THE Orr brothers from Rathmullan are now living together in Rathmolyon, a much more racing-centric locality. They have proven that if environment is helpful in wishing to pursue a career on the racetrack, it isn’t a necessity.
Donegal hasn’t produced too many jockeys. There are only a handful of trainers and no race tracks. What it does have though is horses. Plenty of them.
“There’s no shortage around Donegal – more horses than there is jockeys,” as Oisín notes.
Raymond Orr always had a few knocking around, ever before Conor, the eldest of seven children, came on the scene in March of 1996. Oisín was born 19 months later (he turns 21 in September) and the duo have almost been joined at the hip since apart from Conor’s stint across the water.
They were mucking around on horseback from the time they could walk and while some of their younger siblings are drawn towards the show jumping scene that is the more common equine pursuit in the northwest, it was racing that occupied the trailblazers’ minds – morning, noon and night.
So Raymond bought some racing ponies for them to compete on. Their stepmother Rachael is a riding instructor and she ensured they had the mechanics and finesse to go with what they’d picked up on the hoof, so to speak.
The boys’ journeys have not been identical – they have diverged in one significant manner indeed – but just recently, they moved in together once more. They are both based in Meath – Conor at Chris Jones’ yard run by Andy Lynch, and Oisín with Eddie Lynam – and their mother Kathleen doesn’t live too far away either, so it made perfect sense.
“I don’t see too much of him,” says Oisín.
“Either I’m racing or he’s racing. We’re only there to sleep really and that’s it.”
House chores are shared, he maintains.
“There’s the odd row but that’s normal enough!”
According to Conor, being big brother has not brought any privilege.
“He doesn’t listen to anyone,” the 22-year-old declares in mock exasperation. “If you tell him to do something he’s likely to do the opposite. It’s his way or no way. You’d think he’d respect the elders a bit but he doesn’t.
“We egg each other on. Once one rides a winner, the other will want to ride a winner then.”
It has been working well for both, with Conor having emerged from a quiet spell to be in demand once more. Oisín, of course, is the reigning champion apprentice and at the time of writing, was just four behind pacemaker Killian Leonard, who he touched off by one last year.
It was Conor who blazed the trail initially, ratcheting up more than 100 winners on the pony racing circuit.
And being a jockey was all he could dream of doing, even though there were no role models from around.
“It’s a long way to travel for anyone to go tracing and there’s no real yards,” explains Conor. “The closest tracks are Down Royal and Sligo and they’re a good two hours away.
“Growing up we always wanted to be jockeys. From Day One, that’s all we had in our heads. As long as I can remember, it’s all we wanted to be. It isn’t we were forced into it or anything. It’s just what we wanted to do.”
“The pony racing is a big help going onto the track, to have ridden in races. It’s good for trainers as well to know you have a bit of experience, even though you are starting off under rules.”
He began his apprenticeship with Joanna Morgan and one winter, with her operation having gotten quiet, she sent him to Lynam’s to keep busy. He only had 20 rides on the level, however.
“In the end, the weight got the better of me to be a flat jockey so I turned to the jumps. When I was riding on the flat it was always a struggle. Anything lighter than 8st 10lb was hard work and if you’re not able to do the lighter weights you’re always going to struggle.
“I was conditional to Shane Donohoe for a bit. He said he was never going to be able to keep me too long and if there was a job in England he thought would suit, he’d send me over.”
It wasn’t England he ended up in though but Wales and a three-year spell with Evan Williams.
“Shane sold him a horse and he asked Shane if he knew any claimers. I was shipped off on the ferry two weeks later.
“It was never a problem for me going away. I enjoyed it over there but it ended up going a bit quiet. You’re making better money here riding out in yards than you would in England.
“I had seven winners under rules and 11 point-to-point winners but it was just going hot and cold. I was riding a couple of winners and then it would go quiet. There was no consistency. You’re wanted one minute and then someone else would come on the scene and take your rides.”
He returned home, resolving to keep trying but in his heart of hearts, thinking the dream was dead. He would make a living riding work but notions of a career on the track seemed fanciful.
“When I came back I was quiet enough except for a bit riding out and I wasn’t really taking about racing too much until I joined Chris Jones’ yard. I’d given it a go in Ireland before I went to England and England didn’t work out either so I just thought I’d given both a go and it wasn’t going to work out. I hadn’t totally given up but I thought I’d struggle. Luckily it got going.”
Booting home 33/1 shot White Volcano in the famous Jones colours at Down Royal at the end of May was the start of it. He showed good strength in a finish when combining with Jones and Henry de Bromhead once more for Rio Lobo to be successful not long after in Tramore.
In the meantime, he has also guided charges for Lynch, Sneezy Foster and Dot Love to the winner’s enclosure. He has even had success on the flat, piloting the Edward O’Grady-trained Slippery Serpent to an emotional victory at Leopardstown last month, the seven-year-old being owned by the Friends Of Maria Syndicate that was set up by O’Grady’s late wife the week of the tragic accident that claimed her life.
Between both codes, Orr boasts a strike rate of 17%. It is 18% under National Hunt Rules, where his future lies.
Oisín travelled a similar path, though he has avoided many of the hurdles standing in Conor’s way – figuratively and literally. He rode 33 winners on the pony racing circuit. Did he have anyone whose style he would like to have mirrored?
“Not really,” comes the reply, in an accent that like his brother, only has a feint hint of the Donegal twang remaining. “At that that time I was just trying to stay on, get around, not to mind style. Later on I suppose it would probably be Richard Hughes or Ryan Moore.
“I was doing pony racing for about five years. I rode in the local pony races, for cobs and what not when I was a bit younger, but then rode the proper ponies in the northwest and the midlands as well.
“I was in Joanna Morgan’s for two summers – my brother went there first too. She was finishing up then. My brother was in Eddie’s at the time so he said it to him and I ended up going in there.”
He rides out at Dermot Weld’s every Friday and is also a regular at Tony Martin’s and Sheila Lavery’s establishments.
These are nice contacts to make. The one with Martin was forged in big-time success, when Oisín navigated Quick Jack through a crowded field to bag the €150,000 Petingo Handicap at Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend 2017, little more than a year and a half after the teenager had ridden his first winner, Balmont Blast for Lynam at Dundalk.
Oisín had gotten the call out of the blue to ride Quick Jack in the Ebor at York three weeks earlier and though they had finished third, the race had not gone to plan with Orr having to steer a very wide route. This time, Martin told him to cling to the rails and though there were 16 runners, there was a lot more space than in the north of England the time before.
“I’d a bad draw so I was just trying to get in as much as I could. (Tony) likes his horses to be ridden somewhere close to the rail with plenty of cover so that’s all I was trying to do. I followed a few of the fancied ones around and it opened up in the straight. It worked out good enough on the day and some days it wouldn’t.”
He is modest about his role in events but it was a cool ride and the decision to track Pyromaniac was a wise one as Quick Jack’s stablemate was the last horse to yield to that final dashing thrust.
He has no doubt though about how important that day was in the development of his profile and career. It was the propulsion fuel for the subsequent successful campaign to be champion apprentice.
“I think so. You need for people to see that you’re able to do it so it was a great help.”
Kevin O’Ryan used the increased awareness well to secure more outside rides. His 29 winners throughout the calendar year in 2017 came from 15 different trainers, though some of the bigger wins, such as those on Ted Veale in the Guinness Handicap at Listowel and Moonmeister in the Cork Derby, were provided by Martin.
A tally of 20 winners nudged him ahead of Leonard to be champion apprentice and he has kept the momentum going this season, with a couple of victories on the David Marnane-trained Alfredo Arcano and an important triumph on Sorelle Delle Rose for Weld among his tally of nine to date.
He did not spend the winter in Dundalk however, instead decamping to America to spend time with New Orleans-based Irish trainer Brendan Walsh. He had planned to go to Australia but the visa didn’t arrive in time. It was an interesting experience and the focus on the clock and banging out the intervals stood out. Developing the clock in your head is an invaluable process for any jockey, regardless of the jurisdiction.
He has no major targets for the year ahead.
“If I could ride more winners than last year I’d be happy but I don’t think I will. I’ll just keep riding as many winners as I can. That’s the main thing, try to keep going. I’m still riding for the same people so it shouldn’t make any difference.”
If there are numerous yards providing winners, it is Lynam that supplies the base and the tutelage. He is a valued mentor whose younger charges will start to emerge once a bit of ease comes into the ground.
“There’s plenty of well-bred horses there and a few backward ones as well he’s taking his time with. There are a few nice ones for this year that haven’t ran yet. He’s just taking his time and see how they go.
“He’d be handy enough to work for, you’ll know where you stand. If he’s something to say he’ll say it to you. We get on well.”
Oisín has no intention of following his brother to the jumping sphere.
“My bottle wouldn’t be great! I’m around 8st 8lb and if I can keep it around that I’ll be okay. He’d be a bit more mad anyway.”
Conor will contemplate turning professional once Galway is out of the way. Riding winners for the likes of de Bromhead means there would be opportunities.
“Without winners you don’t really get noticed as much. Once you’re riding for the bigger yards it’s a big help to get going.
“Only for Chris giving me the chance to ride a couple of good horses in maiden hurdles when Davy (Russell) was off, I probably would still be struggling now. It’s about getting in the right place at the right time I suppose.
“(Andy Lynch) has been great to me too. I ride out for him every day and he has told me I’ll ride his horses when they’re running.
“The plan is to turn pro. When we’ve Galway out the way, I’ll talk to Chris and see if they’re happy for me to go pro or if they’d prefer me to stay amateur.”
Ken Whelan and Garry Cribbin are sourcing the rides for him and the dream is to ride a winner at Cheltenham.
You have to aim high to achieve anything at all and Conor and Oisín Orr have already shown the ambition, will and talent needed to thrive.
Just how good they are at doing the laundry – only time will tell.