Donn's Articles » Derek O’Connor

Derek O’Connor

Derek O’Connor was delighted when he got the call up to ride Edwulf in the Irish Gold Cup.  JP McManus had three in the race: Barry Geraghty would be riding Anibale Fly, Mark Walsh would be on Minella Rocco, and Derek O’Connor would be riding the Joseph O’Brien-trained Edwulf.

Edwulf and O’Connor had history together.  The amateur rider rode the Kayf Tara gelding for the first time in a bumper at Punchestown in April 2015 when he was trained by Ben Pauling, and he rode him again in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last March, when he travelled down the hill like a likely winner.  More of that later.

“He was an outsider in the Irish Gold Cup, there was no great expectation,” says O’Connor. “But he is a talented horse and he had run a nice race on his comeback at Leopardstown at Christmas.  And Joseph was happy with him.”

Derek O’Connor’s Sundays are usually spent at point-to-points, his prolific talent continually in high demand between the flags.  It has ever been thus, ever since he responded to an advertisement in the Cork Examiner: Stable staff wanted, Mallow area, contact Eugene O’Sullivan.  That was in 1997, O’Connor had just finished his Junior Cert.  Between then and now, he has conquered the point-to-point world.

Irish Gold Cup day 2018 was no different to any other Sunday during the winter.  O’Connor’s services were in demand at Ballinaboola, so he compromised.  He rode a young horse called Appreciate It for Pat Doyle to finish third in the opening four-year-old maiden in Wexford at one o’clock, then high-tailed it to Leopardstown.

“We spoke about the race beforehand.  The plan was just to take our time with Edwulf, get him settled, allow him get into a nice rhythm.  And the race followed the script.  I couldn’t believe how well he was travelling.  We got to the third last, the second last, other lads were pushing away around me and I was still travelling.”

O’Connor actually took a tug on Edwulf as they started to round the home turn.  It is unusual for a rider to take a tug on the reins of a 33/1 shot as they race around the home turn in a Grade 1 chase. 

“I wasn’t going to get there too early.  No way.  Not after Cheltenham.”

More of that later.

He wheeled wide into the home straight and moved towards the near side on the run to the final fence.  He flew the obstacle as Killultagh Vic fell, which left the race between Edwulf and Outlander.

“Outlander is a hard horse to beat,” says O’Connor.  “But my horse battled so well.  It was his ability and his will to win that got him there.”

Edwulf got home by a neck from Outlander in the end, the pair of them 10 lengths clear of Djakadam in third with Our Duke back in fourth.  It was massive.  An Irish Gold Cup.  Joseph O’Brien’s first Grade 1 win over fences.  Derek O’Connor’s first Grade 1 win on the track.  The amateur rider is prolific in point-to-points, he has broken just about every record that has ever been set between the flags and he has ridden three winners at the Cheltenham Festival, but to win a Grade 1 race under Rules, to win an Irish Gold Cup, that’s just another dimension.

“It was an unbelievable feeling.  He gave me an unbelievable ride.  And for everyone, JP and Joseph, I was so grateful to JP and Joseph for putting me up.  It took a while for it to sink in.  All the phone calls and all the text messages.  I don’t think that it fully sank in until I sat down to watch the recording with (my wife) Carol a couple of days later.  It was some run by the horse, after all he had been through at Cheltenham.”

Cheltenham was desperate.  Edwulf was sent off as second favourite for the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase at the Festival last March.  He travelled well through his race, hunted along out the back by O’Connor.  He made nice ground down the hill and he loomed large around the home turn, a big threat to leader Tiger Roll.  Then it all went wrong.

“It was all very scary really,” recalls the rider.  “He just felt lifeless beneath me after the last.  He went from travelling well to lifeless, just like that.  I had no idea what it was at the time.  I pulled him up as quickly as I could.  I thought that it might have been a heart attack, but I didn’t know.”

O’Connor dismounted and, as soon as he did, the horse collapsed.  He released the girth, released the bit, stayed with the horse.  What else could he do?

“The vets took over very quickly.  Everybody was brilliant.  Nobody panicked.  John Halley and Ger Kelly and Sarah O’Brien, they are all very sensible people and the horse got everything that he needed, oxygen, water, whatever medication he needed.  I stayed with him.  I’d say we were there for about an hour and a half.  What are you going to do?  It isn’t often you get a horse like that, who gives you everything like he did.”

It didn’t look good for Edwulf.  The goal was to save him so that he could enjoy a happy retirement.  Getting him back to the track, back to the races, was highly improbable.  Getting him back to win an Irish Gold Cup looked just about impossible, and it was obvious in the winner’s enclosure at Leopardstown on Irish Gold Cup day, how much it meant to his owner and his trainer and his rider.

“It’s testament to Joseph and the whole team,” says O’Connor.  “To be able to get him back like that, back in that form.  Healthy and well and mentally ready to race again.  It was some training performance.”

There is a good chance that Edwulf will go to Cheltenham again next month.  The Irish Gold Cup winner, he could still be an under-rated horse, and he could be a lively outsider in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. 

More of that later.

© The Sunday Times, 25th February 2018