He’s the distinctive grey that breeders wish they had bred. Currently ranked in the Hippomundo rankings as the world’s joint-top 11-year-old, he’s earned €1,134,253 in prize money since 2015.

‘He’ is James Kann Cruz, bred on the Connolly family’s farm in Cummer, near Tuam. And his story keeps time with certain changes amongst farmer-breeder families and Irish rural life.

It’s 35 years since the Saw Doctors released their iconic hit ‘N17’ about the old Tuam-Galway road, since succeeded by the M17 motorway. One N17 landmark was the nearby Ranch House, which attracted huge crowds in its dancehall heyday.

Patrick Connolly’s parents ‘home house,’ with the adjoining farmyard, is just across the road from his and Dolly Connolly’s own home. Their sons Brian and Shane’s houses are built next door in a typical close-knit family layout, with help always on hand and four grandchildren - Alison, Jack, James and Megan - nearby.

Simmental and Belgian Blue cattle and Suffolk cross sheep are reared on the farm, Patrick is an agricultural contractor and Shane is a farrier, which all means precious few spare hours in summertime.

Shane Sweetnam and James Kann Cruz during the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show in 2022. \ Laurence Dunne jumpinaction.net

Kitchen table

Dolly, a daughter of the late Galway GAA figurehead Phelim Murphy, does the paperwork as well as offering trademark Irish hospitality to neighbours and customers - either looking for silage to be cut, a promising youngster or broodmare.

A steady stream of customers have sat around that kitchen table as the family has built up a stream of performance-bred horses, such as CSF Vendi Cruz (1.60m), WCE Cruco (1.60m) and CSF Sir George (Sir Shutterfly) the Lanaken five-year-old silver medallist in 2018.

Five years previously, Patrick won the RDS leading breeder award at the 2013 Dublin Horse Show and The Irish Horse sales reports have frequently featured CSF sales-toppers.

Last year was no exception, with the US-export CSF Good Vibes and CSF Harrison topping Barnadown’s Supreme Sale of Show Jumpers and Cavan’s Elite Sale.

CSF Hi Spec (Ars Vivendi) competed in the 2023 European junior championships and of course, there’s the horse the Connolly family hit the jackpot with in two equine generations: James Kann Cruz, named after their eldest grandson James, Brian’s son.

Going Continental

It’s both a great Irish breeding and farm enterprise success story. Where did it begin? The late Jim Connolly was typical of many farmers with a grá for the horses on the farm, mostly Irish Draught mares, as was the pattern in north Galway.

“He loved going to the shows because he’d meet the likes of Michael Casey and have the craic with them,” says his son Patrick.

Jim’s Rathlin Star mare Bay Queen bred the approved Irish Draught stallion Mourne Mountain Star, by Bernard Stanford’s Grey Macha.

“Grey Macha was a very popular horse in my father’s time,” continued Patrick.“There were no half-breds really here but he did breed some mares to Jamie Boy, with Jackie Gilligan in Colemanstown, and maybe have a few pints in the pub afterwards. There was no scanning, no checking mares and most years, it worked.”

The first mare Patrick himself owned was Cummer Glory (Glacier Mint x Carnival Night). At first, he followed on the pattern of breeding traditional and buying foals to later sell on with some show jumping mileage.

Those years were met with mixed success. The newlyweds even spent the ‘new couch’ money on buying a foal only for it to later break a leg. Patrick recalls proudly showing a new purchase to his father. “And he looked at him…he was a big horse, which he never liked anyway, before saying, “Well, I hope you’re as good as sellers as you were buyers.”

Patrick and Dolly Connolly (left) with son Brian, his wife Pauline and their children Alison and James; CSF Telly Cruz, the dam of James Kann Cruz and Shane, his wife Mags with their two children Jack and Megan. \ Susan Finnerty

Continental bloodlines

Just as many commercial cattle farmers had introduced Charolais and Limousin breeds, the Connollys started using the continental bloodlines of Cavalier Royale and Darco. Cummer Glory’s first foal Cummer Cruise (Cruising) was the pathfinder, breeding Edwina Tops-Alexander’s 1.55m horse Ramiro Cruise (Ramiro B).

Crossing proven performance-bred stallions, such as Kannan, with stout Irish lines such as Cruising and Clover Hill mares paid off for Connolly Stud Farm, known by its CSF prefix since 2007.

No potluck anymore. Nowadays much of the A.I. and veterinary work is carried out in the capable hands of the Kylemore Stud team of Ivor and Olive Broderick and ‘super vet’ Philip McManus.

“Big man in town”

Gone too are the days when Patrick brought a portable telly out to the machine shed to watch the Aga Khan Nations Cup while fixing farm machinery. For the Geneva Grand Prix last December, the ClipMyHorse coverage was hooked up to the sitting room TV.

Brian and Shane are adept at spotting possible stallion matches and all the family follow the progress of CSF-breds. “It’s just every Irish breeders’ dream to breed an Aga Khan horse,” Patrick says, who watched ‘Gizmo’ and Shane from the arena pocket as Ireland won on home ground two years ago.

He was there to witness the Dublin dream firsthand in 2022 and 2023 rank as highlights. And then there’s the team silver medal Ireland won at the European show jumping championships in Milan last year, followed by Shane’s first World Cup qualifier win at Lexington, all with Paris Olympics-tipped James Kann Cruz.

“He really lights up with a crowd and the big occasion. He always wants to be showing me that he’s the big man in town, especially on those occasions,” Shane Sweetnam told The Irish Horse about his ‘millionaire horse.’

‘Gizmo’ is James Kann Cruz’s nickname since his early days in Co Longford with Mary and Anne Gannon, who bought the Kannan colt foal from the Connollys after calling down to see CSF youngstock.

Originally produced by John Mulligan and Francis Connors, James Kann Cruz was sold in 2021 to the newly-established Gizmo Partners LLC syndicate for Shane to compete.

Shane Breen and CSF Vendi Cruz at the Global Champions Tour in Mexico in 2018. \Stefano Grasso/LGCT)

Kitchen table discussions

It’s been a wet winter in the west and the rain is lashing down as we head over to the yard to meet the ‘queen’ herself: CSF Telly Cruz. While not the easiest mare to get in foal, fortunately, two embryo transfers - a Kannan and Tyson - were successful last year. “And we’ll try for ICSI next.”

Unmistakably a Cruising mare, her dam was the repatriated Clover Hill daughter Tell Of Clover, who jumped on the Swiss gold medal team at the European young rider championship.

Local show jumper Owen Horan remembers Tell Of Clover jumping in the Rockmount winter league and his daughter Cora plaiting the CSF foals at sales time.

Patrick had mentioned at the Irish Horse Board Marketing and Promotion conference in the Lyrath Estate last November, (when he received an award for breeding James Kann Cruz), that he got a ‘bit of flak’ for having their foals’ manes plaited.

“We were told that the foal should be left in its natural state by a very good horseman but I think it’s very important because it makes the foal look that bit better, provided the plaits are neat and tidy. Cora is brilliant at plaiting and it’s done right.”

The Connollys sit down around the table to plan everything, from selecting stallions to deciding which foals go to which sales, (often depending on the age of the foal at sales time) or discussing whether to retain a couple of fillies.

CSF Telly Cruz’s retained Diamant de Semilly daughters (see Mare Herd table) are amongst the horses housed indoors in one large section with a turnout area, across from the row of looseboxes. At the end of the aisle is a connecting indoor arena which they find invaluable for western winters and preparing foals for the sales.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, awards, and column inches breeding horses. Like any ‘boots on the ground’ farming family, the Connollys are only too aware of the bad years, when those consolatory words of ,“at least it’s outside the door” are offered.

But then along comes a horse like CSF James Kann Cruz and the good years make all that hard work more than worthwhile.