Michael Duggan catches up with one of the top amateurs in the game ahead of his return to Cheltenham this week
DEREK O’Connor missed out on last year’s Cheltenham Festival due to amateur riders not being allowed to compete at the behind-closed-doors meeting.
That surely will make the Tubber man’s return to Cheltenham next week all the sweeter, where he will have a few very fancied rides.
O’Connor has enjoyed a terrific career, making him a household name in racing circles on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Over 1,200 point-to-point winners makes him the winning-most rider of all time between the flags.
A memorable success aboard Joseph O’Brien’s Edwulf in the 2019 Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, meanwhile, is another standout moment on his glittering CV.
In recent times, the 39-year-old has set up base at Fiddaun on the Clare/Galway border where his busy life sees him combine his role as an agent for leading sales company Goffs UK, with race-riding, pre-training and a spot of organic farming.
Regarded as a gifted and natural horseman, O’Connor didn’t lick it from the stones as it were; his late mother, Jean (nee Moore), was a talented rider who was a pioneer in the early stages of
Lady Riders’ competing against their male counterparts in what was then essentially a male-dominated sport.
Ever since he rode his first winner aboard Rossy Orchestra at the East Clare Harriers’ Killaloe fixture in 2000, it was written in the stars that the then 18-year-old would go on to become the most accomplished and successful amateur this island has ever seen.
Cheltenham has been good to O’Connor. He broke his Festival duck aboard Gordon Elliott’s Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase at the 2011 meeting and just 48 hours later quickly added to that courtesy of Zemsky in the Foxhunters.
A third winner was added in 2016, when Minella Rocco carried the 11-time point-to-point champion to victory in the National Hunt Chase. Any Second Now made it four for the Tubber jockey in the 2019 Kim Muir Chase.
A professional in all but name, O’Connor is still riding at the top of his game and he is in constant demand with all the leading owners and trainers in the game.
Speaking to The Clare Champion ahead of this week’s four-day Cotswolds bonanza, O’Connor revealed: “I’m really looking forward to it, to be honest. My wife, Carol, and some of her family are travelling over, while my brother, Sean, and some of his in-laws also going so we’ll have a strong raiding party.
“Having to miss it last year was tough, but, thankfully, things are back to normal this time round. It’ll be great to have the crowds back, the atmosphere at Cheltenham is just brilliant. It’s hard to describe it, it’s just electric.”
While attending the Festival is seen as a huge social occasion for the majority of racegoers, it’s a different story for the participants.
“Cheltenham week is actually one of the toughest weeks of the year for those involved in the sport.
“Horses have to be looked after and turned out to look and be their best, so it’s very much all hands on deck for stable staff.,” says Derek.
“I ride out on the track each morning for champion trainer Willie Mullins. First lot kicks off at 7am and we do three lots. That really sets the tone for the day.
“While access is restricted, quite a few people like to come out early and watch the horses going through their paces.
“We’d normally be finished by around 10am. I’d go back to where I’m staying then, have a shower and a bit of breakfast.
“I’d be back on track for 11.30 or so, to prepare for the day’s racing. It’s hectic, but that’s all part of the fun.”
DEREK’S MOUNTS FOR THE FESTIVAL
(Gavin Cromwell) – National Hunt Chase 5.30 Tuesday
“I rode him in a bit of work at Fairyhouse recently. We jumped six fences and he felt great. He was very impressive when winning the Albert Bartlett at this meeting 12 months ago, so we know he’ll handle the track. He’ll need to improve on his recent form, but he’s a spring horse and his trainer, Gavin Cromwell, is sweet on him. I think he has a good chance.
Shady Operator (Enda Bolger) – Cross-Country Chase 4.10 Wednesday
“He went off favourite in the Cross-Country race at Punchestown last month where we were beaten fair and square when second to another of Enda’s horses, Midnight Maestro. It’s hard to see us turning the tables on that one in Cheltenham, but you never know. A bit of nicer ground might make a difference. Coming from Enda’s, he’ll be well schooled over all kinds of obstacles and I’m happy to ride him again.
Glenloe (Gordon Elliott)/Champagne Platinum (Enda Bolger) – Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir 5.30 Thursday
“I’m not sure which one I’ll ride here yet, but it will be one of these two JP McManus-owned runners. Glenloe is a talented horse. His form is good and Gordon will have him tuned for this. Champagne Platinum won his point-to-point as a four-year-old at Quakerstown in 2018. He had a spell in the UK with Nicky Henderson after that before coming back to Enda’s. He did well to land a competitive beginners’ chase in Naas and backed that up when second to Death Duty in the National Trial at Punchestown last month.