Starting out, Ronan McNally never thought he would achieve what he has.
The County Armagh trainer, who balances his racing career alongside running a kitchen-fitting business, has come from humble beginnings to achieve great success in recent years and he is just getting started.
McNally, who began his career working for local trainer John Woods, may only have a small stable but he has maximised its potential with big victories with the likes of The Jam Man, Dreal Deal and The Trigger.
But, one success in particular stands head and shoulders above the rest for McNally.
Some horses become bigger attractions than the races they take part in, and that has certainly become the case for McNally’s The Jam Man.
The particularly small sized seven-year-old, who was bought for peanuts, has built up a huge cult following as he has risen up incredibly to the Grade 1 ranks with several big wins along the way.
And a viral clip of McNally’s son Kian, affectionately known as ‘Tubs’, being interviewed after The Jam Man’s win at Southwell has only added to the mystique which the horse, alongside it’s plucky team, possesses.
But don’t let that fool you. The Jam Man is a serious star whose light has so far shone brightest when winning the Troytown Handicap Chase at Navan in November last year.
While McNally’s stable star was favourite, the fact he beat the established big names in Irish training makes the occasion the most memorable of his career so far.
“You’re taking on the likes of Gordon Elliott and all the big owners in Ireland,” McNally said.
“A small man from Armagh with a cheap horse was able to go and the Troytown so impressively.
“It was the realisation that with the right sort of ammo we can actually take the big man on. The response we had and the messages from small trainers, it gave everyone a bit of hope that racing in Ireland isn’t just a monopoly for the big owners. It
was inspiring just to be a part of the whole thing.”
The Jam Man’s story hasn’t all been plain sailing though, but he has fought through adversity time and again.
The 11-time race winner, who went to Cheltenham with high expectations in 2020, could only finish ninth in the Stayers' Hurdle and a slump in form subsequently left his trainer wondering what would come next.
He added: “Everything he does surprises me. He won the Troytown in his first run over fences for a year and a half.
“He just does special things, he never disappoints or lets you down.
“He had a lean spell last year leading up to Cheltenham, I was very worried for him and a couple of his Flat runs at the start of this season he didn’t seem to be enjoying his racing.
“I was really worried after he pulled up at Galway that things had gone badly wrong. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get him back.”
Improved performances after Galway though, which included two second places and a victory at York, prompted renewed confidence from McNally – albeit a first chase start in a year and a half against tough opposition presented a big challenge.
“I was very confident,” McNally added.
“I just thought last year he probably wasn’t scopey enough to be a chaser and I went back hurdling and we had good success.
“I didn’t want to waste the handicap mark going for a small chase somewhere. I set my sights on the Troytown, it’s a very prestigious race and I wanted to give it a go.
“Two weeks prior to the race I schooled him over fences myself and he was absolutely electric.
“I rang Sean Flanagan two weeks before and I said ‘I actually think this might win the Troytown’. I think he had a quiet laugh at me, I think he thought I was mad.
“I was confident, bar the fact he had to jump round a Grade 1 track. He’s only a pony and I didn’t know if I was asking too much jumping round a competitive handicap. It was the whole thing of a plan coming together.”
McNally certainly had the last laugh, and he got to do so with Champion Jockey Paul Townend riding for him.
And Townend showed all of his champion pedigree to settle McNally’s star towards the rear for much of the three-mile contest before making smooth headway before the home turn and charging past the opposition to win.
He said: “I hadn’t really had any dealings with Paul, I obviously knew who he was and how good he is.
“When Willie [Mullins had no ride in the race Paul’s agent got straight on the phone and told us Paul was very keen to ride the horse.
“It was unbelievable that the Champion Jockey was keen to ride a small trainer’s horse. We snapped him up when we realised Sean wasn’t going to be available.
“I rang Paul up the night before to tell him the ideal scenario, he gave me such confidence over the phone which I found bizarre.
“I had said ‘do you think you can get room up the inside?’ and he said ‘that’s my job to make room’.
“Paul’s plan was to jump off up in the inside and go the shortest route, produce him late. It was plain sailing, Paul gave him a great ride and produced coming to the third last.”
A modest man, McNally’s celebrations included a trip to the chippy on the way home and a few glasses of champagne with his family.
On reflection since, the significance of the result has begun to sink in.
“From the early days, I’ve exceeded all expectations,” McNally said.
“My first horse was a wee filly which I got for free, my second was a 15-year-old I paid 500 euros for and the next I paid 5000 for.
“When you’re starting at such modest levels you probably never think you’re going to win at Troytown realistically.
“We’ve actually surprised ourselves. We had a Galway Festival winner too so probably this year went way above what we thought we could do.”