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'Michael just said, 'I'm paying Mouse to train him, I'm paying you to ride him, it's yere decision'

Conor O’Dwyer only won four races as a jockey at Cheltenham. Two Gold Cup and two Champion Hurdles made for an impressive strike rate though.

Celebrations as War Of Attrition wins the 2006 Gold Cup.
Celebrations as War Of Attrition wins the 2006 Gold Cup.
Image: Tom Honan

THE DECISION TIME had arrived.

War of Attrition was heading to Cheltenham, on that there was unanimous agreement, but the broad consensus ended there.

Owner Michael O’Leary was veering in one direction in pursuit of a Thursday entry. Trainer Mouse Morris and jockey Conor O’Dwyer as jockey were pushing to go a different route towards Friday inclusion.

On a March morning over breakfast, the trio sat down, all accepting there was a need to find a resolution.

“I think it was Michael’s first year to sponsor the Ryanair Chase, he entered War Of Attrition into that and the Gold Cup,” recalls O’Dwyer.

“I remember Michael saying, ‘Listen I think he’ll win the Ryanair.’

“Both myself and Mouse said, ‘Being honest with you Michael, we think he’ll win the Gold Cup.’

“He said, ‘He might win the Gold Cup but he’s a bit of a shoo-in in the Ryanair.

“We were chatting for a while, then he stood up, he was heading off.

“Michael just said, ‘I’m paying Mouse to train him, I’m paying you to ride him, it’s yere decision’

“He walked out the door, and I’ll never forget, he had the door closed, myself and Mouse went, ‘Yes, the Gold Cup it is!’

“We were in no doubt that was his race.”

That school of thought would be justified in stirring fashion on the annual day of prestige for jumps racing.

WarOfAttrition Source: Irish News Archive

War Of Attrition secured a major breakthrough win for O’Leary in the sport and a second Gold Cup for O’Dwyer’s CV. 

conor-odwyer-and-michael-oleary Conor O'Dwyer and Michael O'Leary celebrate War Of Attrition's win. Source: Tom Honan

It would prove the last of the Wexford native’s four Cheltenham Festival winners as a jockey, a stunningly high note to round off on.

And he had began in quite a blaze of glory as well.

****

In the spring of 1996 as the March Madness at the Cotswolds drew near, O’Dwyer was just desperate for a winner of any description.

Cheltenham had not governed his thinking growing up when his interest spiked in racing.

“Even though from a very young age I wanted to be a jockey, it’s not in my head that I watched a lot of it on television as  a kid. The English National was probably something that stuck in my mind alright that I wanted to do that, more so than Cheltenham.”

That attitude shifted once he became a jockey and he realised the significance of the festival.

“Any of the horses I’d placed on before that were square fairly beaten. I never went home from any Cheltenham thinking, ‘Jesus I should have won that.’ 

“But having ridden there for a few years, to see the atmosphere, to see the lads after winning any race there, the joy and excitement of it, I often thought if I could just get one winner here at some stage before my career ends, it’d be great.

“For it to come in the Gold Cup, you just couldn’t write it.”

On Thursday 14 March 1996 he hit the jackpot. First ride in the Gold Cup and first past the post when Imperial Call triumphed.

Imperial

Imperial1 Source: Irish News Archive

The partnership between horse and jockey was not a long-running one. That January, Charlie Swan had steered Imperial Call to victory at Leopardstown but he was committed to Life Of A Lord for Aidan O’Brien at the same track in February.

A vacancy arose and O’Dwyer was pushed forward to fill it.

imperial-call-cheltenham-1431996-gold-cup Source: © Tom Honan/INPHO

“Frank Berry, who I would have been understudy to in Frannie Flood’s when I was young, he minded me most of my life and got me a lot of good rides. He knew Fergie Sutherland, he told him that if he wanted a substitute for Charlie, that I was the man. Fergie duly rang me and I’m not sure if I even sat on him before the Hennessy.”

The lack of prep work proved no obstacle as the ploy paid off in that Irish Gold Cup. Sutherland was so convinced by the nature of the win that he was relucant to countenance further change. He had his jockey for Cheltenham.

Sutherland was a trainer with a compelling backstory. Born in London, grew up in Scotland and educated at Eton College. He began his military career and was sent to the Korean War where he lost his left leg after one of his platoon tripped a land mine.

That didn’t deter him and he had three different artificial limbs as spares: one for shooting, one for dancing and one for horse riding. After retiring from the Army, he pursued his interest in racing and worked with Joe Lawson, the trainer for Lester Piggott’s first Epsom Derby win in 1954 with Never Say Die.

A meandering life took Sutherland to the Cork countryside in 1963 where he based himself in Killnardrish and was able to nurture his racing passion. At the age of 64 he took his first runner to the Cheltenham Festival. Imperial Call delivered in the blue riband event.

fergie-sutherland-trainer-1996 Trainer Fergie Sutherland. Source: James MeehanInpho

“An amazing and very interesting man. We used to go down a good bit, myself and my wife Audrey to himself and his wife Anne afterwards. We became very good friends.

“A very intelligent, real old-style horse man. Took no nonsense, said it as it was. A thorough genuine gentleman.”

The strategy was straightforward for that moment of deliverance a quarter of a century ago.

“Fergie just said keep it simple. Make things easy. If it works it does and if it doesn’t we’d go back next year, he was only seven. Really we just went out hopeful but not confident.”

They were entitled to have more faith. Imperial Call accelerated clear after the last, holding off Rough Quest as the favourite One Man tired noticeably.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

For the first time since Dawn Run a decade previously, Ireland had produced a winner for the Gold Cup.

“I didn’t believe it for a while, to have your first winner at the Gold Cup. To walk back into an absolute sea of people, I think the whole thing just passed me by.

“We definitely gave a good run of it that night. I remember Mouse Morris came out to celebrate with us. He was saying, ‘It’s probably the nearest I’ll get to a Gold Cup.’

“To win it for Mouse ten years later was absolutely fantastic. 

“It was just a crazy time, the bonfires down in Cork, there were parties everywhere. It was different times, if Ireland were having four or five winners, it was a great year.”

Two days later O’Dwyer was back in the saddle for Mouse Morris in Uttoxeter, the warm glow of success still radiating.

A year later they came back as favourite for Gold Cup retention but the preparation had been challenging and those faint hopes were realised as Imperial Call was pulled up before Mr Mulligan proved victorious for Tony McCoy.

O’Dwyer’s last big taste of success with Imperial Call came at Leopardstown in Christmas 1997. A trainer change soon followed and a jockey switch came in 1998.

But the memories still burn brightly 25 years on.

imperial-call-conor-odwyer-cheltenham-1431996 Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

*****

Ten years later, there was a familiar theme at play for O’Dwyer.

His alliance with War Of Attrition was strong but it had not been carefully mapped out at the start.

“David Casey was first jockey of Mouse’s at the time. One day David had to go to England and I won at Navan. I just said to Michael and Mouse when I came in, ‘Listen if David ever has to go somewhere again or can’t ride him, please make sure you give me a chance.’

“He was a special horse.”

war-of-attrition-and-conor-odwyer Source: Tom Honan

The story went from there. Defeated by a neck by Brave Inca in the Supreme Novices in 2004, a well-beaten favourite in the Arkle in 2005. But by the 2006 Gold Cup, they were ready.

“Mouse would be a genius when it comes to Cheltenham. All along that season we were very happy with the way everything went.

“I remember saying to Audrey in the car park in Cheltenham that day when she asked how I was feeling.

“I said I thought bar a fall or an accident, this lad will win. I just had an unbelievable amount of confidence with him. 

“We walked a bit of the track the evening before, myself and Mouse. We just decided the ground was very chopped up on the inside, we’d stay on the outside. There was no real discussion of how to ride him because I knew him so well.”

Source: colonelmorris/YouTube

Hedgehunter under Ruby Walsh, a year out from taking the Grand National proved the main threat, but O’Dwyer sealed another entrance to the winners’ enclosure.

“It definitely meant a lot more. The fact that I’d been first jockey to Mouse before and we’d a great friendship.

“I was older for the second one, I took it all in, I was more confident going out. It was a totally different feeling to the first one.”

conor-odwyer-celebrates Source: Tom Honan

*****

Those were not isolated moments of joy, O’Dwyer mined success from another landmark Cheltenham race as well.

The combination with Hardy Eustace yielded back-to-back Champion Hurdles in 2004 and 2005, the former as 33-1 outsider and the latter when living up to the mantle of favouritism. The three-in-a-row bid only faltered with a third position beind Brave Inca.

Source: espmadrid/YouTube

But the Hardy Eustace narrative unfolded amidst a backdrop of tragedy and raw grief. In 2003 the horse won the Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle. Kieran Kelly was the victorious jockey that day but five months later he was critically injured in a fall on a Friday night at Kilbeggan racecourse in Westmeath. He passed away the following Tuesday in Beaumount Hospital in Dublin. It was a traumatic time.

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kieran-kelly-1232003 The late Kieran Kelly after Hardy Eustace won in 2003 at Cheltenham. Source: INPHO

“Lord have Mercy on Kieran, it was an emotional journey because of that reason,” recalls O’Dwyer.

“You wouldn’t think too much about it, you wouldn’t kind of want to in a way. But the first time I won on him was the Champion Hurdle (2004), I hadn’t won on him in Ireland before that. When he went past the post, the first thing you obviously think of is Kieran.

“It should have been his day and his big moment. I felt very privileged to be asked to step into the breach and do it. I would have been very friendly with the owner before that going back years. It was a strange one.”

Amidst of that outpouring of delight on that St Patricks Day, owner Laurence Byrne, a businessman from Carlow, delivered his verdict afterwards while choked with emotion.

“We had two jockeys out there today. Conor in the saddle and Kieran in the sky.”

conor-odwyer-is-congratulated-by-owner-lar-byrne Conor O'Dwyer and owner Lar Byrne. Source: INPHO

O’Dwyer was glad to have kept up the winning ways yet he had not been brimming with confidence beforehand after a change of plans took Hardy Eustace away from the Coral Cup destination.

“I really thought he’s not going to win a Champion Hurdle. I honestly thought if he’s placed in this it’ll be a great run. But how wrong I was.”

The following year generated as thrilling a conclusion imaginable with Hardy Eustace, Harchibald and Brave Inca all in contention heading up the hill.

Source: Martin Pipe's/YouTube

“It’s probably one of the best finishes in Cheltenham ever in any race,” says O’Dwyer.

“The cheers and the roars were amazing. Any of the three could have won at the last. You’d watch it and still wait for Harchibald to pick up. Going back on it a few times, I was very confident jumping the last. I was more worried that Brave Inca was going to do me on the outside.

“If you look back at those three years of races, the talent that was there, they were all Champion Hurdle material really. There was no easy year.”

It was a brilliant spell in his career, illuminated again on Thursday night by the latest episode of TG4′s terrific series ‘Laochra Na Rásaíochta’, and enhanced at the time by O’Dwyer’s relationship with trainer Dessie Hughes.

“We got on really well. We were both quiet personalities. Dessie was an absolute gentleman outside the racing world and a super man to ride for. He left a lot to you. His job was done when you got to the races, then it was yours to do the rest.

“Having ridden himself at a high level, he understood the game very well.

“Hardy Eustace had such a will to win. A horse that you’d really warm to.”

conor-odwyer-and-hardy-eustace-celebrate-with-owner-lar-byrne Source: INPHO

*****

These days O’Dwyer is a trainer at Rossmore House in Kildare, where he set himself up over a decade ago, along with his wife Audrey. His youngest son Charlie is an apprentice to him who has had two winners on the Flat and the intention is to go jumping in time. His eldest David is in New Zealand after being previously settled in Canada.

O’Dwyer will be tuning in from home next week like everyone else for a festival set to take place in an eerie and echoey atmosphere with the gates shut to fans. His sense is that more Irish acclaim is in the offing for the standout races.

“It’s very hard to go win two Gold Cups and to come for three is an amazing feat. Al Boum Photo is a dual winner and I just can’t find anything to beat him to be honest.

“For the Champion Hurdle with Honeysuckle, the mare getting seven pounds is going to be very hard to beat. She really impressed me in Leopardstown the last day. I thought last year her jumping was a bit slow, she needed to sharpen things up but this year was breathtaking.

“I really would love to see Rachael (Blackmore) win the Champion Hurdle. She deserves everything she gets, she’s an absolute inspiration and it’d be fantastic to see her get a Champion Hurdle.”

With such a deep association with those marquee events, he can appreciate the potential impact of such a win.

When it comes to Cheltenham strike rates, Conor O’Dwyer had the happy knack of delivering when the pressure was high and the prize was great.

“Any of those reminders going back to those days are good. 

“The sport has been so good to me. I’d had a huge amount of luck, that played a huge part in my whole career between injuries and getting on those three horses. A lot of jockeys don’t get the breaks.

“I probably had ten seconds and ten thirds, just the four winners. People would often say to you, ‘My God how did that come about it was those races?’

“I didn’t plan it, it just worked that way. It was amazing to save the wins for the big days.

“I guess it’s just a funny record to have.”

And a brilliant one to cherish.

*****

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

 

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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