By Brendan Boylan,
The story of Ballydoyle is one of the greatest anywhere in the world of sport. How many of us would’ve heard of the place in Rosegreen in Co Tipperary were it not for Dr Vincent O’Brien, the racing empire he established there and the multiplicity of glorious moments he enjoyed from there? It’s a story that’s constantly evolving and, at present, it’s hard not to believe it’s currently in its most especial phase thus far.
As was said in an earlier Racing piece, Aidan O’Brien had already enjoyed remarkable success in both codes as a trainer before being recruited by the Coolmore operation in 1996. He has fairly handsomely repaid their investment. Yes, he has the best equine material in the world with which to work, but what’s most striking, is the grace, humility and warmth with which O’Brien not only goes about his business but about how he and his family carry themselves in general too.
There’s hardly a more pressurised job anywhere in sport, certainly none in racing. Yet you get the impression O’Brien would have no bother sitting down and engaging in conversation for an age. Sure didn’t he already do it with Hector! Few top establishments would be as open and engaging. Indeed, O’Brien’s decency often seems totally at variance with those who employ him.
Pressures associated with the Coolmore consortium aren’t confined to the trainer though. Many jockeys have come and gone from the set up. Top names in the game too – Mick Kinane, Kieren Fallon, Jamie Spencer and Johnny Murtagh. The appeal of the job is unquestionable, you suspect that’s why Seamie Heffernan and Colm O’Donoghue have stayed there. Both have won a plethora of top races, yet nobody seems to stay there too long.
When Murtagh vacated the sport’s top – and most demanding – role, many felt there was a gaping hole to fill at Ballydoyle. A Fallon return was never realistically on the cards and with Jamie Spencer contracted to owners Jim and Fitri Hay (also part of the Coolmore scene), Ryan Moore to Ballydoyle became the ‘talking horse’ in racing.
Somebody very obvious wasn’t even mentioned. Johann Zoffany falls into a similar category as Red Rock Canyon, yet the significance of the role the horse played in the grand scheme of things can’t by underestimated. He provided Joseph O’Brien with his first winner just days after his 16th birthday.
The youngster continued to be given mounts by his dad but it was, most likely, his exploits with Roderic O’Connor and, even more so, St Nicholas Abbey at the Breeder’s Cup during 2011 convinced the powers-that-be that there was no need to ‘shop’ outside. It also dispelled any notion that he was getting mounts owing to being the trainer’s son, he’s in pole position on merit.
There’s a theory that good horses make good jockeys – it carries much credence but to apply it to O’Brien Jnr. would sell the jockey’s talents short. He might be partnered by some of the best equine talent in the world, but, it’s been the demonstration of his own talent and his burgeoning reputation that’s seen him being his own man and emerging from the shadows of his father and the empire around him.
If St Nicholas Abbey was the partner that most burgeoned Joseph’s profile and reputation, Camelot has been the one on which the youngster has confirmed what many of us already knew – the youngster is among the best flat jockeys in the world. An old head on young shoulders, with an engaging personality, humility and grace that is often sadly lacking in top level sport. This apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Yes, Camelot is a fairytale piece of equine material, but, as was said in reference to the handler earlier, having the fruit at your disposal one thing, getting the juice is quite another. This might seem like a bit of an odd comparison, but here goes – in his riding style, young O’Brien reminds this corner greatly of Paul Carberry. Fallon has always displayed similar traits too.
Look back at the tape of the Racing Post Trophy last October – he held onto Camelot for what almost seemed like too long before obliterating his rivals with consummate ease. Likewise in the Guineas at Newmarket on ground that plainly didn’t suit at all. That was the factor, however, which signposted that the ex Champion 2-year-old son of Montjeu was something special. How much would he have won by if the ground was right for him?
For all that, Epsom on Derby is different gravy, both for horse and rider. Especially as the latter had only one previous spin in the race – when far from disgraced aboard Memphis Tennessee last year. The jockey reported after the contest that his mount hadn’t in fact handled the track that well at all.
The manner in which things unfolded, then, served as another demonstration of Joseph’s ability and class. His mother Ann Marie intimated post race that her eldest offspring had been talking to Lester Piggott in the lead up to the race, it showed. Temptation was to say that the ride Camelot got on Derby day was Carberry-esque, that it was, but, in the context of the world’s greatest flat race, Piggott or Fallon might be a better yardstick.
It wasn’t however, a case of the top Ballydoyle jockey like x or y, rather, very much a case of Joseph O’Brien excelling due to his own ability, talent and class. Now, National Hunt will always rank that little bit more special with yours truly, but, it must be said, the O’Brien family angle to the flat scene has provided a more pleasing take on things.
Their story is one which is bound to run for years to come. And it may not take too long for the ultimate glorious chapter to be penned therein – Joseph O’Brien’s coronation as champion jockey.