O'Connell on Red alert
Brian O'Connell could be forgiven for wondering if he and Dunguib were destined not to step out together at all before next month's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Nothing seems to have gone right for them in recent weeks.
In the off season, Philip Fenton decided to tailor the 2009 Champion Bumper hero's campaign around next month's hurdling crown, with just a single prep run on the way. In theory, that was a splendid plan, but circumstances have done their best to thwart it.
Initially, the Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas on January 15 was the destination of choice. The frost and snow intervened, though, and Fenton opted to get an extra week's work into his eight-year-old and target the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown instead.
An unsatisfactory blood test then put the kibosh on that, before attention turned to the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park, which was originally scheduled for last Saturday. In the meantime, O'Connell was landed with a seven-day riding ban that would rule him ineligible for that date.
When he won his appeal and had the ban overturned, everything looked rosy in the garden again, only for the loss of the Hennessy Gold Cup card due to waterlogging at Leopardstown to throw another spanner in the works. The Hennessy was re-fixed for the Red Mills slot, as Gowran got shunted back to today.
"It has been a bit frustrating that we haven't got to run yet, but it's not the end of the world either," a typically serene O'Connell says. "There's still plenty of the season left, so hopefully we are going to have a fresh horse for the second half of it. It will be nice to get him out again though, just to get going."
How Dunguib fares this afternoon will be fascinating. He was simply sensational as a novice up to this point last year, hosing up for an eighth successive time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.
When Cheltenham came round, third was the best he could manage in a vintage Supreme Novices' Hurdle, before he ruined his chance by pulling too hard when pitted against his elders at Punchestown. Those experiences should stand to him now.
"The fact that he is a year older will help him too," O'Connell agrees, "and there were a lot of positives to take out of his run in the Supreme Novices' last year. That race has worked out extremely well, with Menorah winning it and Oscar Whisky finishing behind us in fourth. They are major players now.
"At Punchestown, Dunguib was very keen, and I don't think it was a true run from him because of that. We weren't helped by the fact that there was no pace in the race, it was the end of the season, and he just ran out of steam after pulling so hard."
Of course, a horse of Dunguib's stature attracts forensic scrutiny, much of which focused on his relatively inexperienced rider following that first hurdling defeat last March. Mindful of an error-strewn round in the Deloitte, O'Connell took the 4/5 favourite wide throughout, conceding ground but ensuring that Dunguib got a good view of his hurdles.
Given that he was beaten just two lengths, it was reasonable to surmise that the decision to race so wide cost Dunguib more than he was beaten.
But neither did it warrant the type of censure it received from Channel Four Racing's John McCririck. Playing to the gallery, McCririck demanded that connections: "Put a proper jockey on him".
Few took much notice of Big Mac's outburst, but Davy Russell couldn't let it lie. When interviewed live on air after his win on Weapon's Amnesty, Russell lashed out at McCririck's crass criticism of his colleague.
It was a noble gesture but, paradoxically, Russell had given McCririck, whose airtime has been halved in recent years, the response he was looking for. O'Connell, for his part, kept his own counsel, and maintains the whole episode never troubled him.
"When you are riding a high-profile horse you are going to be in the firing line," he asserts, "but you take that kind of thing on the chin and move on. What was said didn't really bother me at the time and it hasn't done since either. Look, there's stuff like that in every walk of life. I go to the races to ride horses, which is what I enjoy doing. You take what comes with it for what it is."
There is plenty of evidence to verify that he didn't dwell on the matter.
At Down Royal 24 hours after the Cheltenham reversal, he recorded his first double, and has continued to carve a niche for himself as one of the better young riders in the game.
Having only joined the paid ranks in advance of Dunguib's Royal Bond triumph last term, the 24-year-old ought to continue to develop as a jockey. He displays real dash in the saddle, and his all-round composure is one of his best selling points.
As a result, aside from partnering all of Fenton's horses, O'Connell has become a popular go-to man, to the extent that he has already totalled more than 260 rides this term. Last season he had just 214.
"It has been frustrating for everybody with the way the weather has disrupted things," he reflects, "but I've been busy and I couldn't complain about the way things have gone.
"I rode out my claim earlier in the season before they raised the number of winners recently and I got it back again, and the 3lbs is nice to have. I have only one winner left on it again now."
Given what it would signify, there could hardly be a more appropriate platform for him to graduate to the senior ranks than on Dunguib today. Both have shared a steep learning curve together, with their mistakes endured in the full glare of the spotlight.
Victory today would prove beyond doubt that both horse and jockey can deliver on all their promise, and O'Connell knows that Dunguib remains his ticket to the big time. All he wants now is a clean shot at it.
"Cheltenham is still the priority," he declares of the talented son of Presenting, "but of course he'll have to do everything right today first.
"We'll see where we are after that."