Donn's Articles » Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien

There are memories here all right, but Joseph O’Brien isn’t old enough to have them. Strange to walk around Aidan and Annemarie O’Brien’s old yard at Owning and talk with their eldest son about equine heroes past. That’s My Man and Double Symphony and Royal Mountbrowne and Urubande.

Joseph doesn’t remember his dad’s first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, he doesn’t remember Urubande battling all the way up the hill under Charlie Swan to get home by three parts of a length from Mark Dwyer on Go-Informal and Jason Titley on Karshi, or the scenes in the winner’s enclosure afterwards.

Urubande’s Sun Alliance Hurdle win was in 1996. Well, do you remember what you were doing when you were nearly three?

Joseph remembers Istabraq though. He remembers at least one of his Champion Hurdles, maybe two of them. Istabraq won his third Champion Hurdle in 2000, by which time Joseph was almost seven. Practically a veteran.

Istabraq was different too. Aidan was training at Ballydoyle by then and Istabraq was the star hurdler among a team of fleet-footed whipper-snapper Flat horses. There was an aura about Istabraq, Joseph recalls. There was always something special about him. Istabraq is a memory that lives long.

Joseph pats Ivanovich Gorbatov on the neck.

“This fellow is very well,” he says of the horse he rode to his two victories on the Flat. “He would never sparkle at home, but he was always alive, you know that kind of way? I always thought he would make a nice jumper. He’s by Montjeu, he’s rated 103 on the flat and he stayed a mile and seven furlongs well, so he has always had a lot of the attributes.”

Ivanovich Gorbatov schooled well at home, they were happy with him before he made his hurdling debut in a juveniles’ maiden at Leopardstown over Christmas.

“We didn’t really expect that he would win. We thought the ground would be too soft for him, and he had missed a bit of work about 10 days before the race. We were hoping that he would run well, but we thought that he would come on for it. We were delighted when he went and won then. In a way, though, we got lulled into a false sense of security with him on the ground. He was always a fast ground horse in our eyes, but when he won so well on soft ground that day, we thought that he would be okay on soft ground.”

It was disappointing when the Montjeu gelding got beaten next time, in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle back at Leopardstown on Irish Gold Cup day. You are always disappointed when an odds-on shot gets beaten.

But Joseph is happy to put that disappointing run down to the ground. It was soft ground at Christmas all right, he tells you, but it was the first race and it was on fresh ground. He got away with soft fresh ground. It was heavy in February, and it was used ground. His horse just couldn’t cope with that.

“He has been great since then,” says Joseph. “Barry (Geraghty) rode him when he worked at Leopardstown there last week, and he worked nicely. He seems very well, so hopefully he gets there in one piece, and he should be better on better ground. I don’t know if he deserves to be favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, but he deserves to take his chance in the race anyway.”

Strange thing: Joseph has only been to Cheltenham once. That was in 2013 when he rode Shield in the Champion Bumper. That’s just the way it has been. Mid-March is always a busy time at Ballydoyle, the Flat horses are just getting going, getting ready for the new season, and Joseph has always been needed there. Even when he rode in the Champion Bumper, he went in and out in one day. That’s the O’Brien way.

It doesn’t mean that he does not appreciate the enormity of the Cheltenham Festival, mind you. Ask him to compare Royal Ascot and Cheltenham, and his answer is simple: one is the Olympics of Flat racing, the other is the Olympics of National Hunt.

But Flat or National Hunt, he always wanted to train racehorses. He gets a bigger kick out of training a winner than he got out of riding a winner.

“When you’re a jockey, you get up, you ride work, you take off 3lb or 4lb, you go racing, you’re in the stalls, the race is over, you’re all done. On this side of it, as a trainer, the morning you go racing, there’s nothing more you can do. You have an awful lot more time to think about things that can go wrong. I never got nervous when I was riding. No matter how big a race it was, I never felt it. But watching horses, even watching Dad’s horses, I’m way more nervous. I don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s because it’s out of your hands.”

He says that he was lucky to have the career that he had as a Flat jockey without ever referencing the talent that begot the career. His dad may have trained the horses, but this is a tough business, and you can be sure that he wouldn’t have ridden Derby winners or Royal Ascot winners or Breeders’ Cup winners if the owners were not happy that he was good enough to ride them.

“I never thought that I would be a jockey until I was 25 or 30. I always thought that I would ride until it got to a point at which doing the weight might affect my health, and it was kind of getting to that stage. For me to think about trying to get down to 9st now, it’s just not something that I can really do. And we’re so busy here. We’ve got 70 horses here now, it’s happened a little more quickly than I expected. But from my last ride last year, I hadn’t much intention of riding again. And I don’t miss it at all now. Not even a little bit.”

Just like his riding career, Joseph O’Brien’s training career has got off to a flying start. He does not have his trainer’s licence yet. The last trainer’s course was last November, while he was off riding at the Breeders’ Cup. He had hoped that the next trainers’ course would be before Cheltenham, but it probably will not be until May now. For now, he is content to run his dad’s satellite yard here at Owning, from where they have already sent out 50 winners, 32 National Hunt, 18 Flat.

“It’s a good start, but we need to continue to improve,” says Joseph. “We’re very lucky to have some very good owners, including a nice bunch of horses for JP. Hopefully over the next few months we will continue to have winners and hopefully, if we do, more owners will come.”

It’s a new beginning, a whole new vista. Time for new memories.

© The Sunday Times, 13th March 2016