Sunday 17 December 2017

Jumps beckon O'Brien after two more seasons

Breeders' Cup win capped a fantastic year for Joseph O'Brien, writes Ronan Groome

There was a significant moment at Churchill Downs when Joseph O'Brien was approached by legendary American jockey Jerry Bailey, a man with a record 15 Breeders' Cup winners to his name.

Echoing your typical inspirational scene from a sports film, here was a Hall of Fame jockey advising an 18-year-old pretender who, since the age of six, has spent the start of each November with a holiday Stateside, watching and waiting for his day to dawn.

"When you're coming down the back stretch," advised the 54-year-old, "wait for a second, don't kick too early." "Yes sir, thank you very much," replied the teenager.

That advice was vital and Joseph was able to execute it perfectly. St Nicholas Abbey was travelling much better than anything else at the end of the back stretch, O'Brien took the advice, waited and then kicked off the turn. 'St Nic' picked up well, swooshed past soon to be stable jockey Ryan Moore on Sea Moon and never stopped galloping all the way to the line.

It's been a fabulous season for the 18-year-old. A first Classic win, a supremely confident and accomplished ride on the now Derby favourite Camelot in the Racing Post Trophy, and a blossoming partnership with super filly Maybe, the 1,000 Guineas favourite. But a Breeders' Cup win means the most, and is more than simply the icing on the cake.

"It's just a completely different type of racing occasion. I've been going since I was young so it was a dream come true," said O'Brien, enjoying a well-earned rest with his family in Barbados.

However, in many ways O'Brien's success this year and his magical Breeders' Cup win may taste somewhat bittersweet. It's been well documented this season that he is losing out to nature in his fight to retain the build of a top-class Flat jockey.

At almost 6ft tall now, it's only a matter of time before the battle is lost, but it's not something he's too concerned about. "There's no point getting down over it really," said O'Brien. "You'd only be annoying yourself. I can still do 9st comfortably, I don't have to go mad wasting or anything and I hope to get another two seasons on the Flat at least."

Given that many people believed this could be his final season, it is welcome news that one of the game's brightest young stars will be sticking around in this code for a while longer.

There has frequently been talk that O'Brien will eventually switch to riding over jumps, and asked the question now he confirms, without hesitation, his intention to make the move.

People tend to forget that it was the National Hunt scene where it all started for O'Brien's parents, Aidan and Anne Marie. In the 1993/'94 season, the pair, both aged 23, won the National Hunt Trainers' Championship in their first year after taking over from Anne Marie's father, Joe Crowley.

Aidan took over the title of trainer, but with Anne Marie still very much involved, they stayed at the top of the National Hunt ranks with five more champion trainer titles, before switching attention to training Flat horses and a move to Ballydoyle.

It's simply a case of going back far enough in the pedigree to identify the compelling evidence, although given the way Joseph O'Brien has performed this year, breaking the record for the number of winners by an apprentice in a season and finishing third overall in the jockeys' championship, there is already enough evidence to suggest he can go on to do great things over obstacles.

Given his immediate blood line, trainer talk is never far away, but it's rather like asking a young footballer breaking through the ranks at Manchester United about his aspirations of being a manager some day.

"It's far too long away to be thinking about that," he says. "I'm just concentrating on being a Flat jockey now. I still have a couple of seasons left and I know I'll have to work hard to match my success this year."

O'Brien's current career path may be closing prematurely, but he is determined to make the most of it while he can.

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