National Hunt Record
Cheltenham Wins: 4
Cheltenham Gold Cup: Imperial Call 1996
Cheltenham Gold Cup: War of Attrition 2006.
AIG Champion Hurdle: Hardy Eustace 2007
Cheltenham Champion Hurdle: Hardy Eustace 2004
Cheltenham Champion Hurdle: Hardy Eustace 2005
Powers Gold Cup: Native Upmanship 2000
Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup: Imperial Call 1996
As she passed him the Gold Cup, the Queen Mother caught Conor O’Dwyer’s eye and whispered ‘I’m sorry it’s not full’. The jockey from Co. Wexford chuckled hard. This was a moment to savour. It was the 14th March 1996 and he had just ridden Imperial Call to victory in Ireland’s first success at the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Dawn Run a decade earlier. The crowd were so ecstatic that, as he was bounced from shoulder to shoulder, the 29-year-old jockey wondered whether his saddle and lead weights might already have been nabbed as souvenirs.
Winning the Gold Cup is every jockey’s dream. Conor did it twice. His victory on Imperial Call was a staggering performance. ‘Conor rode a copybook race,’ said the geldings’ Cork-based trainer, Fergie Sutherland. ‘He kept him wide, got him jumping, kicked on and then let the horse's class do the rest.’
Ten years later, Conor made St. Patrick’s Day his own when he won the 2006 Gold Cup for a second time on the Michael O’Leary owned War of Attrition.[i]
In between the two Gold Cups, Conor racked up a huge tally of victories, most notably back-to-back wins of the Cheltenham Champion Hurdles on Co. Carlow’s hugely popular Hardy Eustace.
Such a winning streak was undoubtedly inspired by the fact Conor has a special disposition which horses can relate to. It is also a lot to do with several decades of hard graft and training.
It was certainly not in the blood. In fact, Conor cannot find any ancestral links to horses at all. The closest he can manage is that his paternal grandfather, John O’Dwyer, was a carpenter based in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, who once constructed some confessional boxes for the Catholic Church on the Curragh where Conor now trains.
Senan O’Dwyer, Conor’s late father, enjoyed a few years of oceanic cruising as a radio officer in the Merchant Navy. During a stopover in Liverpool he met a nurse by name of Kay Gaul who was working in the city’s Walton Street Hospital. Her father Alderman James Gaul had served as Mayor of Wexford in 1952. The couple married and returned to Wexford Town where Senan set himself up as an accountant for an American firm and Kay went to work at Wexford General Hospital, of which she would later become Matron.[ii]
In the 18th century, prospective Admirals joined the Navy at the age of 12 so they would have a decade of experience under their belt by the time they reached adulthood. The equestrian world trots a similar path and many of the young men and women who gallop past the posts of Cheltenham, Aintree, Leopardstown and Punchestown have been clambering into saddles since they were fetlock high to a grasshopper.
‘I started riding when I was six, says Conor. ‘After school I often went to see a good friend of mine called John Berry whose family are steeped in horses. We’d head out and ride ponies.’ He soon persuaded his parents to buy him a pony of his own.[iii] ‘By the time I was nine, I had made up my mind to be a jockey and I stuck with it and thank God it paid me well enough.’[iv]
When he was fourteen, his parents enrolled him at the newly established Racing Apprentice Centre of Education on the Curragh.[v]
‘RACE is really a fantastic facility’, says Conor. ‘It used to be that if you made it, you made it, and if you didn’t, tough. Next thing your jockey dreams are up in smoke and you’re a stable boy. But now they really guide you along so, for example, if you look like you’re going to be too big to be an amateur, they will advise you what job to go for.’
Jockeys are made of sturdy stuff. They don’t need to do push ups or run miles or swim a hundred lengths to stay fit. They simply get up on a horse and ride out. Conor was soon riding out eight horses every morning. His talent, determination and light frame caught the eye of local trainers who began to offer him race rides.
‘Riding out is great but there’s nothing like the actual racecourse rides’, he says. ‘A good rider at home doesn’t always make it on the track. You need to race as often as you can so you can feel it all and, if you’ve messed up, then you watch the race again on TV and see where you went wrong. You’ve got to be very, very self-critical. If you don’t find fault, you won’t prove anything.’
He completed the pre-apprentice jockey course in 1982 and rode his first race ride in Roscommon shortly afterwards.[vi] Two years and eight races later, the sixteen-year-old rode his first winner in a claiming bumper at Limerick.[vii]
Progress was slow in the early years but he secured his first major victory was the 1991 Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle on board the Paddy Mullins-trained Redundant Pal. [viii] Five years later, he became a household name with his sensational Gold Cup victory on Imperial Call. ‘It’s everybody’s dream to win at Cheltenham’, he says. ‘The dream of every jockey, owner and trainer. Cheltenham is the Olympics of racing so to win the Gold Cup was incredible’.
‘Ninety per cent of my career has been luck’, he says. ‘Being in the right place at the right time.’ One of his most fortuitous decisions was to turn down an offer to become stable jockey to England’s Kim Bailey in England and take up with Arthur Moore in Co. Kildare instead. ‘I didn’t want to leave home’, he explains. He enjoyed a very successful ten years with Mr. Moore, most notably partnering Native Upmanship to twelve victories between 1999 and 2005.
‘In my best years, I rode between four and five hundred different horses a year’, Conor reckons. By the time he retired, after twenty-six seasons, he had racked up over 700 wins.[ix] He rode his last race on Easter Monday 2008, steering Mr Top Notch to victory in the Pierse Leopardstown Handicap Chase. ‘I had mixed emotions about retiring but I thought I’d get out on a good note. Racing is a young man’s sport and you have to be hungry and fit and determined. I’d started training and both jobs require one hundred per cent. Something had to go.’
His one regret is that he never won the Grand National. ‘I was third in it the first year I rode and I had another fourteen goes after that. It’s not necessarily the classiest race but I still wanted to win it’.
Perhaps he might win it as a trainer. He began his new career in 2008 and trains amid the white railings of the Curragh’s gallops, a landscape he has known intimately since he was fourteen.[x]
Recession aside, he is ‘very happy with the way things are going’, notching up the first win of his new career when Hangover won a bumper at Punchestown. ‘We have thirty horses in and our first winner under our belt so it’s all to play for.’
He believes the racing industry has been revolutionized in the past decade and that everything has become steadily more serious and competitive. It is his hope that he can inject a fresh and positive spark, that one of his horses might emerge as the new Moscow Flyer or Hardy Eustace and draw the cheering crowds.[xi]
Conor takes time out every August to return to his native Co. Wexford where his family have a summer house in Kilmore Quay. His preferred place of sanctuary is on board a small fishing boat, swishing around the Saltee Islands and Tuskar Rock.
'Sporting Legends of Ireland' has been nominated for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year Award 2010. Please vote for it here!
[i] That was a mighty day for the Irish at large as the second and third spot also fell to Irish-trained horses.
[ii] ‘My mother had to look after me the odd time alright’, says Conor, the younger of their two sons who was born in 1967. ‘Maybe a broken collar bone or a few ribs from falling off a horse.’ But of far greater alarm to her was the night Conor was brought in after a serious car crash which broke his nose and both arms. ‘That gave her a bit of a shock’, he says. Conor was back in the saddle again inside six months. [check]
[iii] ‘We lived in the town so they had to rent little plots of land to keep him’, he recalls.
[iv] The youngster became a regular sight in the stables of Jim Rossiter and Padge Berry, frequently riding out of both yards after school.
[v] The school was established near the National Stud in 1973 and its Trainee Jockey course began four years later.
[vi] Conor started on the flat but did not have much interest in it. ‘It suited me fine that I was too heavy for it because I prefer riding over fences’.
[vii] Both his first race and his first win were for trainer Frank Oakes.
[viii] At the age of nineteen, he was a champion claimer and secured the stable job at Francis Flood's Grangecon set-up. However, he decided to take a gamble and went freelance.
[ix] He once rode in the Colonial Cup in South Carolina – it was ‘more like an Irish point-to-point than anything’, in his memory.
[x] Conor and his partner Audrey live near the Curragh. They have a painting by James Fennell’s mother Lesley Fennell in the hall of his house, as well as a photo of Conor and War of Attrition.
[xi] ‘I think a lot of the fun has gone out of it over the years. Maybe young people think its great crack. But to me it seems to be the same people who go racing. I don’t see so many fresh faces. Crowds are down. It needs a spark. When Hardy Eustace or Moscow Flyer race, people go to see those horses. You need icons that catch an imagination.
‘Its got a lot more professional which is not necessarily a good thing. It’s a lot more competitive. Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t always someone biting at your heels. But now if there’s any bit of a slip, the next lad is ready to go. Prize money got so big that it became more of a business than a sport or a hobby which is what it was. To have a horse in training can be a dear thing so of course owners want results. It was a lot more laid-back years ago.'