Donn's Articles » Joseph O’Brien

Joseph O’Brien

When Joseph O’Brien took out his trainer’s licence in June 2016, he said that he wanted to train Flat and National Hunt horses.  Pressed for a preference, he said that he preferred both.  He didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t train under both codes.  He just wanted to train good horses, compete at the highest level.

He had his first runners as a trainer on 6th June 2016.  Justice Frederick won the two-year-old maiden at Gowran Park that day and Zig Zag won the nine-furlong handicap, while down the road at Listowel, Mai Fitzs Jack won the maiden hurdle and Oathkeeper won the bumper.  Four winners from his first six runners on his first day as a trainer, two Flat and two National Hunt.  Maybe he could do both. 

There is history here too on Carriganog Hill.  It was from here that Joseph’s mother Annemarie and his grandfather Joe Crowley both trained, and it was from here that Joseph’s father Aidan embarked on a training career that would lead him beyond imagination to world-renown. 

And there is precedent.  It was on 7th June 1993 that the then 23-year-old Aidan O’Brien sent out his first winner as a trainer, Wandering Thoughts in a seven-furlong handicap at Tralee.  So it was 23 years later, almost to the day, that Joseph trained his first winner.  Joseph was also 23. 

Carriganog was well-named: the rock of youth.

“He’s very good now,” says Joseph as Edwulf stands tall and his trainer pats the horse gently on the neck.  “We couldn’t believe him the last day.  We knew that he was well, but to win the Irish Gold Cup.  You couldn’t believe that that could happen.”

When Edwulf won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown five weeks ago, he brought up Joseph O’Brien’s first Grade 1 win over fences as a trainer.  A day earlier, Tower Bridge had brought up the trainer’s first Grade 1 win over hurdles. Remember that it is less than two years since he got his trainer’s licence.

He was only training for four months when Intricately won the Moyglare Stud Stakes at The Curragh, thereby bringing up his first Group 1 win on the Flat.  That was in September 2016.  Then, in November 2017, remarkably and without much warning, he took Rekindling to the other side of the world, and brought the Melbourne Cup home with him.

There’s his preference for both, Flat and National Hunt, competing at the highest level. 

“We’re pretty much 50-50 between Flat and National Hunt,” says Joseph thoughtfully.  “We have a nice bunch of two-year-olds for this year, and we’re lucky that we have very good staff and very good riders, and that makes the thing work. The big races are the ones we want to be concentrating on.  Flat or National Hunt, it doesn’t matter.”

Of course, Joseph was a jockey before he ever was a trainer.  He rode his first winner as a 16-year-old on just his second ride.  He thought that he would ride around 20 winners as an apprentice, then get his amateur licence and ride as an amateur.  His frame was too tall to sustain a flat jockey’s weight, he figured.  A strong 5’ 11”.  He always wanted to be a trainer anyway.

But he rode winners and he managed his weight.  In 2011 he rode Roderic O’Connor to win the Irish 2000 Guineas and he rode Maybe to win the Moyglare Stud Stakes.  He squeezed his tall frame down to beneath nine stone and he hit more milestones.  He won the Irish jockeys’ championship twice, he rode six Irish Classic winners and four British Classic winners, including two Derbys.  He won the Dubai Sheema Classic and the Grand Prix de Paris and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

And yet, he doesn’t miss it.

“From the day that I stopped riding,” he says candidly, “I was happy to stop.  I don’t miss it a bit.  I was dying to go training.  I love what I’m doing here.”

What he’s doing here is very good.  There’s the Edwulf story for starters, a story that is well told at this stage.  A horse who was on his knees at Cheltenham in March 2017, just 12 months ago, struggling for breath, struggling for life.  To get JP McManus’ horse back to a point at which he could race again was a serious achievement.  To get him back to win the Irish Gold Cup was an achievement that was bordering on unattainable.

“We feared the worst for quite a while at Cheltenham.  He had a neurological episode, he basically ran out of oxygen.  But the vets on course did a fantastic job. It was extraordinary really that he could pull through that.  On the track, there was no thought of him ever racing again, we were hoping that we could just get him back and that he could retire to Martinstown.” 

They got him back to Martinstown all right but, as time went on, Edwulf’s spark started to return.

“John O’Brien and all the lads there did a wonderful job with him.  I spoke to John during the summer and he said that this horse had never been in such good form.”

Edwulf returned to Owning last September, and Joseph started him off very slowly. 

“JP and Frank (Berry) just told me to take my time with him, there was no pressure to run again or not run again.  But every bit of work he did, he worked better.  We brought him along slowly, to a point where he was ready to race again at Leopardstown at Christmas.  He had a good blow there, we were happy enough with him, Derek (O’Connor) was very happy with how he travelled and how he jumped.”

The Irish Gold Cup was the obvious race for him after that.  That’s the class of horse that Edwulf is, he deserves to dine at the top table.

“Pat McCabe rides him every day, and he said that he had sharpened up no end since Christmas.  We hoped that he would run well.  But we couldn’t have imagined that he would win it.  The Irish Gold Cup is right up there with any of the big races, but with Edwulf too, he is a horse who is very close to our hearts.  It was a special day for everyone involved.”

Edwulf is on track to take his place in the line-up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.

“He has come out of the Leopardstown race well.  He won’t do too much now between now and Cheltenham and, as long as he is well and the ground is safe, he is entitled to take his chance.” 

It looks like there will be a strong team making the trip from Carriganog Hill to Cleeve Hill this week.  Rhinestone is on track for the Champion Bumper, and it looks like Tower Bridge is going to be supplemented to the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.  Ivanovich Gorbatov in the County Hurdle, Early Doors maybe in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, and others.

There could be more special days ahead.

© The Sunday Times, 11th March 2018