Comeback kid O'Regan aims to get back in groove
It's not unexpected to hear Denis O'Regan express frustration with his lot.
Arguably the most talented jumps jockey to go for export in recent times, the Youghal native has endured a series of debilitating setbacks over a period that stretches back more than a year.
The summary includes two broken collarbones in quick succession, a high-profile overweight at the Cheltenham Festival and the subsequent loss of his job as stable jockey to Howard Johnson's powerful Durham yard in April. He also had the dubious honour of finishing second in the Grand National and he fractured his leg in October.
Then there are the bans. Ever since incurring a 14-day holiday for committing the mortal sin of riding a finish a circuit too soon at Fakenham three years ago, O'Regan's disciplinary record has left plenty to be desired.
Today at Leicester he returns to the saddle for the first time following a nine-day exclusion. The afternoon he returned from a three-day ban up to and including New Year's Day, O'Regan earned himself four days for excessive frequency with the whip when bringing Here's The Key from a seemingly hopeless position to be second at Folkestone on January 2.
That was a Sunday. On the Tuesday, he conjured another late challenge out of the 11-year-old Autumn Red -- on which he makes today's comeback -- to win by a neck at Leicester. The horse had a history of wealing and O'Regan contributed another chapter, tacking five days onto the four that he had incurred two days previously. So much for a fresh start to the new year.
"I have been a bit disillusioned with the way things have gone over the past year," he admits. "When I come back on Tuesday, I've just got to crack on and hope for a good spring.
"It will be difficult, obviously, and I'm resigned to the fact that it is more or less a write-off of a season but if I can stop getting injured and just cop myself on with the bans I might be able to get a run at it. Momentum is everything."
O'Regan's admission that he needs to "cop on", as he so bluntly puts it, will hopefully signal the start of a more compliant spell, as his indiscipline is a tangible he has the power to affect as he bids to regain traction as a freelancer now that he has relocated to the south of England. Without the backing of a decent stable, he knows that he is making life very difficult for himself with such careless infringements.
For evidence of his folly, wind the clock back 12 months. He brought the curtain down on 2009 with a three-day ban for excessive frequency, while January 2010 brought a nine-day ban for marking a horse with his whip. Sound familiar?
Trying too hard is a futile defence and only a fool would continue to make the same mistakes. And O'Regan is no fool. Hand-picked to fulfil a three-year contract for Johnson and his leading owner Graham Wylie in 2007, he was already established as a rising star before stepping on the boat.
He operated as Paul Carberry's deputy for Noel Meade, who has described him as a "first-class young rider", and announced his capacity to perform under pressure by delivering a flawless display of jockeyship to win the 2005 Galway Plate on Ansar.
Shortly before Johnson approached him, O'Regan had completed his best season, riding 56 winners to take fifth in the 2006/07 jockeys' table. He had recorded a first Grade One triumph on Offshore Account at the Punchestown Festival and was perched favourably in third place in the riders' table as the new season gathered pace.
At 25 years of age, O'Regan's ability to do the job was no secret and Johnson, having dispensed with Paddy Brennan, came calling. Accepting the offer was the wise move but giving up what he had, fully aware of Johnson's impulsive nature, was not easy.
O'Regan rolled the dice. For the most part, the new partnership bloomed, highlighted by three Grade One wins, including two at the Cheltenham Festival, in year one.
"I look back on my time with Howard in a very positive way," he says. "I rode over 200 winners while I was there; I would have never ridden three Cheltenham winners if I hadn't taken the job and it was a pleasure to ride a champion like Inglis Drever. Hopefully the experience of such a high-profile job will stand me in good stead yet."
However, the highs of their first season together were never repeated and when the rider broke his collarbone in October 2009, things began to unravel. No sooner was he back in the saddle when those bans cost him crucial rides on Cheltenham-bound horses and then he broke his collarbone for a second time when he took a crashing fall from Zaarito in the Irish Arkle almost exactly a year ago.
Again, vital rides were missed and the nuclear option was inevitable when he weighed in three pounds heavy after finishing second on Arcalis in the County Hurdle. In the aftermath, Johnson declared: "I told Denis last night that he will be riding for me for a very long time, but that from now on he won't be riding anything for me under 10st 8lb, and he has accepted that and is over the moon about it."
Three weeks later, O'Regan was out on his ear -- those dreaded votes of confidence may not be the preserve of chairmen of football clubs after all.
"I just couldn't control my weight with the painkillers I was taking at the time for my injuries," O'Regan reveals. "But that's no excuse either. I was very disappointed that it happened and I'd like to think it would never happen again. My weight and my fitness are really good now for the first time in a long time, which I'm really happy about.
"This current ban is unfortunate because I had started to fly again lately. Breaking my leg was just the start of my bad luck really. When I came back, it was hard to get going because of the weather over Christmas, and now this..."
With a pattern of suspensions following shortly after a return from an injury-enforced break, it may not stretch the bounds of amateur psychology to suggest that O'Regan's determination to make up for lost time is manifesting itself in a counter-productive manner.
It's far from an alien concept for jockeys, with Timmy Murphy someone who had to overcome similar issues before he was able to fulfil all of his potential. In fact, it is Murphy who O'Regan, the son of a farmer and publican, most resembles on a horse.
Like Murphy in his pomp, O'Regan is an instinctively stylish and gifted horseman who gets them jumping, while he possesses an innate sense of calm timing that allows him to conserve a horse's energy before unleashing it late on.
Of the generation that are following Murphy's, you won't find a more polished practitioner, and all that easy flair was there for the world to see when O'Regan guided Dessie Hughes' Black Apalachi into second at Aintree in April. Adopting Black Apalachi's preferred front-running tactics, the partnership produced a fencing master class to force Tony McCoy to pull out all the stops on Don't Push It.
"Take the winner out of it," O'Regan says now, "and I'd have won the National by 30 lengths. It was a hard pill to swallow, but we were beaten by a better horse on the day. And McCoy had waited 15 years to win it -- hopefully I won't have to wait that long!"
Hopefully indeed. Denis O'Regan's talents have always been best showcased in such exalted company, and the likelihood is that all he needs to recapture the magic is the right horse. In the meantime, however, that troublesome whip action needs serious attention.