Whanganui contractor Wayne Keenan has unearthed a real gem in his search for a champion racehorse.
Keenan has had a burning life-long passion for the thoroughbred and has raced horses throughout many of his 68 years – it's what drives him to put his work boots on each morning.
His love of racehorses has built a hobby into a viable and growing breeding operation that includes a stallion.
While the concrete contracting business is the mainstay of the Keenan operation, his stud O'Ceirin at Upokongaro has been a nursery for serious horse flesh that has been on-sold to Australian and Asian interests. Six years ago, an unraced graduate of that operation was nursed back to health after serious injury and now stands at Granwilliam Stud in Waitotara every spring.
Dial A Prayer never raced, but one of his sons, Conor O'Ceirin, is delivering on the tracks and revealing what might have been had his dad not suffered injury.
Conor O'Ceirin is now a four-year-old and strung three wins together on end after a fifth and a fourth in his first two runs. All three of his victories have been by widening margins and have impressed even the harshest of judges.
The three consecutive wins have been hugely impressive and enough to give Keenan confidence there is not only more to come from the gelding, but also more gems to unearth from the sons and daughters yet to race or even be born by the same sire.
Conor O'Ceirin's victories have also caught the eye of international buyers, but even the offer of six-figure sums have not been to entice Keenan to sell.
His hobby farm O'Ceirin is a stunning property with wooden railed fences that border the lush paddocks, private training track, tack rooms, tie-up stalls and night boxes that are all bought and paid for. The development over the years has been a real labour of love and while Keenan is fully aware any money he received for the sale of Conor O'Ceirin would go a long way toward recouping costs, he remains uninterested.
"I've had good horses before and sold them on, but this is one I'm intent on keeping. I want to have some fun racing him and I'm confident there are more gold nuggets just like him to come," Keenan said.
"New Zealand racing is going through some hard times, but it will eventually come right and I still have the option of sending this one to race in Australia if I really wanted to."
Keenan and his best mate of nearly 50 years Kevin Rohloff both have a passion for the thoroughbred.
Rohloff is Keenan's trainer and Keenan wouldn't have it any other way.
"We've raced many horses together over the years, but now I have this set up at home I'm glad Rolly has agreed to train mine. He's one of the best horsemen I have ever met, so he'll do me."
Rohloff, who had much to do with the setting up of O'Ceirin, reckons it's a pretty cool place to work.
"Keno's done a bloody good job getting this up and running and while not all of the progeny of Dial A Prayer are going to be champions, Conor O'Ceirin is something special, he has the X-factor," Rohloff said.
"There are some really nice young ones we've not long broken in that are showing real promise, so I'm picking there still a few more good ones to come yet. Whatever happens we're going to have an awful lot of fun."
The lifestyle has even drawn Rohloff's younger brother Warren back into the fold. Warren is also a former jockey who trained horses back in the early 1990s. Just as he reached retirement age earlier this year, Warren Rohloff became an integral part of operations at O'Ceirin, riding trackwork along with all the other jobs that go with producing winning gallopers on raceday.
Meanwhile, Keenan has lost most of his foundation mares, but bought new broodmares in when Dial A Prayer was sent to stud. Among the band of broodmares is Plaything, the mother of Conor O'Ceirin and Valda's Dream, the mother of multiple stakes winner True Enough trained by the powerful Murray Baker and Andrew Forsman partnership in Cambridge.
"Rolly's old boss when he was a jockey years ago, Mick Preston, gave me both mares, so we've got the genes here to produce potential champions," Keenan said.
Dial A Prayer, by Pins, is out of Keenan's Al Akbar mare O'Ceirins Angel.
"I lost her [O'Ceirins Angel] not long after she had a Thorn Park colt," Keenan said. "She had a twisted bowel and we couldn't save her and then this bloke got injured. It all happened within a fortnight."
The Thorn Park colt was sold at Karaka in 2015 through the Wellfield Lodge draft for $240,000 to Hong Kong interests.
Dial A Prayer had bone chips in his off-hind fetlock and despite several operations and stem cell surgery, the colt never made it to the races.
"He was a really precocious horse and we were getting him ready for the first 2-year-old race at Wanganui, the Debutante Stakes, when he went amiss," he said.
"We thought he had the talent to really go places and he's out of a grouse mare so he deserves an opportunity at stud."
A born and bred West Coaster, Keenan headed north to Whanganui at 21 with racing already in his blood. His grandfather was a well-known trainer at Woodstock near Keenan's hometown of Hokitika, his uncles trained and his dad was heavily involved in the local racing club.
Even then work was a means to fund his passion for racing. He even gave up smoking to race his first horse.
These days he's happy enough hauling his work boots on every morning to help fund his passion, and of course, his telephone is never far from reach just in case he needs to dial up another dream.