Jockey Brian O’Connell has First Cheltenham Ride on Bumper Hot Pot
Irish raiders look set to again dominate this year’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper (March 11), accounting for all the leading horses in the market, and the Grade 1 event could give star amateur Brian O’Connell a dream first ride in Britain.
The Philip Fenton-trained Dunguib leapt to the front of the Weatherbys Champion Bumper betting following an impressive 13-length victory in a Grade 2 contest at Navan in December and is set to be partnered at Cheltenham by O’Connell.
The 22-year-old is an integral part of Fenton’s County Tipperary yard and has enjoyed a fruitful campaign in Ireland, lying third in the amateurs’ table with 13 victories, behind Patrick Mullins and Nina Carberry.
“I’ve been pre-booked to ride Dunguib in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and hopefully we can both get there in one piece,” said O’Connell. “His debut second at last year’s Punchestown Festival was a good education and the winner of that race, On Raglan Road, was subsequently bought by Graham Wylie.
“Dunguib strengthened up well over the summer and annihilated the field on his reappearance (Punchestown, November 15) - jumped out, made the running and never saw another horse. The Grade 2 at Navan was a very hot contest and he beat Luska Lad, who had previously won three bumpers and the form of his victories had stacked up well. It was always the plan to put him away after that victory. We gave him a little break to freshen up a bit and he’s back now and seems to be A1 for the big day.
“His wins have come in testing conditions but he’s a Presenting gelding and most of them seem to prefer good ground. His first appearance at Punchestown was on good to yielding going and we were actually a little bit apprehensive about running him because I thought that he wanted faster ground.
“It’s amazing to keep the ride on him. Bumpers are confined to amateurs in Ireland but they are open to professionals in Britain so Philip and the owners would have been under no obligation to let me ride him at Cheltenham. To be able to go to the Festival with a real live chance of winner is a dream come true.
“This will be my first time riding in England and there’s no bigger place to make your debut. I was actually due to ride a horse for Philip at Cheltenham last year but unfortunately the horse was balloted out. I had already booked the flights and everything so I was really gutted - I’m just hopeful that I can get there this time around.”
O’Connell is also hopeful that he can take the ride on Royal Blood in the highlight of the hunter chase season, the Christie’s Foxhunter Chase (March 13). The Philip Dempsey-trained eight-year-old completed his Cheltenham preparation when second behind the exciting An Siorrac in a hunter chase at Fairyhouse on February 21.
“Royal Blood has been consistent in hunter chases in Ireland this season and has been runner-up on his last two starts and was successful at Limerick at the start of the season. He ran into a very good horse of Enda Bolger’s last time and doesn’t know how to run a bad race so I am sure that he won’t be disgraced.
Like so many of his contemporaries, O’Connell has risen through the ranks of Irish racing, starting off riding out in his school holidays and graduating from the point-to-point scene. His father, Val, was a talented jockey himself and is currently the Turf Club’s senior course inspector, and Brian grew up surrounded by horses.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in racing. When I was at school, I spent summers with Jim Bolger and Aidan O’Brien and as soon as I had finished my studies, I started with Philip Fenton as his amateur,” he added.
“I was lucky enough to have my first point-to-point winner when I was aged 16 on Euro’swell, who was owned my aunt. I was also fortunate to ride a mare, Yervill’s Dream, who had previously won five point-to-points the season before and she gave me great experience.
“My first winner over hurdles came on one of Philip’s horses, Shoot The Breeze, at Down Royal in May, 2005, and I followed up with another victory at Tralee the following month. My biggest victory was on Vic Venturi, who took the Grade 3 Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle at Limerick’s Christmas meeting in December, 2005. He was my first winner for Philip when he won a point-to-point at Tinahely earlier that year.
“I was only a 7lb claimer when I won at Limerick and the victory certainly gave me a higher profile. People started referring to me as ‘Philip Fenton’s amateur’ and trainers that had used Philip when he rode started using me as well.
“Philip has been a fantastic supporter of me right from the start. I actually got to know him when I rode out for Edward O’Grady on Saturdays as a teenager and he was just finishing as a jockey when I was starting out. He started training a season or so before I started riding full-time and he’s gone from strength to strength with every season.
“I ride out for Philip six times a week and racing takes up all of my time. The amateur situation is a bit different in Ireland compared to England because there’s much more racing for amateurs over here so you can ride full-time over here without being professional.
“Turning professional has been on the cards for the past few years now. I talked with Philip about it early on last season and it’s definitely something that I would like to do. If I had a good Cheltenham or Punchestown, then it’s something I would hopefully do at the end of this campaign.”
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