Donn's Articles » Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell

In the weeks leading up to the Cheltenham Festival last March, Brian O’Connell wondered. He wondered and he hoped. He had ridden Dunguib in his three bumpers up to that point, he had won the last two, the latest by 13 lengths, one of the most impressive performances put up by any horse in a bumper all season, and the horse was bang on track for the Cheltenham bumper. But bumpers in the UK differ to bumpers in Ireland in that, in Ireland, they are restricted to amateur riders; in the UK, they are not. Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty and AP McCoy ride in the Cheltenham bumper. Even flat jockeys Pat Smullen and Seamie Heffernan and Richard Hughes were girding their loins this year. O’Connell wondered if he would be left on Dunguib and, with every sinew of his being, he hoped.

It could have been a difficult decision for Dunguib’s trainer Philip Fenton and owner Daniel Harnett. There would have been a clamour of professional riders desperate to ride their horse. Why would you turn down one of the top professionals with a depth of experience of riding around Cheltenham, and put up a youngster, a 22-year-old amateur who had never even been to Cheltenham before? Simple: because he was up to the job.

O’Connell had watched the Cheltenham Festival on television ever since he knew which button to press on the remote control, but he had never even visited the place until last March. He had another ride on Dunguib Day, Nuvelli for Shane Donohoe in the first race, the four-mile chase for amateur riders. He walked the chase track early in the morning and marvelled at how tight it was. Nuvelli was 100/1 shot, and finished, like most decent 100/1 shots, tailed off.

He walked the bumper track with Dunguib’s trainer Philip Fenton between races, and they discussed tactics. He went back to the weigh room and waited. Nervous times. Pressure. The pressure that comes with expectation. There was no pressure on Nuvelli, no expectation, just go out and enjoy it, but with Dunguib, there was the weight of expectation that goes with a strongly fancied Irish horse in the Cheltenham bumper. What if something goes wrong? He could hear the bar-stool jockeys: “They should have got a professional.”

There was also the expectation that came from within. Dunguib hadn’t raced in three months, but O’Connell knew that he was well. He clipped his chin-strap closed and made his way out of the weigh room with the other jockeys. When the referee blows the whistle for a penalty, the expectation and the pressure is on the penalty-taker, not on the goalkeeper.

As soon as Fenton legged him up in the parade ring, however, the pressure dissipated. The planning and thinking was over, three months of it, all that was left now was the doing. He kicked Dunguib off out the back as planned, towards the outside. After a furlong, disaster, the horse took a false step and stumbled. Nose on the ground. He could have come down, O’Connell could have come off. “They should have got a professional.”

Down the back straight he crept. He didn’t ask his horse to improve, he just allowed him make his ground at his own pace. Every time a gap appeared, the horse moved into it. The rider didn’t check him, didn’t squeeze him, hardly even steered him, he just allowed the horse do it himself. That’s what good jockeys do. One of the most difficult things for a rider to do on a horse in a race is nothing.

Suddenly, at the top of the hill, he was sixth and travelling. O’Connell took a tug: not yet. He loomed up on the outside of Rite Of Passage, Pat Smullen flat to the boards, and he waited until he could wait no longer. He eased off the handbrake, and Dunguib took off. O’Connell didn’t know it, but he put five lengths between himself and his field around the home turn before the rider asked him to pick up.

“It was unbelievable, the way he took off,” says O’Connell. “I wasn’t looking around me, I didn’t even look up at the big screen, I just looked ahead of me and kept kicking. I couldn’t hear any horses around me, all I could hear was the crowd. It was just an incredible feeling. I don’t think it fully kicked in until a couple of days later.”

O’Connell is sure that he was sitting on horses before he could walk. His dad Val, now a course inspector with the Turf Club, had to give up riding early because of injury, but not before he rode Yer Man for Andrew McNamara to finish third behind Corbiere and Greasepaint in the 1983 Grand National. Three and a half years later, Brian was born.

Young Brian hunted with the Scarteens on the Tipperary/Limerick border, and he starting riding in point-to-points when he was 16. His first ride on the track was in the La Touche Cup, over the banks at Punchestown, before he had even ridden in a bumper.

“I was always going to be a jockey,” he says, emphasising the I. “My parents were a little worried about the precariousness of it, there are so many good riders out there, so many who don’t make it, so they encouraged me to finish school and do my Leaving Cert, which I did. I’m glad I did it, it’s no baggage to carry around, I’ll always have it to fall back on in case things don’t work out.”

He rode out at Ballydoyle for a summer and he started riding out for Edward O’Grady on Saturdays while he was studying for his Leaving Cert. It was there that he met Philip Fenton. When he finished his Leaving Cert, he started going in to Philip’s more regularly, and quickly established himself as the yard’s amateur. Philip had a lot of nice horses coming through, some nice point-to-pointers, so there were plenty of opportunities for a young amateur. O’Connell’s first winner for Fenton was recent Becher Chase winner Vic Venturi in a point-to-point at Tinahely in February 2005. Later that year, in December, he rode the horse in a Grade 3 hurdle at Limerick, and won. He had only ridden two winners on the track before that. It was a measure of the faith that Fenton had in the youngster, and of the attitude that the trainer had to young riders. Mol on óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

Earlier this week, Brian O’Connell made the decision to turn professional. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. By conceding the Mr tag, you are giving up your right to ride in bumpers and in point-to-points. You move from a small pond (big fish) into the ocean, where you compete on a level playing pitch with Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell. O’Connell realises the instability of it, he is fully aware of the fickle fashion on which this game can turn, and he will desperately miss riding in bumpers, getting the chance to ride the next Dunguib before anyone else does, but he has had it in his head for a long time now, and there couldn’t possibly be a better time for him.

“When I started first as an amateur, I thought I might turn out to be too heavy to be a professional,” he says, “but I haven’t got any heavier since I was 17. But weight is just one thing, the big question is, am I good enough? It was a difficult decision. I was having such a good run as an amateur. If I had been struggling as an amateur, strangely, it might have been easier to go professional. I am lucky to have great backing behind me, good owners, a good trainer, a good agent in Ciaran O’Toole, and a high profile horse. You can’t rely on one horse, I certainly wouldn’t be going professional for one horse, it’s a career move, it’s a life chance. That said, however, Dunguib was definitely a catalyst.”

Dunguib and Brian O’Connell are all set for the Bar One Racing Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse this afternoon. They have a professional now.

(c) The Sunday Times, 29th November 2009