THE Castletownroche-based greyhound trainer Tom O’Neill has been in great form in recent weeks.
And the shrewd Cork man still has a chance in one of the richest juvenile greyhound races in the world, following Antigua Rum's third-place finish in last Saturday night's semi-finals of the Con and Annie Kirby Memorial Stake at Limerick.
Winning connections will earn €80,000. Sponsored by Noreen and JP McManus in honour of her parents, Con and Annie Kirby, the competition has the biggest prize fund in Ireland after the Irish Greyhound Derby, with a total fund of €160,000.
Antigua Rum, trained by O’Neill and owned by Amanda Jeal in the UK, won his quarter-final heat in 28.39, before finishing third to Ballymac Tas last Saturday night. He's a 10-1 chance for the feature final but he could well outrun those fancy odds. The youngest in the line-up, he rates a very exciting tracker. He is short of early pace but he packs a really strong finish. If within a few lengths at halfway, he is certain to go very close.
Recently, Tom O'Neill told the Echo: "Delighted with Antigua Rum. We thought he was an ideal dog for the Kirby. He's got great stamina and he seems to be a very intelligent dog. We seeded him wide after Cork and I think it works out well for him. He's running straighter and gets a better run at the race."
O'Neill has a great knack of bringing greyhounds forward after each run and Antigua Rum certainly fits that bill.
"He's definitely going forward. He's a very young dog, only a September puppy and he could be anything going forward as time goes on, he looks really good."
Antigua Rum is owned by Amanda Jeal, in the UK. Of course, Amanda and Nic Jeal have some amazing dogs running across the water.
"There lovely people. They arrived in my place about six weeks ago, I didn't meet them before then, but they're very nice people."
Recent weekends have been very good to O'Neill and the consistent Ballyholly Fin was back to winning ways around Curraheen Park.
"He's a wonderful dog altogether. He has had loads of problems and is very hard to keep sound, but he gives it his all and they are having good fun with him. It's a pity, if he had good health, he could be anything."
Growing up in Castletownroche, the O'Neill family have always had greyhounds.
"In the early days, the father used to always breed and train them on to their first race.
"Of course, there would be nothing kept, they would run their first race and then it was onto the sales in Shelbourne Park. We had a shop on the main street at that time, we use to keep the dogs in the back and he would breed his few bitches. That was the way he would operate."
No stranger to success, the O'Neill's have brought some great dogs through their hands.
"The father did reasonably well that time. Castle Speedy finished second in the Produce Stakes final. There was only the odd one he would keep racing. He would enjoy it anyway and that was the whole thing."
Of course, the O'Neills are among the big names in the horse racing world also. Were there horses always around at home in the early days?
"Not really, we had a bit of interest and we did a small bit of riding but the father wouldn't leave us get any further in it.
"We will only take a chance on one fella. He obviously had spotted he had a bit of talent."
Jonjo O'Neill (Tom's brother) twice won the British Champion Jockey title (1977-78 and 1979-80) and won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on the mare, Dawn Run who became the only horse to complete the double of winning the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.
He won 900 races as a jockey. In 2010, he trained Don't Push It to win the English Grand National.
Then, in 2012, he trained Synchronised to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In recent months, Jonjo O'Neill Jr has been making a real name for himself in racing. He rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner this year aboard the Joseph O'Brien-trained Early Doors.
"He's getting a great chance now. He was unlucky at the start, getting a lot of injuries. He seems to be making great progress."
Tom O'Neill is a great character and the talented trainer took out his training licence about 10 years ago.
"Owen McKenna used to send me up a lot of dogs to school in the early days. Then, it kinda turned in to a bit of training cause he was overly busy at the time. I suppose that's how it took off really.
"There have been some great dogs along the way, when we started off with Owen, we had Advantage Johnny, we did a lot of work with him and he went onto the final of the English Derby, I think he finished third or fourth. Moving on, we had the likes of Glenanore Dancer, he was a very good dog for us.
"Dream Walker was another great dog, just touched off in the Irish Derby. A lot of great open dogs in between and Ballyhooly Henry brought us some loads of fun, winning the Gain and the Night of Stars."