THE prowess of champion jockey Derek O’Connor was further recognised when the Tubber rider received the 2009 point-to-point award at the annual Horse Racing Ireland awards ceremony held at Leopardstown Racecourse last Monday.
O’Connor has been the dominant force on the point-to-point fields of Ireland for nearly a decade now and he is a very worthy winner, given that the 27-year-old had rewritten the history books last June when securing his sixth jockey’s title in-a-row with a record-breaking tally of 113 wins.
This is O’Connor’s third time claiming this prestigious HRI accolade and he certainly has raised the bar where point-to-point race-riding is concerned. He is widely recognised as one of the finest amateurs of his generation, with his skill and dedication setting an example that all budding jockeys seek to aspire to. He is a rare talent and, while he was also crowned amateur champion on the racecourse back in the 2002/03 season with 30 wins, his decision to more or less concentrate fully on riding in point-to-points of late continues to pay rich dividends.
Not alone has he been crowned champion jockey for the past six years but on each occasion, he has surpassed his total of the previous year. That incredible feat may be a very hard thing to surpass this season but O’Connor, who is currently the rider with most wins in Irish point-to-point history with 542 victories to his credit, is certainly going the right way about it having gone into the current two-week Christmas break on the 21-winner mark following a well-executed double at last Sunday’s United Hunt session at Avaune in East Cork.
He struck first when guiding Mirador Del Conde (3/1-5/2) to success for Kinsale trainer Robert Tyner in the first division of the five-year-old geldings’ maiden. O’Connor had this Flemensfirth gelding in the van all the way and the pair ran on best when coming home two lengths to the good over runner-up Ask The Thatcher. The O’Connor double was completed later in the afternoon as Nano’s Witness, trained by his brother Paurick at his Tubber yard, ran made every yard of the running to claim the second section of the six-year-old mares’ maiden.
A good third at Roscommon last month, Nano’s Witness (7/4-6/4F) was not for catching here as the daughter to Witness Box, who carries the silks of Gort garage owner John Howley, powered home in the style of an improving mare to beat Classy Conflict by eight lengths.
Meanwhile, top performer Sea The Stars was the unanimous choice for Racehorse of the Year at last Monday’s awards ceremony with John Oxx’s starcolt gaining 100% of the votes as the six-time group one winner was feted for his outstanding achievements during the season. His trainer, John Oxx, was honoured with the prestigous Flat award for his handling of the now-retired superstar.
Willie Mullins, who had an unbelievable 2008/09 season that included 12 winners at the Punchestown Festival last May, scooped the National Hunt award with veteran Curragh-based trainer Kevin Prendergast honoured when presented with the Outstanding Achievement award.
Michael Kinane, who last week announced his retirement following a brilliant 35-year career in the saddle, was presented with the Contribution to the Industry accolade. Kinane certainly went out on a high following his hugely successful alliance with Sea The Stars and he was, without doubt, an outstanding jockey who set the standards for others to follow.
It has also been announced that Kinane’s successor at Oxx’s high-profile Curraghbeg yard will be Fran Berry. The former apprentice champion has been understudy to Kinane for the past number of years and his elevation to one of the most important posts in Irish racing was expected.
Brassil strikes at Navan
GRAND National-winning trainer Martin Brassil has the Leopardstown Hurdle (formerly the Pierse Hurdle) in mind for Moville, who battled back gamely in the closing stages to land the two-mile Kells Hurdle at Navan on Sunday.
This Michael Hayes-owned four-year-old had to really scrap it out over the final 100 yards with the well-backed 11/8 favourite needing all of rider Paddy Flood’s strength to see him pip runner-up Der Spieler by a short-head.
A relieved Brassil stated, “He was running on well in the closing stages and appreciated the uphill climb to the line. This is a nice horse, we have him entered at Leopardstown and that is probably where he’ll go next.”
Shinrock Paddy continued Wexford trainer Paul Nolan’s recent purple patch when running out the very impressive winner of the featured Barry and Sandra Kelly Novice Hurdle.
A dual bumper winner when ridden by his owner Barry Connell, this son of Deploy was having just his second start over timber but that mattered little as he powered to victory.
Sent off 7/2 second-favourite behind Willie Mullins’ 11/10 market-leader Rhyl Accord, Shinrock Paddy hit the front three out and, under a positive ride from the promising Alain Cawley, he stormed to the line to beat his Rhyl Accord by a facile 15 lengths.
Make no mistake about it, this was a smart performance. Shinrock Paddy jumped really well all the way. He was full of running at the end of this two-and-a-half mile contest on what is a stiff track, which suggests he could be one of the main hopes for the Neptune Investments Novices Hurdle (a race that was formerly known as the Ballymore Properties) at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Willie Mullins, who appeared to have quite a strong hand on the Navan card, suffered a few reversals during the afternoon with his well-fancied Cousin Vinny also having to settle for the runner-up berth when beaten by Jessica Harrington’s Roberta Goldback in the opening Beginners’ Chase.
Ruby Walsh produced Cousin Vinny to join eventual winner Roberta Goldback two out but the 2008 Cheltenham Bumper winner could not overhaul that rival and had to settle for the silver medal when beaten four lengths by the Robbie Power-ridden seven-year-old, who did have the benefit of a couple of outing over fences under his belt.
It wasn’t a bad initial effort by Cousin Vinny over fences and he’ll be difficult to beat next time, which will probably be at Leopardstown over Christmas.
While Mullins was out of luck at the County Meath track, he had no such problems at Sunday’s other fixture at Cork where he recorded a big-race double courtesy of Quel Esprit and Golden Silver.
Quel Esprit was mightily impressive when cantering to a success for rider Paul Townend in the Grade 3 O’Connell Transport Cork Stayers Novice Hurdle.
Admittedly, he looked different class to his seven rivals on paper prior to this three-mile event and he proved that in no uncertain terms when, having stormed to front two-out, the 8/15 favourite was eased right down in the closing stages to beat Last Draw by three lengths.
This French-bred, who finished fourth to Dunguib in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham last March, won a point-to-point when trained by Andy Slattery and he definitely has scope for further improvement.
Townend, who proves more than an able deputy for Ruby Walsh aboard Mullins’ runners when the champion jockey is otherwise engaged, was also on board Golden Silver for the Closutton handler in the following Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase. Watson Lake made the running here with Townend content to bide his time aboard the 5/2 joint-favourite until unleashing his mount two out. From here, it was all plain sailing for this imposing grey and he strode to an eased-down one-length victory over the front-running Watson Lake.
Last Saturday, Cheltenham housed a very informative card with victory in the Boylesports.com Gold Cup going to the unstoppable team of Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh with gambled-on 7/2 favourite Poquelin.
A fast-finishing runner-up to Tranquil Sea in the Paddy Power at the Open meeting over the course last month, Poquelin made no mistake this time when bounding up the final hill to see off Razor Royale by seven lengths.
Meanwhile, there was a shock in the Boylesports.com International Hurdle where 12/1 shot Khyber Kim floored odds-on favourite Celestial Halo. All looked to be going to plan for the Walsh-ridden favourite when he quickened up to lead at the final flight but he had no answer to the winner when tackled on the uphill climb to the post, with the Paddy Brennan-partnered winner going on to score by a comfortable two-and-a-half lengths in the end.
The concluding Reelkeel Hurdle went to Nicky Henderson’s long odds-on shot Zaynar (1/6), who hosed-up in the hands of Barry Geraghty. Last season’s impressive Triumph Hurdle winner fairly flew when popped the question and is now heading (generally on offer at 9/2) what has been a topsy-turvy ante-post market of late for the Champion Hurdle back at Prestbury Park next March.