On Tuesday night, Derek O’Connor was presented with a Horse Racing Ireland Award for the ride of the year, after guiding ‘miracle horse’ Edwulf to an unlikely victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last February.
The result touched the heart of the racing public given Edwulf’s much-publicised brush with death at Cheltenham only 11 months previously, a neurological malfunction after jumping the last in the National Hunt Chase leaving him temporarily incapacitated and blind for 24 hours.
It was O’Connor’s first Grade One victory, though that owed more to the scant opportunities for amateur jockeys to achieve top-tier success than to any lack of talent, as evidenced at the Foxrock venue that day. O’Connor is often equated with AP McCoy in terms of the revolutionary impact he has had in the point-to-point sphere.
The Galway native, whose late mother Jean Moore was one of the pioneers for female jockeys and without whom there might well be no Rachael Blackmore, set new standards and his accumulative tally of more than 1,100 winners between the flags is staggering for a weekend pursuit, yielding 11 champion rider titles.
Throw in numerous triumphs in bumpers and at the Cheltenham Festival, and you get a picture of why no-one within racing was surprised that O’Connor would be capable of propelling Edwulf to such a momentous win for owner JP McManus and trainer Joseph O’Brien.
The 36-year-old has garnered countless HRI Awards in the point-to-point category, but to be nominated by one of the greatest ever pilots, Ruby Walsh, and voted by the public for the inaugural ride of the year honour meant a lot.
“I was hopeful but I really thought there were more worthy recipients,” O’Connor says with typical modestly. “I thought Davy Russell on Apple’s Jade was brilliant, and I thought Danny Sheehy in Galway was another tremendous ride. I suppose it was Edwulf that caught the imagination. It was a bit of a shock but it was wonderful and great for my family too.
“Point-to-pointing is what we do day-in, day-out and I suppose we take it for granted a little bit because we don’t know anything else. Amateurs don’t get too many opportunities in Grade Ones . . . You usually only have one a year, which is the Champion Bumper and that’s a very hard race to win.
“I had a couple of near misses – I think I’ve been placed four or five times, so to win a Grade One at Leopardstown has to be the highlight of your career, and rightly so, because they’re so scarce.”
O’Connor is hopeful they can add to their tally together. “Edwulf’s appetite for racing is brilliant. He’s the most genuine horse, as we’ve seen from that day in Cheltenham, when he galloped himself into exhaustion for me and it’s very rare a horse will do that.
“He is relatively inexperienced. Before Leopardstown, he had 10 runs over fences and hadn’t completed five of them. I think with any bit of good luck this year, we might see him run fairly consistently through the season.
O’Connor reports the “gentle giant” to be in good form ahead of his seasonal debut in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown today.
“It would be very silly to try and fancy him against the likes of Min or Balko Des Flos, who are proven over the shorter trip and are faster, slicker jumpers. If he runs a nice race and is competitive, we’d be very happy.”
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland’s home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.
Sunday Indo Sport