Saturday 23 November 2019

'I probably didn't have an idea about training jumpers but ultimately like flat horses they need to be fit'

O'Brien's meteroic rise could take in Gold Cup glory with 'miracle horse' Edwulf

Trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Marcus Armytage

When we say that policemen are getting younger, it is more commonly a metaphor for us getting older, but racehorse trainers, if Joseph O'Brien is anything to go by, really are more youthful these days.

While many of his contemporaries have only just been let loose on the world after university, O'Brien, 24, a two-time Derby-winning jockey who outgrew his breeches, is nearly two years into holding a licence and already more accomplished than many trainers can ever hope to be in a lifetime.

He has won a Melbourne Cup with Rekindling, the Moyglare Stud Stakes, a Group One for two-year-olds, with Intricately, the Galway Hurdle with Tigris River and last month's Irish Gold Cup with the Cheltenham-bound "miracle" horse, Edwulf.

A Festival first has officially eluded him but it is common knowledge that, while he trained the 2016 Triumph Hurdle winner Ivanovich Gorbatov, it ran in his father Aidan's name while he was awaiting his licence.

That success and the fact that he is clearly a chip off the block means he is already up to 150 horses - half Flat, half jump - and in among the Edwulfs, Rhinestones and Tower Bridges, this week's Cheltenham hopes, is Latrobe, a son of his Derby-winning ride Camelot and his potential 2018 Derby horse.

The yard, once the base for his father and from where Aidan sent out his first Cheltenham winner, Urubande, (three-time Champion Hurdle victor Istabraq was trained at Ballydoyle) is where Joseph was born, though the family left for the far end of Tipperary before he can remember. It was built by his maternal grandfather Joe Crowley on Carriganog Hill, a couple of miles outside of Carrick-on-Suir in Kilkenny in a hillier, less cosmopolitan part of the country than the manicured paddocks which ripple outwards from Coolmore and Cashel.

And while Willie Mullins assembles his Cheltenham raiding party on the level fields of Carlow, Carriganog could nearly double as a ski resort.

Its single woodchip gallop rises 340 feet over seven furlongs.

"My grandfather farmed better land on the flat the other side of the hill but swapped it for some land on the hill," explained O'Brien. "It's stony and not high quality but he wanted to train and he had great vision."

O'Brien has slipped into his new role seamlessly and with none of the angst that plagues a lot of jockeys when they quit. These days, he rides out only on Sundays. "When I started riding, training was what I always wanted to do," he reflected.

"The plan was to ride 20 winners, take six months off, go back to being an amateur and ride away. With my weight, I never thought I'd get beyond my mid-20s and, of my three rides over jumps, two were fallers, so I soon enough knew that wasn't for me!

"I'd never worked in a jump yard so I had to get to know the programme and the horses but, Flat or jump, you're always learning and changing. I like the jumpers - it would be a long winter without them.

"I probably didn't have an idea about training them but ultimately, like Flat horses, they need to be fit, healthy and placed in the right races. You can overcomplicate it but I can bounce ideas off Dad and I talk to him most days but I don't go to Ballydoyle that often these days. If I do, I usually get a rollicking for putting one in the wrong race!

"You pick up bits and pieces from everyone but a trainer never gets to the stage when you can think you can't improve it any more. You never even get close. I'd say a lot of people will tell you that."

Epsom, Ascot and the Curragh may be the O'Briens's natural habitat these days but Cheltenham, nevertheless, holds a place close to their hearts.


O'Brien acknowledged that he has been fortunate. "I was very lucky when I started riding to have unbelievable opportunities and take some of them and when I started training I had some nice horses and great support. I suppose it's the environment I've been in all my life, I don't know anything else.

"I don't set targets - some do some don't, but I don't like it. We aim to do the best with each horse and with some horses it is a bigger achievement to win a poor race on the all-weather than it is a stakes race on turf." Last year, O'Brien saw the other side of Cheltenham when Edwulf collapsed on the run-in at the end of the National Hunt Chase.

"He went from travelling well at the second-last to nothing, galloped through the last, lost his action and lay down for an hour," recalled O'Brien.

"I was stood at the last fence, one second thinking we'd be placed, the next thinking we'd lost the horse. I thought he'd had a heart attack but the vets said he's run out of oxygen and that his heart had sent what oxygen he had to his vital organs rather than his legs.

"They were very keen to give him a chance and he came back round, though he was blind for two days. It's testament to the horse's attitude that he has come back - some horses don't even come back after breaking a blood vessel."

He continued: "The vets said the chances of it happening again to him are no higher than they are of it happening to any other horse. I'm looking forward to it. It's an open Gold Cup, he's entitled to take his chance.

"Before Ivanovich Gorbatov, the only time I'd been to Cheltenham was to ride Shield in the 2013 Bumper and I only got there an hour before the race."

This time, like a lot of Irishmen, he will be camped there for the week and hoping that Edwulf can land jump racing's blue riband.

And the way in which O'Brien has started his training career, you would not put that past him.

© Daily Telegraph, London.

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