Quality not quantity the key as Joseph O’Brien continues meteoric rise

I guess, given his phenomenal success in such a short space of time, there are few days which aren’t good ones at Joseph O’Brien’s Owning Hill yard, but yesterday’s visit to the stables was the morning after a treble on a superb Sunday at Fairyhouse, and all was extremely well with the trainer and his team.

Laura Carroll on Salinity and Andy Dowling on Gold Factory at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival launch at Joseph O’Brien’s yard at Owning Hill, Kilkenny. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Laura Carroll on Salinity and Andy Dowling on Gold Factory at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival launch at Joseph O’Brien’s yard at Owning Hill, Kilkenny. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

A Grade 1-winning novice chaser, a one-two in a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle and a winner of one of the best bumpers of the autumn covers most bases for a successful future, but those Fairyhouse successes are already the past, as O’Brien looks forward to the next big festival: Leopardstown’s Christmas bonanza.

“We’ve been very, very lucky, we’ve had a few great years,” says O’Brien. “Every year we’ve done slightly better than the previous year, and on Sunday we passed our total winners from last year. We have 176 this year and had 174 last.

Hugh Horgan on Darasso, Alan Dobbs on Rhinestone, and Tom Hamilton on Fakir D'Oudaries. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Hugh Horgan on Darasso, Alan Dobbs on Rhinestone, and Tom Hamilton on Fakir D'Oudaries. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“Anyone that is training horses, of whatever sport or discipline they’re involved in, should aspire to be the best at what they do. You have to.

“Every year we want to do better, to keep progressing, and it’s great to get the numbers up, but the big races — the Grade 1s and Group 1s — are the ones we need to win every year. They’re the ones we want to concentrate on, and we’ve tried to do that over the last few years.

“It’s important for us to concentrate on all the big festivals through the year. Fairyhouse is over, and the two next big ones for us are Leopardstown at Christmas and then Leopardstown in February. We’ll have as many runners as we can, and as high quality as we can.

Michael Brophy on Eric Bloodaxe and Pat McCabe on Edwulf. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Michael Brophy on Eric Bloodaxe and Pat McCabe on Edwulf. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“Everything that has run in the last few weeks, if it has performed well, will be targeted at Leopardstown, if we can find a suitable race. It’s hard to win there, so you have to concentrate on the quality animals, whatever we think might be well-ish handicapped or whatever we think is a better-than-average maiden, we’ll try to win with at Leopardstown at Christmas. Obviously, it won’t be easy, but that’s where we need to perform and need to have winners.”

One would have to believe that O’Brien has the world at his feet and that it is only a matter of time before he is crowned champion trainer, but the globally successful young man had some interesting observations on the subject, surprisingly ruling out such a feat in the National Hunt discipline.

“I have no chance (of being champion trainer) jumping because my numbers are getting smaller,” explains O’Brien. “I’ll concentrate on the quality. Long-term, I’ll always want to have jumpers, because I love the National Hunt game, and I have learned so much about it in the last four or five years I can’t tell you.

“I’ve always been a fan of jump racing, and I’d always like to have a number of jumpers but I won’t be getting more numbers, I’d say.

A view of Joseph O'Brien's horses as they return to the stables after the first gallop of the morning. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
A view of Joseph O'Brien's horses as they return to the stables after the first gallop of the morning. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“It’s easier to train jumpers. It’s way easier to get a good jumps horse than a good flat horse. The step from being a decent jumper to a good jumper is way smaller than the step from being a decent Flat horse to being a good Flat horse.

I know people say it’s easier to trainer flat horses because jumps horses get hurt more, and there is a higher percentage of injuries, but you can have an average novice hurdler and he can be a Grade 1 novice chaser, but if you have an average Flat horse, you have an average Flat horse.

“You have a much better chance of getting a good jumper, and I’ve found it easier to get my hands on them than the Flat side of things. There’s more money in the Flat, but I love the jumping and that’s why you train them.”

If, indeed, Flat racing is where he may eventually wear the crown, the competition is about to get hotter. O’Brien has already had the unenviable task of having to compete with his father, amongst other leading established trainers, but younger brother Donnacha is set to join the party.

“He’s no good to me anymore, so I haven’t spoken to him for ages,” joked O’Brien. “When it comes to training, he’ll win sometimes and I’ll win sometimes, but I’ll have more runners so I’ll have a better chance of winning than he will — that’s the long and the short of it.

Trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Trainer Joseph O'Brien. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

“We’ll both do our best. We get on very well, and always have done, and nothing will change that. If I ever need any advice, or Donnacha needs any advice, Dad is only a phone call away, so we’ll run through things with each other but, ultimately, to make the informed decision you have to be seeing the horse every day and seeing his training. The person best placed to make the decision is the fella that is with the horses all the time.

Donnacha’s weight struggles were worse than mine. He’s taller than I am and he’s a stronger build. He was probably considerably more dedicated than I was, to be honest, and he was a good bit better rider, unfortunately. But he had a fantastic time of it, and that’s the way it goes.

O’Brien doesn’t lack motivation, and the addition of his sibling to the ranks won’t have any significant bearing on his operation, save that there may be a divide in the allocation of some of the horses bred by their parents. But in the few short years he has been training, O’Brien has already put a stamp on his Owning Hill base and is content with the setting and happy to concentrate in quality over any further quantity.

“You always have room to expand but I’m happy with the number we have and the staff that we have. Everything is very well managed, and I’m happy with the people in the positions we have. I have a fantastic team around me and am supported by a fantastic team of owners. Long may it last.”

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