Apprentice Years, Professional Career and Life as a Trainer – Interview with Joseph O’Brien

Recently I was lucky enough to have a chat with former English and Irish Derby as well as multiple group 1 winning jockey and multiple group 1 winning trainer Joseph O’Brien. I talked to him about how he got into racing and about his career as a jockey and a trainer so far as well as his many major group 1 race wins.

Early Days

When Joseph came into this world his life was immediately filled with horses as his dad Aidan has been known as one of the best trainers in the world for many years moved into the famous Ballydoyle a couple of years after Joseph was born and his mam Anne Marie was a champion trainer as well as her father Joe Joseph’s grandfather was a trainer as well so it was no surprise that Joseph was going to get into or have a life involved with horses. But did he always want to be a jockey?

“I used to ride ponies when I was a kid and from there I always knew that I wanted to be a jockey. I was only 5 when we moved to Ballydoyle so we always had a few ponies as well.” “As long as I can remember I always wanted to be a jockey growing up and it was all I wanted to do really as when I was growing up there were always jockeys, trainers and horsey people around me.” 

“There wasn’t really a big moment that gave me a spark of wanting to race for a living but if I had to choose one it would probably have to be when Istabraq ran and I remember his races from being a kid and he is the kind of horse that has always been in my memory and he was the first sort of good horse that I remember watching you know.” “I rode ponies when I was young but I didn’t really start riding racehorses ( in Ballydoyle) I suppose until I was 12 or 13 and that’s when I started riding the quieter racehorses and then as I got older and stronger I was able to ride more horses you know.”  “I was with my dad riding out pretty much all the time however I did do a couple of courses in RACE before I got my licence as you have to do that but other than that I just worked for dad all of the time and I done some work experience with Jim Bolger as well.”

The Apprentice Years

2009 was Joseph’s first year as an apprentice jockey and it didn’t take him long to get off the mark as it took him just his 3rd ride to get his first winner which was for Aidan.

“My first winner was on Johannes Vermeer in Leopardstown, my first ride was in the Curragh and this was a couple of weeks after that and I had a couple of rides that day but I’m not actually sure if it took me 2,3 or 4 rides to get my first winner.” “It was a great experience and kind of like a dream to get my first winner and I will never forget the buzz of riding my first winner as it’s very seldom that you get that feeling after  your first winner so yes I remember that very well.”

“In my first season riding, I was happy with how it went as I had about 7 or 8 winners and my objective was just to learn and improve my riding as much as I could that was the only objective reality and I enjoyed it.”

In Joseph’s 2nd season riding, he went up from 8 winners to 39 winners to share the apprentice championship title with Ben Curtis and Gary Carroll.

“It was an amazing year really and both Gary and Ben are amazing riders and the 3 of us were really close on the number of wins for a long time so, to be honest at the end of the season it was the perfect result really for the 3 of us to share the title as we had all put in a lot of work throughout the whole year so it would have been a shame really for one of us to lose the title.” It was an amazing day in Dundalk on the last day of the year and it was a special day.”

In 2011 things started to take off for Joseph as he won 4 group 1 races including his first in there somewhere and he won the apprentice championship with 59 winners and it was amazing as he not only won 1 group 1 race but he won 4 all as an apprentice.

“At the time I never really looked at how well things were going I’d just say I want to do better every time and never really look back and just say I want to do better next time and I probably never realised how lucky I was till I stopped riding. It was great to be riding really good horses so I’d never look back I’d just look forward to the next race and keep going”. “I was very lucky with what rides I was getting and I never looked too far ahead and you can’t really plan to do so well you just take it as it comes and deal with what I had in front of me and I concentrated with what was going at the time and never got too far of myself and if I had a bad day I’d just move on and just do the best I could.”

“I rode in a couple of group 1’s in my earlier days and even to ride in them were great and very special and to win a group was a dream.” “To ride at a Breeders Cup was very special” as he had gone most years as a kid to watch “but to win at The Breeders Cup was a dream it was amazing really and it was my first ride over there as well.”

Joseph had a great end to the 2011 season as he won the apprentice title once again, he rode his claim of 95 winners which made him a professional jockey for the 2012 season and in one of his final rides as an apprentice he got to top his apprentice years off by winning a grade 1 race in The Breeders Cup which was his 4th group one win of the season.

Professional Career

The 2012 season was Joseph’s first season as a professional jockey as he had rode his claim/ 95 winners in the 2011 season and the 2012 season was set to be a hell of a year for Joseph.

“It was my first season as a professional jockey and I had some nice horses to ride, I was very lucky and it was a very special time and I got to ride some very nice horses for dad (Aidan O’Brien) so I was very fortunate.”

Camelot and Joseph partnered up to win the Epsom and Curragh Derbies which were Joseph’s first Epsom and Irish Derby wins of his career. Joseph also ended up winning 8 other group 1 races and he topped his year off by winning champion jockey in Ireland with 86 winners what a year.

“It was an amazing year and Camelot was an amazing horse that year.” “I had a great relationship with Camelot and he was a great and very special horse.” “The Epsom Derby was a very special race and a hard race to win and dad hadn’t won the race for a good few years and he had been unlucky the last few years with a couple of 2nd’s and 3rd’s so that was a great day and to win the Irish Derby as well was unbelievable but there is probably a little bit more pressure on you at Epsom so that was probably my best day of the year.” “It was probably my best year really.”

The 2013 season was yet another fantastic year for Joseph as he won 4 group 1 races including the Dubai Sheema Classic on St. Nicholas Abbey who had also won him his Breeders Cup race. Joseph also won back to back jockeys championship titles as he retained his title with a record-breaking 126 winners in 1 season as he recorded a record-breaking 117th winner to break Mick Kinane’s record with a treble in Navan.

“Yes that was a great year and it was very special to break the record as every jockey tries to win lots of races in a season and I had some fantastic horses to ride and we had a hell of a lot of winners that year from Ballydoyle so that was a very special year to break the record and it was a very proud moment for me.” 

2014 was another fantastic year for Joseph as he won 7 group 1 races and he was matched with another fantastic colt who goes by the name of Australia who he guided to the Derby double once again which was a fantastic achievement and he was only just gone 2o years old at the time as well.

“That was yet another great year and the two Derbies were really different races that year and The Epsom Derby had a huge big field that year and Australia was a lovely big black horse and that was a fantastic day and obviously to win the Curragh Derby was brilliant too.” “It didn’t really feel too different to winning the 2 Derbies in 2012 but I suppose there was more pressure on me as Australia was doing very well and the races had bigger fields so it was harder and a different kind of race to ride and Australia was out of an Oaks winner and bred by a Derby winner so he was meant to do the job.”

2015 was Joseph’s last year riding as weight proved to be a problem for him and the number of rides seemed to fall every month and he had a couple of rides over hurdles as well but he didn’t decide to go that way.

“I suppose my weight got the better of me and I was emotional but I saw it coming and I had no choice but that’s life you have to change and adapt and move on and I have to say I was very lucky with the rides and winners I got and I’m delighted and lucky to have gotten to ride the horses I did.” “I didn’t really think about going into a career in national hunt but I had a couple of rides and a couple of falls but I put that in the back of my mind and I never really got serious about going into the jumps.” I just gave it a try to get the experience and see what it was like really.” “I had 5 or 6 rides for dad (Aidan) and I enjoyed the couple of rides but I was never really going to get into it really.” 

“I never made any big goals or expected anything I just did the best I could and made the most of the opportunities I got that was it I never thought about it or expected any winners all I ever wanted to do was do the best with the opportunities I got.” “I was lucky I had a couple of falls but I never had any serious injuries thank god.” “St. Nicholas Abbey winning in the Breeders Cup was one of the best race wins of my career but Camelot was probably one of my favourite horses to ride.”

Training Career So Far

Joseph had a great career as a jockey but as his weight problems eventually hit him he decided to take his career in the training path to attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps which his brother Donnacha did as well late last year.

It only took Joseph 4 days after getting his trainer’s licence to record his first win as a trainer rode by his brother Donnacha.

“I didn’t really expect  it to start off so well but I just had the same attitude as I did when I was riding but we had a great team and staff here in Kilkenny and some great owners who trust in me and that’s what it all comes down to.” “Once your having winners owners will want to send their horses to you and the more winners you’re having, the more interest there will be from owners so to have horses that are winning races is the best marketing tool and we are very lucky that when we started training that we had winners quite early on and from there we just tried to keep winning races and when your winning people want you to train their horses.” “Max Morris was the owner who supplied me with my first ever winner as a trainer in Gowran Park with a horse called Justice Frederick.”

“It  was amazing to win my first group 1 race as a trainer with Intricately in the Moyglare Stud Stakes in The Curragh in September of 2016 and it was great as Donnacha rode it and it was his first group 1 win as a jockey as well so it was a very special day and she was bred by my mother as well so a homebred group 1 winner was great.” “I probably had a bigger kick out of winning a group 1 as a trainer to jockey as there was more work done in the background by the team than just getting up on the horse on the race day.”

In November of 2017, Joseph made history as he did something his father had never done before, Joseph trained Rekindling to glory in the Melbourne Cup in Australia what an amazing achievement.

“We didn’t really expect him to win but that really was an amazing day to win The Melbourne Cup such a special and big race on the World stage and we hoped he would have a good run but we didn’t expect him to win.”

In 2018 in just Joseph’s 3rd year training he partnered up with his brother Donnacha as Latrobe went on to win the Irish Derby for them another amazing achievement ticked off the list for the both of them in just 3 years.

“That was unbelievable to win The Irish Derby was fantastic  and Donnacha gave the horse an unbelievable ride that day and that was an unbelievable day really.” “He wasn’t really expected to win so he wasn’t one of the top favourites and he had never raced in a group race before as he went straight on to the Irish Derby after winning his maiden but Donnacha gave him an unbelievable ride and the track and ground really suited him that day so that was a very special day.” “Even if he finished in the first 5 or 6 that would have been great and he would have got prize money and we thought he could of got 3rd or 4th but the day and the race just planned out very well for him.” 

In November of 2019, Joseph O’Brien partnered up with world-class jockey Wayne Lordan to become the youngest ever trainer to train a Breeders Cup winner at the age of 26 years old when Iridessa impressively won, Joseph still holds the record for being the youngest jockey to ever ride a Breeders Cup winner as well unbelievable. Iridessa has supplied Joseph with 4 group 1 winners.

“She was again bred by my mum and dad at home and she was a really good filly as she won a group 1 at the age of 2 and she won 3 group 1’s at the age of 3 last year and she was a very big powerful mare and she was a very good raced filly and training her to win at The Breeders Cup was really unbelievable as I thought it would take me years and years to achieve that.” “The plan was to race her this year again but she picked up an injury and she was retired to stud and sold over to Japan but she was a great horse and supplied me with some nice big winners.”

Career Recap So Far

Joseph rode an astounding 30 group 1 races as a jockey and a further 13 group 1 races including jump races as a trainer. 

He won the Irish apprentice jockeys championship 2 times, he won the Irish professional jockeys championship twice with a record-breaking 126 winners in one season, he won the double Derbies twice, he became the youngest ever jockey to win in The Breeders Cup and he became the youngest trainer to win at the Breeders Cup, the Melbourne Cup and the Irish Derby.

Other Questions

“Winning the Irish Derby with Latrobe and Donnacha was probably my favourite moment and win as a trainer.” 

“Our main objectives for the season are to win as many big and group races as we can and as much races as we can.” “Latrobe is back in training this season and he is a horse to look out for and we have a nice bunch of older horses, Master Of Reality who was just beaten in the Melbourne Cup last year is another horse to look out for.” 

“Yucatan is a new horse in training with us my dad (Aidan) obviously trained him but he got an injury and went over to Australia and he will be running when racing gets back under away and Pondus who ran in the English Champion Stakes last year is a nice horse he’s new and we are still learning about him and he’s a nice horse too.”

“If I wasn’t a jockey I don’t really know what I would be but probably something to do with sport as I love GAA, Football, Rugby etc I love all sports really but whatever it would be it would probably be something to do with sports.” Manchester United fans will be happy as he mentioned that he is also a Manchester United fan. 

“My mam and dad have been great support to my brother and sisters and I and been a big inspiration to all of us.”

Finally here is some advice from Joseph to any younger or older aspiring jockeys and trainers. “I suppose just do the best you can and with what you have and don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong and just try your best and whatever the outcome  you can’t change it from there.”

“We won’t have a number one jockey and I’ll share the rides out and we have some nice apprentices in Shane Crosse, Dylan McMonagle Browne, Mikey Sheehy, Alan Persse and we have Wayne Lordan, Declan McDonogh, Trevor Whelan, Gary Halpin, Hugh Horgan and Edward Greatrex too so we have a good bunch of lads to share the rides between.

Joseph has clearly had a very good riding and training career so far and I look forward to seeing him doing well and winning some nice races in the years to come. 

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My name is Tiarnán O’Kelly I am 14 years old and I have autism. I am an aspiring journalist and love and follow everything to do with Irish sport but my main interests are horse racing and football. I am very passionate and a big follower of the Republic of Ireland national football team and I am a season ticket holder in the Aviva stadium and love going to the matches and watching the Boys in Green play. #coybig


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