Donn's Articles » Derek O’Connor

Derek O’Connor

The thing about having 13 winners is that the novelty factor can be devalued. How many winners did Ireland have in 1987? Easy, one, Galmoy. In 1988? One, Galmoy again. In 1989? None, not even Galmoy, beaten by Rustle in his Stayers’ Hurdle hat-trick bid. Everyone in Ireland knew what Galmoy had for breakfast.

Times were when you knew every detail about the instances in which Ireland beat England. Twickenham, 19th February 1994. Stuttgart, 12th June 1998, Christy Moore wrote a song about it. You knew the stories behind the Irish heroes, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, Simon Geoghegan, Eric Ellwood. Thirteen winners, however, and the stories are so plentiful that some get left on the director’s floor.

Like Robert Power’s story, chin on the weigh room floor after Oscars Well had inexplicably kicked defeat into victory’s jaws when he lost his footing on landing over the final flight, when Jessica Harrington came in to tell him to pick himself up, that Bostons Angel would win. Or Emmet Mullins, so far back on Sir Des Champs going down the hill that he was certain he had no chance of winning, so he concentrated on just keeping his horse balanced and getting him to run the best race that he could run.

Derek O’Connor’s story is well told. The winning-most Irish point-to-point rider since records began, he won his seventh consecutive point-to-point riders’ championship last year. He is the only rider ever to ride more than 100 winners in a season, and he has now done it twice.

Cheltenham had never been that happy a hunting ground for O’Connor. Like Power and Mullins, and Paul Townend and Conor O’Farrell and Steven Clements, he began this week as a Cheltenham virgin. He went close on Character Building in the 2007 National Hunt Chase, but the horse edged to his right on the run-in that day after having been delivered with what looked like a perfectly-timed challenge, and he went down by three-parts of a length to Butler’s Cabin, who won the Irish National on his next start. Jamie Codd was on board when Character Building went back to Cheltenham two years later and won the Kim Muir.

Maybe it is because of Character Building that O’Connor said on Friday that he never considered Cheltenham to be the be-all-and-end-all. He didn’t. He loves Ireland, Irish tracks, the Irish point-to-point scene, Fairyhouse and Galway and Punchestown, over the banks. Now he does. Best week of his life.

When owner John Earls and trainer Gordon Elliott asked him to ride Chicago Grey in the four-miler, however, he didn’t hesitate. The fact that he had to sing a bar of Galway Girl at Tom Ryan’s going-away gig in Dan’s pub in Athenry at Christmas to secure the ride was no deterrent, although he is convinced he would have got the ride anyway.

He sat on the horse for the first time at Leoparstown on the Monday before Cheltenham week, jumped four fences on him with Jessies Dream, and he was blown away. He didn’t want to say anything, he didn’t want to be putting pressure on anyone, but he was sure that this fellow would go close.

O’Connor sought advice from Paul Carberry, who had ridden Chicago Grey to win at Cheltenham’s October meeting, and to finish second to Time For Rupert at the December meeting, and Carberry marked his card. Take your time with him. He might make one or two mistakes, and he will hit a flat spot at some stage down the far side, but nothing will stay on better than him up the hill.

Carberry was spot on. There weren’t many mistakes, but the son of Luso did hit a flat spot going up the hill. O’Connor just sat and encouraged, never left the inside rail, not once, that is what he does, and his horse found his second wind. Beshabar was jumping and leaning a bit to his right, there was a gap on his inside around the home turn, and O’Connor squeezed his horse through, jumped the second last a half a length down, jumped the last a half a length up, and powered up the run-in to win by four.

Saddlers Storm was disappointing in the Kim Muir, he just didn’t handle the ground, but O’Connor was there for three rides, not two, and he was certain that Zemsky should never have been a 33/1 shot in the Foxhunter, he just needs good ground to show his true worth. It was Zemsky’s owner Ronnie Bartlett who first suggested Cheltenham, after Zemsky had won a point-to-point at Loughrea last October, and Ian Ferguson set about preparing him for Friday.

O’Connor took his time again, let them have their breakneck pace up front. Baby Run’s departure at the second last simplified his task for sure but, even if Willie Twiston-Davies had managed to keep that partnership intact, O’Connor hadn’t yet gone for his horse at that stage, and he may still have won.

Zemsky was the 12th Irish-trained winner of the week, Sir Des Champs made it 13, and if the Robert Tyner-trained 50/1 shot Askthemaster, the sole Irish representative in the injury-time finale, had finished first instead of second, the final score would have been 14-13.

That story would probably have made the final cut.

© The Racing Post, 22nd March 2011