Something remarkable happened at Fairyhouse yesterday, writes Tony Stafford. Joseph O’Brien had six runners on the second stage of the track’s December Festival as it was billed and none of them won! Has the magic run out? I bet a few trainers at the top of the Irish jumping scene will be hoping so, not least Gordon Elliott, who will have noticed the drift of a considerable number of Gigginstown House horses into the young genius’s care.
I invoke the term “genius” in the clear knowledge that it is something Joseph and his entire family will prefer to shy away from. Having been the first of four products of champion trainers either side of his pedigree, he has been brought up in an atmosphere as far as one can judge by second-hand observation where to err on the side of modesty is the way to proceed.
Born as recently as May 1993, Joseph O’Brien, just like his siblings Sarah, Anastasia and Donnacha, has been immersed in horses and racing all his life. In May 2009 he finished third in the European Pony Show Jumping Championships and by the end of the same month, had his first riding success on a racecourse.
Such was the progress that by the end of the following year he shared with two others in a triple tie for the Irish Apprentices’ Championship; a first Classic success came on Roderic O’Connor the following May, and by the summer of 2012 he had collected the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby with Camelot. Together they only narrowly failed to record the first UK Triple Crown since Nijinsky and Lester Piggott in 1970 when denied by Encke in the St Leger.
Irish riding championships followed that year, and again in 2013 when 126 wins easily exceeded the previous record. As recently as March 2016 he announced he would stop riding, having succumbed at the age of 22 to the struggle with his weight. Like his younger brother, Donnacha, who will surely have to think about his future sooner rather than later, O’Brien is very tall for a Flat-race jockey.
I mentioned yesterday’s blank at Fairyhouse, which was all the more surprising when considered alongside Saturday’s exploits at the same track. He won four of the seven races on the jumps card, and none of the quartet started favourite. The cumulative odds, if you had managed to put them together, exceeded 700-1.
Two of the four were for Gigginstown, the 10-1 shot Mortal, making a seasonal comeback in the opener, and the former Mouse Morris-trained Desir du Large in the bumper. J P McManus, easily his biggest supporter over jumps, picked up a maiden hurdle with Lone Wolf, one of seven wins in the green and gold hoops between Newcastle, Newbury, Bangor and Fairyhouse on the day.
Gigginstown House Stud, owned by Michael O’Leary of Ryanair and managed so skilfully by his brother Eddie, has so far this term had 16 Joseph O’Brien-trained runners, and at this relatively early stage of the winter season the brothers must be highly satisfied that ten of them have already won, five on their only start to date for the campaign.
It has become commonplace, especially since O’Leary’s split with Willie Mullins, to see multiple Gigginstown horses, mostly trained by Elliott, contesting the most valuable handicap chases, but big Gordon will not be getting complacent.
No doubt, with 95 for the campaign to his credit already, he’ll be happy enough, but the stats for the young man in a hurry make spectacular reading. Over jumps, starting two winters ago, his figures are 38, 67, and 49 for the campaign already with exponential growth suggesting somewhere near three figures by the end of April.
On the Flat, his fast-developing training career brought 23 wins in a truncated 2016; more than double up to 52 last year and again doubling up to, so far, 106, with more sure to come before the end of the year at Dundalk where he is so successful. That makes a total 335 wins at the two codes in a little more than two and a half years.
He has yet to train a UK jumps winner from eight and then 16 runners in the past two seasons, and no raiders yet this time. The horseboxes have been only sporadically launched on the Flat, too, with five wins in all, two this year. He sent over a few all-weather runners early in 2018, winning a small race at Kempton in January. The other, Iridessa, obliged in rather more exalted company, defeating his father’s Hermosa in the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket in the autumn.
As a trainer who is yet to send out a UK jumps winner, it might be fun to ask a British bookmaker to name a price he trains at least a couple of Cheltenham Festival winners next March?
One race O’Brien – and all the other leading Irish trainers – will struggle to win is the Champion Hurdle, dominated for the last two seasons by Buveur D’Air. That gelding is now the overwhelming favourite to make it a third next March having treated Elliott’s Samcro with contempt in the BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.
Buveur D’Air came into Saturday’s big race with a record of 10 wins from his 11 previous hurdles starts; two from two in novice chases early in the 2016-7 season before switching back to hurdles when Altior was sent chasing. Two defeats in his four bumper runs are the only other blemishes. In that context it is hard to make sense of Samcro’s starting marginal favourite in preference to him on Saturday at level weights, especially after his comeback defeat by Bedrock at Down Royal last month.
Buveur D’Air’s sole hurdles lapse to date was behind stable-companion Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, when Min was a seven-length runner-up. Buveur D’Air, at the time the accepted Nicky Henderson second string, was only third.
Since then the Henderson pair have each gone unbeaten, Altior into unchallenged pre-eminence among two-mile chasers and Buveur D’Air, with his exceptionally-fluent hurdling, in line to emulate Istabraq as a three-time Champion Hurdle winner for J P McManus.
The owner’s Saturday seven-timer featured three more victories for Henderson, one at Newbury and two at Newcastle; one for Paul Nicholls at Newbury and a 50-1 shot for Philip Hobbs at Bangor as well as Lone Wolf at Fairyhouse. As ever, while many smaller teams have been waiting for the weather to break, the top stables seem to have the resources in all regards to keep going.
The ground is set to ease this week. We have been waiting for Ray Tooth’s Apres Le Deluge to make his jumps debut and have had him pencilled in for some time at Exeter on Friday. In anticipation of softer ground, 47 horses were entered for his race and because of the paucity of available stabling, and no chance of a division only 13 are likely to get a run. We have an elimination number of 25, so it looks as though eight of those with higher numbers or none at all will need to miss the race for him to get a run. Not very likely is it?