The first time I met the jockey, he wasn’t riding.
His weight had ballooned. From an injury, or suspension. Maybe both.
He looked big. For a second, I wondered if I’d been introduced to the wrong bloke.
We were in a pub, and he was doing his bit to support the publican. Friendly enough, but distracted. Like he was missing out.
My mate knew him well. Still does. Explained that he was trying to get back in the saddle, but it was tough.
He started riding again soon after. I watched with interest. Always easy to find in the form guide. Topweight, or close to it.
The talent was obvious. A true horseman. They travelled so easily for him.
He rarely found trouble in running. Horses relaxed. And he knew exactly where the post was.
The second time I met the jockey, we were at the track. He’d been back in action for a few years. Winning too. All over the place. Distraction was replaced by focus. And fun.
We had another beer. Mine was delivered by his outstretched skinny arm. And a big grin. This was a happy hoop.
He’d just ridden a winner, after being unlucky early. No matter. He was loving it. Excited about doing the job he was born for.
That’s the thing about Chris O’Brien. There’s nothing else you’d want him to be doing.
He’s been making horses run fast since he was a kid. In New Zealand. The one thing we can hold against him.
There are plenty like him, plying their trade on tracks from Cessnock to Randwick, and all points in between.
Tradesmen, if you like. Not superstars. The blokes who keep the industry rolling along.
But don’t be fooled. O’Brien is much more than that. It’s just that his body is constantly battling against him.
First, it was a terrible leg injury. Not from a horse, but a harvester. Sliced his heel off like ham from the bone.
They told him to forget about riding. Long odds to even walk. He ignored the experts, and did both.
There’s still a limp though. You’ll see it today at Mooney Valley.
He’s no lightweight. Far from it. And that bung foot means he can’t run. So he cycles for hours, all over the place, to trim down.
The bike has been copping a workout of late. Because the battler has been given a break. A career-defining galloper.
Sincero is O’Brien’s special horse. Gave him his first Group One. And today, together, they could add their names to the record books.
The Wyong galloper has been set for the Cox Plate all along. He was fancied early, but is now an outsider.
They’re hoping the spark returns today. Blinkers go back on. Like the day he flashed home to win the Stradbroke. Chris was no chance of making the weight that day.
It must have been a crushing blow, but he didn’t complain. The owners stayed solid, and had him straight back on. He’s been there ever since.
They think they can win today. On one of racing’s greatest stages. Those closest to the jockey will be at the Valley, cheering themselves silly. If Sincero gets up, you’ll hear them from interstate.
He gets to live the dream. All the struggles, all those bike marathons, will be worthwhile.
There’s something heartening about barracking for the underdog in the big event. Success, if it comes, is just that little bit sweeter.
Make no mistake, Chris O’Brien deserves his place in this field.
No-one has worked harder to get to the barriers today. And if Sincero triumphs, no-one will celebrate longer than the little bloke with the limp.