An Interview with Champion Gentleman Amateur Tommie O'Brien
Despite the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, amateur jockey Tommie O’Brien had a wonderful season, ending in winning the amateur championship. With much of amateur racing stopped due to not being an ‘elite sport’, there were hunter chases ridden by their professional counterparts, including the Foxhunters’ at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Yet, Tommie, 29, took it all in his stride and resumed riding winners as soon as protocol allowed the resumption of amateur races and point-to-points. On May 1st, he rode a double at the Cheltenham evening meeting and, later in the month, rode Hazel Hill to win a Chaddesley Corbett members’, after which the former Cheltenham Festival Foxhunters’ hero was retired.
Originally from Galway, Tommie had a memorable day in 2016 when partnering the John Nielan-trained Poormans Hill to a 50-1 bumper victory at his home track. He’d been visiting there since a young boy and, in the past, his Dad had trained Galway Festival winners. In fact, Tommie had led up Half Barrell into the winner’s enclosure a decade before living a dream and riding a winner there.
His dad, Val O’Brien, was a successful jockey for Tom and Jim Dreaper, riding big winners for them after Tom Taaffe retired and was second in a Cheltenham Gold Cup to L’Escargot in 1971. His grandfather Tommy rode an Irish Grand National winner and Val took over his training licence when he died in 1986. Having always been around racehorses, it was natural that Tommie would follow in their footsteps. Searching out opportunities, he moved to the UK, firstly to ride as a conditional but reverted back to an amateur and has not looked back since.
He now resides in Berrow, Worcestershire, near the Herefordshire border. He has worked for the successful Tom Lacey since December 2015 and has a partner, Hannah Walker.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
Not overly. I only rode a pony for the first time when I was 8. I was very lucky that my cousins lived a mile up the road and had some very good show jumping ponies on which they taught me to ride. They were competing at a high level and have gone on to compete at even higher levels in show jumping, so even though I didn’t realise it at the time I was getting a great grounding.
How did you get into racing?
I was always racing mad and had so many video tapes of races that had been recorded and I would watch them tirelessly. There was no internet back then and I remember my fix for current goings on in racing was getting my hands on any race cards I could get hold of and checking them against the results on teletext.
When I was about 12 years old, a pony was bought for me on which to compete in pony races. It might be hard to believe now but, at the time, I was very small for my age and only weighed 5 and half stone. The pony was very strong and had his own ideas and for love nor money, I just couldn’t ride him. He bolted with me, ran off the gallop and I couldn’t get him to do anything. I was getting quite disheartened and one of the lads, who was working for Dad, suggested a mare in the yard that would be easier to ride than the pony. He was right and one lot soon moved to two lots and before long, I was doing plenty of riding out at weekends and on school holidays. I never quite managed to get the better of the pony, I think he’d still be a struggle even now!
When I turned fourteen I was eligible for a stable pass, so my school holidays and weekends were soon filled with leading up for Dad. At sixteen, I took out an amateur licence in the summer and had a few spins in bumpers before going back to school in September.
How did you end up coming to the UK?
I sat my leaving cert twice and did a year at university, so I didn’t actually enter full time employment in racing until I was 19. I was still very raw and hadn’t managed a winner but I was keen to give it a go. I realised doing it full time was the only way I might improve. I managed two bumper winners and two point-to-point winners over the next couple of years but opportunities were pretty hard to come by.
The potential of more opportunities in the UK was something that had always appealed to me; my weight was still good and I was keen to have a crack at riding as a conditional so there was only one thing for it. Jonjo O’Neill was always someone who seemed to give younger riders a chance, so I emailed the office to see if I could have a job. I did a trial and made the move permanent.
What made you return to being an amateur after a stint as a conditional?
In my first season, I was given some great opportunities by Jonjo as a conditional but I couldn’t quite grasp them and ended up with four seconds and no winner. I crushed a vertebra in my back during the summer and when I returned, I had slipped down the order as the other lads were now having their chance at the opportunities, I couldn’t convert.
I wasn’t enjoying not riding and I was itching to ride, so reverting to amateur and being able to ride in point-to-points was really my only option. Guy Upton, the assistant trainer at the time, encouraged me to do it and Jonjo thought it would be a good idea too; that was good enough for me!
Photo Credit: Becky Bailey Racing Photography
What is your favourite racecourse?
Sandown. There’s so much history attached to the place and I grew up watching it on TV, with the horses jumping the three railway fences down the back and the pond fence coming for home. Riding a good jumper around the chase course is a real thrill.
What is your favourite point-to-point course?
Maisemore Park. It’s my local point-to-point. It’s a real speed track but it’s a pretty fair one around which to ride. I also had my first double around there in March 2017, which was very sweet.
Photo Credit: The Amateur Jockeys Association of Great Britian
What have your best days been in racing so far?
Riding a winner at the Galway festival in 2016 (I know I cried, thank you to everyone who reminds me!). Galway is my family’s local track and has always been a special place for me. I’d been going to the festival for as long as I can remember and Dad trained a few winners there while I was growing up. To ride a winner there was a crazy dream that I thought would never become a reality. It was also extra special that my family were there to share in the success and the winner was for the Neilans, who have been long time family friends.
What was the best advice you were given?
“You only get out of something what you put into it” was something Dad instilled in me from an early age. He also drilled into me the importance of being sharp and prepared for things. I’d like to think it didn’t fall on deaf ears and I’m always conscious of being on the ball and being well prepared for whatever I’m doing.
What is the best advice you can give?
You’ve got to work hard; you won’t get anywhere if you don’t but I think that’s a given. I believe the best advice I can give to someone is to constantly try to better yourself, try to be better than you were yesterday and be grateful to anybody who helps you to do that.
How did you feel winning the Championship?
It was something I’d been wanting to win for a while as I’d been in the running for it a few times but kept coming up short. Winning it was a strange feeling, there wasn’t the joy and euphoria you get from a winner. It was more like a sense of satisfaction that I had something to show for efforts.
Being an amateur, how did you manage during the coronavirus pandemic?
It was infuriating when point-to-pointing and amateur racing was halted in December due to the second lockdown. The summer wasn’t so bad as amateurs aren’t busy then anyway, but we’d just got to the busiest time of our season with the hunter chases only a month away.
It was very odd watching the professionals riding in the hunter chases, especially on the well-known horses who were other people’s rides. I think it was the right thing to do as people kept their horses going and amateurs were able to slot back in seamlessly when we got the green light.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
My biggest dream is to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. I’m going to need a lot of luck, but I always convince myself that the harder I work the luckier I’ll get!
Getting to a hundred point-to-point winners (presently on seventy-six) is something more achievable now that I’m working towards that goal and I would love to ride out my claim under Rules, but it will be tough going. I’ve ridden forty-five winners and need another thirty winners to achieve it. Gina Andrews has only just achieved it and Will Biddick still hasn’t, which I think conveys the enormity of it.
Who is your racing hero?
Growing up, Ruby Walsh was always my hero. He rode some winners for Dad before he got the job with Paul Nicholls, so he has been for a long time. I never grew tired of watching him ride big winners and listening to his interviews afterwards to get his insights. He’s brilliant on the TV now; his knowledge and the way he thinks about things is incredible.
I have the most varied taste in music known to man, but, I think, ‘70s music would probably top it.
Favourite holiday destination:
We went to Tuscany on holiday two years ago and I could easily go back there every year.
What is your ideal day off?
I don’t really do days off and when I do, they tend to consist mainly of metaphorical box walking! Hannah and I have been to Harry Potter World, which I loved and would happily go there again as I’m a big HP fan.
Photo Credit: John Beasley