HE is affable, personable and courteous, but also cold and logical.
So is Irish senior national hunt handicapper, Noel O’Brien, a contradiction?
His job is simple to define, not simple to do. He has to rate every horse in the country and fit them into the scheme of things. Meet O’Brien at the races, a social gathering, or a Cheltenham preview-night and he is friendly. But in business, the handicapping of horses, he’s clinical and icey.
Noel O’Brien has worked for the Turf Club since 1977, two years in accounts and two in declarations, before finding his true calling, as assistant to the then senior handicapper, Louis Magee. “I was always big into horses,” says O’Brien. “It wasn’t about betting with me, although if I found a winner it was a nice bonus. Then, when the job as Louis’ assistant became vacant, there were people in declarations who told me to stop whingeing and to apply. I did, although doubting my ability to be able to do it. I have to say, the practicalities of handicapping were very different to what I thought. Louis was a real horseman and my mentor had forgotten more about the game than I would ever know.”
Handicapping has changed. “In those days, handicappers would only see a race once and often relied on instinct and experience,” says O’Brien. “There have been huge technological advances. I could see a race now seven or eight times before leaving a racecourse, and from all different angles. But even with all of the technology, a lot of the time my first impression is the one I end up feeling is the right one.”
O’Brien is some 30 years handicapping and the senior man since 1995. Is he influenced by hype? “It is difficult. I read the newspapers and watch television like everyone else. We all want to see the next Arkle or Istabraq. But I have to leave the hype aside and simply go on what a horse has done. I have to be able to justify a horse’s rating. The public has the benefit of hindsight, but it is not a tool that I have,” he says.
He loves the job. “I get a bigger buzz now out of getting a race right than I ever did backing a winner. The buzz is in seeing a number of horses fighting it out in a handicap, or the top-rated winning a conditions race,” he says.
O’Brien isn’t hard on himself, if something doesn’t work out. “I am not big into that kind of recrimination. At the end of the day, I have done my best and will sink or swim on that. If I feel I could have done it differently, then that’s fine. Mind you, if I feel I should have done something different then that’s not fine,” he says.
O’Brien is frequently seen listening to trainers, as they voice an opinion that a horse(s) of theirs has been unfavourably treated. He says: “It is not my job to stop a horse winning, but my decisions can make the difference between winning and losing. The least anyone can expect is for me to be visible and that they can come and talk to me. But it isn’t just good enough that they have your ear. Handicapping is all about opinion and I’m not arrogant enough to think I am 100% right all of the time. So, if someone comes to me and puts up a strong enough case, then I will react.”
So how does the best judge in the country view Cheltenham, starting with the Gold Cup? He is impressed with Kauto Star this season, although his fall at Paul Nicholls’ base at Ditcheat is a worry. “The perceived wisdom is that, at 12, he should be too old. But he was good at Kempton and Haydock, ran a great race in last year’s Gold Cup and people were too quick to write his obituary.
“Looking at Long Run this season, you would have to say he has been disappointing. But, I think, we may well see a different Long Run at Cheltenham.” O’Brien says no horse is unbeatable, but that Hurricane Fly is a “stand-out” in the Champion Hurdle. “I thought he won a vintage Champion Hurdle last year and mightn’t even have to be as good to win this year.”
He is looking forward to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle. “When you hear a top professional like Barry Geraghty saying the horse takes his breath away, then you have to sit up and take notice.”
He says the Champion Chase is Sizing Europe’s to lose, but thinks Big Buck’s may be facing his stiffest test to date in the World Hurdle. “He must be a fascinating horse for in-running punters, but just keeps pulling it out,” said O’Brien.
“There are a number of dark horses in this year’s race, including Oscar Whisky. We just won’t know how good these dark horses are until they meet Big Buck’s.”
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