Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 25 March 2018

O'Connell's star fast on the rise

Richie Forristal

The National Hunt season cranks up another gear tomorrow at Limerick.

The commencement of The Curragh's final two-day meeting marks the beginning of the end of the Flat turf campaign, so the corresponding Munster National card signals a distinct switch of emphasis on the domestic scene.

For most jump jockeys and trainers, this is simply a period of transition. The new NH campaign doesn't begin at Limerick tomorrow; it began at Tipperary on April 29, over five months ago.

With the likes of Mossbank, Sizing Europe and Pandorama set to return to racecourse action over the next few days, there is no mistaking the arrival of the winter contingent, but few of the professionals associated with such heavyweights enjoyed the luxury of a summer at grass. Some, though, have been busier than others.

Andrew McNamara and Gordon Elliot head their respective championships, with Eddie O'Connell emerging from anonymity to set the pace in the conditional jockeys' table. Right now, while McNamara and Elliot's trailblazing offers an alternative dynamic to the main title races, it is O'Connell's rise that is most intriguing.

Three days into the new term back in May, at a nondescript Sligo fixture, O'Connell rode his first double. That equated to 50pc of his Irish haul for the whole of the season just ended -- his best to date. Two days later, he was on the mark again at Ballinrobe, before bringing that week to a close with another winner in Killarney.

May was nine days old, but the then 21-year-old had already matched his domestic tally for 2009/10. The win in Kerry, on Brian Nolan's impressive Galileo filly Tus Nua, also saw O'Connell's claim reduced to 5lbs. It was the 15th success of a career that began less than three years previously.

There has been no let up in the ensuing months. At Ballinrobe in July, O'Connell steered home a debut treble, two of which were for his boss James Lambe, who had also provided both of the Sligo winners in May.

In August he left the Connacht venue with another brace, before recording a second treble at Downpatrick last month. The horse that landed the middle part of that hat-trick, Lake Return, had never troubled the judge in 11 previous outings -- nor in its only subsequent run -- and was sent off at odds of 33/1.

As it trailed the entire field by 10 lengths early on at Downpatrick, hopelessly detached, Lake Return didn't look in any danger of bucking the trend. And yet, with the long-legged O'Connell perched motionless, high on its back, the five-year-old scythed through the field to lay down a challenge at the final fence.

Once the rider pressed go, the race was over in a matter of strides. It was that kind of day for O'Connell. The final leg of the treble was a spare ride that he picked up once Andrew McNamara had been stood down after a spill in the first race -- everything just fell into place.

"In fairness," O'Connell says now, "riding the first treble was unbelievable, but to go and ride another one then in the same year, when you're just a 5lb claimer..."

That he would struggle to find the right words to describe what has been a whirlwind of a season is hardly surprising. He has, after all, ridden 18 winners already, the very same number that secured the young riders' award for Shane Hassett last term.

Traditionally, a final figure of 25 or more is sufficient to claim the prize (only once in the last 10 years has any eligible conditional ridden 25 winners and not been crowned champion), so O'Connell has given himself every chance of adding his name to the roll of honour. Not that he is dwelling too much on the matter.

"It would be nice to win the title," he admits, "but it's not the be-all or end-all either. The main thing is to just keep improving my riding, keep the head down and not get too carried away. I'm riding lots for outside trainers now, which is important, so hopefully the winners will keep coming."

While broadening that spread of trainers will be crucial, O'Connell's link with James Lambe's formidable Tyrone outfit has been the one that has been most important up to now. For a Kildare man with no racing pedigree and ambitions to be a jockey, heading north of the border hardly seems logical. But it was for O'Connell.

The son of an engineer who gets his kicks on horseback in the hunting field, O'Connell's first taste of racing came as a teenager at Martin Brassil and Dessie Hughes' nearby yards. At Hughes' he got to know Paddy Flood, whose father Billy familiarised him with the cut and thrust of the pony racing world.

O'Connell then fell in with a couple of northern 'flapping' men, before getting a job with Strabane-based handler Barry Potts. He eventually ended up at Lambe's and has hardly looked back since.

Living in Armagh city and sporting an accent that is as much Kieran McGeeney as Kildare, the quietly spoken O'Connell is happy to be an adopted son of Ulster.


"I suppose the plan originally was to move north to get my career off the ground," he says, "but I've kind of got stuck up there, so I just take things as they come now. There's a lot of travelling involved, but at the end of the day it's worth it.

"And James has been a really big influence on me. He keeps drilling me about improving. Like, when you lose your claim you're gonna have to be able to ride as well as the big boys or you're not going to be used. So the main thing is to keep working on my riding, and try to get rides for bigger trainers on better horses."

To that end, in July O'Connell signed up the fledgling agent Niall Cronin, who doubles as the 'Evening Herald' racing correspondent. Of the rider's 10 'outside' winners this season, eight have come since they joined forces, including two on the Philip Dempsey-trained chaser Royal Blood.

Most recently, Dempsey's charge put in a flawless exhibition of fencing from the front to collect at Gowran Park last week. Tomorrow, the Flemensfirth gelding needs a couple to come out of the feature at Limerick if he is to sneak in at the bottom of the handicap.

He would be seven pounds wrong at the weights, but O'Connell's allowance would cut that deficit to two. On the basis that the rider is good value for his claim, and then some, a first big-race pot would not be out of the question.

"Royal Blood is probably the best horse I've ridden so far," O'Connell says. "He has won around Limerick already and I was very impressed with him the last day, so you never know."

And with four other rides on the card, who's to say it won't be another day of plenty for Eddie O'Connell. For a man in such irrepressible form, anything is possible.

Irish Independent

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