Derek O’Connor’s splendid horsemanship belies amateur status
Top point-to-point rider aiming to beat professionals aboard Edwulf and land Gold Cup
Edwulf is ridden by Derek O’Connor to take the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last February. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Being a top amateur jockey in Ireland has always been widely regarded as a full-time job. But it’s a way of life for Derek O’Connor.
Point-to-point racing’s most successful ever jockey straddles the amateur-professional divide like few ever have and does the same on day two of Punchestown.
Three rides include a rare spin for Willie Mullins aboard Carefully Selected in the Racing Post Champion Bumper. There’s also the fancied Dani Theatre in the Grade Three Weatherbys Mares Bumper. Both are confined to amateur riders.
Inevitably though most attention is on O’Connor teaming up again with the remarkable Edwulf in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup.
The horse’s rejuvenation from near disaster at Cheltenham 2017 to Irish Gold Cup victory in February has been one of the racing stories of the year.
In terms of drama it could be nothing else. O’Connor had to pull Edwulf up on the run-in of the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham when the horse collapsed and looked like it would have to be put down.
Winning such a prestigious Grade One . . . was a fairy tale
It beat the odds that he should return to action at all after what was eventually described as a “neurological event”. Winning such a prestigious Grade One less than a year later was fairy tale stuff.
Even Edwulf’s failure to subsequently produce the perfectly symmetrical outcome in last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup will not diminish widespread popular support behind his chance of beating some of Ireland’s best staying chasers.
Sentiment, however, will not enter the equation for the country’s top professional riders. And the one certainty is that O’Connor’s amateur status among them will count for nothing. When it comes to first past the winning post the “Mr” next to his name is superfluous.
Everyone knew that anyway long before February’s Irish Gold Cup result at Leopardstown. Ireland’s best amateurs have always been professional in all but name and O’Connor is a legend of the point-to-point field.
In 2015 he was the first rider to reach 1,000 winners between the flags and the 34-year-old from Tubber on the Clare-Galway border keeps adding to it. He has dominated the point-to-point standings for years and been champion amateur on the track too.
Yet he has never been tempted to take the plunge into the professional ranks. His predecessor as the point game’s go-to rider was Davy Russell who has not done too badly as a professional. The list of others who have profited from the same move is endless. But there are no what-might-have-been regrets.
“Being professional has never ever crossed my mind,” he says. “I have always had a huge love of point-to-point racing. My mother was a rider and she introduced me to racing through point to points. I love the people, the atmosphere; it’s a wonderful way of life. I’d hope to bring my kids up the same way.
“It’s wonderful to get an opportunity like this on Edwulf and ride in such a prestigious race. To go from Leopardstown to Cheltenham and now here is a dream for any jockey. But I’ve always been happy doing what I’m doing,” says O’Connor.
Not that it’s quite the same point-to-point scene he started out in. Even National Hunt racing’s amateur roots have become more professional in the last decade. O’Connor has mixed feelings about it.
O’Connor’s drive and ambition remain undimmed
“A lot of people are making a lot of money at the moment. But I would be afraid that nice point-to-point atmosphere, that culture, might be disappearing. That local derby sense in local confined races that brings such a great atmosphere is starting to dwindle,” he says.
O’Connor’s drive and ambition remain undimmed, as his Grade One ride on Carefully Selected indicates. Willie Mullins has four in the race. His son, Patrick, opted to ride Blackbow. That left spares.
“I haven’t had much association with Willie. I rode one winner for him at Cork about 12 years ago. But I rode out for him the four mornings at Cheltenham so I chanced my arm and texted Patrick to say if I could be of any use to them this week I’d be only too happy.
“Once he got in touch I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a great ride to get. It certainly made Cheltenham well worth the effort!” grins O’Connor.
It opens up the potential for a unique Grade One double that even in the context of O’Connor’s storied career would be remarkable. Perhaps the peak of entire racing life.