'It’s all downhill from here' - Joseph O'Brien on making his own way in the training game and early success

The young trainer already has a hugely impressive CV.

Joseph O'Brien: 'I’d be far more nervous watching a race than when I was riding'.
Joseph O'Brien: 'I’d be far more nervous watching a race than when I was riding'.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE CLICHÉS ARE all there. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He didn’t lick it up off the ground. He’s a chip off the old block.

Like father, like son.

It probably bores the absolute arse off of Joseph O’Brien though he would never say it. All the O’Brien siblings are incredibly polite, in person, on the phone, by text. ‘Thank you’ and ‘Daragh’, without fail. That it stands out is reflective on a changing society where manners are harder to come by.

Joseph, Sarah, Ana and Donnacha are a reminder of the power of parenting and while attempts on Monday to get Aidan to shower praise on his eldest son fell short, you know that how the four of them have developed as people and in their chosen careers, and dealt with the variety of challenges along the way, means that he and Annemarie consider their children their greatest achievements.

Joseph, the eldest will be 26 in May. Much of what he knows is by osmosis of course. There are numerous photos of him racing as the years progressed but one stands out of him standing under a tree in the Leopardstown parade ring, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger zip-up top brandishing the large TH letters. It is 12 days before his 10th birthday and he is staring intently at his father.

Maybe he wants to know when he’s going to get that bag of chips he was promised but it isn’t just the politeness, the lack of ego, the mannerisms and turn of phrase Joseph picked up.

What he achieved as a jockey was spectacular. Yes, he was privileged. He said it often and current champion jockey Donnacha repeats it regularly. Nobody knows that better. He uses the same term about where he is at now. But you have to deliver. That he did so, a lot of time while ravenous and dehydrated was remarkable.

He was still 17 when he won his first classic, the Irish 2000 Guineas with Roderic O’Connor. The Breeders’ Cup Turf followed five months later with St Nicholas Abbey, the youngest winning rider in the history of the self-styled world championships. The Epsom Derby arrived the following year with Camelot. He was champion jockey twice and set a new mark for most winners in a season with 126 in 2013.

But he was too tall and retired in 2015, having already begun developing a string at his grandfather, Joe Crowley’s yard in Owning Hill, where he would have spent the first few years of his life before Coolmore headhunted his father and the family moved to Ballydoyle.

Carriganog was where his mother became the first woman to be champion national hunt trainer and his father then took over the licence and maintained the family dominance.

The success has been spectacular and he is packing up his CV at a quicker rate than Aidan did, though being champion will take longer, because his father bars his way on the flat, and Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are still a bit ahead in terms of the older, more established chasers especially.

Still, he currently lies third on the national hunt table and finished the last flat season in second. He already has the Irish Derby, Melbourne Cup, Irish Gold Cup and Cheltenham Festival boxes ticked off, is a multiple Group 1 and Grade 1 winner in both codes.

Joseph O'Brien with Rhinestone Joseph O'Brien with Rhinestone last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I didn’t expect to have the success that we have had” he reflects. “I didn’t even dream of having the big winners that we have had. It has been unbelievable. So it’s all downhill from here!”

It makes sense to do things as you have always seen them done when they have been so fruitful, though he will develop his own ways. It is almost funny though when the video emerges on Twitter of Joseph greeting each work rider by name as he or she walks past, in the exact same way Aidan does. Again though, if you don’t have people wanting to contribute to the operation, you have nothing.

“I’m in a seriously privileged position and I have a great team around me. When I came here, we only had 12 or 15 horses riding out. We worked hard and we have a great team who take pride in what they do every day.”

Having a direct line to the best there is handy of course, though it doesn’t always yield dividends.

“I would ring Dad for advice but if it was regarding a horse who was working well at home and running bad he would just laugh at me. There are horses like that all the time.”

Just 24 hours earlier, Aidan rejected the notion of having a minimum level of achievement in mind at the start of every season. Ditto for Joseph.

“I don’t set targets, and I never did. You kind of set yourself up for a fall with them. We just do what we can every day and place our horses, and go from there.”

“I get a far bigger kick out of training a winner (than riding one). So much more goes into training than riding, although it’s slightly different for me because when I was riding for Dad, I was riding all the work on the bigger horses a few times a week.

“I’d be far more nervous watching a race than when I was riding. I still ride work on a Sunday, but I don’t miss it.

“I don’t look back on what I have achieved. No matter how well you think you are doing, there are no big winning streaks. Your best-case scenario is that you are winning 25 per cent of the time or so. So you are always talking to owners who have horses that disappointed.”

He has never been afraid to travel a scenic route to give his owners winners, no matter the grade, but his trips to the British all-weather tracks in particular reminded him of just why Irish racing is so competitive.

“The prize money in Ireland is very good. We sent a filly to the UK last winter and she won. When we took into account her prize money, the trip ended up costing 100 quid.”

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Mark Walshn and Joseph O'Brien Mark Walsh and trainer Joseph O'Brien after winning The Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle with Sir Erec. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Latrobe, who provided O’Brien with his first classic success as a trainer in the Irish Derby last summer with Donnacha in the saddle, is in fine order ahead of a possible seasonal reappearance in the Alleged Stakes at Naas on Sunday.

“I’m very happy with how Latrobe has wintered. He is a huge, big horse — and I think has come on from last year. He will probably start off at the weekend, and we’ll go from there. We will try and win a Group 1 — that will be the aim.

“At the end of the year, he will probably go to Australia for the Caulfield Cup or the Melbourne Cup. With (Australian owners) Lloyd and Nick (Williams), they would be the main aims in the second half of the season.”

Meanwhile Buckhurst, a son of Australia, who O’Brien rode to Epsom and Curragh Derby successes, created a real impression when winning on debut at Leopardstown last Saturday. Unraced as a juvenile, he clearly has the potential to improve considerably – and maybe just enough to chase Derby glory himself, with the Derrinstown Trial up next.

“If he happens to make a Derby, great, but we won’t force him too. We’ll have him for the second half of the season or whatever. The Irish Derby might be more likely but we’ll take it one step at a time.”

Last year’s Fillies’ Mile winner Iridessa is being aimed at the English 1000 Guineas, after pleasing when third over an inadequate seven furlongs at Leopardstown on Saturday.

Exciting times.

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Daragh Ó Conchúir

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