It is less than three years since Joseph O’Brien burst on to racing’s international stage with St Nicholas Abbey’s Breeders’ Cup success, the soundtrack to which included commentator Trevor Denman’s doomed attempt to pin a catchy sobriquet on the teenage prodigy in the saddle: “Joey O’Brien, for his father Aidan O’Brien: history is made.”
History was made. O’Brien became the youngest winning rider in Breeders’ Cup history. But “Joey” didn’t catch on. Joseph it was and Joseph it remains. “Joey” jarred then, and seems even more improbable now.
Any ideas of "Frankie"-like familiarity were always unlikely with the intense, determinedly low-key, and impossibly tall figure whose job it is to steer the multimillion euro blue-bloods trained by his father for John Magnier's Coolmore Stud. To an organisation famed for its somewhat Trappist approach to the outside world, public caution from their jockey fits almost as neatly as the filial link.
So Ireland’s 21-year-old champion jockey, a man capable of boiling his 6ft frame down to under nine stone, presents a more enigmatic than exuberant face to a public which racing’s authorities are praying will show up in their thousands for the €3.7 million Champions Weekend initiative at Leopardstown today and the Curragh tomorrow.
Just as American racing puts its faith in a single “all your best eggs in one basket” shop window splurge with the Breeders’ Cup, this weekend is intended for Irish racing to present itself in suited-and-booted splendour; a reflection of its significance on the world stage and a festival to rival the Arc in Paris and Britain’s Champions day.
Central to that is an equine headline act which is where Australia comes in. The double-Derby winner, famously acclaimed by Aidan O’Brien as the best he’s
trained, is a heavy odds-on favourite for today’s €1 million Qipco Irish Champion Stakes. Coiled on his back will be his usual rider, somehow making 6ft seem innocuous in a way that even Piggott in his pomp never bettered.
Most everyone expects Australia to win easily. Only marginally fewer expect Leading Light to do exactly the same in tomorrow’s Palmerstown House Irish St Leger.
And with likely favourites in two of the three remaining Group Ones, one bookmaker is only going 16 to 1 about a possible O’Brien clean sweep of the top-flight Champions Weekend prizes. Even after Australia is hosed down and chilled out, the spotlight will remain remorselessly trained on his jockey.
That, though, is nothing new. As the eldest of Aidan and Annemarie O'Brien's four children, attention has always been a given. He was only three when his father was entrusted with the near-mythical Ballydoyle stables from which Vincent O'Brien fundamentally altered the face of world racing. Plans by the latter's son-in-law, John Magnier, to feed Coolmore's stallion production line required a unique human talent at the helm and the then champion jumps trainer was entrusted with the task of moulding equine champions, a call that has paid off massively in the last decade and a half.
During "MV's" Ballydoyle reign, the job as number one rider meant employing the best, Piggott and Eddery among them. The "AP" years have only seen the position confirmed as the most enviable in the world: Kinane, Fallon and Murtagh have been handed the responsibility of steering years of planning and investment to victory on the days that matter most, and been commensurately rewarded for coping with the sort of attendant pressure that had Jamie Spencer bailing out after just one tumultuous season.
However, attention soared to stratospheric levels around the trainer’s son when Murtagh resigned at the end of 2010 and O’Brien snr left no one in doubt he felt his son could be another champion. That year Joseph finished in a three-way tie for the apprentice title, having only ridden his first winner in 2009.
At the time, many felt he looked the furthest from the finished article among that apprentice trio. Yet shortly afterwards he had first pick at the world’s most powerful yard.
Accusations of nepotism were the least of the O’Brien’s concerns. In the circumstances, they were, and continue to be, inevitable. But father had gambled heavily on son. Magnier and his partners run their business with a ruthless lack of sentimentality. The reverberations of such a bold decision going wrong could have been far reaching. And initially the raw material looked very raw indeed.
Coolmore's overwhelming power in the bloodstock game make those willing to publicly utter even the mildest quibble painfully rare but one industry insider remembers: "Of those three apprentices, in terms of ability you certainly wouldn't have had Joseph ahead of Gary Carroll and Ben Curtis. But he got chances on good horses that they didn't."
Michael Kinane has ridden more good horses than almost anyone else in racing history and remains a benchmark figure among Irish jockeys despite having retired five years ago. Confidence he believes is of paramount importance to any rider.
“It is much easier to ride a good horse than a bad one. You’re in so much more control and because it travels, you can dictate what you want to do, and what others do. So that makes you better, because confidence is everything,” says the legendary figure. “And I believe credit where it is due; Joseph has made the most of the opportunities he’s got.”
Given the chance to shine, O’Brien has ultimately justified the faith shown by his father, and justified Magnier’s faith in that judgment. His rate of improvement over the last couple of years has been striking.
“Initially he was very forceful, up front, keeping it simple: but he’s got more confident as he’s got older, the way all young fellas can, and now he’s a very good jockey, able to hold his own with any of the lads,” adds Kinane. “And those lads seem to like him, which is a great sign. If other jockeys don’t trust you, the jockey’s room can be tough.”
O’Brien may not be interested in public profile but whereas jealously is inevitable in a notoriously bitchy game, there appears to be a noticeable lack of animosity towards O’Brien from colleagues. Any quibbles are professional, not personal. “Sound” and “no bullshit about him” are some verdicts. “More direct than his father,” is another. “Some people might think he’s a bit arrogant sometimes but he’s actually okay. And what he does with his weight is incredible.”
History is littered with evidence of how terrible a toll wasting to make weight can take. Considering O’Brien’s height he still managed to do 8st 12lbs on Australia last month. Already whip thin, keeping his young frame under control is a daily grind that involves running, sweating and a microscopic examination of the little he eats. To perform at a peak, especially on the days that matter when there is intense pressure not to mess up, is a task he appears to make little of, something that doesn’t fool those in the know.
“There’s so much expectation in that job. These are very expensive thoroughbreds. And when a horse doesn’t win, it’s always the jockey’s fault,” explains Kinane.
“If your head isn’t the right spot, you will be ground down in this game. Mental attitude is so important. And Joseph has come up with the goods,” he adds.
“He’s managed that even though he is the size he is. He could easily be 11 or 12 stone naturally. He does some job with his weight. But in longevity terms he’s so tall it’s hard to see him going forever,” says Kinane.
There are substantial rewards for ignoring any hunger pangs though. O’Brien’s mounts in Ireland alone so far this year have earned more than €2.5 million. Just 50 rides in Britain in 2014 have yielded almost the same again. Jockeys pick up just shy of 10 per cent of all winnings. Plenty other jockeys endure the sweatbox for nothing like the same reward.
The potential impact of day-to-day dieting has been well chronicled over the years. Hunger, especially of a kind with no foreseeable end, can make a jockey’s life even more of a psychological test than a physical one. It’s little wonder that some hardly bring many chuckles to the party.
"He's not exuberant like a Frankie or a Johnny Murtagh. But he's actually very down to earth. And he is incredibly strong mentally," says O'Brien's agent and former rider Kevin O'Ryan, who is married to O'Brien's aunt. "I know I'm biased but he's got a great racing brain and he's very strong in a finish."
The challenge of maintaining his weight though means there is a permanent clock ticking on O'Brien's career. Gilded American jockey Steve Cauthen gave it all up at just 32. Murtagh stopped riding earlier this year at 43.
The consensus is that O’Brien will call it quits sooner rather than later, unable to maintain a body that is infuriatingly ill-shaped for the job. But if he can avoid injury, such expectations could be confounded.
Richard Hughes and Kevin Manning are two riders almost as tall who continue to excel well into their 40's. That dynamic duo don't have the incentive of having the best job in the world.
No length of time though looks long enough to make “Joey” stick.
What is it? Sixteen races worth €3.7 million to be run at Leopardstown today and the Curragh tomorrow. It is billed as a quality climax to Ireland's flat season with five Group One races, including today's Qipco Champion Stakes, and tomorrow's Palmerstown House St Leger.
Why is it different? Most Group One races in Ireland have been the focal point of a single day's racing. Putting five together into a single weekend gives Irish racing a chance to promote itself both on the world stage and at home.
Is it unique? Ireland is merely getting in step with international racing. Compressing this sort of quality into a big-money event is already well established in France with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting, and in Britain with Champions Day. Will the best horses bring the biggest crowds? No. Leopardstown is aiming for 11,000 through the gates. The Curragh expects up to 8,000. In contrast Ladies Day alone at Listowel next week will attract more than 27,000. In excess of 34,000 were at the fourth day of Galway last month.
Why is that? Festivals such as Galway and Listowel are as much social as racing events, perpetuating their reputations as places to see and be seen at. Quality flat race meetings have never been able to compete, although the Curragh Derby attracted almost 24,000 in June.
So the horses don't matter? Of course they matter. They're what it's all about. The task for Champions Weekend is persuading the general public of that. But it's a big job. In 2009 Sea The Stars won his sole start in Ireland that year in the Champion Stakes. And only 9,000 came to see him.