Donn's Articles » Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell rode Caim Hill in the Irish Grand National in 2011.

He kicked off towards the outside and in the front rank, just to try to get some racing room. His horse was a little keen initially in his first-time blinkers, but by the time they had jumped three fences and rounded the turn up at Ballyhack, he had dropped the bridle and had settled into a nice rhythm.

From there, O’Connell was happy that his horse was travelling and jumping well. He got in a little deep to the second last fence on the first circuit, and he was tight at the fence past the stands, but he was clever, he was never in danger of falling.

When they turned at the top of the back straight final time, the young rider began to grow hopeful. You’d never think that you were going to win an Irish National until you could reach out and touch the winning post, he was a long way from home but he knew that he was travelling better than most of the horses around him, and his confidence grew.

Then Caim Hill got in too tight to the fourth last, clouted the fence, knocked the stuffing out of himself, lost ground and all momentum, and with it, all chance.

“That’s the last ride I’ve had in the race,” recalls O’Connell thoughtfully. “Actually, that’s the only ride I’ve had in the race. I didn’t ride in the race as an amateur, and I didn’t get a ride in the race last year. I did ride in the Aintree National last year, I rode Tharawaat for Gigginstown House and Gordon Elliott. We finished eighth. It was great to ride around Aintree and it was great to complete the course. But I’d really love to win an Irish National. It’s one of those races you dream about winning.”

Tomorrow afternoon, he has a big chance of realising that dream when he rides Rich Revival in the 2013 renewal of the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National. Indeed, according to the race sponsors, who make him their 7/1 favourite, he has a better chance than any other rider.

“I sat on Rich Revival last Saturday, and he felt very well. He doesn’t do anything flashy at home, he wouldn’t be a great work horse or anything, he seems to keep it all for the track. But everything has gone to plan since we won the Leinster National at Naas last month. We’re all set for Monday.”

O’Connell didn’t ride Rich Revival at all over hurdles – actually he rode against him a couple of times – but he has ridden him in all his three chases to date: his beginners’ chase at Fairyhouse last December, a handicap chase at Navan in January and the Leinster National at Naas last month, and he has never been beaten on him.

It would have been a little premature to start to think Irish Grand National thoughts after he won his beginners’ chase, but when he won at Navan in January, tomorrow’s race was the plan.

“He looked to be getting a little outpaced in his races over hurdles,” says his rider, “before staying on again, so the switch to fences and the step up in trip has helped him a lot. He really had to win the Leinster National at Naas if he was to get into the Irish National, or if he was to have a chance in the race, but he did it nicely, and a 7lb hike is fair enough. Liz has done a fantastic job with him to get him back after his leg problems.”

Liz is Liz Doyle, Rich Revival’s trainer, one of the many trainers with whom O’Connell has struck up a fruitful relationship.

“I have been riding for Liz for a long time. Even as an amateur, I rode a lot for her. I rode Al Ferof to win a point-to-point when Liz had him, and I have always ridden for her since I turned professional. I’m very lucky to have some really good trainers who support me, people like Philip Fenton and John Joe Walsh and Philip Rothwell as well as Liz.”

O’Connell is nearing the end of his fourth season now as a professional rider. A top class amateur, he had been kicking around the idea of joining the professional ranks for a while, then Dunguib came along and carried him into the big league.

It was one thing winning bumpers in Ireland against fellow amateurs on Dunguib, it was quite another winning the Cheltenham Bumper against professionals on Philip Fenton’s horse. On 11th March 2009, O’Connell proved that he could cut it among professionals.

Dunguib wasn’t the reason why O’Connell turned professional, but he made the decision easier. It hasn’t all been plain sailing since, but it hasn’t been bad either. He rode Dunguib to win five races over hurdles, including the Grade 1 Deloitte Hurdle and the Grade 2 Red Mills Hurdle. When Davy Russell chose to ride First Lieutenant in the Grade 1 Fort Leney Chase at Leopardstown in December 2011, it was O’Connell who was entrusted with the ride on the other Gigginstown House horse in the race, Last Instalment, and he rode him to a six-length victory.

O’Connell rode 17 winners in Ireland during his last season as an amateur. Two seasons ago as a professional, he rode 18. This season, he is heading for his best season ever.

“It’s tough all right,” he says thoughtfully. “You’d miss top class horses like Dunguib and Last Instalment, who are both out injured, and there are fewer horses in training in Ireland now than there were a few years ago. Every week you hear about a lad going to Australia or Britain or just getting out of the game. It’s a great game though, and I’m lucky to ride for great people.”

O’Connell is a grafter. He works hard at building and retaining his contacts. Rarely will a morning go by when he isn’t riding out for one of his trainers. You never know from where the next Dunguib is going to emerge.

“I’ve had 17 winners and 300 rides so far this season,” he says. “That’s far from a bad season.”

Victory for Rich Revival in the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National tomorrow would make it a decidedly good one.

© The Sunday Times, 31st March 2013