Michael O’Brien. The name meant success. He was America’s champion steeplechase jockey of 1972 and rode the stars for Jonathan Sheppard including Cafe Prince, Athenian Idol, Wustenchef and the rest.
The name also came as a warning, a danger sign, a cautionary tale. In the 1974 Carolina Cup, Athenian Idol fell with O’Brien and left the jockey paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. If O’Brien (the best jockey in the game) could get hurt riding Athenian Idol (champion of 1973 and the best horse in the game) for Sheppard (the best trainer in the game), then the rest of us could get hurt. We were riding ponies, smashing around the fields and woods and gallops on ponies, retired steeplechasers, the occasional racehorses.
What chance did we have?
O’Brien lived through the fall, went back to Ireland and became a top National Hunt trainer. He won the Mackeson Gold Cup and Hennessy Gold Cup with Bright Highway in 1980. He trained three winners of the Irish Grand National – King Spruce, Vanton and Glebe Lad – and won races at the Cheltenham Festival and other big English and Irish meets. O’Brien, who retired as a trainer in 2009, died Friday in a Dublin hospital. Brother of American trainer Leo O’Brien (also a former American jump jockey), Michael O’Brien was 68.
I was a child when O’Brien and Athenian Idol went down. Obviously, there’s only so much impact an accident can have on a 9-year-old. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. There’s no videotape, as far as I know. I didn’t really know the man, though he probably rode a race or two for my father (on slow days for Sheppard).
O’Brien’s name stood out though. I remembered it first because of his skill, his talent, his success. Then for his unfulfilled promise and his example. O’Brien won a championship, so his name stays in the books, but he was surely headed to more success and that’s worth remembering.
*PHOTO: Wustenchef and Michael O’Brien fly a fence in the Indian River at Delaware Park in 1971 (Douglas Lees).