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31st Dec 2017

Joseph O’Brien shouldn’t have been overlooked for SPOTY nominations

Niall McIntyre

Joseph O’Brien is a patient man. A patient man in a hurry.

Joseph’s father Aidan first took out a trainer’s licence in 1993, and he’s been the Champion trainer in Irish flat racing for every year since 1999.

From 1993 to now, Aidan O’Brien has cemented his place in the history books as the most successful trainer in horse-racing.

Few trophies, races, honours or majors have evaded his grasp over that period, in both National Hunt and Flat Racing circles, from the Curragh to the UAE and from Cheltenham to Aintree. One that has, despite years of trying, is the Melbourne Cup.

The master of Ballydoyle has trained some of the best four legged machines in the world, and has been bringing the best of them to Flemington for more than a decade. He still hasn’t achieved the ultimate honour.

That just underlines the scale of what Joseph has achieved.

The ‘race that stops a nation’ Down Under on the first Tuesday of November is one of the world’s biggest races. In truth, the race stops a world, a horse-racing world.

Dermot Weld was the pioneer of Irish challengers flocking to the Epsom Road track for the most prestigious annual thoroughbred horse-race.

He secured Ireland’s first winner in the 1993 renewal of the Melbourne Cup with Vintage Crop, and he repeated that feat in 2002 with Media Puzzle.

Since those landmark triumphs by the Rosewell House handler, the best of the Irish trainers have tried their luck at pipping the Aussies, the Americans, the British, the Japanese and their fellow Irish in Australia’s famous race.

None of them have landed the killer blow. Not even Willie Mullins who sends over the cream of his crop in the tenth month of every year. Not even Joseph’s great father Aidan has managed the feat.

Joseph has, though.

Less than 17 months into his training career, Aidan’s eldest son saddled Rekindling, who at three-years old was the youngest horse to enter the stalls in the race run in the early hours of the morning at the other side of the globe.

Youth was no barrier to success for horse or trainer as the Corey Brown ridden star pipped Aidan’s fancied Johannes Vermeer and Willie Mullins’ Max Dynamite to allow the 24-year-old to become the youngest ever trainer to win one of the most coveted races in the sport of kings.

“I’ve been telling people the father needs to watch out,” bellowed victorious owner Lloyd Williams in the parade ring.

Those words couldn’t have been more apt from the magical moment that was, and perhaps the most impressive thing about everything Joseph O’Brien has done in 2017, and in his nine year career at the highest level of horse-racing, is that he’s taken almost every chance he’s been given.

That capped a wonderfully successful 2017 for Joseph O’Brien, in which he saddled 102 winners across both codes in Ireland, with his National Hunt highlight coming in August when Tigris River stormed up the famous Galway hill to take the richest hurdle race in Europe.

His prize money for the year was bordering on €2 million. He’s surpassed distinguished trainers Noel Meade, Jessica Harrington and Henry De Bromhead on the National Hunt listings, and the likes of Jim Bolger, Willie McCreary and Michael Halford on the flat.

But we really shouldn’t have been surprised. Because Joseph O’Brien is cut from the same cloth as his father.

He’s tough as nails, as he proved consistently throughout his riding career. When he was crowned champion apprentice, the sky looked the limit for this sprightly teenager. Expectations were high, but in line with his growing credentials, O’Brien was getting taller and taller.

At 6 ft tall, a career as a flat racing jockey where the minimum requirement is making nine stone didn’t look likely, but he proved he was always up for the fight to keep off the weight – He rode for five years, shouldering the pressure of being the leading jockey in Ballydoyle, and it was so rare that he made a mistake.

He rode ten classic winners and won countless Group Ones. He was the Champion jockey twice and rode the Epsom-Curragh derby double twice. That’s no mean feat, but what makes it more remarkable is that stubborn courage to keep chasing his dream despite logic telling him to hang up the whip.

When that battle with the weighing scales eventually defeated him in 2016, this man had the plans drawn up and the teeth gritted for another challenge.

This great horseman was already training horses in the family gallops in Ownings before he announced his actual retirement.

It wasn’t long before he was training the likes of Ivanovich Gorbatov to Triumph Hurdle glory in Cheltenham, or Intricately to the Group One Moyglare Stud Stakes in The Curragh.

For a man of just 24, to manage the horses, the staff, the media, the public scrutiny that comes with being a trainer and that he, given his privileged introduction to the game would face even more of is nothing short of amazing.

The way he goes about his business leaves there with no doubt or wonder as to how he’s done it. Because, put simply, Joseph O’Brien comes across as the most likeable guy in horse-racing.

Just take his maturity in interviews, just take his good manners, his mildly spoken modesty, just take this man as himself and himself only because he is carving out his own niche and making his own legacy away from the shadow and career of his great father.

Joseph O’Brien had ground the horse-racing world to a halt. And he’s done it all on his own terms.

They say the toughest challenge facing every trainer is keeping himself in the best of company and his horses the worst. Joseph O’Brien has made an art out of that this year.

And we need look no further than last Thursday, when he sent one of his lesser lights, Art Nouvelle, to a Class Five race in Lingfield on Thursday when all eyes were on the Leopardstown Christmas festival. Even Joseph O’Brien’s eyes were surely firmly fixated on the Foxrock track, given that he saddled a couple of winners, there, too.

This young man doesn’t miss a trick, with the 9-2 shot landing the spoils across the water. That’s how you keep those around you happy.

It’s easy to say this man has been granted a silver spoon to success in the horse-racing world, but even the most forbidding horse-racing head can’t deny the scale of what he has achieved and how he has done it.

And in 2018, it’s only going to get better.