Trainer Joseph O’Brien Seeks First US Win–and It’s With a Jumper

By Bill Finley

When Americans think of Joseph O’Brien they probably think son of Aidan O’Brien, winning jockey on St. Nicholas Abbey (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}) in the 2011 GI Breeders’ Cup Turf and a rising star among European flat trainers. They probably don’t know that he also has a long history in steeplechase racing or that his first ever winner in the U.S. as a trainer could come Saturday at the Far Hills, New Jersey hunt meet.

O’Brien will send out Katnap (Fr) (Sleeping Car {Fr}) in the $400,000 GI Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills. An inconsistent 10-year-old, Katnap figures to have a solid chance in American steeplechasing’s richest race if he reverts to his best form.

“He’s done very well for us,” O’Brien said of Katnap. “Two starts ago, he was second in a big race (an Apr. 7 handicap with a purse of $149,600) at Aintree over the grand national fences. A horse like him doesn’t get a chance to run for this kind of prize money that often over here so when the opportunity came up we decided to come. We have a great chance to get a great prize.”

O’Brien, 24, said that his stable is split evenly between national hunt and flat horses.

In America, he is best known for his win with St. Nicholas Abbey. Just 18 at the time, he partnered with the elder O’Brien to produce a memorable moment in Breeders’ Cup history, a father and his teenage son working together for a victory neither will ever forget. But it was already apparent at the time that Joseph O’Brien’s days as a jockey were nearing an end. At 5-11, he was simply too big for his profession.

“With my weight, it got tougher and tougher every year,” he said. “It got to the stage where it was not very healthy to continue. Even before I ever rode I wanted to train. When I initially started riding I didn’t intend on riding for as long as I did. I never thought I’d be as lucky as I was to ride so many good horses and so many winners. Training was always something I wanted to do eventually.”

In March, 2016, O’Brien announced that he would no longer ride and would instead focus full-time on training. When still riding, he was also training national hunt horses on the side. Ending his jockey career meant he could expand his stable to include flat horses.

His biggest win to date as a trainer came in the 2016 G1 Moyglare Stud Stakes at the Curragh, which he won with Intricately (Ire) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}). After converting currencies, that race was worth $393,190, meaning a win Saturday at Far Hills would be the richest of O’Brien’s young training career.

“I would love to win a race in America as a trainer,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully, it’s something we will do eventually. I know I won’t stop trying.”

Intricately ran in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and finished 11th. Katnap will represent O’Brien’s second start in the U.S. as a trainer. He may have his third in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, a race he has on the schedule of Now You’re Talking (Ire) (Zoffany {Ire}). However, she is a maiden and is no guarantee to get into the field.

O’Brien said that as much as he enjoyed riding a winner, training one is even better.

“Personally, I get a much bigger kick out of training a winner than I did riding one,” he said. “A lot more work goes into it behind the scenes on a day-to-day basis when it comes to producing a winner.”

When it comes to winning at the highest level of the sport there’s not a lot of room for guesswork, but O’Brien admits that is exactly what he will be doing at Far Hills with Katnap. The 10-year-old has not been competing against the best jumpers in Europe and will be facing the best this country has to offer. All The Way Jose (Senor Swinger) and Moscato (GB) (Hernando {Fr}) look like the top two American based horses in the field. Though there is no betting on the race, there is a morning line and the 2-1 favorite is another European shipper, Hammersly Lake (Kapgarde {Fr}). Katnap is 15-1.

“I suppose I am guessing a bit when it comes to this race,” he said. “Some of the horses in there that are now with American trainers were previously training over here, so I have a little guide as to what they were like here before they went over. Katnap is not good enough to win a Group 1 over here and he’ll probably need to improve a little bit in this race to win. But not as much as he’d had to step up to win a major race over here.”

Katnap will also be racing over ground that will likely be firmer than anything he has ever traveled over in his career.

“He will never have experienced going like this,” O’Brien admitted. “How will he handle it? Your guess is as good as mine. Over here, we say he is a ‘good ground’ horse but there is a big difference between good ground in the middle of the winter in Ireland and firm going at Far Hills in America. How will he handle it? I don’t know is the answer. I am hoping he’ll be fine with it. He’s a good moving horse, but we’re rolling the dice a little bit.”

With horses entered on the card tomorrow in Ireland at Fairyhouse, O’Brien has elected to stay home. But he’s certain to make many a trip to the U.S. in the future and very likely to win some major races here-maybe even with a jumper.

 

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