Donn's Articles » Colm O’Donoghue

Colm O’Donoghue

Thursday afternoon in a hotel foyer just outside Kilkenny, 15 minutes from Gowran Park, and Colm O’Donoghue is sitting easily.  Ask him if things are good, and he nods his head.  Rarely better.  A winner at Leopardstown on Sunday, another at Roscommon on Monday, another at Naas on Wednesday, two rides at Gowran Park this evening, five at Dundalk on Friday.  A cup of tea and a sparkling water please.

That’s Colm O’Donoghue for you: solid, steady, assured, unflappable.  Bowl him a googly and he meets it with a straight bat.  Like, on this day two years ago, you were winning the Dante at York on Black Bear Island for Aidan O’Brien, today you are on your way to Gowran Park while Christophe Soumillon rides Seville in the Dante.  He shrugs his shoulders.  He rode Seville when he finished second in the Racing Post Trophy last October, he’s not riding him today.  That’s the way things have gone this week.  He doesn’t dwell on it.  He is more interested in getting your opinion now on Seville’s Derby prospects after his narrow defeat in the Dante.

It’s all about the team.  O’Donoghue is one of those engine-room boys without whom the entire Ballydoyle operation simply wouldn’t function with the sleekness that it does.  When he won the 2009 Dante on Black Bear Island, Johnny Murtagh rode the colt’s better-fancied stable companion Straight Forward.  When O’Donoghue won the Chester Vase on Golden Sword the previous week, Johnny Murtagh rode the yard’s apparent first string Masterofthehorse.

“Who’s to say who’s on the first string and who’s on the second string?” he asks rhetorically.  “The reality is, there is very little between all these horses.  They run in these big races because they deserve to take their chance in them, and the riders are sorted out.  We don’t race them at home, they are all the while progressing, and nobody knows which is better than which until they meet on the racetrack.  I’m just delighted to be involved.”

His commitment to Ballydoyle is as unmistakable as it is understandable.  He has effectively grown up there.  His family had no involvement in horses and no interest in racing, but his cousins and uncles had a couple of hunters, and young Colm, the youngest of five boys, was an immediate wide-eyed enthusiast.  Hailing from Buttevant in County Cork, the birthplace of the first ever recorded steeplechase, it is hardly surprising that horses took over his young life.

He rode on the pony racing circuit, and he worked with Noel Meade for a summer and with Paddy Mullins for a summer as soon as he was old enough to work anywhere for a summer.

“I just rang them and asked them if there were any jobs going,” he recalls, matteroffactly.  “I was very lucky, I have had some very good people to learn from down through the years.”

Just before he sat his Junior Cert exam, he called Aidan O’Brien to ask if there were any jobs going at Ballydoyle.  It was the only way he knew.  Other people had family connections, friends who knew trainers who could give them a job.  O’Donoghue only had himself and his enthusiasm.  But don’t mistake his laid-back demeanour for a lack of drive.

Aidan said he could come in that weekend.  He worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday, came back home, did his Junior Cert, and went back to Ballydoyle the day after he had finished his last exam.

“That was it,” laughs Colm.  “After I had finished my Junior Cert, I was gone.  My parents were great about it, even though they didn’t know much about racing.  I think they thought that it was a hobby for me for the first couple of years, I think they were waiting for me to grow out of this phase and then go and get a real job, but they supported me all the way.”

On 24th June 1997, he rode his first winner on the track on the Aidan O’Brien-trained My Lorraine, and a week later he rode Theano to win the Scurry Handicap at The Curragh on Derby day.  Stable jockey Christy Roche chose to ride Royal Affinity in the race, and O’Brien had sufficient faith in the young O’Donoghue to entrust him with the ride on his only other runner in the race.

O’Donoghue continued to impress and the opportunities kept arising.  Stable jockey Michael Kinane rode Hold That Tiger in the 2002 Phoenix Stakes, Seamie Heffernan rode Marino Marini, and O’Donoghue won the race on Spartacus to register his first Group 1 success.

Third behind Alamshar and Dalakhani in the 2003 Irish Derby on 150/1 shot Roosevelt, second on Scorpion in the 2005 Irish Derby, beaten just a half a length by Hurricane Run, his inevitable first Classic victory came when he partnered Astronomer Royal to victory in the French 2000 Guineas in 2007.  More success at the highest level followed, like the Royal Lodge and the Canadian Internationl on Joshua Tree and the Criterium International on Jan Vermeer.

There was lots of talk at the end of last summer that, after Johnny Murtagh’s departure from Ballydoyle, Colm O’Donoghue would be the man to succeed him as the stable’s number one rider.  It didn’t happen.  Aidan O’Brien has been using the best available this season, Ryan Moore, Christophe Soumillon, Kieren Fallon, Colm O’Donoghue.

“At the time, I was flattered to have been even mentioned as a possible,” he says thoughtfully.  “But I’m in a great position, I’m very lucky to be in a position to ride these top class horses in top class races, and Aidan is great if I want to ride a horse for David Marnane or for another outside yard.”

O’Donoghue almost bagged another Classic when he rode Together to finish second in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket two weeks ago, just mugged on the line by Frankie Dettori on Blue Bunting.

“I thought going inside the final furlong that we might win,” he says wistfully. “We had Richard Hills beaten on the far side, and I just put my head down and rode all the way to the line.  It wasn’t until after we had gone past the line that I looked up and saw Frankie celebrating.”

Together is one of 12 Ballydoyle fillies entered in the Irish 1000 Guineas at The Curragh next Sunday, Roderic O’Connor, whom O’Donoghue rode on his racecourse debut last season, is one of 10 Ballydoyle colts entered in the Irish 2000 Guineas on Saturday.

“I’m not sure what Aidan’s plans are,” the rider says thoughtfully, “but it will be great to be involved.”

© The Sunday Times, 15th May 2011