Joseph O’Brien has made a huge impact since making the transition from record-breaking jockey to trainer. The 23-year-old tells John O’Brien in The Irish Racing Yearbook 2017 that he wants to build a strong dual-purpose yard on The Hill and to challenge the established operations — including Ballydoyle
The way Joseph O’Brien tells it, there was no grand plan, no scorching blueprint for grabbing Irish racing by the lapels and shaking it to the core afresh.
It was a perfect storm of circumstances: A jockey whose resolve for the tortuous daily grind of wasting was waning and a grand old yard in Co Kilkenny whose potential wasn’t being realised. In terms of pedigree, it was a natural and obvious mating.
His licence states he has been a trainer since June 3 but he has been grafting and plotting, doing the O’Brien thing, for longer than that.
He has been coming here off and on — mostly on — since the latter part of 2014. He would ride work at Ballydoyle in the morning and negotiate the 80-minute round trip to Owning, just outside Piltown, in the afternoon. If there was racing, he’d stop by in the evening instead.
At first there were around 15 horses, mostly older types, ostensibly acquired for his siblings to ride in bumpers. Then more came. He bought yearlings and stores at the sales. A batch of homebreds arrived from his parents’ nearby stud farm. Fifteen soon became 30. Thirty became 50.
Now there are upwards of 150 housed in four separate yards — two more than in his father’s day — gathered like the beating chambers of a heart around the main artery of the gallop that dissects them.
When Joe Crowley first alighted here in the 1970s, his plan was to graze cattle, cut corn and buy and sell a few racehorses, never imagining he was planting the seed from which a blueblood racing dynasty would emerge.
One time Joe had a couple of fillies he couldn’t sell and decided there was nothing to do but gallop them up the hill to get them fit for the racetrack because only a fool would think it was a good idea to gallop them down it.
Joe’s eye for a young horse was legendary. Bregawn and Spindrifter both started life here. Gold Cup-winning chasers or record-breaking sprinters: All came equal to Joe. When his daughter Annemarie was old enough to take over the licence, he stepped aside. After Annemarie came her husband Aidan, then her sister Frances. When they had all moved on, Joe took a gentle hold of the reins again until retirement beckoned a few years ago.
Since then, a couple of the yards had been rented out and the gallop made public, but until Joseph’s return, it had felt naked and underused, a castle without its king, a ship without a captain.
“It’s fantastic for us to see the place rejuvenated,” says Annemarie. “It’s like it’s come back to life again.”
Joseph is the third generation of the family to forge a pathway here and it feels right because it is where he was born and steadfastly what he was born to do.
“I don’t have too many memories of living here,” Joseph says, “but this is exactly where the gallop was when my grandfather trained here. Back then it was just a big field. They’d plough it in the summer. Dad widened it and planted the hedge. Mum was champion trainer here. Dad was champion trainer here. Grandad trained a lot of winners here. Frances had a lot of winners here as well.”
Already, he has made a bigger splash than any rookie trainer since, well, his father before him. A Group 1 win on the Flat, a Grade One at Cheltenham in all but name. This is virgin territory.
Aidan won a Group 1 with Desert King during his first season at Ballydoyle 20 years ago, but he’d spent three years cutting his teeth on Owning Hill before that.
Dermot Weld saddled 81 winners in a remarkable debut campaign in 1972, but the landmark Group 1 did not arrive for another year.
Joseph quietly points out that between January and December 2015, 52 winners issued from Carriganog, all in Aidan’s name but very much the fruit of his own labours. Still, the comparisons are inviting. In Aidan’s debut campaign at the premises, he notched 18 Flat winners, a total Joseph equalled when Jaqen H’Ghar landed a Curragh handicap in October. By that point his tally was 35 winners in both codes, not including the 19 or so attributed to his father during the first six months of the year. He had reached 45 come the middle of December. He remains stubbornly dismissive of such milestones. Too much his father’s son for it to be any other way.
“I don’t set targets,” he says insistently. “I never did that when I was riding and I’m not going to do it while training. All I wanted to do was the best for each horse I rode and now do the best for every horse I train. If that means 50 winners or 10 winners, so be it. Everything we do here is done for the horse.”
There is an unmistakable glow about him now that wasn’t always evident in the saddle, like a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders.
He clocks the scales at a robust 11st, though it is so well dispersed throughout his tall, angular frame that he could easily fool you into thinking he was still a jockey.
“No, no, I’m delighted not to be riding,” he quickly fires back. “If somebody told me I could do 8st 7lbs for the rest of my life, I still wouldn’t go back riding.
“My initial plan had always been to ride 20 winners, take a six-month break and then take out an amateur licence. That’s genuinely what I wanted to do. Ride bumpers for as long as I wanted. But I got going quicker than I thought. Got more rides than I expected. That’s just the way it turned out.”
Not that he undervalued the privilege it was to ride many of the world’s best racehorses. Just that the business of riding, by its nature, left a void. The jockey rides out in the morning, turns up at the races and spends the rest of the day stewing and seething or twiddling his thumbs. Joseph hankered for something more, like what his father had: The sustained fullness of the trainer’s life, the all-encompassing responsibility of being the conductor of the orchestra.
Spend a morning in his company and you see why. He parks the jeep by the ring where first lot are gathered, issuing instructions in a voice that is familiarly soft and gentle, but firm enough to be heard. Horses are ticked off in pairs. Some like to go with horses slightly worse than them, some with horses slightly better. The trick is to get to know them intimately, understand their quirks and change your routine to suit theirs. Never the other way around.
“It’s busy, full-on all the time. So many things to be worrying about, horses’ feeds, hoping they’re coming right. Horses getting little setbacks. Little cuts and bruises. But this is just what any trainer will tell you. That’s your life. It’s everything. There’s no ‘I’m going to take a couple of days off because I need a couple of days off.’ That doesn’t happen.”
The secret here is that there is no secret. He didn’t lick it off the stones.
“He breathes racing,” Aidan says of Joseph and, from a man who would risk chronic oxygen deprivation without horses, that is saying something. For the four children, there was never a time when their parents’ equine obsession became an intolerable imposition on their childhood. Joseph can’t recall a day when the game soured him or he felt the need to sample life elsewhere and forego the best racing education a kid could wish for.
He feels no abiding sense of rivalry with his father because what they do is for the horses, never their own personal motives. It made no difference to Joseph that when Intricately won the Moyglare under the guidance of his 18-year-old brother Donnacha, she edged one of his father’s fillies into second, because he understands one swallow never made a summer and that there will be many more occasions in the foreseeable future when it is his horse losing out to Aidan’s.
The likeness, of course, is startling. The same mannerisms, the same salutations — the listens and the please Gods — the same, often overlooked, dry wit.
“Never let school get in the way of your education,” his father would say and it always made him laugh. Aidan had a stock of little pithy sayings like that, but that was his favourite. He smiles thinking about it now. “Never let school get in the way of your education.” And yet, there is a distinct sense of a breaking away here, a 23-year-old determinedly forging his own path in life. In the weeks after the Triumph Hurdle, when Ivanovich Gorbatov was generating headlines, Joseph was keen to dispel the notion that his was a kind of satellite yard, a Ballydoyle-lite for jumpers and slower horses.
A day doesn’t pass, he thinks, when he won’t seek his father’s advice on something, but otherwise he is resolutely his own man, prepared to stand or fall on his own two feet.
Back on the gallop, he points to the ring where a large group of stores circulate, products of the Derby and Land Rover sales, still awkward types whose days of reckoning remain some distance off.
Not that he has lacked quality. Ivanovich Gorbatov came to him soon after he’d ridden him to win a Leopardstown handicap in August 2015.
He knew the Montjeu gelding was a decent horse and, provided he could jump, would be the type of classy recruit that could have level-headed horsemen thinking giddily of spring campaigns.
It was around springtime that he started to think Intricately might make a decent filly.
According to Annemarie, the dispersal of the family’s homebreds remains a fluid process. Joseph accepts that the best of them are likely to be sold or sent to Ballydoyle, but that doesn’t mean good horses won’t fall his way.
Intricately was a good-looking filly, impeccably bred and he was glad to have her.
“I thought she could be possibly a black-type horse,” he says. “You’d never say Group 1 but black-type definitely.
“She won her maiden and was placed in a Group 3 next time, a bit keen off the bend. She ran in the Debutante and was only beaten a length and a half. Donnacha said to make more use of her, she’d be better the next day. And that’s what we did (in the Moyglare). She beat the filly who’d beaten her previously. Usually the ones who end up at the top are those who improve throughout the season.”
Outside of the big races, what pleases him most are those he has won for a growing band of outside owners. As things stand, his mother’s familiar orange and blue silks and JP McManus’ famous green and gold account, between them, for significantly more than half his runners and that patronage remains vital. But finding better quality horses to run in a greater variety of colours is at the base of everything being done at Carriganog.
So he marches on, preparing for battle on two fronts, flat out 12 months of the year. The focus is on National Hunt right now and Landofhopeandglory has taken to his new hurdling career like a duck to water.
He is favourite to for the Triumph Hurdle, while St Leger third Housesofparliament could supplant his stablemate in that position if he proves as adept at jumping and Queen’s Vase victor Sword Fighter is another exciting new resident.
Meanwhile, there are a few decent novice chasers and, of course, Ivanovich Gorbatov.
O’Brien doesn’t see the likes of Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott losing sleep over the prospect of facing his horses, but he hopes he’ll keep the ball pucked out to them anyway.
He rode winners for both and counts them as friends. It will be all good, clean fun. “That’s the great thing about racing. Everybody gets on well because they understand how hard it can be to get to where you want to go.”
Blessed with the right pedigree and the attitude to match though, some can reach the hilltop faster than others.
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