Sport Horse Racing

Wednesday 18 September 2019

O'Brien junior writes the latest chapter in the greatest Irish sports story ever told

Jockey Corey Brown, right kisses the winning trophy for media in the mounting yard watched on by trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: Andy Brownbill/AP Photo
Jockey Corey Brown, right kisses the winning trophy for media in the mounting yard watched on by trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: Andy Brownbill/AP Photo newsdesk

It was hard to miss the symbolic significance of Tuesday's finish to the Melbourne Cup as Johannes Vermeer, trained by Aidan O'Brien, and Max Dynamite, trained by Willie Mullins battled it out. There they were, Willie and Aidan, the two big guns of Irish racing going head to head for the top prize.

Or at least they would have been had Rekindling not spoiled the symmetry of it all by relegating Johannes Vermeer to second and Max Dynamite to third. The trainer of this interloper? Joseph O'Brien, Aidan's son, picking up one of racing's biggest prizes in just his second year as a trainer.

Joseph's eclipse of both Mullins and O'Brien senior may have a symbolic significance of its own. It looks likely that he will soon join Mullins and Gordon Elliott in a three-cornered battle for supremacy in Irish national hunt racing. Right now the neophyte lies a comfortable third in the Irish trainer's championship. He's already passed the half-century mark in terms of winners, something only four trainers managed to do in the entirety of last season. It is a stunning beginning to O'Brien's training career.

The Melbourne Cup victory is more stunning still and perhaps points to what most racing followers see as Joseph's destiny, succeeding his father as the world's number one trainer. But there's many a slip between cup and lip. When David O'Brien became the youngest trainer to win the Derby in 1984 with Secreto, he looked heir apparent to his father Vincent. Instead he quit the racing game a few years later, bought a vineyard in France, went into the wine business and left the way clear for Aidan's eventual accession at Ballydoyle.

So maybe before predicting the future we should savour the present. Our 1-2-3 at Flemington is a remarkable triumph in itself, but it's also a fitting coda to an extraordinary year of achievement for Irish racing. The crowning glory in jump racing was the 19 wins at Cheltenham, a total unpredicted by even the most optimistic Irishman. England were 3-1 on to have more winners than Ireland and The Irish Times headline, 'Record 15 Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham unlikely to be repeated', was wholly uncontroversial.

Mullins and Elliott split a dozen winners between them, but five other Irish trainers got on the mark, Jessica Harrington notching up three victories including the Gold Cup, Pat Kelly and Alan Fleming showing there's still room for the smaller operator at the biggest festival.

The big two's battle in the Cotswolds was merely the most high profile engagement of a war they waged all season for the trainers' title, one which captured the public imagination and came down to a frantic finale in Punchestown. Mullins prevailed but battle has been joined again this term with Elliott having just moved into the lead for the first time.

If Elliott was Mullins' big rival, the history book was Aidan O'Brien's as he closed in on Bobby Frankel's record of 25 Group 1 victories in a year. Last Friday's victory for Mendelssohn in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf race in California made it 27 for O'Brien whose best score before this year had been 23 in 2001 and 2008.

Paradoxically it was the Breeders Cup Saturday, when O'Brien didn't win a race at all, which best displayed the nature of his achievement. Two close second places and a third showed how tight the margins are at the elite level of horse racing and how difficult it is to win Group One races. Yet O'Brien makes it look easy, perhaps too easy because it leads to his being under-rated. He should be the automatic choice for the 2017 Irish sports personality of the year award but he won't get it. He never even makes the shortlist.

Think of that Melbourne Cup field. The strong home contingent was joined by contenders from France, Germany, England and Scotland yet it was the Irish who produced a clean sweep. Is there anything, in sport or life, this country does as well as horse racing?

Last weekend the first grade one chase of the season, the Champion Chase at Down Royal, saw Elliott's Outlander shock Irish Grand National champ Our Duke. There is talk of a return to action for Mullins' greats Faugheen and Douvan. Elliott's Samcro, winner by 17 and 15 lengths in his last two races, is being hailed as the latest wunderkind. Cheltenham is just four months away.

As winter comes to Ballydoyle, O'Brien has the favourites for the 2000 Guineas (Gustav Klimt), the 1000 Guineas (Clemmie), the Derby (Saxon Warrior) and the Oaks (Happily). He, or anyone else, has never won all five classics in a year. Could it happen in 2018?

In racing the story goes on. It is the greatest Irish sports story ever told.

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