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Rising Cork jockey Michael O’Sullivan gunning for Cheltenham glory

While he may be the coolest of customers in the saddle, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is easily the biggest equine occasion of the 23-year-old’s life

Jockey Michael O'Sullivan celebrates after winning the Novice Hurdle on Good Land during day one of the Dublin Racing Festival. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Jockey Michael O'Sullivan and trainer Barry Connell, left, after sending out Marine Nationale to win the Bar One Racing Royal Bond Novice Hurdle earlier this season© SPORTSFILE


There will be no shortage of adrenaline coursing through every jockey’s body as they head down to the start for the Festival opener at Cheltenham, but none more so than Michael O’Sullivan.

While he may be the coolest of customers in the saddle, there’s no getting away from the fact that this is easily the biggest equine occasion of the 23-year-old’s life as he takes the mount on leading chance Marine Nationale in today’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Few would have predicted at the outset of the season that O’Sullivan would be in such an envious position but it has been a whirlwind for the Cork native with a series of remarkable firsts already under his belt.

It all started with a call to Barry Connell last May to see if he could partner Marine Nationale in a Punchestown bumper and the rest is history, with the pair forging a potent partnership which has parachuted both of them into the spotlight.

Connell, a powerful owner-turned-trainer, loved what he saw in O’Sullivan and encouraged him to join the professional ranks as his retained rider – an opportunity which simply could not be turned down – and Grade One success was just around the corner for them.

Connell has always been bullish about Marine Nationale’s ability, as well as O’Sullivan’s class over jumps, and they have already more than justified his faith with a famous success in the Royal Bond Novices’ Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December when pouncing late.

Marine Nationale was put away for Cheltenham since then with the Supreme always his main target for the season, and O’Sullivan’s date with destiny is almost upon him. The build-up is a mixture of emotions and he just can’t wait for the tape to drop.

“I love that horse,” O’Sullivan says of the six-year-old. “He means a lot to me now. He’s in good form at home and we’re very happy with him. There’s nerves and excitement, you’re just hoping everyone gets to race day in one piece.”

Considering O’Sullivan has had just one ride at the Festival prior to this – he finished 11th on Almazhar Garde (a 66/1 shot for Charlie Longsdon) in last year’s Kim Muir – things will be a little different at the Cotswolds this week on a horse which he feels is “entitled to be favourite”.

The 2019 champion novice point-to-point rider has won there before, though, after guiding the Dick Donohoe-trained Contrapposto (28/1) to take a handicap hurdle at the November meeting four months ago, and the Lombardstown native “wouldn’t be swapping my horse for anything” else in the race.

O’Sullivan, who shares a house in Paulstown (Kilkenny) with Cheltenham Festival-winning rider Richie Condon, will also be front and centre in tomorrow’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle as Connell is confident of completing a Grade One double via Good Land.

The seven-year-old oozed class at the Dublin Racing Festival to hand the pair their second success at the highest level and his rider couldn’t separate the stable stars, while also acknowledging how lucky he is to be in this “privileged position”. “Oh, I couldn’t pick between the two of them. I’m just very, very lucky to be getting on these horses so early in my professional career. I’d like to thank Barry and all of the team there, I’m in a very privileged position and I know that,” he says.

“Some people go through their career without coming across a Grade One horse so for me to come across two of them so early, I’m under no illusions about how lucky I am.

“And they mightn’t come around again so I’ll just have to enjoy them while I can and hopefully get the best days out of them.”

Should success come the way of O’Sullivan – who looks set to pick up some nice handicap rides for a host of other trainers while utilising his 3lbs claim in the UK (it is still 5lbs in Ireland) – it would continue an amazing family history at the Festival.

His father William was in the saddle when Lovely Citizen – trained by his uncle Eugene – won the Foxhunters Chase in 1991 while the trick was repeated three years ago when It Came To Pass sprung a 66/1 shock in the same contest.

Eugene’s daughter Maxine was in the plate on that occasion while Michael led the winner back in alongside his brother Alan amid great scenes in the winner’s enclosure. Those scenes would be repeated this week should O’Sullivan work the oracle.

He only qualified from UCD with a degree in animal science last May and he feels that having qualifications in the bag, as well as life experience, have left him “more mature” and ready for whatever racing throws at him.

O’Sullivan is well in the hunt to be crowned Irish champion conditional rider and standing at 6/1, he has already bucked plenty of trends.

An extraordinary year could yet be topped off with success on the biggest occasion of them all.

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