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Friday 15 December 2017

Jockey Derek O'Connor: 'Racing is a drug'

Derek O’Connor, the most successful jockey ever in Irish point-to-point racing, comes from a family steeped in horses and farming

Derek O'Connor steers The Lion Dancer to victory at the recent County Galway point- to-point meeting in Dartfield, Loughrea. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Derek O'Connor steers The Lion Dancer to victory at the recent County Galway point- to-point meeting in Dartfield, Loughrea. Photo: Hany Marzouk

Siobhán English

There's no panic on Derek O'Connor. He's a laid back kind of lad for sure. Put him on the back of a horse, though, and it's a different story. He's the real deal.

Numbers are not his thing, neither are exact dates, but the records reflect a remarkable story.

With 1,100 plus winners on the point-to point field to his credit and many more on the racetrack, his CV certainly makes for impressive reading.

A son of a cattle dealer and an amateur rider, it seems Derek was always destined for a life in the country.

In February 2015, O'Connor became the first jockey to ride 1,000 point-to-point winners; he reached the 1,100 winner milestone last January. Photo: Healy Racing
In February 2015, O'Connor became the first jockey to ride 1,000 point-to-point winners; he reached the 1,100 winner milestone last January. Photo: Healy Racing

It is fitting so that he now combines both interests - his love of horses inherited from his late mother Jean (née Moore) and his interest in farming passed on by his late father, Pat, who worked closely with Dawn Meats until his passing 12 years ago.

"It's only in the past two years that I've taken up organic farming," Derek says. "It was a lifestyle choice but I thoroughly enjoy it."

Again numbers don't come quickly and he guesses that he has roughly 16 sucklers. All are bought in as calves. "I did all the courses and I am fully compliant, but it's more of a hobby though as I also keep a few horses on the 60 acres we have near home."

Home is Tubber, right on the Clare/Galway border, where he lives close to his brother Sean, a cattle dealer too, and Paurick, who trains and sells a few horses with his wife Gráinne.

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Sean also inherited the farming bug and keeps a large herd of beef cattle, in addition to running a lucrative haulage business with his sister Loretta.

The conversation then returns to racing, and I tap Derek for more details on his success in the saddle. "I told you I'm not good with figures!" he laughs.

Celebrating after winning on Vision Des Flos at last month's Punchestown meeting. Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Celebrating after winning on Vision Des Flos at last month's Punchestown meeting. Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

"I do remember my 1,000th winner though if that helps. That was back in early 2015 on a horse called Death Duty for my good friend Pat Doyle."

Derek also credits trainers Eugene O'Sullivan and Robert Tyner with giving him the breaks to get him to where he is today.

With only a few weeks left in the season and bit to go in order to go to catch the current leading rider, Barry O'Neill, for this 34-year-old it's possibly not so much about numbers anymore, but rather the need to return home to his family in one piece.

Derek and his wife Carol are now parents to daughters Jessica (3) and Abbie (18 months).

"It's a drug - racing is a drug - and a dangerous one too," he admits.

"Over the years I would have returned to race riding when I was probably not ready, all in a bid to get the next winner. I was completely driven, but now that I have a wife and family my priorities have changed slightly."

It's not that his love for racing has waned in anyway. In fact, it's the exact opposite. "I absolutely love what I do, and would never change it for the world.

"I often had the opportunity to turn professional, but for me it was never in the plan. I was always happy being an amateur concentrating on the Irish point-to-point circuit and that is where I intend to stay."

For someone who has won 12 leading amateur riders' titles in his career, Derek remembers a time when he would spend his weekends travelling the length and breadth of the country gathering maximum rides in a bid to top the leaderboard at the end of the season.

"We all did it at one time or another. Just look at AP McCoy, the most successful jockey of our era who had incredible drive and determination."

In fact Derek and AP are similar in so many ways. It's their ability to overcome pain at all cost that makes these athletes truly unique.

No-one achieves that amount of winners without the odd fall, and there's no doubt Derek has fallen aplenty. In fact the figure currently stands at a staggering 411 on the point-to-point track.

"Too many to mention," he says. "And from what I can remember I've broken my leg on three occasions and dislocated my shoulder, but puncturing a lung was definitely the most painful."

For the normal Joe Soap on the street, this would be enough to put you out of action for several weeks. For jockeys, though, especially those chasing titles, even a day out of the saddle can be catastrophic.

A simple fall from a horse at home in October left Derek on the sidelines for several weeks with a broken elbow.

It couldn't have come at a worse time as the season was just getting underway, but, when the maestro did return to the saddle, he did so with aplomb and notched up his 1,100th winner at Kilfeacle point-to-point on January 22.

In recent weeks that figure has grown once again, with a further two major successes on the track coming at Punchestown in recent weeks with Vision Des Flos and Balnaslow.

For Derek both wins were special, but the family connections with Vision Des Flos made it all the more sweet as it ran out a convincing winner of the Goffs Land Rover Bumper in the colours of his sister-in-law Grainne.

For Derek O'Connor now it's all about family, and once the season ends in June his priorities will change once again with a new baby on the cards.

"I must admit, I timed that one well," he said as he prepared for another evening's racing at Balllinrobe.

One ride. One winner. All in a day's work for this legend of the turf.


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