SUNDAY in the Curragh still remains fresh in the memory as Joseph O’Brien makes time to chat. And for all that happened, there is only one starting point.
His uncle-in-law, Pat Smullen, has driven the fundraising campaign for CancerTrials Ireland despite the recurrence of pancreatic cancer and racing’s community has rallied in astonishing but not unsurprising fashion.
Smullen was there, smiling, giving interviews, posing for selfies and signing autographs. And nine champion jockeys, including his nephew, competed in what was unquestionably the highest-rated legends’ race for charity the world has ever seen.
Given he knows Smullen more or less all of the life he can remember at least, and butted heads with him on the track, O’Brien is not surprised by the determined manner in which he has taken on this latest battle, and the energy with which he approached this campaign despite undergoing draining chemotherapy.
“We were fierce competitors for a number of years,” recalls O’Brien. “We always got on but at the same time we were fairly cut throat as well. That is the way it has to be.
“You can see the way Pat has challenged adversity. You can see the attitude he has always had his whole life. He doesn’t sit back and wait for things to happen, he makes them happen. To see what he has done, not only for himself; the money he has raised for the charity will save people’s lives. It is an absolute credit to him and please God he will get good news in the future as well.”
There were four Group 1s on the day but despite the stupendous performance of Pinatubo in the National Stakes, and the emotional nature of Search For A Song winning the Irish St Leger with Chris Hayes donning the colours of Smullen’s employers Moyglare Stud, that the Offaly man wore successfully to a flood of success himself, the highlight for the vast majority was the charity race.
A.P. McCoy held off his great friend Ruby Walsh in a driving finish on board Quizical, with trainer Sheila Lavery celebrating like it was the Derby. That was an illustration of the depth of feeling she has for Smullen, who had been so supportive to her as a rookie 52-year-old taking out a training licence towards the beginning of the decade.
Of course it is Smullen’s decency and ordinariness, despite his greatness, that makes him so popular and is why the charity race drew some of the greatest riders in the history of the sport. And some of the most competitive.
“It was very competitive. AP won it. He needed another winner, out of any of us who needed an extra one. He only had about 100,000. It was a fantastic day. We all wanted to win but it was about the bigger picture.”
Irish Champions Weekend was fruitful for the boss of Carriganóg Racing, Iridessa plundering her third Group 1 and the sixth of her young trainer’s career with a withering late run under Wayne Lordan to deny his father Aidan’s dual Guineas victor Hermosa.
“As you know, it’s all about winning Group 1s for us. We always would be looking to train plenty of winners but it is the Group 1s; they are the ones. We had a number of placed horses but it was a very good weekend for us and fantastic to win a Group 1. They are not easy to win.”
The fact that his mother, Anne Marie bred Iridessa and owned her before Bill Dwan came with a cheque book on behalf of Chantal Regalado-Gonzalez, who also owned O’Brien’s first Group 1 winner Intricately; also bred by Annmarie – makes it all even sweeter.
Joseph with his mother Annemarie who bred Group 1 winner Iridessa \ Healy Racing
“It is for sure because they have the mare (Senta’s Dream) and they have the younger brothers and sisters coming on every year.”
Given that she has elite winning form at a mile and 10 furlongs and that her conditioner considers her flexible ground-wise, there are a number of options open to the Ruler Of The World three-year-old. While the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf is an exciting possibility, the immediate choice lies between the Sun Chariot Stakes over a mile at Newmarket in a fortnight or the Prix de l’Opera over a quarter of a mile further at Paris-Longchamp the following day. All going well there and the journeys could become longer.
“The Breeders’ Cup (Filly & Mare Turf) is a potential. She actually has entries in Australia as well. I would say Newmarket or France and then after that we have more options here but she could travel then. It is a live option there at the moment.”
Master Of Reality, 2018 Irish Derby hero Latrobe and recently-acquired Twilight Payment are almost definitely headed down under for the Melbourne Cup, which O’Brien won with Rekindling two years ago, and are reported to have recovered from their exertions in the Irish Leger, where they finished fifth, sixth and seventh respectively.
Joseph with owner Lloyd Williams and jockey Corey Brown after they won the Melbourne Cup with Rekindling in 2017 \ Healy Racing
Of course the trio all run in the colours of Australian Lloyd Williams, though Jackie Bolger has retained a shared ownership in Twilight Payment, Williams having swooped after the former Jim Bolger-trained charge had gotten the better of Latrobe in the Curragh Cup. The shrewd trainer had entered the son of Teofilo in the Melbourne Cup in the express hope of attracting a buyer looking for a strong candidate.
Williams’ first horse with O’Brien was Arcada. Rekindling came next and the business magnate and his son Nick have become major supporters of O’Brien’s after Rekindling prevailed at Flemington in 2017, in the process making Williams the most successful owner in the history of the Melbourne Cup with six triumphs.
The horses will go into quarantine next week if given the green light to head down under and would have time to get a prep run in before the Cup, although the Cox Plate is not an option with the quarantine deadline for that prestigious prize having passed.
As a jockey, O’Brien won all over the world but he was staggered by the passion for racing in Australia, and the connection with the general public. Imagine having a parade or trainers and jockeys in Dublin city centre, or Newbridge town, in the days leading up to the Irish Derby.
“They do it very well. The first thing that you have to mention is the prize money. They have great prize money. The other thing they have that we have but not to the same degree as them, is racing has a huge following there. It really is a huge sport there, one of the main sports.
“They have a huge portion of people that have a share in a racehorse (one in 310 people compared to one in 1,840 on the island of Ireland). But racing is a huge part of life out there. That is a big help."
O’Brien has established a racing club and attracted numerous syndicates to his yard. He recommends that anyone interested should contact their nearest trainer. The days of secrecy are in the past he insists and certainly, the evidence of social media suggests that he practises what he preaches in terms of welcoming visitors to Owning Hill.
Joseph pictured with last year's exciting novice chaser Le Richebourg \ Healy Racing
“People have this perception that racing is a closed shop where in reality it couldn’t be further from the truth. If anyone rings up their local trainer – and I would advise people to do it – if someone is interested in getting involved in a horse, ring the trainer up and ask them can you go in and have a look around. They will be greeted with open arms.
“We are very open. We have people looking at horses and looking around nearly every day. We look after them very well and we have the facilities that everybody can be looked after well to make it an enjoyable experience.”
This is important to O’Brien. Yes, he has owners with deep pockets like J.P. McManus, the Williams family and Gigginstown House Stud, and winning group and graded races will always be what gets the juices flowing, but the numbers matter too.
Joseph and Eddie O'Leary \ Healy Racing
A quick tot-up suggests that he has 486 winners trained already since taking out his licence in June 2016. It is all too easy to forget that he only turned 26 in May and is just a few months more than 10 years removed from starting out his brief but stunning career as a jockey.
He broke records in the saddle and is on a fast-track to doing so out of it too, although many of the marks might be out of reach given that they are being set by his father, who is only 49. Still, the priority for any trainer is about maximising the potential in a horse.
“We always look at our stats. As you know, I have Kevin Blake on board and we are always keeping an eye on that. But it is important not to have it driving you queer either. We watch it and look at the areas we are strong in and the areas we are not as strong in and see what we can do going forward. Our strike rate would never be really high because we tend to run our horses a lot. Our winners to runners would be very good. I think it is very important to look at the areas you can improve at.
“We treat all of our owners the same. Everyone gets looked after as well as possible. I am always on the phone to everyone and they get their regular updates and they can come down and see their horses. It is all about winning at the end of the day.”
The team around him is young, like himself. Faisal Hayat (head man) and Mark Power (assistant) have been with him more or less from the start. It adds energy and a positive vibe he feels, that as his father often asserts, transmits to the horses.
When the opportunity to add experience came in the form of former Grand National-winning jockey and long-time successful trainer Brendan Powell, however, he didn’t need to think twice.
“He has been a perfect fit for us. He has slotted into the lads in the yard extremely well. He gets on really well with all of our owners. He has been a big asset since he has come on board.
“None of us really have titles here but Brendan does an awful lot. He comes into the yard every morning. He goes racing a lot and represents me at race meetings if I can’t go or if I am at a different race meeting.
“That is what his main role would be. He has a wealth of experience from training horses for a number of years. He is a help in every aspect of the game.”
He is looking forward to what he considers “a bunch of nice two-year-old maidens” coming through for the end of the season and was delighted with Vitalogy’s third in a Grade 1 juvenile contest at Woodbine last Saturday for new owner Qatar Racing.
“It was an unlucky third but it was a good run. He was a bit slowly away from the gate which you can’t afford to be that way there. But it was only his third lifetime start so it was a fantastic run really. He could go to the Breeders’ Cup now. There is a chance he might be staying out there for a while.”
The triple Group 1 winner Iridesssa with Joseph and Wayne Lordan \ Healy Racing
Of course the jumps season is well under way and it was typical of the O’Brien juggernaut that he was sending out winners at Listowel over obstacles in the week of landing a Group 1 on the level.
“Le Richebourg is not back yet but the plan is for him to come back in soon after a nice break after unfortunately missing out on Cheltenham.
“Fakir D’oudairies was a decent juvenile last year and it is a big step up from that. He has an option of going chasing. He is only four. But if he went chasing he would get the four-year-old allowance. That decision hasn’t been made yet. He hasn’t been schooled over fences yet. He is an exciting young horse. He will certainly go up in trip at some stage throughout the year.
“We have Darasso, who did well for us last year. We have Embittered and Midnight Run who were two good bumper horses last year who will go novice hurdling. Numerically our jump strength will be smaller than previous years but we are still trying to keep the quality. We still have some nice animals. It is just the way it is working out this year. We are not actively trying to expand the string. I am happy with the number of animals we have right now.”
“Our job is our passion.”
At the core of any success is graft and Joseph O’Brien has been witness to that since he opened his eyes. Now, he is an example of it.
“That is the one thing that myself, Sarah, Ana and Donnacha took from Mam and Dad, their work ethic. It was Gary Player that said ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get.’ That is the one thing we learned growing up. How you learn something is by seeing it all the time. It is not something that was ever said to us but we saw how hard they worked while we were growing up. You have to be willing to put in the time.
“On the other side it never felt like hard work. You don’t feel like you are putting in ridiculous hours because you enjoy doing it. Every day I look forward to going out to the yard and seeing the horses and catching up with the lads and talking about what happened the night before; look forward to planning the morning’s work. It is a way of life and any trainer will tell you that.
“Our job is our passion.”