgraney following Ireland's victory in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show. Photographs by John Kelly

GALLERY: Hero’s welcome for Michael Blake and Aga Khan trophy

Ennis College Further Education

Ireland chef d’equipe Michael Blake speaks to Dan Danaher and looks back at his riding career, what he had to do to buy his first pony, setting the world bareback championship record, and guiding Ireland’s showjumpers to a string of successes

 

MICHAEL Blake has made history by bringing the Aga Khan trophy back to Tuamgraney following a very successful showjumping year that included qualifying for the Olympics less than seven days before the thrilling jump-off against France in the RDS.

On paper, Michael knew he didn’t have the riding pedigree to become Ireland’s Showjumping Manager. However, through hard graft and precise planning, the Tuamgraney man put himself firmly in the hunt for selection.

From 2012 to 2016, Michael took over the Ireland Youth Showjumping team and helped young riders to an impressive haul of medals.

In 2017, the senior riders asked him to get involved so he became Development Manager and started working with Chef d’Equipe, Rodrigo Pessoa.

This partnership helped Ireland win the European championships that year in Gothenburg, Sweden. In 2019, Michael became Chef d’Equipe, realising a lifetime ambition.

“I was always interested in it, but never thought I would get a chance of getting this job. I was a little bit headhunted. I wasn’t your traditional Chef d’Equipe. I didn’t have what I saw as the necessary CV. I hadn’t won the Olympics as a rider.

“I started winning with the youths, then I went to the development squad. I got my experience on the field.

“After competing during Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, we were delighted when the crowds came back.”

Equastrian plan
At the start of the year, Michael set out his goal of qualifying for the Olympics, winning the Aga Khan trophy and developing young riders.

The Tuamgraney trainer targeted certain shows he wanted to win as part of his overall plan.

Picking Max Wachman, an 18-year-old, to ride for Ireland in the Aga Khan was regarded by some people as a bit of a gamble. However, Michael was confident in his selection.

“I know Max since he was younger. I gave him his first cap in America, he jumped a double clear. I sent him to Germany, he jumped a double clear and then I brought him to another Cup in Belgium, he was clear in four and was the best of the Irish. “On all three occasions, Max stuck to the task. I didn’t look at his birth certificate, I looked at his ability.

“It is very hard for teams to win at home. I was talking to people who haven’t won at home for 16 or 18 years because the riders bottle it. You want to be 20% better to win at home.

“I am also the team psychologist. I don’t want anyone interfering with their head only me. I have a low tolerance of human error because we train hard. We do our best to get a feel for what the course might be like. We practice distances, lengthening and shortening them. I expect the riders to be clear.”

His main strength is his ability to walk a course 20 minutes before an event without a tape, looking at the visuals, fences and others factors that might affect a horse.

“I can analyse the course like a computer chip really quickly and make a plan for each horse within a few minutes. I go out to beat the course builders in a Nations Cup, if you do, you usually win.

“If it is in a jump-off, you have to beat the other riders. But until you get to the very end, it is the course builder you have to beat not the other team.”

Commenting on the jump-off between Ireland and France, he said each stride takes a second. In a timed event, he said a horse must do less strides but still be able to keep their shape to ensure they don’t knock a pole.

“The French rider took nine strides to go from the first to the second hurdle. I felt if we took a different angle we could do it in three seconds less up to the third hurdle after walking the course in the morning.

“After that, I told Conor Swail to keep going and not to rush it home because he had done enough. I studied the other French rider and I knew he could only push it so far.

“You can have the best plan in the world and still need not be unlucky,” he outlined.

Having taken a calculated gamble to try to qualify for the Olympics and win the Aga Khan trophy in six and a half days with different teams, Michael admitted he could have lost both and been sacked.

“There was a thin line between being a hero and being sacked. I took a gamble I could get both done by splitting the team. Some people questioned my selection.

“I decided I would live or die on my own sword and decided I wasn’t going to take anyone’s advice.

“It could have easily gone the other way because the margins are so tight.

“If I don’t give riders like Max Wachman a chance on the big day, how will I ever know whether he can do it? Ireland has used 30 riders on Nations Cups this year. In 14 Nations Cups, we had five firsts, five seconds, two thirds and two non-top finishes.”

Last week, a very young team Ireland finished second in the European Cup in Warsaw, where they were just pipped by Italy. Eleven different riders were used to get very good results within a fortnight.

“I have developed a big long subs bench. If someone pulls out, I am not stuck. I will use another young team in Barcelona,” he said.

Priceless Trophy
Some experts have valued the Aga Khan trophy at up to €700,000. However, Michael believes this prestigious solid gold trophy is actually priceless.

“It is the most famous cup in world show jumping. You could weigh it, but if it went up for auction, it could make millions. In every other country, it is called the Nations Cup of the Netherlands. It is not called the Nations Cup of Ireland, it is the Aga Khan. It is called after the trophy. It will be locked in a vault for another 300 plus days. It is not kept in the RDS.

“I worked with Dublin Show Director, Pat Hanley and RDS Geraldine Ruane to create a civic event to bring the cup back to Tuamgraney. We had to follow certain protocols.

“I didn’t realise we could get such a welcome. To be welcomed by your own people is something really special. People came from everywhere to attend the reception.”

“I set out to bring the Aga Khan home, I believed I would do it, but it still had to happen. In 2019, we almost had it and lost it,” he recalled.

Getting started
Born in Drewsboro in 1962 just a short distance from where he lives in his own house at the rear of the impressive East Clare Equestrian Centre, Michael was the fourth of six children, four boys and two girls born to John and Eileen O’Brien, a sister of the famous writer Edna O’Brien.

When Michael wanted to get a pony in 1971 no one would buy him one, so he got up before school and milked the house cow by hand for two years when he was eight and nine years of age.

He was given the calf from the cow, sold the calf for 75 Irish pounds and bought a pony from Pakie Durack in Mountshannon for 55 Irish pounds and ten shillings. He also needed a pair of riding trousers but no one could buy them for him.

His grandfather needed help to provide fodder to cattle that were outdoors. Michael fed these cattle with a donkey and cart seven days a week for 14 weeks for one Irish pound a week.

The riding trousers were 17 Irish pounds but his grandmother gave him the extra three pounds he required to buy the pants.

When he started riding the pony, it was getting slower and slower, which left him wondering was he after wasting his money. However, he subsequently discovered the pony was in foal and then he sold the foal, which got him on the road to riding.

After proving his commitment and interest in riding, his father bought him a better pony called Mi Jo from Michael McInerney in Doonbeg.

First Pony Success
The first time he competed in a riding competition as a nine year-old was in the Scariff Show, winning the 12 hands 2’ inches category on Mi Jo in 1971.

That pony proved to be a great purchase, winning competitions all over the country.

“Mi Jo was a lunatic. It had talent but hadn’t application. I kept her until I was 14. When the time came to sell the pony, she was headhunted by famous English riders Ted and Liz Edgar who bought her for their daughter, Marie. Mi Jo was phenomenally successfully in England as well.

“I was always ambitious but I didn’t know if I was good enough, so I needed a better plan than anyone else. If you are not the best, you have to plan the best. I tried to have a better understanding and organisation of how the sport worked to give me the edge.”

Michael rode his first point-to-point winner in the Scariff Races when he was 15 in 1978. At the time, he was only about six and a half stone, so he had to add five and a half stone of a false weight to make the required 12 stone and still negotiate fences.

A change in the rules requiring teenagers to be 16 when they are participating in point-to-point has ensured he will continue to be the youngest winner.

Bareback Competition
In 1981, Michael saw the bareback riding competition in Dublin, which involves riding without a saddle. A year later, he participated in bareback competitions, finishing second and third. Then it disappeared.

In 1994, Maxi Scully from Gort who was the world record holder in 1981, before it was taken off him by an English rider Michael Whitaker a year later, wanted to get back his record.

Maxi organised a major bareback riding competition in Clonshire, Limerick. While listening to the Gay Byrne Show, Michael heard how competitors were going to break the world record

Now 32, Michael went to Clonshire without a horse with his riding gear. Maxi got injured on a horse called Larry Hagman and his horse King Logan was sitting in the stable.

Michael asked Maxi if he could ride King Logan, but the latter declined. When Maxi went off on the ambulance, his sister arrived and told Michael he could ride King Logan.

“I hopped up on King Logan. I had never ridden the horse previously. I tied for first place with two others.

“The following year I took King Logan, trained him properly, set out to break the world record and we did.

“I broke the world record in 1995, jumping seven foot two inches. If it was seven foot ten inches that night, he would have jumped it. Everything was just spot on and he just aquaplaned.

“That record still stands. It is very hard to control a horse without a saddle because it is hard to keep your position. It is like trying to drive a car without a driver’s seat, sitting on the bonnet. It is not simple. I trained hard to do it.”

“I never felt I was a good rider, but I was organised and I had a good plan. I didn’t have natural ability as a rider.”

After graduating to horses when he was 15, Michael was selected on the Irish Junior team. The process of buying and selling horses continued, as Michael won as much as he could with them.

He had a very good horse called Only Lucy, which won 17 Grand Prix in a row. In 2002, he was schooling a pony for a person when he suffered a terrible fall, smashing his head, resulting in the insertion 36 bolts, plates and pins and 16 hours of surgery during a long hospital stint.

Equestrian Business
Before and after the serious fall, he concentrated on coaching his children and running the equestrian centre.

His son, David, (32) represented Ireland in showjumping at every age from U-18 to senior teams. He now rides and runs an equestrian business in Florida.

Kevin (34) and Frank (28) were also successful, but Michael believes David was probably the sibling who wanted it most and progressed to make a career.

Kevin is now an engineer, while Frank is a well known actor, featuring in the hit series ‘Normal People’.

Michael pointed out it is hard to financially support three children who wish to pursue an equestrian sport before adding it would be much cheaper if they were interested in hurling.

“When you see you children jumping clear rounds for Ireland, it is great,” he recalled.

In 1985, Michael moved into his present home with his wife, Mary. In 1997, the family built the East Clare Equestrian Centre. It started off with sand ring for exercising, four stables were added in two phases and more were provided at the back before the massive shed was constructed.

Four international shows were hosted in the centre after it was built. In 2013, he resumed riding in Florida and won the Masters series for a few years during the winter.

About Dan Danaher

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