DEREK O’Connor has never been one for counting his own numbers or chasing the big targets.
Sure, the landmarks are nice, the titles are great but there is much more to it in the eyes of the Galway native. So when he hit 1300 winners at one of his local tracks Belharbour last month, he was more pleased with the reception and good will he felt from the crowd than the achievement itself.
That’s O’Connor for you. In truth he could be seen as a local at any point-to-point anywhere in the country. He’s been a fixture at the fixtures every year of this millennium. The most successful point-to-point rider of all time, yet he has been anything but McCoy-like in his pursuit of that distinction, the core of his enjoyment coming from the horses and the people.
This is a guy who’s ridden winners at all the major festivals; Punchestown, Galway, Fairyhouse, Aintree, and four at Cheltenham. In 2018, he won the ride of the year gong at the HRI Awards for an inspired effort to win the Irish Gold Cup on Edwulf at Leopardstown. He has 11 champion point-to-point rider titles and rode in a Grand National.
Yet at the age of 40, he is still deriving as much enjoyment, if not more, out of a win between the flags as he did when he had his first at Killaloe all those years ago.
“Sure the point-to-point industry has a wonderful following of people, down to earth people,” he reflected this week. “You get to know the people and you become very friendly with them. It’s not just owners and trainers, it’s the general racegoer.
“And you know, whatever about 1300 winners, there just seems to be a great appreciation among point-to-point people for good horses and there is something very heartwarming about it. It’s a very strong industry in Ireland, a country person’s sport and just a lovely industry to be involved in.”
O'Connor trained and rode the J.P. McManus-owned No Flies On Him to win his four-year-old maiden at Knockanard \ Healy Racing
Yet, since O’Connor started riding, the sector has gone through a metamorphosis, altering the structure of the wider National Hunt racing and sales industries. For instance, 40% of the winners at the Cheltenham Festival (excluding the two juvenile races) last year came from Irish point-to-points.
Such success has driven up the prices for each generation. The demand has been phenomenal and, as Liz Doyle put it in these pages two weeks ago, both recession and pandemic proof.
Some store horses at the Land Rover and Derby Sales are now making what four-year-old maiden winners would have made not long ago. When the stakes go up, the pressure goes up, for the handler, but for the rider as well, who has to deliver on the day with future sales in mind.
“It’s very competitive now but I’m not sure there is a huge pressure there,” O’Connor says. “For me pressure is associated with social media, television and papers and the criticism you leave yourself open to, but you don’t really get that in point-to-points.
“You’re going out riding in a race and you could be riding a horse worth the same value as winning the Gold Cup but it doesn’t equate to the same pressure. There is no one there anxious to analyse everything you’ve done in a race.
“Point-to-point handlers and owners accept defeat very well. They are very gracious people that way. It’s a business and there are always going to be ups and downs. I think handlers and owners know what is at stake but they know things can go wrong on the day and there can be another day.
“On the track, with the gambling element, it’s totally different. If you put down your bet on a horse that’s running in a race meeting, and that horse doesn’t win, your stake is gone and you lose your money, but there’s a lot of forgiveness in point-to-points because horses might not perform on the day, in different instances throughout the race.”
Most people acknowledge the evolution of the point-to-point sector and tip their cap, but there is a purist view out there that yearns for the olden days, when the sport was more hobby than business. The essence of the game has changed.
“You know, I would have agreed with you until very recently,” O’Connor replies. “It’s hard to explain this and I don’t know why it’s happening but since the lockdown, I think people appreciate getting out and going racing a lot more and the crowds that have been going racing at point-to-points over the last 12 months havee been immense.
“I’m not sure of the figures at Belharbour, but I’m sure it was double from the previous years. The hunts have upped their games a lot, because they realise they have to.
“My wife and my three kids come racing with me now quite regularly and my kids are young, they’re eight, seven and five - they don’t go to see the horses, they go because they’ve a nice day, they’ve made friends with other trainers’ and jockeys’ kids, and here at the local point to points, they have friends that go racing. It’s generally just a real nice day out now, a real family day out.
“That said, of course the small handler with the one or two horses or the owner-breeder is becoming more scarce but I think we’re making up for it in different ways, the family day out and the good atmosphere among spectators.”
In general, O’Connor holds a more relaxed attitude to his riding these days. He’ll tell you himself he has gone by the twilight part of his career but he’s content with his lot, and enjoying it as much as ever.
In between his retirement and comeback, Davy Russell spoke of how relaxed he was in the latter stages of his career and how easily everything came to him on the track and O’Connor can identify with that.
“I think self criticism is a big thing for any jockey,” he says. “If you want to be the best you probably need to be hard on yourself because if you don’t own up to your mistakes in a race, you’re not going to improve.
“I remember for the first six to eight years, I bought every video or DVD of any race I was in and analysed it when I got back home. To keep improving you have to do that but I am at an age now where I am able to walk away from a race and accept it if it doesn’t go right and move on.
“I’ve done this a long time and you know, one time I’d get very anxious about what horses to ride and I’d be right on top of the form, ringing trainers and looking for the best rides I could get, fighting out championships and all that stuff.
“But I’m gone past that stage of my career now. I’ve lots of other interests going on. I took out my handlers’ licence and I’ve a wonderful job working as an agent for Goffs. I’m not as dependent as I was on being a jockey.
“It’s not that I’m not giving it 100% in a race. Any race you go out in, you give it 100% but that hunger that was in me 10 years ago isn’t there anymore. I am not as anxious to get on the best horses, I ride the horses that are available for me to ride and I’m content with that.
O’Connor’s decision to take out a licence earlier in the season wasn’t a preconceived plan. The right horse came along and it was a case of biting the bullet there and then.
That horse was Southoftheborder, who he sourced for just €13,000 at Land Rover Sale last year. He rode the son of Leading Light himself to win at Necarne before selling him on at the inaugural Goffs Tingle Creek Sale at Sandown for £145,000. The gelding will make his debut for Nicky Henderson at Ffos Las tomorrow.
Start as you mean to go on. He has since sent out two more winners from his Fiddaun Farm base, including No Flies On Him for J.P. McManus, and he retains plenty of ammunition for the spring.
“It wasn’t a long term plan to become a handler,” he explains. “I could never see myself doing it but as a jockey you don’t really have time to see yourself as something else. You’re a jockey and that’s it.
“But I’ve always worked with trainers so I’m very familiar with the schooling and preparation of young horses, and the level you need to be at to go to the races.
“What is catching me out a little so far is the day to day jobs that you never see, the hard graft trainers put in behind closed doors for the cleanliness of yards, the health of the horses and the routine. That stuff had been a bit alien to me because I was always a fella who would pop into a yard, sit up on a horse, school him and then drive out the gate at lunchtime.
“I’m getting the hang of it now. There has always been a great thrill in producing nice young horses, knowing that the work you’re doing on a daily basis is correct and right. There is a huge satisfaction in bringing a horse to the races knowing that you have produced him well and he goes and puts in a good performance.”
It would be rude not to talk about Cheltenham. This is bang in the middle of negotiation time for him, with plenty of trainers hoping to gain his services for the three amateur rider races at the Festival. Nicky Henderson has already snapped him up for Mister Coffey in the National Hunt Chase, but he is still finalising plans elsewhere.
The new whip rules and sanctions in Britain is a hot topic at the moment and that could intensify in two weeks time but O’Connor thinks the whole thing is straightforward.
“There is a bit of concern among the amateurs for sure but for me it’s reasonably black and white,” he asserts. “The BHA have introduced new rules and we have to adapt to them. Like it or not, we do depend on the public. The public is the racegoer, the betting person, the person sitting at home, the owners that provide the entertainment for us.
“If the BHA feel they need to change the rules for the better of the game, then so be it. We have to be conscious of the society we are living in. The only gripe I have is that the penalties are severe. I’ve no bother with the rules as they are now but the penalties seem very harsh.”
Chicago Grey gave O'Connor a first Cheltenham Festival winner in the National Hunt Chase in 2011 \ Healy Racing
One of the elder statesmen of the amatuer riders, O’Connor knows the end of his fabulous riding career isn’t far away and naturally that will be a difficult book to close, but he is content that has himself ready to fully embrace the new challenge when it comes. For now, he has little left to achieve in the saddle and so he is keen just to enjoy it.
“I’m not overly tied up with having another winner at Cheltenham or Aintree,” he says. “Of course you’d love one but I enjoy the Irish festivals more than anything to be honest. To get a Punchestown winner is amazing, a Galway winner is second to none.
“That’s going back to the people that go racing, the appreciation they have for local success. I suppose all the extra activities I have going on now, the handlers’ licence, the Goffs job, working in RACE, they’re all preparation for the next phase of my life and that’s just the way it is.”
The next generation of riders
It’s starting to become very obvious who the next Davy Russell, Ruby Walsh, Paul Carberry and Barry Geraghty is. There’s a new band of elite jockeys and they’re getting better all the time, so I think it’s very healthy. What is very pleasing is what I’ve seen from my time in RACE; the quality of lady riders coming through. Rachael Blackmore has a lot be thanked for. I know she has a huge influence on all riders, but in particular the young lady riders are aspiring to her.
Role with Goffs
It’s a role I absolutely love. I’m going around to yards to see horses and people I’m already very familiar with so it’s very comfortable for me. I’d do it even if it wasn’t my job. You are trying to sell the sale to people but we’re very fortunate the market is so strong at the moment. The sales are exceptional and long standing so it’s an easy sell.
Mister Coffey in the National Hunt Chase
He had his prep run in Uttoxeter a few weeks ago and although he didn’t win, it was still a good performance. I think the Charlie Longsdon horse that beat him might have been well in on the day. It was a nice run and I think he’ll be after coming forward from it a little bit. I don’t see the trip being a problem, he’s not ground dependent, so he’s going to be a very good ride in the race.