Sunday 16 December 2018

Memorable season for Kanturk-born Tom O'Brien

Kanturk born Dr Tom O’Brien from Ballymacelligott pictured at his home with his horses. Photo By Domnick Walsh
Kanturk born Dr Tom O’Brien from Ballymacelligott pictured at his home with his horses. Photo By Domnick Walsh

Stephen Fernane

I guess you could say two winners at the Galway Festival, bookended by wins at Tramore and Fairyhouse, is just the kind of tonic the doctor ordered.

Tom and Bridget O'Brien, both well-known doctors based in Boherbee, Tralee, are enjoying the kind of season right now that horse owners dream of as they reflect on what has so far been a memorable National Hunt campaign.

The double at Galway in August came courtesy of Ballyegan Hero and David's Charm - wins that brought the culmination of years of emotional investment for Tom and Bridget as the horses were reared at home on the limestone grasslands of Ballymac Parish.

In early December David's Charm picked up another €59,000 in prizemoney with a win at Fairyhouse. He's trained by Doneraile's John Joe Walsh, a trainer with a lifetime's knowledge of the sport with Kerry National, Munster National and Troyton Chase success under his belt.

At Listowel in September David's Charm finished second to a Willie Mullins horse in a race he probably should have won. His official mark continues to rise faster than a temperature gauge in the Sahara desert and from a rating of 95 in June to a mark of 134 in December, the handicapper now has David's Charm in his sights.   

"Galway is always a little bit special and we've had those horses at home since they were foals having bought them in Tattersalls. To see them both win at the Galway Festival, in the same week, is something you just can't predict," Tom said.

It's clear from chatting to Tom that he's far from just another thrill-seeking owner content with being wined and dined while having a good day out at the races.

Tom's a keen student of the game and loves studying the breeding looking for that all-important black-type (graded winner) in a horse's page. His in-depth knowledge of his horses is on a par with any trainer and he talks enthusiastically about David's Charm, by the sire Milan, and how he has 'plenty of toe' in a finish; Ballyegan Hero, a son of Oscar, Tom tells me, is a bit more mature than David's Charm. Both horses are grandsons of the famous sire Saddlers Wells, so there's no doubts when it comes to quality breeding.

"We broke them at Ballymac as 3 year-olds and we would have done all the handling with them at home. We even did some basic road work at the start with them and it's probably an advantage being so hands on early in their lives because they've been nurtured since six-months old."

Tom was surrounded by horses ever since childhood growing up in the family farm near Kanturk in County Cork and, as luck would have it, his neighbour, Connie Vaughan, was a famous point-to-point rider during the 1960s.

Tom recalls many a day breaking young horses and assessing the intricacies of what it takes to get a good thoroughbred over the finish line first. "I used to watch him galloping through the fields of our farm at home and I would accompany him to various point-to-point meetings all over Munster. That was the starting point for my love of horses." 

Tom lost contact with horses for a period while attending medical school in Dublin and Cardiff. But he said his knowledge and love of horses never did, or could ever, drift far from his list of future priorities.

"It was always my ambition as soon as I returned to Kerry to buy a piece of land. The land in Ballymac is ideal for rearing horses. My wife Bridget loves the sport too. It took her time at the beginning to get over the initial intimidation of handling horses, but she enjoys it now and gets involved around the yard. My son David also did a lot of showjumping when he was younger," said Tom.

There just seems to be something distinctive about the name 'O'Brien' whenever it comes to horses, a name packing the world of clout all the way back to the days of Vincent and, of course, the latter-day 'King of the O'Briens' - Aidan of Ballydoyle; each man always ensured a good horse passed through their hands with subtle cultivation and a modest touch. 

Tom mightn't appreciate being mentioned in the same light, but the O'Brien's of Ballymac have added their own addendum to the output of successful National Hunt types - a remarkable achievement for a small operation on the outskirts of Tralee that does what it does purely for the love and thrill of the sport. Some of the horses to pass through Tom's hands over the years include Ballyegan, No Panic - placed in The Persian War Hurdle at Chepstow and the Scottish Grand National; the French bred and Michael Winters trained, Rebel Fitz (18 times winner); the mare Kerryhead Girl, dam of 8 times winner Kerryhead Windfarm for Michael Hourigan. 

"We've been churning out fairly decent horses now for a long period of time. At the moment we have a Yeats' half-brother to Master of the Hall and the dam of Samcro, the latter a current Gigginstown star. We also have a nice French bred who is a half-brother to Alcala, who Paul Nicholls won a lot of races with this year," Tom said.

No trainer, jockey or owner is ever without sight of Cheltenham when it comes to their ambitions and Tom and Bridget are no exception. All going well the plan is to someday give David's Charm a spin round the famous track. He'll soon be 7 and while Tom has The Pertemps Hurdle in his sights at the 2018 festival, they may decide to wait a bit longer with him.

"We would be hopeful of taking David's Charm to Cheltenham at some stage. I think you probably won't see the best of him until he steps up in trip as he may need 2.5m to 3m. The Pertemps Hurdle is on the cards, but we'll wait and see. He's still a little bit immature but we think there's a lot of improvement left in him." So there you have it. Be sure to keep a close eye on the O'Brien horses in the future. Doctors' orders.