Joseph O’Brien

On the opposite side of the hill grow the pine trees. On this one a very tall young man works with his horses. His father, mother, and grandfather also worked their horses on the hill. Joseph O’Brien is the most natural of growths.

He is also a very pleasant one. As a six foot jockey boiled down to nine stone his eyes used to shrink back into that almost babyish face and the responsibility of riding the multi million pound classic hopes saddled by his father Aidan made him loathe to say more than a courteous “good morning”. But now, freed of those restraints in this his first ‘official’ season as a trainer, his face and voice have emerged with an easy authority and a very obvious relish for his new role.

“I always wanted to go training,” Joseph says as the Discovery bumps to where the woodchip gallop climbs the slope of Carriganog with the village of Piltown and the green spangled Kilkenny countryside spread out below us. “When I started at 16 my plan was to ride to 20 winners as an apprentice and then get an amateur licence. But I rode a good few winners and I wasn’t that heavy initially. The first year I was 8 stone, but the second 9 stone. Then the wasting began.”

There is an understated little laugh as the enormity of the point rings home and you notice the thicker forearms, fuller face and brighter eyes of his now 11 stone self. “The weight would go up to 9.7 in a couple of days and it was hard on me. But there are jockeys going through all this and more but they are doing 8.6 and 8.7. It was just a bit more obvious with me because I was tall and I was doing 9 stone. People made a big deal of me but guys like Adam Kirby and George Baker are just as big and do it every day.”

Nonetheless the stomach still shrinks in the cursory way in which he relates his standard method of shifting 7 lbs overnight – three pounds in a hot Epsom salts bath before bed, one pound whilst sleeping, and then three in another bath in the morning with just a can of Red Bull as riding fuel. Through seven seasons in Ireland this sacrifice was justified with over 500 winners, six classics, more than £10 million of prize money and two jockeys’ championships, whilst across in the UK he landed another £8.5 million, 22 Group Races and 5 classics including the Epsom Derby with Camelot and Australia. The record should amaze but his own part in the victories was often dismissed as little more than delivery boy for his famous father.

“I think it was very unfair” says eight times Irish champion Pat Smullen who speaks from the unique perspective of being married to Joseph’s Aunt Frances Crowley (herself the first woman to top the Irish Amateur list) as well as being an at times no-holds-barred-competitor on the track. “I don’t think he got the credit he deserved,” says Pat. “It’s easy to say he was riding the best horses but the best horses have to be ridden. The weight was viciously hard on him and I have the height of admiration for how he handled himself for so long. No doubt at the end the cracks were beginning to show but he was an exceptionally good jockey under the highest of pressure and didn’t get the recognition for it.”

None of that matters anymore as a string of horses come hacking up past us and Joseph ticks each off with approval. When he says he doesn’t miss the race riding it’s easy to believe, especially, as when necessary, he keeps his hand in of a morning. Up until recently he was even riding work at Ballydoyle at daybreak before making the 40 minute trip to Piltown.  He will still ride one of his own when they make occasional trips to the new grass gallop ten minutes away and my first sight on arrival was of the 23 year old trainer leading three of his team up and over the schooling hurdles.

Mention of Ballydoyle, where he and his three siblings still live with their parents, brings up the elephant in the room, or at least in the front of the truck. How much of all this is merely a satellite yard of that awesome operation in Tipperary which was at least the stable’s official status until this summer? Unofficially Joseph was training independently here all last season, unofficially he, not his father, was solely responsible for this year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Ivanovich Gorbatov. But the words “trained by Joseph Patrick O’Brien” did not go into the record books until his licence came through on June 6th and his very first runner duly obliged when the two year-old Justice Frederick won the opener at Gowran Park under Joseph’s 17 year old brother Donnacha.

But that was and is only the beginning. There were three more winners that same day, another for Donnacha and the last one a success for his 21 year-old Veterinary student sister Sarah in the bumper at Listowel. Two months on there have been thirteen winners on the flat and ten over the jumps, the last one a JP McManus horse called All The Answers. You would not have to be the wickedest sinner in the parish to mutter “Daddy’s Boy” and then “once a satellite still a satellite?”

Joseph is never one to raise his voice, indeed anyone heard shouting is likely to face the long walk to Waterford. But there is real emphasis as he now says: “This is a 110% separate operation. The staff are my staff. There is no crossover whatsoever.  Of course Dad is always there for advice but I can’t remember the last time he came over to see the horses on the gallops.”

That said there was something uncannily familiar as the horses file back and with studious courtesy each rider is hailed by first name: “Is he fine J.J.? All right Mark? How does she seem today Tiffany?” It could be his father talking as indeed it was when I was last here way back in 1994 when Joseph was a toddler, and Aidan, whose then prime ambition was to land a first winner at the Cheltenham Festival, had taken over from his wife Annemarie for whom he had previously done duty as Champion Amateur.

In her turn Annemarie had succeeded her father Joe Crowley who, although in failing health, still lives with his wife Sarah in the old house where their six daughters were raised round the shoulder of the hill at Tullahought.  On that last visit Aidan had ended the morning by racing across to Ballydoyle where his future was pledged. Last year, except when racing, Joseph was doing that journey in reverse, completing riding duties for his father before haring over to start a first lot here at 2pm. Makeshift though these arrangements had to be, the judgement calls were Joseph’s, head lad Faisal Hayat who had first come to Piltown from Lahore 16 years ago was fully re-installed after a spell at Ballydoyle, and the winners, including the Irish Cesarewitch on the flat and more than thirty over jumps, were proof of their professionalism.

Last year there were barely twenty horses here, now there are more than a hundred, and five different yards around the shoulder of the hill are coming to life like Swiss farm buildings after winter. Over the course of the morning five separate twenty strong posses come up the gallop and file back to be briefed by their attentive trainer. The standard exercise is four furlongs up to the final bend, the more testing one is round the turn and up the mountain goat route to the top. Joseph’s horses don’t fail for fitness. 

Unlike Ballydoyle and it’s string of classic pedigree bluebloods the horses here come in many different categories; from precocious two year olds to staying chasers, from a few ‘bred-as-good-as-Ballydoyle’ Group One entries to still gawpy jumping ‘stores’ whose big days are a good three seasons away. The promise is rich and while there may not be a paternal hand on the wheel the owners’ roster shows no shying away from the family connections. Three quarters of the jumpers have sported the JP McManus colours and most of the two year olds are home-breds from the nearby O’Brien farm and in Anne-Marie’s distinctive orange silks with the aim of finding new owners on the track.

No 23 year-old ‘rookie’ trainer can have ever been dealt such a hand, but no young shoulders ever carried a more sensible head on them. “If I learnt one thing from Dad,” says Joseph, “it was to try and keep things as simple as possible. If you keep everything clean and healthy and feed them well, the gallop will get them fit. If you can do your best by every horse in the yard whether it be a 65 handicapper or a Grade 1 horse there is not a lot more you can do. I love it and the winning feeling doesn’t differ. I am very lucky to have a great team of people working with me on The Hill, both in the training yard and on the farm. We all get on very well and everyone contributes a vital role to the whole operation.”

As we watch he plays the Pelmanism of horse identity whilst fielding calls on running plans and adding indecipherable entries to his ever present individual horse training diary. Between lots we cross over to the original Crowley homestead at Tullahought to look at where Joe Sinnott oversees ‘primary school’ for flat horses and jumpers alike. In the ring five regally bred but as yet untutored chasing prospects trot warily round as unsure of their movements as a big boy in ballet class. These are part of a 20 strong batch of unbroken National Hunt four year olds bought at the famous Derby Sale in June, and proof, if any were needed that this is a man with a plan – or several of them.

“There is no rush,” says Joseph approvingly. “We are talking about a two to three year process. A run in a bumper next spring is the earliest any of these will see a racecourse, most of them not until next Christmas. We’ll give them a bit of hacking now, a bit of popping to get them off the ground and to know where their legs are. Then we will give them the break. It’s the first year we have been able to buy this type at all and it’s really nice to have them in the pipeline. Hopefully we will be able to buy a few two year olds as well.”

For a moment you wince at the calm confidence of it all. The big bad business of buying and selling bloodstock is littered with the tales of well connected young men being swiftly relieved of the money at their disposal. But the reasons for believing this 23 year-old to be different are rooted in experience and family. Quite apart from his exploits on the track, Joseph won a Bronze Medal for Ireland in the European Pony Club Championships in Belgium and had been buying and selling them since he used his confirmation money to buy his first pony aged 12. 

But the sense of ‘family’ overrides everything else. Eight of Joseph’s thirteen flat winners have been ridden by his brother Donnacha, four of the others by his twenty year-old sister Ana, now qualified as a sports and fitness coach and riding  full time with the inestimable advantage, denied to Donnacha, of being able to do eight stone. A dozen years ago some of us used to tut-tut about the way Aidan and Annemarie used to drag all four kids behind them whether it were Gowran Park or Goodwood. We wondered at the wisdom of having such little cygnets paddling round such a hazard infested pond. To see them all skudding the water now shows us we were wrong.

“This is such an all-encompassing, 24 hour a day existence,” says Anne-Marie, “that you don’t have any option but to take them with you. We brought them to the Breeders Cup when they were four or five years old and we had the best of times.”  She is an important presence in the new portacabin office and who put together the Annus Mirabilis syndicate which owns a number of horses including Tuesday’s ultra impressive Galway winner Motherland. The name is appropriate because while Anne-Marie is a professional, she is a parent first.

She still worries about her children race riding and during Joseph’s brief foray over hurdles couldn’t even bear to watch it on TV. “We had no grand marvellous plan,” she says recalling the last time we met on this hillside. “Success can be very transient so we always kept things here. It’s a very unusual industry, as children of 15 and 16 can be riding work and be making an important contribution to the running of things at a very young age. And it unites us.”

Last Saturday Aidan O’Brien stopped mid track to discuss his oldest son. “He’s always been his own man,” he says of Joseph with a warmth and intensity which makes those intense head bowed post race briefings on Derby colts sound like little more than throwaway lines. “And I can’t tell you the pleasure that Annemarie and I get from him doing so well.”

‘Carriganog’ means ‘The Rock of Youth’. The youth now scaling it will please many others too.


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