The 2020-2021 National Hunt season ended with trainer Fergal O’Brien amassing 104 wins, 146 places, an 18% strike rate and a grand total of £779,000 in prize money. A terrific season that concluded with a personal best for the trainer and a new inductee into the exclusive ‘100 winners in a season’ club.
Anyone that is a regular on social media who follows the fortunes of the yard on twitter or Instagram will have been aware of the push for 100 winners and the name of each horse as the tally neared the magic number. They’d have also known the type of cake, a stable passion, that they had for breakfast the next day to celebrate. At the time of writing the @FOBRacing twitter account is nudging 40,000 and Instagram over 14,000. Fergal’s emphasis on those accounts has seen the yard out there in the spotlight. That achieved by simply by conveying the fun of owning a horse in training with Fergal O’Brien or just being involved with the yard and the people as well as the horses that are a huge part of it.
Given the success of the yard in recent years you could be excused for thinking that Fergal had been pretty much born on a horse, was destined to train and had a nice leg up from esteemed extended family members. Indeed, esteemed is a word used to describe the master of Ravenswell, but he’s no relation to the formerly better-known trainers that share his surname.
Born in Ireland, the youngest of six children Fergal’s dad was a bus driver and his mum earned a living as a breakfast cook at a local hotel between looking after the family. Fergal’s older brothers David and Brian left home to forge careers in the racing industry, David went to Nicky Henderson and Brian to Doug Francis whose yard was taken over by his son Richard after his father’s death aged 82 in 1998. Fergal followed Brian to spend the summer at the yard, celebrating his 15th birthday there. From there he went to the Racing School then on to Captain Tim Forster for three and a half years. Described to me as ‘a great experience’ adding ‘it was totally different from how we do it now, but he was brilliant to work for, looked after his staff, loved his horses and had some brilliant owners, some of my best friends are from those days, that was a great grounding.’
From there Fergal worked briefly for a private trainer then onto Ginger McCain for three months which he described as an ‘experience’ before 19 years with Nigel Twiston-Davies raising through the ranks to become head lad then assistant trainer. He said working at the yard was where he did all his learning, describing the trainer as very loyal and a great man to work for. He looked back on those days with great fondness. ‘A great time doing everything from training horses, working with cattle and babysitting, great years with Cheltenham winners and plenty of ups and downs as with any racing yard, a great place to work, 19 years and not a single regret of any of them’.
During the latter part of his time with Twiston-Davies Fergal was independently training point to pointers. Asked about the importance of racing between the flags he said ‘It’s very important for people like me to find our way training, it’s important for jockeys learning to race ride, some really good trainers and jockeys started off point to pointing.’
In 2011 after a few seasons saddling point to pointers under his own name, four as top Midland’s trainer, Fergal decided it was time to move on. He had a good owner base so with the help and backing of owner and entrepreneur Chris Coley he set up his own yard. The first home for the O’Brien operation based at Cilldara Stud near Northleach then Upper Yard Grange Hill Farm where the winners really started to come, as Fergal’s name became further established. In 2019 he moved again, this time to Ravenswell Farm near Cheltenham, a state-of-the-art training centre created by the yard’s landlord Rupert Lowe. 63 winners were sent out from the new base in the Covid-truncated 2019-20 season which was a record-breaking one for ‘Team FOB’. The whole fun aspect had to be sadly curtailed in person for so many given the Covid restrictions which must have been a wrench. The popularity and subsequent continued success of the yard has been partly attributed to the sense of belonging regardless of if someone owns several horses or just a leg of a Ravenswell Farm charge. Fergal’s opinion is that racing has changed, he’s always considered it a part of the entertainment industry, no different to a theatre or leisure centre. He told me, ‘We’ve got to make it enjoyable, it’s an expensive hobby, if we don’t make it enjoyable, people won’t hang around long.’
That total was topped by 41 this year totalling 104 winners for a yard on a roll. They are sponsored by Dunraven Doors, Windows and Conservatories and bookmakers Unibet. The pandemic and restrictions that have been imposed will have hit a set-up that put pride in making their racing fun. Their Saturday morning owners’ gallops visit followed by a hearty breakfast at a local pub was always a highlight of the week where the comradery and sense of belonging between owners was nurtured.
They will be looking forward to that stage of ‘normality’ but in the meantime technology helped out there, Fergal told me ‘WhatsApp has been fantastic for us, sending lots of videos when we first went into the lockdown and the horses were turned out into the field, we had a lot of great feedback, just going down there on a summer evening the weather was great, just going down there watching them eat grass, just the little things. That’s what we found, people don’t just want to see a video of their horse going up a gallop or going over three fences. They want to see a video of their horse in the field having a roll or being washed off in his box or having his tea, people love to see that.’
When I asked him what he attributed his tremendous season to he told me. ‘The big thing would be the move to Ravenswell Farm, this has been our first full season here. This time last year we were in a pandemic, nobody really knew what was happening and it gave us a chance to take a step back, the horses went in the field we got everything pressure washed and cleaned, we followed the builders in so didn’t have the chance to do that in the 2019-20 season. The BHA were very good, they said we’re trying to get flat racing going, I understood that, with the patterns and stud book etc it was a big thing, they had to get flat racing going. They told us in April that they were hopeful to get going in July. I took that and ran with it, I took it to my owners and said the ones that we have for the summer, give them a short break, we’ll get them back in, and get them to rock and roll in July. I was very lucky, the owners followed and we got a good start. The first winner Ultimate Getaway was at Southwell on the first day and went on to win a couple more. It just went from there, we had momentum and a lovely set-up. The one big thing was the first full season at Ravenswell Farm.’
The magic hundred wasn’t a target at the outset, Fergal explained, ‘I didn’t really think about the 100 until a few people said when we got to 80 or something like that, even then I though jeez a hundred is a long way away I think we had 80 just before Christmas. Then in the back of my mind I thought it’ll be a long three months if we don’t have another 20 winners. Since I have been training January has always been a quiet month for us. We try and run a lot on the build up to Christmas when people can normally go racing and March is a tricky month as well as you’ve got the Festival in there. What was great was that the horses stayed healthy and consistent nearly all year round and that’s down to great facilities and great staff.’ He went on to say, ‘Every one of the boys and girls here are vital cogs in a big wheel.’
When I suggested that he might have put himself under some unwanted stress being under pressure to beat the 104 this season he was non-plussed. ‘I wouldn’t say stressful, the first time I had 50 winners people said oh you’ll have to do it again next year that’s daunting, but it’s not. You’ll always want to do better, and you have to realise that you might end up with a bunch of horses that aren’t very well handicapped and things like that so maybe it’s not achievable. I’ve never been one to put myself under too much stress or pressure we try and let things happened as natural as they can. Even going for the 100 Paddy was really pushing, we took horses out at Aintree, Bangor and Ludlow that had chances, but the ground wasn’t right, it was never about getting to the 100 at all costs. It was a case of doing the best with what we had, if we got there we got there and if we didn’t, we didn’t. My one worry about not reaching 100, if we got to 95 or 96 was that people would think it was a disappointing season because we didn’t get to 100. That would have really hurt because if I could train 95 winners every season, I’d take that because that’s phenomenal season in itself.’
How many other trainers have got such a following that they have started marketing their own merchandising that would put some rock groups to shame? Not many, is the answer to that question. Going into the 2021-22 season Fergal is optimistic, his enthusiasm infectious, telling me ‘We expect to be full, at the moment we have 86 boxes and I’ve rented a yard in Stow-on-the-Wold, I’ve got to see the landlord in the near future to see if we take that back on or if we build a few boxes here at home. That’s up for debate, but whatever happens we’ll be trying to beat 104 winners that’s for sure’. And asked the target for this season?
He replied with a laugh, ‘It’s 105!’
Simon Nott was talking to Fergal O’Brien.