AIDAN O’BRIEN knows a thing or two about spotting some well-bred talent on the racecourse.
So it was no wonder jockey Tom O’Brien was delighted to get a text from his uncle congratulating him on his Welsh National win on Elegant Escape.
As if he didn’t have enough to do putting his Ballydoyle battalions through their paces, the planet’s top trainer still finds time to keep an eye on in-form Tom, his brother Jim’s son.
The rider said: “Aidan texted me after the Welsh National to say well done. It was nice to get a message from him to recognise it after all he has achieved.
“Those big handicaps are hard to win so it’s a great thrill when you do. It’s a Christmas I certainly won’t forget.”
Elixir De Nutz went on to make it a memorable New Year by landing Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle last weekend.
It was a deserved spell in the spotlight for O’Brien, who plays a virtuoso role as second fiddle to Richard Johnson at Philip Hobbs’ powerful Somerset stables.
Colin Tizzard, trainer of both of O’Brien’s big recent winners, is another big fan of his talents.
With such firepower behind him O’Brien, 32, has notched 58 winners this season, already five more than last year’s entire total.
O’Brien has been with Hobbs ever since he arrived in Britain as a 17-year-old with just two point-to-point rides behind him.
Racing experience might have been lacking but he had sat on most of Flat racing’s superstars during his early teenage years.
O’Brien remembered: “I started off with another uncle Shay Slevin, who trains point-to-pointers. I learned to ride with his sons JJ and Mark.
“I was about 13 when I went to Ballydoyle. It was great. The likes of Galileo, Giant’s Causeway, Rock Of Gibraltar and High Chaparral were all there.
“I got to ride them as two-year-olds. Hack canters, not in work. Istabraq was in Ballydoyle at the time so there was plenty going on for the jumps as well.
“I wasn’t good enough to ride as an apprentice on the Flat, it was always going to be jumping for me. I was a big fan of Tony McCoy and Timmy Murphy.
“There was a girl who came from Philip Hobbs’ to Ballydoyle. I was always plaguing her about Rooster Booster and all the horses Philip had at that time.
“She went home to visit her mother. When she was there she rode out for Philip at the weekend so she said to come to have a look around. I asked him for a job and ended up staying.”
Not only has O’Brien inherited the family’s softly-spoken Wexford lilt but a whole lot of talent for racing to go with it.
He became champion conditional with a record 107 winners in 2006 and is now just a couple of short of the 900 mark.
There’s been a good sprinkling of big-race wins like Souffleur, his first Grade 1 win, in the Challow Hurdle.
That came eight months after McKelvey came agonisingly close to giving him victory in the biggest race of them all. The pair failed by just three-quarters of a length to reel in Silver Birch in the National.
Although he has yet to come as close in the world’s greatest race, success over the big Aintree fences has been plentiful.
He was on top for two of Always Waining’s three Topham Chase wins and he landed the Becher Chase on Chance Du Roy.
His win on Elegant Escape wasn’t his first victory in the Welsh National. He guided Dream Alliance to fairytale Chepstow glory nine years ago.
That victory on a horse bred by a pub barmaid and reared on an allotment in a South Wales mining village was so unlikely it was made into a documentary film called Dark Horse.
It was Dream Alliance’s finest hour but Elegant Escape’s best years looks to be ahead of him. Tizzard has added him to his Gold Cup squad alongside Native River and Thistlecrack.
It opens up the prospect of a first ride in Cheltenham’s top prize for O’Brien.
He said: “Nothing’s been said and we just need to try to get there first. I’d love to ride Elegant Escape in it, without a doubt. I’d love that challenge. I’ve won four races on him, I’ve been on him on the right days.
“I got the call up from the Tizzards for the Welsh National as Harry Cobden was riding at Kempton. He did it well.
“He’s a little bit lazy at times but he wakes up when you need him to. He jumps well and he knows where the finishing line is — that’s the important thing.
“He could be a Gold Cup contender. He’s half a stone short but he’s a young horse. There’s no reason why he couldn’t take the next step up.”
Elixir De Nutz is another Tizzard youngster with a bright future. The Tolworth was his third win from four starts since joining Tizzard from Hobbs but not all O’Brien’s memories of the horse are happy.
He chuckled: “I sat on him in his early days and he was a bit of a handful. He got rid of both Richard Johnson and me before a race at Kempton one day.
“He buried Richard in the paddock. He was injured so they called me to go out and he got rid of me as well. He hasn’t shown those characteristics since.
“He’s a good horse and he’s tough. When they come to him he seems to try harder to fight them off.”
His attitude could easily have rubbed off from his rider. Trying hard is clearly an O’Brien family trait.