07 Jul 2022

ULSTER SFC: From Tiernach's Park to Tattersalls, the story of Gary McGill

How the Glen man swapped the football for the fillies.

ULSTER SFC: From Tiernach's Park to Tattersalls, the story of Gary McGill

Pic by Sportsfile/David Maher.

When Gary McGill slotted over his second point of the game in the 1998 Ulster Final to draw the sides level for the fourth time, he couldn't have imagined how his life would change after that, his final season in the Derry colours.

McGill was introduced to football in St. Mary's Glenview Primary School and fell in love with it instantly.

“I went to Glenview Primary School and played football there, that would have been the first football I ever played, and I played all the way through St. Pat's.”

McGill won one MacRory Cup at Maghera in fifth year, and he actually played in a Hogan Cup final in 1984 when still in fourth year, losing by a point to St Jarlath's Tuam in the last kick of the game. He left school to serve his time as a plumber and that ended the colleges scene.

“I went into the Derry panel under Eamon Coleman in '89 or '90. Gerry McElhinney had retired from soccer and he came into the Derry set up at the same time as me. Coleman and Father Hegarty were taking the team.

“I went to Australia in '90, came home in 1991 and was straight back into the panel. I got injured and had trouble with a Gilmore's groin injury and Dr Glancey got me hooked up with a specialist but it was funny you know.

“I was told to go to Dundonald and bring two things with me, an envelope with £100 in it, and a bottle of brandy,” laughed McGill.

Pic by Sportsfile/David Maher.

“Up to Dundonald in November and saw the consultant and he was really good you know, when I told him I was a self-employed plumber he said he'd do the surgery on December 22nd so that I could recover when off on my holidays and not lose work or anything.

“After that the idea of going back to Derry, you know there was no real rehabilitation programmes or anything. You were just left to do your own work and that. Then I just decided I'd go back to Australia again and I went back for six months and that took us into the 1993 season.

“I came home to play for Glen in the championship but that was in the middle of the year then, and so I didn't go back to Derry again until 1994, where I stayed then with the squad until the end of the '98 season.

“Going into that Ulster final in 1998 was a bitter sweet feeling for me. In 1997 we were beat in the Ulster final by Cavan and I had the opportunity to win the match.

"Dougie won the ball and I came off his shoulder and was through on a one-on-one with the 'keeper and he saved it. We were a point down at the time.

Pic by Sportsfile/David Maher.

"I could have fisted it over for a draw but I've watched that video a good few times since, and actually he was lucky in the end. The ball hit his trailing leg, the leg under him as he dived to make the save. The ball spinned off his boot and out for a '45.

“But we won it in '98 and I remember going up to the steps to lift my medal and Jim McGuigan grabbed me by the hand and pulled me in tight and said 'Hi boy – well done, you deserved that' and that always stuck to me. I've never forgotten that.”

Derry were a point down and Donegal had all the play, but McGill popped up with his second score, and an important one for Derry.

“I remember the ball coming in and Joe Brolly was to my left shouting for the ball but I remember thinking that my left boot was every bit as good as Joe's and so I went for it and I felt I had more space than Joe so I wasn't for passing the buck, I went for it myself and put it over the bar.

“ But losing that All Ireland semi final to Galway sort of sickened me, I think it was the right time for me to retire. I was building a house here and a good few boys had moved on, and it was my time to go.”

How a 'townie' ended up in the country as a licensed racehorse trainer is a tale of genetics.

“Well, my father is a Kilrea man and from a farming background and my mother was Gillen from Loughgiel. I was always at my mother's home place every holiday, summer, Easter, Christmas all of that.

"They always had horses about the place. They had show jumpers and thoroughbreds and did a bit of pony racing and stuff.

Pic by Sportsfile/Ray McManus

“When I was going over there my Granda would have been breaking horses for people and I was like the dummy being thrown up on to one from no age. My uncle Alex Gillen also had horses and I'd have been over with him all the time and so they were always around me.

“My uncle had a few mares and when I stopped playing for Derry and bought the farm here beside where I had built our first house, I would go to the sales with him.

“He bought a mare there and so he said to me look rather than me sending her away, sure you take it over to the farm and break it.

"We named her Macknagh Rose and she was the first horse I worked with here. She never won anything, but she was grand you know. I took a couple of foals off her but I realised then after the second that breeding didn't interest me.

“I had started breaking horses in here and a cousin of mine Chrissy O'Kane was about and we worked with them and put in a wee gallop in one of the fields there and over the years it got bigger and bigger and we really had a bit of luck with it too. I had a couple of winners at point to point and that was it.

“Point to pointing in Ireland is mostly our young national hunt horses and if you have one that is placed or wins in it's first then it's invited to the sales in England.

"Because the Irish horses have been dominating Cheltenham for the last few years, if you have a good point to point horse in Ireland it can make serious money in the sales in England.

Gary along with son Oran after Dolly's Destination won the Kingstable Road Mares Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race in 2018.

"There is a Cheltenham point to point sale every month there with the big trainers like Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicolls all the big trainers are there looking for the next Gold Cup winner.

“I've had a couple of nice horses here like Agent Boru there who was brought down on his first outing, then won his second and he was invited to the Cheltenham sale.

“Literally the race wasn't over two minutes, I was on my way to welcome the horse back into the winners enclosure and I got a phone call from Tattersalls to see would I put the horse into the Cheltenham sales and as soon as that call ended another call came in from Goffs to see would I send him to the Doncaster sales.

“He was a very impressive winner and we ended up taking him to Cheltenham because I wanted to see around the course and I knew it would be a good opportunity to see around the place without the crowds being there and so my friend and the two boys went with me here and off we went with the horse and sold him and did ok.

“After that I bought Dolly's Destination for three hundred euro. I did ok there” he laughed

“I usually don't buy fillies too often, I wasn't for buying her at all and then when they said look you can have her for three hundred euro.

Pic by Sportsfile/David Maher.

“You're trying to tick as many boxes as you can when you are buying a horse, has the mare won, is it a good stallion that produces good offspring, and if the mare has bred a winner maybe off three or four foals.

"Dolly ticked all the boxes. The mother had won a bumper, she had bred a winner and she was the third offspring and for that money I thought I couldn't lose.

“And so I took a chance on her and brought her home here and that was the year after I had sold Agent Boru and I had a wee bit of money to spend to buy horses back in.

"I bought three or four horses that year but it ended up Dolly was the best purchase of the year.

“She had four or five wins, she has won £50k in prize money and has paid her way well. She has given us some great days out now.

“We took her to Hexham and the top jockey's agent in England rang me within a minute of the entry offering me a list of top jockeys to put on her.

"We chose Aidan Coleman to put on her because we liked him as a jockey. He won her and he was definitely impressed by her.

“We brought her home then and gave her a wee break at home because the ground was drying up for the summer and we brought her back and put her into a handicap hurdle at Navan and Conor Orr rode her and she tore through that one, then the handicapper went to town on her and put her up 13lbs after that win.”

Gary and son Dara, who took his first steps in a horse racing career in 2020.

Looking forward to development McGill has ambitions for the small local yard.

“I have ten horses in training at the minute, two or three of my own and the rest are local owners and a couple of syndicates.

“I have my trainer's licence now three years. I had to do three days every week for three consecutive weeks in a classroom listening to lectures and answering questions and doing exams.

“I was lucky enough I had a good few winners and had a good background at point to point and so I hit the ground running there, I had a good clean sheet.

"I had a portfolio to submit and I had a very thorough inspection here in the yard where they assess the set up here from the Turf Club, making sure all welfare issues are looked after, and that everything is to the highest standard.”

McGill has passed his passion for horses onto his two sons, Oran and Darragh who are both amateur jockeys.

“Watching with my own boys in the saddle I don't be really nervous. I'm probably more nervous about how the horse will perform. Whether it's my own horse or an owners I just hope they will perform well.

“It's getting the judgement calls right, should I enter the horse or should I not. Should I pull them if it rains, what's the ground like, all those thoughts and you just want the horse to perform and know you've done your best to have the horse ready.

Pic by Sportsfile/Damien Eagers.

“Looking forward I'd like to get few nice horses into the yard and build the place up to the level where I have a good training establishment here. I'm now going into buying unbroken three year olds, bring them home, and break them in.

“You'd be hoping to get one good winner at the point to point where then it can go to the sales and make a decent price and then you reinvest that money into the yard here. That's my ambition, but the dream is to have a winner at Cheltenham.

“Cheltenham, Aintree or Punchestown would be the dream, and to have Oran or Darragh to ride it, well that would be something special.”

Looking ahead to Sunday's Ulster final the Glen man thinks the Oakleaf men are the team in form.

“Derry look impressive this year, I think the way Donegal play and set up, Derry have a good system there in attacking at speed and I just have this wee feeling that Derry will cope better with Donegal than they did with Monaghan even.”

For a man who knows a thing or two about studying form, he just might be right.

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