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Saturday 16 December 2017

Seán O'Brien says that Cheltenham is one of the ways to distract himself from Six Nations pressure

Owning a share in a horse named in your honour, watching it win, and selling it to one of Ireland's leading owners for an offer that was too good to refuse is a good way of picking up the buzz of jump racing.

Seán O'Brien grew up on a farm and thoroughbred mares grazed the land and foals were bred and sold on but his love for the game has really grown in recent years and next week the aforementioned horse, The Tullow Tank, will grace the biggest stage for the first time.

Now trained by Sandra Hughes, the Barry Connell-owned seven-year-old started his season well by winning at Fairyhouse but his next two-runs were disappointing.

A return to better form at Leopardstown last time out means that connections, past and present, have more to look forward next week.

"I got involved, with a friend of mine called Paul Duffin, in The Tullow Tank, and it kind of kicked off from there," he told The Herald.

"We got a good horse and we sold him on and we'd be very pleased that he has turned out to be a good horse, although there's times you'd be looking back now and we wouldn't be sure if we should have sold him at all, but it's one of those things and I'm just delighted he has worked out well for Barry.

"He came back to himself more at Leopardstown the last day but at Fairyhouse he looked like he was under no pressure and jumped really well and I really do hope that he has a good run in Cheltenham and shows what he can do again. It's a big stage and hopefully he has a bit more confidence again after the last day."

Last year the Cheltenham Festival proved to be a welcome distraction for O'Brien who was enduring a frustrating time with injuries. Instead of being in camp with his Irish team-mates preparing for a vital Six Nations game, he was in Cheltenham enjoying what the biggest of National Hunt meetings has to offer.

This year Cheltenham will play a part again, but in a completely different way. After Sunday's win over England in the Six Nations Championship, all roads lead to Cardiff for what is as good as a Grand Slam decider.

Ireland will set up camp at Maynooth's Carton House and the regime will be intense as the team bid to lay down a major mark in what is a World Cup year but each player will need their own form of release, and for O'Brien, Cheltenham will offer some of that.

There's the cattle on the farm at home and a bit of shooting too as well as keeping up to date with all matters in the world of GAA, but after really getting hooked after his involvement with The Tullow Tank, O'Brien will be keeping an extremely close eye on what's happening at Prestbury Park next week.

As enjoyable as being in attendance was 12 months ago, he is naturally not in a rush back just yet.

"Last year I was injured and got the chance to go over and it was something I always wanted to do but in previous years I wouldn't have that opportunity with the rugby," O'Brien said.

"It was a great week and Cheltenham week is always exciting. It was great craic and I made a lot of new friends and met a lot of racing people and it was a different experience for me, but I hope I'm never back there again until I finish playing rugby," he laughed.

"That's the other side of it," the Carlow native continued. "I'm very happy to watch the racing on television when we are finished training or playing and that's the way I want to do it for the next couple of years anyway!"

One of O'Brien's good friends is jockey agent Frostie Kelly, who, among others, has Davy Russell, Andrew Lynch and Niall Madden on his books and O'Brien himself would be friendly with a number of lads inside the weighroom.

"Racing wouldn't be my sole release but I would be checking the results and seeing what horses are running well and on the phone to Frosty and a few of the boys, but I do a good bit of shooting and I'd be on the farm, the cows are all in calf and there's sheds to be done up and that's what I really enjoy but during the weeks of camp it's all about rest and recovery and racing is good for that."

O'Brien admitted that he hadn't been racing as often as he would have liked this year as he concentrated on getting himself back to full fitness but after a previously successful foray into ownership he is now looking forward to his new stock coming along.

"We have three young horses there now that were bought last summer but haven't raced yet so we'll see how they go on to progress."

O'Brien was in the wars again on Sunday being forced off in the first half of the England game and with much discussion centring around injuries in rugby and the obvious risks that jockeys take every day, O'Brien admits that he has great respect for anyone who takes up that profession.

"I suppose we are certainly different in size anyway but I think there is also a difference there in terms of impact everyday.

"We take a lot of pounding on the body at least once a week in a full body session and then at the weekend in a game but a jockey has the risk of a big fall every day from riding out, to schooling to going to the races and you'd have massive respect for jockeys," O'Brien admitted.

"A lot of the rugby lads here follow racing and some of the falls they get you'd be sitting there wondering how they get up at all and even we would be shocked by that.

"But on the other side of things you'd be talking to Davy Russell or Ruby and they'd ask you 'how do you take those belts?' but they are taking falls at 35 miles per hour and a horse coming down on top of them so they are both tough games but I'd probably feel safer doing what I'm doing than what the boys are doing."

After such a troubled time with injury, the 28-year-old can sympathise with jockeys getting falls and missing big races or big meetings.

Since making a full recovery and being named in the Six Nations opener against Italy, a tweaked hamstring in the warm-up ruled 'The Tullow Tank' out of the game and then in Sunday's crucial game a blow to the head forced him off.

"It's one of those things, you are ready to rock for the big day and I was ready to go against Italy and it didn't happen but luckily it wasn't too bad. I think that's the great thing about jockeys as well. You see them there and they could be half broke up - they're probably never 100 per cent riding - but yet they still go out and do their job and do it well."

O'Brien admits that Cheltenham will take up some keen interest next week among his colleagues on the Irish team and if he was to be in a position to own a horse next week it's no surprise that it would be trained by a certain Willie Mullins.

"He has a handful there that I think are going to be very hard to stop. Un De Sceaux looks a real exciting type but he has so many.

"But it will be this week before I really sit down and have a good look at it.

"I don't bet that much to be honest, but I'll have a couple of bets over the week and that'll be it."

Owning a Cheltenham Festival winner is certainly on O'Brien's bucket list but he also admits that a big race winner in Ireland would be just as important.

"It would be savage to find another The Tullow Tank, of course it would, and find yourself standing in Cheltenham but to be honest, for me personally, I'd love to win a big race in Ireland.

"That would be the ultimate to win one of the biggest over here."

While the Irish raiders concentrate on grabbing an "away win" at Cheltenham, O'Brien will be watching with interest but most importantly concentrating on a vital away win of his own against Wales the day after Gold Cup day.

"It's obviously a massive game and they are a tough, tough side.

"They have been one of the most physical with us over the last few years I suppose as well as England and there are no easy games in the championship and the Wales game will be no different."

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