Prestigious awards for O'Brien and O'Neill
Training maestro and champion point-to-point jockey fly Wexford flag proudly
Two Wexford men were included among the seven winners at the prestigious Horse Racing Ireland Awards presentations at Leopardstown on Tuesday.
Ballydoyle Maestro, Aidan O'Brien, is used to collecting trophies all over the racing world and this time he won for his contribution to the industry; in contrast, it was a first major honour for Barry O'Neill who took the point-to-point award.
O'Neill clinched his first all-Ireland riders' title last season when he led most of the way and held off a late rally by the previous year's champion and award winner, Jamie Codd, in an epic, season-long battle that climaxed last June.
Codd was again included among the five nominees, along with trainers Colin Bowe (Kiltealy), national champion for the fifth time, and Denis Murphy (The Ballagh) who made a major impact on the course and in the sales ring. Four of the five nominees is a striking illustration of Wexford's dominance of the point-to-point scene.
And apart from Aidan O'Brien, a perennial winner, Wexford 'breeding' can also lay some claim to a share of the glory in two of the other awards: the outstanding achievement gong went to Aidan's son, Joseph, for his remarkable victory with Rekindling in the Melbourne Cup at just 24 years of age.
Jumps jockey Robbie Power, son of former showjumping star, Captain Con, a native of The Hook, Fethard, was an integral part of the two trophies picked up by Jessica Harrington - the National Hunt and Horse of the Year Awards - as he rode Sizing John to his remarkable Cups treble at Cheltenham, Leopardstown and Punchestown and also steered most of Harrington's other big winners.
Horse Racing Ireland Chief Executive, Brian Kavanagh, summed things up pretty well: '2017 saw Irish-trained and Irish-bred horses continue to raise the bar both internationally and here at home.
'Aidan O'Brien has been setting a standard for over two decades and this year went one step further with a phenomenal world record 27 Group 1 wins. From an unforgettable Cheltenham with a record 19 Irish-trained winners, right through to the Melbourne Cup success for Joseph O'Brien, this has been a year to remember and celebrate.'
I could fill up the rest of this page outlining the achievements of Aidan O'Brien and still have lots left to say. But even by his exceptional standards, 2017 was an extraordinary year.
The highlight was probably breaking Bobby Frankel's record of 25 Group 1s in a year set in 2003, when he took it from Aidan; that figure has been raised now to 27 and the only person likely to break it again is O'Brien himself.
He won eight of the ten classics in Britain and Ireland, only Enable preventing a clean sweep; he reached over 300 career Group 1s; he is Irish champion trainer for the 20th time and is British champion for the sixth time; he had six winners at Royal Ascot.
The Dewhurst Stakes is regarded as the premier two-year-olds race in Britain and a pointer to next year's classics - O' Brien incredibly saddled the first four home with US Navy Flag leading the way, so things are unlikely to change any time soon.
Video tributes were paid to him by rugby coach Joe Schmidt, Brian Cody, Niall Quinn and Ken Doherty, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hit the nail on the head: 'Because of you, Ireland sits at the top table of the [world] horseracing industry. Your achievements are only outweighed by your modesty.'
Barry O'Neill from Ballindaggin won the point-to-point riders' championship this year after an epic battle with Jamie Codd which went right down to the last meeting in June, the final tally being 67 to 65. He had been second to Codd the year before and third in the table three times, so he had certainly served his 'apprenticeship'.
As a young boy he liked nothing better than being in and around the stables of his neighbour, Colin Bowe. And he began to ride for him regularly eight years ago when he was 20.
They have formed a great team ever since and Bowe provided him with 25 of those winners last season. He has ridden 438 winners in his career, and still counting.
He is the fourth Wexford winner of the H.R.I. point-to-point award in the last five years, following Jamie Codd and Colin Bowe, and he is the first rider to break the stranglehold at the top held by Derek O'Connor (eleven times champion) and Codd. The two Wexford men are neck and neck again this season at the Christmas break.
Son of James and Margot, Barry has two brothers, Alan and Jim, and a sister, Laura. Jim is deeply involved in the horse business, breaking, pre-training, buying and selling, and it gave Barry great satisfaction to ride a really impressive winner for him at Mainstown last Sunday week, Straight Red being trained by Bowe. This one could soon make a big impact in the sales ring.
Barry lives in Kiltealy now with his partner, Brigid Bowe, first cousin of trainer, Colin, and they are involved in building their own house and a life together, a life where horses are sure to figure prominently.