Donn's Articles » Michael O’Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan

Marine Nationale was travelling smoothly for Michael O’Sullivan, along the inside and one back, tracking the leader and travelling well.  Then the leader made a mistake, and it was all change.

The pack shuffled and Marine Nationale got shuffled back.  From the perfect position, just behind the pace and on the inside rail, in a heartbeat, through factors that were outside his rider’s control, he was back in the field in a share of last place, all seven rivals in front of him.

His young rider didn’t panic though, he kept his horse in his rhythm, smooth, kept his line.  He eased his horse off the rail in order that he could circumvent the weakening Hercule Du Seuil.  Polo Lounge dropped away and Path D’Oroux went wide, and, as quickly as he had lost it, Marine Nationale was back in position again as they raced to the home turn, along the inside and tracking the leaders. 

“I never had to fight for my position,” recalls Michael O’Sullivan.  “He travelled so well for me, he was able to do everything easily.  My plan was to deliver him between the last two, hit the front on the run-in.  Then he missed the last.”

It was a short run-in at Fairyhouse two weeks ago for the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle.  Marine Nationale met the final flight on a poor stride, got in under the obstacle and landed without momentum.  That left him with two lengths to find with Irish Point, who wasn’t weakening, in a short space of ground and time.  But Michael O’Sullivan got his horse going again on the stands side, and he clawed back the deficit, getting up to hit the line a head in front of his rival.

“I thought I had won but I wasn’t sure,” says Michael.   “It took a few minutes, but when they called the winner, number four, I just got this massive sense of relief.  Yeah, relief, that was my main feeling.”

It was a landmark victory for the young rider, a first Grade 1 win on his first Grade 1 ride over obstacles. 

There have been many landmarks thus far.  Like his first point-to-point winner, A Decent Excuse, for his uncle Eugene O’Sullivan at Castletown-Geoghegan in 2017, and his first winner under Rules, Wilcosdiana, also for his uncle, at Cork in April 2018.  That’s less than five years ago.  His upward trajectory has been steep.

His early days on the farm at Lombardstown in Co Cork were peppered with Lovely Citizen stories.  It was in 1991 that Lovely Citizen, owned and bred by his grandfather Owen, trained by his uncle Eugene and ridden by his dad William, went to Cheltenham and won the Christies Foxhunter Chase.  That was back in the day when Irish winners at Cheltenham were a rarity.  There was only one other Irish-trained winner at the 1991 Cheltenham Festival.

“Lovely Citizen was obviously great for my family at the time, but it was before my time, and it was getting longer and longer ago with every passing year.  That’s why it was brilliant that Eugene won the Foxhunter again in 2020 with It Came To Pass, with his daughter Maxine on board.  We all got a great kick out of that.”

Michael was at college at the time, at UCD, doing his degree in Agricultural Science, combining his studies with riding as an amateur.  He got his degree and was crowned champion novice point-to-point rider in 2019. 

Two more landmarks.

As well as a first Grade 1 win for Michael O’Sullivan, Marine Nationale’s victory in the Royal Bond Hurdle was also a first Grade 1 win for Barry Connell as a trainer.

“To ride Barry’s first Grade 1 winner, that meant a lot.  He has done so much for me.”

It began with a point-to-pointer, Timewaitsfornoone, who was owned by Barry Connell.  It was in April 2019 that Michael saw that he was entered in his local point-to-point at Dromahane, so he called his trainer then Alan Fleming to ask for the ride.  He finished second to It Came To Pass.

Two years’ worth of water flowed under the bridge before Timewaitsfornoone ran again, in the champion hunters’ chase at the 2021 Punchestown Festival, by which time Barry Connell had taken out his own licence to train, and Michael O’Sullivan rode the Oscar gelding again.  And he rode him the following month to finish second in another hunters’ chase at Downpatrick.

“He ran well at Downpatrick,” says Michael.  “He was just beaten by a better horse on the day.  But I was happy with him and Barry seemed to be happy with the ride.”

Michael monitored the progress of Barry Connell’s operation as a trainer.  Last May he saw that he had a newcomer entered in a bumper at Punchestown, so he asked for the ride.

“I was actually out milking cows at the time!” says the rider.  “When I texted Barry to ask if I could ride the horse in that bumper.  That was Marine Nationale.  He wasn’t that strongly fancied, Barry hoped that he would run well, but he won nicely.”

A few weeks later, Connell called Michael and asked him if he would go in to his place to ride out.  He went in that week, and he has been going in every week since.

“Barry has a great set up, he has fantastic facilities and his staff are great.  Roger Loughran and Garrett Cotter and all the team.  They were so welcoming to me from the very start, and it’s great to be a part of the team there.”

He is working hard, he rides out for some of the top trainers in the country, and he is in demand.  He has ridden for 69 different trainers this season so far.  He turned professional in September, and he rode his first winner at Cheltenham in November.

More landmarks await.

© The Sunday Times, 18th December 2022