Donn's Articles » Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien didn’t say too much at our first encounter, he seemed to be more intent on digging to the bottom of his cereal bowl than on exchanging pleasantries with a complete stranger, which is perfectly understandable when you are but a promising yearling. He did appear to cock an ear when his dad started talking about plans for some of the horses that we had just seen wend their way up the hill at Carriganog from the far side of the kitchen table, mind you. Also perfectly understandable.

You know that you are majoring more on experience than on youthful exuberance when your own generation’s offspring become the story. Joseph’s cognitive senses probably weren’t developed sufficiently to allow him fully appreciate the significance of Dancing Sunset’s victory in the Royal Whip Stakes at The Curragh on 13th August 1994 – his father’s first Group race win as a trainer – but it is ironic that, 16 years later almost to the day, in the Desmond Stakes last Thursday evening at Leopardstown, Beethoven carried O’Brien the younger to his own maiden Group race victory as a rider.

And just as Aidan’s first was as inevitable as sunset, so Joseph’s first had long since been a case of when rather than if. While racing’s chronicles tell you most emphatically that impeccable breeding does not automatically beget instant success, it also tells you that it is no hindrance. It is always difficult to know where nature ends and where nurture begins. Bred in the purple, it is probable that Joseph O’Brien was blessed with an innate understanding of horses before he left the maternity ward, and that that understanding has been nurtured and honed over the last 17 years by a couple of parents who know a thing or two about equinity.

It is difficult to believe that it is less than 15 months since Joseph had his first ride on a racecourse – Coat Of Arms in a handicap at The Curragh (“chased leaders, ridden, no impression”) – because already he is very good. His range of talents were broadcast really for the first time in full technicolour on terrestrial television at the Galway Festival last month. On Robin Hood in the juvenile maiden on the opening evening of the Festival, he led from flagfall. He kicked on early, set a pace to suit his own horse, kicked off the home turn and held enough in reserve to repel the late challenge of Tashqeel, switching his whip from left to right with a sleight of hand of which a three-card-trick man would have been proud.

On Dusty Trail in the 12-furlong handicap on Thursday, he did it from behind, took a tug early, got his horse settled in mid-division on the inside, saved every inch of ground around Ballybrit’s tight undulating circuit, held onto the rail until early in the home straight before driving his horse home to get up and win by the minimum margin and land a 25/1 win that seemed to surprise punters, bookmakers and connections alike. On Rajik in the 12-furlong handicap on Friday evening, he must have been fully five lengths behind Natural High with a furlong to run before he pulled the Charlie Swan-trained gelding to the outside and drove him up to win going away.

Even when he got beaten on Luttrell Lady in the one-mile handicap on Thursday, he must have talked a good game behind closed doors at the ensuing stewards’ inquiry because the authorities awarded the mare the race, a decision that was subsequently reversed on appeal. And when he just failed to make all on Battleoftrafalgar in the 12-furlong maiden on Friday, going down by a head to Raffaello Santi, ridden by his uncle Pat Smullen, he lost no caste. Pat Smullen is one of the most accomplished riders that you will find in any weigh room anywhere in the world these days, yet if you had been told that one of the helmetted riders involved in that toe-to-toe was a multiple champion jockey and the other was a 7lb claimer, you would have been hard-pressed to tell which was which.

The youngster seems to have all the raw artillery already: judgement of pace, strength in a finish, tactical awareness and a cool head both in and out of the saddle, and he is certain to get even better as he gains in experience. Of course, the fact that he is Aidan O’Brien’s son brings with it a bevy of opportunities that would be difficult to otherwise attain – it is not every rider who gets to ride at Royal Ascot less than a month after he has ridden in public for the first time. That said, as in all walks of life, it is one thing being afforded the opportunity, it is quite another having the wherewithal and the ability to exploit it.

Signs are that Joseph’s talents are being recognised and rewarded beyond Ballydoyle’s gates. He has ridden for 41 different trainers already this season, his four ‘winners’ at Galway were for four different trainers and ten of his 16 winners to date this season have been for outside yards. He will always be Aidan and Anne Marie O’Brien’s son, but at some point in his career Ruby Walsh became better known as himself than as his father’s son and, all things being equal, that point is not too far off now for Joseph O’Brien.

© The Racing Post, 17th August 2010