“I don’t want to blow him up in any way but from Day One, when he was born, he was very exceptional”
Aidan O’Brien is talking about Camelot, the 2000 Guineas winner that heads the betting lists for the Investec Epsom Derby and is tipped in many quarters to complete the fabled Triple Crown by adding the St Leger.
Though it would never happen, he could well be describing another precocious Ballydoyle talent with the right pedigree. His son.
Champion apprentice the last two seasons, Joseph is already the youngest jockey to ride the winner of an Irish Classic and a Breeders’ Cup race. He could well be champion jockey at the end of his first full season as a senior pilot.
Still short of his 19th birthday, he is acknowledged as Ballydoyle’s No 1 rider even if he doesn’t possess the official title. The neophyte is following in the exalted footsteps of Johnny Murtagh, Kieren Fallon, Michael Kinane and Christy Roche. And he is in the position based on ability and achievement, not nepotism.
It is quite remarkable. Jamie Spencer had the job as a 21-year-old and he has admitted he was much too young at the time. But Joseph is a mature individual, probably because he has been in the heart of the pressure-cooker his entire life.
In an organisation where secrecy is paramount, he was privy to discussions surrounding riding tactics, target-setting and training programmes from before he can remember. He sat in the back of the jeep as Aidan drove alongside the horses while they worked. Sometimes he hung out the back window to get a closer look.
As soon as he could ride out, he was doing that, just as younger siblings Sarah – like Joseph, a former bronze medallist at the European Pony Eventing Chamiponships - Anna and Donnacha do now.
“It’s all we’ve ever done” explains Aidan. “Everything is discussed over and over. Mistakes that are made, things that we did right and did wrong.
“(His success) has been great for all us. From the time he’s been able to walk, he’s heard all the discussions. He’s seen it all. Been in the middle of all the disappointments, the good days, the ordinary days. From the time he’s been a baby he’s been involved.
“It’s massive (enjoyment) for us but it’s a massive help for us now. Every minute or every second of the day everything can be discussed.
“Instructions, the talking about the race; it could be spoke about every minute of the day. And when it comes up it’s not as if it’s an extra pressure for him as a rider because that’s what we’ve always done.”
Such is the trust that Aidan has in his son that he left how Camelot would be run in the Newmarket 2000 Guineas to him. Think about it. Not even a word of advice. Some trainers have a very clear idea of what they want and expect their jockey to follow that to the letter.
Aidan had a different idea to Joseph. When he heard his son’s plan he was terrified. Terrified that it would go wrong, that this much-hyped son of Montjeu would be beaten but mostly that Joseph would be pilloried. He saw nothing but pitfalls in what was a high-risk strategy but managed to bite his tongue.
“Joseph knew he wanted to teach him a good bit. He wanted to let him relax and if he was happy at halfway he was gonna start thinking about the race.
“I knew he was going to do all that and I had a lot of worries about it. I saw a lot of dangers but I’m glad I didn’t open my big mouth and say anything. I had a lot of question marks but I’m glad I didn’t let any come out.
“I knew, no matter how much I had thought about it, Joseph was after thinking about it more.”
And so the horse bred to stay a mile-and-a-half showed a sprinter’s speed on unsuitably soft ground, came through narrow gaps for the first time, responded to feeling the whip on both sides and stuck his neck out.
He got the education Joseph knew instinctively was needed and the teenager bagged his first British Classic winner.
Had it gone wrong, the knives would have been out. There was plenty of criticism two days after that memorable Guineas win when St Nicholas Abbey failed to catch stablemate Windsor Palace at the Curragh.
Aidan was clearly knocked out of his stride as he sought to defend his son and offer reasons, other than rider error, for the reverse.
The salient point here though is that Joseph wouldn’t get the leg up if Aidan didn’t think he was good enough. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith wouldn’t allow it either. Sure, mistakes will be made and highlighted, but that’s the world they live in.
Crucially, Joseph has the temperament to cope. He is fighting a battle with the scales due to his height but has already lasted longer than many astute observers thought he could. He will do what it takes.
His courage is not in doubt either. Last Sunday, having gotten stuck in traffic, Furner’s Green flew home to claim third in the French 2000 Guineas. The colt suffered a fatal injury immediately after the line, throwing his pilot to the ground. It looked nasty but Joseph escaped unscathed.
“(That) might have been one of the greatest days of all. Furners Green turned over after the line at full stretch, accelerating more than any other horse. It was very sad for the horse that he lost his life but we were very lucky that Joseph was okay.
“Because probably if he had got there a length earlier he might have been in front and there’d have been four horses behind him. When flat horses turn over at that speed, it was a very lucky day. That’s the reality.”
Aidan always thought he was living the dream anyway as the Master of Ballydoyle but now the entire family is involved, it’s even better. Remember, he initially took over the licence from his wife, Anne-Marie, a former champion trainer. Her role remains significant but to have Joseph doing the steering on so many of their top charges is the icing on the cake.
The Derby remains the annual target though. What would it be like if Camelot stormed clear inside the final furlong at Epsom with his own flesh and blood in the plate?
“We are enjoying what is a fairytale with Joseph riding these big winners but I don’t even want to think about how I would feel if the dream became reality at Epsom.”
We look forward to finding out.
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