Horse and Hound, Thursday 10 November
When the good fairy sprinkled stardust over Joseph O’Brien’s cradle she gave him all the assets a jockey could need. She gave him intelligence, determination, athleticism, tactical perception and, as the oldest son of trainer Aidan O’Brien, unique opportunities to prosper. But she forgot about the size.
It screamed at us as Joseph stood triumphant in the Churchill Downs’ victory circle on Saturday night after winning the Breeders Cup Turf on his father’s St Nicholas Abbey to crown the greatest riding year for an 18 year old since Steve Cauthen set the world alight winning the American Triple Crown on Affirmed in 1978. In the arc lights Joseph was the tallest of all the victory group. He is doomed to be a temporary phenomenon. For 5 foot 11 jockeys already weighing close to 9 stone have no logical future on the flat.
He knows it himself. He has already talked about having to move to the jumps and on Saturday he spoke of holding his weight at 9 stone for one more year. But at least the good fairy has already given him a start almost beyond the dreams of wonderland.
A scene in the early morning at Newmarket on Wednesday was a sharp reminder that size will stop most hopefuls almost before they begin. It was 7 am beside the Al Bahathri gallop and Sir Mark Prescott was flanked by three track suited youths who were on a fitness run before starting work at The British Racing school. It was easy to see why Sir Mark was impressed by their keenness, just as it was simple to understand the biggest problem facing the development of future jockeys in this country. Life doesn’t make them small enough anymore.
Time was when the measure for a would-be flat jockey was to be 6 stone at 16. Fathers of healthy but diminutive offspring would write off to trainers hoping to find a talent in their tinyness. Racing was a careers master’s option, it was where top northern jockey Mark Birch was sent when he was told he would not have the reach to pursue his original aim of being an hairdresser. It was where, in the ‘30s, little kids in Liverpool were still recruited to work at the French racing centre in Chantilly. Parents were even supposed to give them gin to stop them growing. It wouldn’t happen now.
Many of the kids at the racing schools are 8 stone when they start which means that even 9 stone is soon history. At five foot eight, I used to be amongst the tallest in the jumping weighing room and almost a Gulliver in Lilliput if we mixed with the Frankie Durrs, Willie Carsons and Pat Edderys on the flat. Most jump jocks look down on me now (maybe in both senses!) and on the flat there are several pushing my height and, in the case of Richard Hughes and George Baker, even exceeding it.
George Baker is the one case that might give hope to Joseph O’Brien. For the farrier’s son from Swindon is every inch as tall as Joseph, and has ridden more than 70 winners every year since 2004 whilst not riding under 9 stone. But George is 30 now and it one thing to stabilize your weight in your late 20s quite another when you are a still growing teenager.
It’s a cruel game yet so is ballet for the talented dancer who just grows too big to lift. But in Joseph’s case he has already tasted success beyond most kids imaginings, not just on St Nicholas Abbey on Saturday but a first classic success with Roderick O’Connor and a brilliantly cool ride to win the Racing Post Trophy on the Derby favourite Camelot. Winning races is the most addictive of drugs as both Tony McCoy newly published autobiography and Richard Hughes one next year will spell out in the most grizzly of detail.
Joseph will never lose it but one wonders, once he concedes the flat racing weight whether wasting for the jumping game will seem worth it. Or whether his father will want steeplechasing falls for what is already a uniquely talented assistant trainer.
Joseph O’Brien, like those other too tall would be jockeys, is in a losing battle against time. He probably only has this one year left. But back him to make it a great one.