Donn's Articles » Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien is 19. When Michael Kinane rode his first Derby winner, Joseph was two weeks old. When Frankie Dettori rode Lammtarra to win the Arc de Triomphe, he was two years old. When Kieren Fallon was champion jockey for the first time, he was four. He doesn’t remember his dad Aidan training Urubande to win the Sun Alliance Hurdle at Cheltenham, but he remembers Istabraq. Everybody remembers Istabraq.

Three and a half years ago, Joseph O’Brien had never ridden a winner on the racetrack. Eighteen months ago, he had never ridden a Group 1 winner. Now he has won the Derby, the Guineas, the Irish Derby, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the Coronation Cup, the Grand Prix de Paris, the Tattersalls Gold Cup, the Moyglare Stud Stakes, the Racing Post Trophy, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Irish 2000 Guineas. Twice.

Yesterday, he won his second Racing Post Trophy on Kingsbarns. Last November he rode St Nicholas Abbey to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, thereby becoming the youngest rider ever to win a Breeders’ Cup race. When he won the Epsom Derby on Camelot in June, he became the youngest jockey to win racing’s blue riband since Lester Piggott did so on Never Say Die in 1954. And now, with just a week to go in the Irish flat racing season, he is almost certain to be crowned champion.

The youngster shrugs his shoulders, smiles a half-smile, allows the enormity of his meteoric rise wash over his shoulders, and pours the coffee.

“I was just born into it,” he says nonchalantly. “From the time I could walk or even see, it was always horses. Dad and Mum both trained, so ever since I was small, it was always all about racehorses. It was all I ever wanted to do. I played a bit of football and hurling and rugby, but I didn’t spend enough time at anything else to get good at it. A lot of my friends would go out and kick football when they’d come home from school, but all I ever wanted to do was go out and ride my pony.”

School was an issue. Not because he didn’t want to learn, but because anything that wasn’t horses was something that was keeping him away from horses. Yet he stuck it out, sat his Leaving Cert and passed all seven subjects. It wasn’t his choice – parental influence won out – but he could see the merit in it at the time, and he is happy now that he did it. A Leaving Certificate is no burden to carry.

Growing up at Ballydoyle was a privilege. When he wasn’t at school or riding his ponies, young Joseph would be by his dad’s side on the gallops, watching the racehorses work and longing for the day when he could ride a thoroughbred. He can’t remember a day when he wasn’t bursting to ride work.

He would ask his dad. People would laugh. But, even when he was small, he never thought that he wouldn’t be able to handle a racehorse. It’s not conceited, it’s not arrogant, he just never even considered the possibility that he wouldn’t be able for a half a ton of thoroughbred. Then, when he was 11, his dad decided that he was ready, and gave him the leg up on Coconut Beach.

“Coconut Beach wasn’t very fast,” smiles Joseph. “He was nice and safe for me. Some of my ponies would have been more difficult than Coconut Beach, but I was just thrilled to be riding work, to be riding a racehorse.”

He did dressage and show jumping with his ponies, and he did a lot of eventing. While the dressage was really good for his horsemanship skills, it wasn’t easy. Physically, he reckons that it is more difficult to do an hour of dressage than it is to ride in five races.

He liked show jumping and he enjoyed eventing, but there was never any doubt in the youngster’s mind that his future lay on the racecourse, not in the arena. When he went to Moorsele in Belgium in August 2009 and won a bronze medal at the European Pony Championships on his pony Ice Cool Bailey, he was more disappointed about the fact that he had missed two winners at Galway than he was excited about winning the bronze medal.

2009 was a busy year. He was eventing and he was studying – Maths book on one side of the table, Racing Post on the other – and he started race riding. He rode his first winner on just his second ride – Johann Zoffany in a three-year-old handicap at Leopardstown in May 2009, led just about all the way – and he was on his way.

People said that he was too tall to be a flat jockey, that he would grow, that he would lose the battle with the scales. Unperturbed, he just continued to mind himself and determined that he would ride for as long as he could. He shared the apprentices’ championship with Ben Curtis and Gary Carroll in 2010, won it outright in 2011 with a record 57 winners, and now leads in the 2012 jockeys’ championship.

“I’m almost six foot,” he smiles. “I’m a strong 5’11’’. I’m 19, I may grow more, who knows? But I can ride at nine stone now comfortably, and that has been the case for a while now. I could do 8st 10lb or 8st 11lb if I pushed myself, but it’s best to try to keep your weight constant. If you were to get down too low, you would put the weight back on much more quickly. If you were to drink a bottle of water then, your body would try to retain everything. I watch what I eat, but I eat well, I mind myself, I sweat when I need to on race days, and it works well.”

You know that he is 19. He tells you so himself, and his boyish features confirm it. Yet he speaks and he rides with a candour and a comfort that belie his years. Watch the videos of his races. Watch him dictate the pace on Roderic O’Connor in the Irish 2000 Guineas. Watch him settle St Nicholas Abbey back in the field in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and deliver his challenge with Tag Heuer precision. Watch him wait for Camelot to get balanced after coming down around Tattenham Corner in the Derby before he asks him for his effort. While appreciating the enormity of the achievements – the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Turf stand out – he downplays his own input.

“It’s easy when you’re on the best horse,” he tells you. “I owe a big thanks to Dad and to the owners here, that they have given me the opportunity to ride these top class horses. It’s much more difficult to win a 50-70 handicap at Dundalk than it is to win the Derby when you’re on the best horse.”

When Camelot got beaten in the St Leger at Doncaster last month, three parts of a length shy of becoming the first horse to complete the Triple Crown in 42 years, there were those who pointed the finger at Camelot’s rider. It’s human nature – an odds-on shot gets beaten, the human gets the blame.

“I think the Irish Derby took its toll on Camelot a little more than we thought,” says the rider slowly. “I’d say that was the worst ground I have ever ridden on, and he probably hadn’t fully recovered by the time of the St Leger. Also, the slow pace in the Leger didn’t help. Everyone thought that there was going to be a fast pace, and I didn’t really think about the possibility of a slow pace. That was my fault.

“Camelot was keen early on, we got a bump and that lit him up more. I would have loved a faster pace so that he would have settled better. But I heard people saying afterwards that I should have got him out earlier. We got out with a furlong and a half to go. He wasn’t able to pick up Encke in a furlong and a half. That wasn’t him. I thought that Camelot would pick up any horse in a furlong and a half.”

He was gutted that they got beaten. He was disappointed for himself, for his dad, for the yard, but he was most disappointed for the horse.

“He disappointed then in the Arc, but he wasn’t the same horse. I’d say he just wasn’t the same horse after the Irish Derby. And then we nearly lost him to colic last week. Thank God, he seems to have recovered well, and it’s great that he stays in training next year. Hopefully he will be able to show his true ability next year.”

In the meantime, there is a jockeys’ championship to win, and a Breeders’ Cup meeting at Santa Anita next weekend at which to ride. All going well, St Nicholas Abbey will be back for more.

“He is well,” says his young rider. “He hasn’t done much since the Arc, but he seems in good form. Excelebration will probably go for the Mile, all being well. It might be hard on him, it’s only two weeks after his QE2 win and he has to travel over, but he has a good constitution and he is versatile ground-wise. Other plans will be confirmed later this week.”

And the jockeys’ championship? Three winners ahead of Pat Smullen and both set to miss the final weekend?

“It would be great to win it. It has been a great battle with Pat. If it happens, it happens.”

For Joseph O’Brien, it already has.

© The Sunday Times, 28th October 2012