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O'Brien: retained his champion jockey title with 111 wins.
O'Brien: retained his champion jockey title with 111 wins.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'There's no panic for me to make the decision': O'Brien weighing up his options for one more year

Johnny Ward catches up with Ireland’s two-time champion flat jockey.
Nov 8th 2019, 2:55 PM 12,535 4
LOOKING OUT AT an ashen everything as the rain pelts the window, I ask Donnacha O’Brien what the weather is like in Barbados, as if it might render a bleak Irish November seem any less unappealing.
“Absolutely beautiful here,” he replies. “I’m able to relax and take it easy. I can even eat well too.”
Somewhere nearby his father Aidan is basking in the Bajan weather too, probably thinking of Ballydoyle. “He’s on the phone to the lads at home a lot to be fair,” says his younger son, though there was no need to tell us something everybody already knew.
Aidan, who turned 50 lately, is like many obsessives in that there are many buttons to push except the one to switch off. I recall wondering why he would spend over six hours in his jeep to watch one horse of his in a bumper in Ballinrobe one time and he noted that the journey in the jeep was his “down time”. 
I trust he can enjoy a little down time in Sandy Lane, the five-star hotel owned by John Magnier, JP McManus and Dermot Desmond among others.
For Donnacha O’Brien, it is decision time: whether he trains or rides horses next season. After collecting his second successive jockeys’ title, a product of various things – from two years of riding the best horses, two years of being a top-class rider to two years of being malnourished – he has to decide whether or not he wants to do it all again.
“It was great to get the title again, as Colin Keane really put in a hell of an effort. This year with the weight was probably a bit harder. People might think you get used to it or whatever but I can tell you one thing: you struggle with it and it isn’t easy.
“Things that would not get you annoyed do because you are essentially not eating and very hungry. In a strange way, your adrenaline is so high in a race that you kind of get away with it; there’s no real issue. There obviously is afterwards though.
“It does get a bit tough, no point saying otherwise. I’m 21 now. I have to decide what to do next season but there’s no pressure on a decision. I’ve done my trainer’s course bar a bit of paperwork.”
If you think about footballers, those you fancied to be coaches who work under the best and evolve into realising a philosophy that is at least partly a product of the inculcation of the coaches, what of Donnacha O’Brien? He has lived with Aidan O’Brien all of his life, Joseph O’Brien most of his life, come through both regimes and is set to be one of the youngest trainers in the history of the sport.
“Essentially Joseph and dad do the same thing: they get their horses fit, they run them and they run them again. No yards are the same. If you try to mimic another yard forget about it. You work with what you have, be it Ballydoyle or Pilltown.
“We get a great kick out of the success or each other. Joseph’s success is genuinely unbelievable. I think people have no idea how hard he works to get there. That’s the key thing really. When I train I reckon I’ll stick to the Flat and he has to do both, at the level he is at.
“Dad just loves what he does. The other thing is the team you build around you, how important that is. I know Dad gets some slagging when he names all the workers after a winning race but he wouldn’t care less that people slag him, because he knows how important these people are. They are the people who are totally vital. Dad wouldn’t care what people say in that regard. Joseph has that excellent team too.”
He reckons “90%” of his rides this season were straightforward prominent steers, the occasional one more restrained, such as the last-to-first win of Grace To Grace at Galway, a win that he cites as having given him a particular buzz, but it is the big ones that matter ultimately.
“I rode a Classic winner but I suppose the Champion Stakes has to be the big one on Magical. Ryan Moore was away that weekend. The Coolmore lads are great to ride for, as is my father: when you give a horse a balls of a ride there’s no criticism. But whatever way you look at it that’s a pressurised weekend, Irish Champions Weekend, especially when you are riding a favourite.
“There is a difference in how races are ridden here and in Britain. There’s more likely to be a strong pace in Britain; in Ireland the jockeys tend to be quite clever and slow things when they get to the front – so most of the time if you’re not up there with them you’re doing something wrong.”
He has a high opinion of the apprentices coming through and, without any sense of irony for a guy who was still a teenager a year and a half ago, admits: “Some days I’m in the weighing room and you just don’t recognise half of the kids that are there. You’d see the elder jockeys looking at them and trying to figure out who the next star was. The standard is really high.”
His humour is sharp, a self-mocking comment never far away. I opine that he is different from the rest of the family – “Don’t say that, that’s definitely not a good thing!” – and ask him does he have a girlfriend who has to put up with the inevitable mood swings of someone forcibly emaciated for most of the year. “No… get going with your contact list there will you?”
Donnacha is privileged and knows it. He recalled Peter Crouch’s superb retort (“I’d would be a virgin if I wasn’t a professional footballer”) when responding to a query about his best attribute by saying he was “Aidan O’Brien’s son” after a race last year.
Yet, there is no getting away from the depth of his humility, intelligence and love of racing. If he starts training in January and retires after 28 seasons, he will still be younger than his father is now. 
“Don’t go jumping to conclusions about it because genuinely I don’t know. There’s no panic for me to make the decision.”
If I were a betting man, I’d be betting that when the Curragh announces the return of the Flat and the impending summer next March, Donnacha O’Brien will be there. He will be in the weighing room, if not the changing room. But, as those who have followed the column’s selections recently, I am apt to get things wrong.
However, we persevere, and I like Betway’s 18-1 about Marshall Jennings in Dundalk (7.45) while the 10-1 about Rips Dream in the Parkview Provisions Apprentice Handicap (8.15) also appeals.
A third long-shot, Romantically, looks too long at 25-1 with the favourite being put in laughably short in the Crowne Plaza Race & Stay Handicap (8.45). I’ve never stayed at the Crowne Plaza, but I suspect it’s not quite Sandy Lane.
Dundalk is up there with Navan in terms of the coldest racetrack in the country, maybe even the world, this time of year. Donnacha O’Brien will be many miles away, where it is nearly 30 degrees, possibly watching some of the action on his smart phone as his weighing room rivals battle it out on the all-weather, wondering has he one more year of starvation in him. 

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