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Cheltenham jewels in crown

Profile: Conor O'Dwyer


Conor O’Dwyer shares a special moment with his wife, Audrey, after winning the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard War of Attrition

Conor O’Dwyer shares a special moment with his wife, Audrey, after winning the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard War of Attrition


Conor O’Dwyer shares a special moment with his wife, Audrey, after winning the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard War of Attrition

The highlights of Conor O'Dwyer's riding career will always be his four major triumphs at Cheltenham, three of them coming towards the end of his 26 years in the saddle.

He was 30 when he won his first Gold Cup in 1996 and was closing on 40 when he grabbed two Champion Hurdles and a Gold Cup from 2005 to 2006.

Conor rode Imperial Call for Fergie Sutherland to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in 1996, and went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on him a month later, beating Mick Fitzgerald on Rough Quest and Graham Bradley on Couldn't be Better, with AP McCoy fourth on Barton Bank.

These were certainly major scalps. They also won the Grade 1 Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown in December, 1997.

'Conor rode a copybook race,' said the Cork-based Sutherland who had worked for many years in England and acquired a rather posh sounding accent. 'He kept him wide, got him jumping, kicked on and then let the horse's class do the rest.'

He rode Hardy Eustace to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2004 at 33/1, for Lar Byrne and friends from Tullow in Carlow, upsetting Richard Johnson and Philip Hobbs on hot favourite, Rooster Booster (11/8), by five lengths. It was his first time to win on the horse.

The story of Hardy Eustace is tinged with sadness amidst the joy. Trained by the late Dessie Hughes, the horse landed the Royal and Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle in 2003, giving Kildare jockey Kieran Kelly his first Cheltenham win.

Later that year, Kieran would lose his life in a fall at Kilbeggan. He was only 25.

Conor would pick up the ride on Hardy Eustace, but he was never to forget the role of his friend.

'Kieran was a quiet, shy sort of a fellow. Yet, he had a great sense of humour and was a lively character in the weighroom. When something like that happens it hits home how dangerous the sport really is.'

He told this newspaper at the time about the importance of the Hardy Eustace win:

'It was fantastic to win a race like this at this stage of my career (he was 37 at the time). It is nearly more important winning late in my career as it gives me a great boost and keeps me in the limelight.

'The Gold Cup win eight years ago on Imperial Call was also brilliant, and to be honest, it is hard to separate the two really. I suppose this one was very special because of Kieran and it was quite an emotional moment for me.'

To prove it was no fluke, they went on to add the Irish Champion hurdle at Punchestown six weeks later, beating Rooster Booster again by a length; the English challenger was favourite again at 13/8, but Hardy was only 3/1 this time.

They began the warm-up for the 2005 Champion Hurdle when Hardy Eustace won the Red Mills Trial in Gowran Park by no less than 25 lengths in February, and duly went on to complete the double at Cheltenham in March in a remarkable all-Irish finish, with heavy Wexford involvement with three of the first four home.

O'Dwyer thinks this is his best and most favourite race of all his long career.

'It's probably one of the greatest races at Cheltenham, ever. To be involved in it was something else. It was amazing.

'We went to the last and Paul Carberry is sitting absolutely motionless on Harchibald and looking a certainty. But Hardy Eustace had an unbelievable will-to-win.'

Hardy won by a neck, Harchibald was second, and Colm Murphy's Brave Inca was third, only another neck behind under Barry Cash. Fourth was Paul Nolan's Accordion Etoile, ridden by John Cullen from The Ballagh.

Hardy Eustace and Conor did not win again at Cheltenham but took the Irish Champion Hurdle of 2007 at Leopardstown at a generous 9/1, with Tony McCoy now on Brave Inca being sent off 11/8f, but being beaten by three lengths, with Macs Joy third another three back. It was another run full of heart and determination.

They also won the Ascot Hurdle (Grade 2) in 2006 and again in '07, that November 24 success being the last time they won together, and they finished in typical fashion, holding off favourite Mick Fitzgerald on Afsoun (9/4) by half a length in another never-say-die finish.

Just 40 minutes after that second Champion Hurdle win, Conor was back on track to ride favourite, War of Attrition, in the Arkle Chase, trained by Mouse Morris for Gigginstown.

He had finished second to Brave Inca the previous year in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, but he finished a disappointing seventh this time.

However, it was discovered that all was not well and O'Dwyer, who won eight times on the horse, put things right at the Punchestown Festival a few weeks later with a first Grade 1 success in the Swordlestown Novice Chase.

He arrived back at Cheltenham the following St. Patrick's Day and gave O'Dwyer a second Gold Cup with an ice-cool ride that saw him come in two and a half lengths clear of reigning Grand National champion, Hedgehunter, and Ruby Walsh, and Michael O'Brien's Forget the Past in a 22-runner field. This was a first Gold Cup for Michael O'Leary and Gigginstown.

The performance was stamped a few weeks later when completing a Gold Cup double at the Punchestown Festival with a commanding win over Beef or Salmon.

Conor had one more win on War of Attrition before an injury as he was preparing to defend his Gold Cup put the horse out of action for two years, and Davy Russell took over on his return as Conor had retired.

He had enjoyed considerable success over a lengthy career and was associated with many of the sport's leading trainers. He had early winners for the great Paddy Mullins, on horses like Doubtful Venture at the Punchestown Festival in 1988; Irish Wind, and Redundant Pal, winner of the Ladbrokes Hurdle in 1990.

He had seven big wins in little over a year for Paddy Burke, with four on Strong Platinum, including the Power Gold Cup and the Grade 1 BMW Chase in the same week at the 1995 Punchestown Festival.

For Christy Roche, he won the Irish Champion Hurdle in 1997 on Grimes, and Youllnevgerwalkalone was another big one for Roche. He won the Melling Chase at the Aintree Grand National meeting in 1998 for John Fowler on Opera Hat.

He went on to strike up a couple of remarkable partnerships with Arthur Moore-trained horses, winning twelve times on Native Upmanship from 1999 to 2005 in the famous colours of John Magnier of Coolmore flat fame, including nine Grade 1s. He also scored eight times on More Than A Stroll.

O'Dwyer's record with Native Upmanship is extraordinary, and their wins included the Denny Novice Chase in 1999; Powers Gold Cup and the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial in 2000 where they beat Florida Pearl and Ruby Walsh by a head in a classic; the Pearl reversed the result a year later, but they won it again in 2002.

They won the Melling Chase at Aintree in 2002, beating Ruby Walsh and Rince Rí, and retained it a year later when beating Tony McCoy on Martin Pipe's Seebald by a length.

'It's a pity there was no race like the two and a half mile Ryanair at Cheltenham at the time - he would undoubtedly have won it,' Conor said.

All these successes would have decorated any career, but Conor O'Dwyer will always be remembered best for those four Cheltenham wins in the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.

Online Editors