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Getting To Know: Fergal O’Brien

Fergal O’Brien discusses his life in racing and his favourite Grand National memory ahead of Saturday’s big contest

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Trainer Fergal O'Brien at Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse, Bangor-on-Dee.

Fergal O’Brien, the well-known Gloucestershire-based trainer, is enjoying his yard’s finest season to date, having amassed 93 winners with the season finale a few weeks away and the day two of the Grand National Festival nearing.

Ravenswell Farm now put their eggs into the Liverpool basket as they chase down glory on Merseyside this weekend.

Bindaree, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, won the Grand National in 2002 while Fergal O’Brien was head lad at the yard

Fergal has tasted success in the National before, under Nigel Twiston-Davies when the Naunton yard took home the biggest race of them all on two occasions.

And while O’Brien may not be represented in the race itself for the 2021 renewal, he has a few runners across the card in Liverpool as himself and the team aim to break the century before the season finale at Sandown.

A household name in the National Hunt game, Fergal O’Brien’s horses continue in good form as the stable celebrated wins at Plumpton and Exeter earlier this week.

Will the trip north bring further success across Friday and Saturday?

The popular trainer talks to aintree.co.uk about his National memories, the current campaign for his yard and the importance of his recent yard switch to Ravenswell Farm.

You spent just under two decades as head lad for Nigel Twiston-Davies’ yard. Did your time in Naunton spearhead your ambitions of becoming a trainer?

I never really had an ambition to train during my time with Nigel. We had a great time with two Grand National winners and a Gold Cup winner, and there was a couple of bad seasons along the way but we learnt more from the poor seasons as we did the good ones. I was training a few pointers which I enjoyed and in the end it didn’t work out, but I did it because I loved it and it was time for me to move on, which was what kickstarted my career in training.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is a two-time winner of the Grand National
After moving to Ravenswell Farm in November 2019, you recorded your highest tally of winners in a season with 63 successes. Has changing scenery bought the best out of your runners?

The change of scenery when we first moved definitely sparked up a few of the older horses, like Perfect Candidate. It affects humans as well as horses, and we found a place where I really enjoy training. In Naunton, we had a lot of horses and it wasn’t the place where we could look after owners like we wanted to so Ravenswell just came along at the right time. It’s a fantastic place to train and be; it’s got a great energy and vibe to it.

Fergal O’Brien’s Perfect Candidate ridden by Paddy Brennan jumps the last to win The Leicester Annual Members Novices’ Limited Handicap Steeple Chase at Leicester Racecourse
You’ve had your best winning season to date, landing 93 victories so far this term. Do you believe the yard could break the 100 winners milestone in the coming weeks?

It’s a tricky one but it’s something that I’m conscious of and would love to do, and it would mean the world for us to do it. Realistically, time is running out for us and we have a quiet week up to the weekend with Aintree where it will be very difficult to have a winner. Hopefully, the horses run well and it’s still doable, but I’m not going to try and run horses just for the sake of trying to get one more winner. We’ll try and it’s achievable, but not at all costs.

You are currently one win behind six-time Champion Trainer Nicky Henderson for this season, how much of an achievement would it be to score more victories than the Seven Barrows trainer this term?

Any comparisons to Seven Barrows is absolutely phenomenal. I was lucky enough to be stood next to Nicky when Shishkin won and he genuinely had tears running down his face. I congratulated him and he said to me “They all still mean so much”. This is a man who has won more races at Cheltenham than any other British trainer and he’s been doing it a long time; a multiple Champion Trainer. We’d be very proud, particularly my brother David who spent time with Nicky in the 1980’s during the golden era with See You Then, so it would be lovely if we could have more winners come the end of the season.

Nicky Henderson reading a racecard at the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Nicky Henderson is six-time Champion Trainer in Britain but sits behind Fergal O’Brien in the current trainers championship
You hold a strong stable team including your assistant trainer Sally Randell and head lads Kevin Brown and Dave Killahena. Are they the driving force behind a newfound level of success this season?

No one is more important than anyone else. Myself and Sally are just cogs in a wheel, and it’s a big wheel that takes a lot of people turning. From the yard lads and lasses to the people who muck out, and the boys and girls who come in and ride out, it’s just a massive team. Paddy Brennan is also a huge part of that and if there’s anyone who’s more driven than me, it’s him. He’s important to the young lads like Connor Brace, Liam Harrison and Max Kendrick, and he sits above and guides them. I believe if your staff are happy, your horses will be happy and we’re lucky to have a great bunch of people to work for us.

2010 Gold Cup winning jockey Paddy Brennan is the retained rider at Ravenswell Farm for Fergal O’Brien
Friday suggests a busier day for your stable at the Grand National course. What are your expectations for day two?

I’m looking forward to Timberman running, I think he’ll love the ground and the quicker the better for him. He skipped off the ground at Doncaster and he’s got a great will to win, so we’re looking forward to him running here. Silver Hallmark and Alaphillippe won’t run. The last thing you want to do is disappoint an owner but we need to look after them as they’re very good horses. We can’t risk Alaphillipe at this time of year on good ground as it’s just not worth it. As much as we all want to have runners here, we need to think long-term and he’ll make into a lovely staying chaser who could even contend in a National in two or three years time.

Polish is declared for the Grade 3 Bridle Road Handicap Hurdle on Saturday, could he claim a first Graded success here?

Three miles on a flat galloping track will suit him and he’s done nothing wrong for us so far. He’s done well since he’s gone handicapping and he will go in the ground. We’re going to pop some cheekpieces on him to see if it will make it easier for him and Paddy to travel a bit better as he always just races a little bit behind the bridle, so we’re looking forward to him running. We also have a lovely horse in the bumper, Peking Rose, who won first time out for us when very green at Carlisle, and then finished fourth at Ascot in a Listed race. He was only beaten three-and-a-half lengths that day and we really like him. He’s by Passing Glance, and we think he’ll love both the ground and track, and I think he’s got a great each-way chance.

WATCH: POLISH WINS AT LUDLOW IN FEBRUARY 2020 UNDER PADDY BRENNAN FOR FERGAL O’BRIEN [CREDIT: RACING TV]
What or who inspired you to get into horse racing?

My two brothers inspired me to get into racing. My dad was a bus driver and the racing was always on at the weekend, and he’d love a bet and to watch. My brother came to Cheltenham with a horse of Andrew McNamara’s called Booren Prince that won the Arkle in 1985 and I remember watching on the television. My brother David still rides out for us, he lives in Hereford, and my other brother Brian is back in Ireland, but he still takes a great interest in the horses and they looked after me growing up. Brian arranged for me to go to the Racing School when I was 16, so those two have been the biggest influence for me.

Which Grand National lives in the memory for you?

I was very lucky to be involved in two Grand National wins in Earth Summit and Bindaree. Earth Summit will always stand out because he was the first and everything was right for him; we were really confident as Nigel was having a great season. But if I had to pin my colours to one, it would be Bindaree, because we’d had two not-so great seasons and a terrible Cheltenham. Nigel was actually considering packing up, but I sent him a text telling him to have a think because he was, and still is, a great trainer. He often refers to it and then Bindaree came out and won, which rebooted everyone and we got back on track. We got a new gallop as a result and rolled on from there, never looking back. Imperial Commander then won the Gold Cup a few years later, so Bindaree’s win was integral to Nigel sticking in training.

Dominic Chapman is senior content writer at Low6 with a passion for horse racing. He provides a NAP and NB every day throughout the week on selected National Hunt and Flat cards in both Britain and Ireland. Additionally, he hosts the Paddock Picks Podcast with former Welsh Grand National-winning pilot, Charlie Poste - the pair interviewing and discussing current racing topics with a special guest every week.

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