Thriving on borrowed time
Joseph O'Brien's days as a Flat jockey might not last much longer, writes Ronan Groome
There was quite an ironic incident before racing on Gold Cup day at Royal Ascot two seasons ago. Aidan O'Brien, accompanied by his then 16-year-old son Joseph, and his then head jockey Johnny Murtagh, set out to walk the course for a first-hand view of what the ground was like before being met by a steward demanding identification.
It seems rather unforgiveable that the disconcerted steward failed to recognise Aidan O'Brien, possibly the best-known trainer in the world and the man who makes the powerful Coolmore operation tick. Neither did a more than well-known jockey in Murtagh, a three-time Derby winner, register on the elderly steward's radar.
You could perhaps have forgiven the fellow for failing to recognise the nervous and fidgety 16-year-old, who was quiet and kept his head down, perhaps not wanting to get involved in any sort of confrontation, giving off the perception of a possible trespasser.
Perhaps it was the shiny boots and white breeches worn by a now quite tall and gangly O'Brien that may have caused a misconception to many. It wasn't that long before, but gone were the days that young Joseph was no more than a spectator alongside his dad in the parade ring. An image every racing fan knew well: this small child in a trendy suit, an Aidan O'Brien lookalike, with a smile ranging from cheek to cheek, awaiting another Ballydoyle Classic winner.
"I was there for Istabraq, but I can't really remember him," O'Brien recalls. "It was the likes of Galileo and High Chaparral that I can remember well. They were great horses in great times and it was an unbelievable experience for me."
That day at Ascot, young O'Brien was getting ready for a new experience -- riding Johann Zoffany in the King Edward V Handicap. It was three weeks to the day he rode the son of Galileo to victory at Leopardstown on a sunny Thursday evening to give him his first win as a jockey. O'Brien remembers the evening better than most.
"We bounced out and made the running and nothing ever caught us. It's easy to win on them ones," he explains with typical modesty. In also typically polite manner, he can't let the opportunity go without rhyming off all the owners he was grateful to for letting him ride the horse -- "Mr and Mrs Magnier, Mr and Mrs Tabor and Mr and Mrs Smith," and that's before we even get to talking about Roderic O'Connor. O'Brien is every bit of his father: relaxed, restrained, gracious and kind. His sentences are softly-spoken, with the word 'listen' launching the start of every second or third one. He was always going to be involved with horses; one would imagine he saw more thoroughbred beings than the human kind whilst growing up at Ballydoyle. "There's a picture of me at home sitting on a horse at the age of two," O'Brien says with a hint of pride.
The first son of four children, Joseph passed through Rockwell College without much interest in academic work, all the time waiting for the day he could take out his apprentice licence. While waiting for that day, Joseph got involved with riding ponies. He went to the top of that tree as well, attaining an eventing medal at the European Pony Championships in Belgium.
The eventing was only a way of passing time though, thoroughbred racehorses were the ultimate goal. O'Brien's first ride was on 1,000 Guineas day at The Curragh, on Coat Of Arms in the all-navy Magnier silks. His first win came four days later, and three weeks after he was riding in front of the Lords and Ladies at Royal Ascot. "It was just unbelievable, a dream come true for me to ride at these places," he says.
You get the feeling O'Brien is making the most of what he's got now. We are talking in a room at the top of the stands at Naas racecourse on a Wednesday evening, O'Brien has a ride in the last and is constantly peeking over his shoulder out on the track, itching to get out there. No time for playing football, or watching anything on television, nor does he want time for those things. Riding out and racing every day suits Joseph just fine.
But a harsh reality realised for a lot of young jockeys in Flat racing is the borrowed time in which they ply their trade. You get a taste of the action and a dream is realised, but then it's all over very quickly.
Joseph is about 5ft 10ins and still growing. Through his own concession, he struggles to do 8st-12 now, and can just about level out at 9st. Health-wise, it's no life to live and near impossible to keep up. He won't get much longer in the saddle so what he does in his short time is what his legacy as a jockey will be.
This is only one of the reasons why his Classic success on Roderic O'Connor in the 2,000 Guineas last month was so special. It was one of the moments of an exceptional Flat season so far. The whispers from Ballydoyle had been that Roderic O'Connor had been working extremely well before the Newmarket 2,000 Guineas. Whatever went wrong there is in the past, but they knew this fellow had a massive chance in the Irish equivalent.
It would have been an automatic decision for most trainers, to give your son a chance of riding a Classic winner, but this is the business of Coolmore, where the bottom line is the only one that matters. A colt will only have few opportunities to win a Classic and thus enhance stud value, so it was a big decision to give Joseph, at 17 years of age, the responsibility of riding a leading hope in the 2,000 Guineas.
Lots of pressure in those famous all-navy silks again, but an opportunity the young man lapped up. Roderic O'Connor bounced out of the stalls and led from start to finish. They said after the race that it was a remarkably cool ride for a 17-year-old. O'Brien judged the pace to perfection in front, crucially kicked on at the two-furlong pole, and kept his mount going inside the final furlong to hold off Richard Hughes and Dubawi Gold.
Despite a wet and windy day at The Curragh, the scenes after the race were warming. Family is everything to Aidan and his wife Anne-Marie, and the pair looked on the moment with as much pride to match any of their previous successes in racing, while the Magniers, Smiths and Tabors were also there to share the occasion.
Joseph's three siblings, Sarah, Anna and Donncha, looked on with pure admiration for their older brother.
"To win the Irish Guineas is just a dream come true really, it's right up there with the races you want to be winning and I'm just thankful to have been given the opportunity by the owners," says O'Brien.
The now 18-year-old is reminded regularly by people in the game of the length of time he has left as a jockey. But there is no complacency or pessimism in his mindset. He takes each day as it comes. "Life is too short to think about these things too much, you'd drive yourself mad if you did, so you've just got to play the cards you're dealt."
Such is his love for race-riding, O'Brien hasn't ruled out a tilt at riding over jumps if he is allowed. Then training horses is something he'd love to do himself further down the line. But today is another day of borrowed time, and another live chance of Classic glory in the Irish Derby on Memphis Tennessee.
Sunday Indo Sport