TOM O’BRIEN can pinpoint the moment when he fell in love with the world-famous Grand National fences.
It was just before 4.30pm on April 14, 2007, after the fast-finishing McKelvey had come within a neck of winning the world’s greatest steeplechase.
After his first ride in the race, the crestfallen jockey’s initial disappointment was soon eclipsed by a determination to conquer Aintree “because there is no thrill like it”.
With a quiet determination, the nephew of Ireland’s legendary Flat trainer Aidan O’Brien now has a formidable record at the unique Merseyside track thanks to an enviable three wins in four years.
He piloted the course specialist Always Waining to back-to-back wins in the Topham Chase in 2011 and 2012 before winning last year’s Betfred Becher Chase on the Philip Hobbs-trained Chance Du Roy.
Today the 28-year-old goes for a fourth success when he is reunited with Chance Du Roy for today’s three-and-a-quarter mile Becher test which has attracted 25 runners, including last year’s third Mr Moonshine for the Sue Smith stable.
More significantly, the equine warriors will be cheered by a capacity crowd of 42,000 racegoers after Aintree took the innovative step of issuing free tickets to local spectators in an attempt to rekindle the track’s relationship with the people of Liverpool.
Apart from the Grand National itself, today is set represent the biggest Saturday attendance at a jump fixture in this country.
O’Brien, the ever-patient understudy to the prolific Richard Johnson, cannot wait.
“I sat on Chance Du Roy on Thursday and he felt very well,” the County Wexford-born rider told The Yorkshire Post.
“He won the Becher last year and on his first run of the season and it is the same this time around. I have a great relationship with him and Philip’s horses are in great form. It looks a competitive race this year, but he loves the place, which counts for a lot.
“There are plenty of positives, but he has gone up a little bit in the weights and that would be my only worry.”
The challenge of Aintree could not be further removed from the lush gallops of Ballydoyle where O’Brien’s uncle trains.
The Classic-winning trainer entrusted his nephew with gallops work aboard horses of the calibre of High Chaparral and Rock Of Gibraltar.
“If you can’t learn from him, you can’t learn from anyone,” said the rider who is likely to be the main beneficiary of the 12-day ban picked up by the aforementioned Johnson yesterday for taking the wrong course at Exeter.
“He is an equine genius. I learned loads. It is hard to pinpoint one thing, there are so many, but his knowledge of each individual horse is outstanding. It is the same with the top jockeys here. It is what sets them apart.”
O’Brien’s first love has always been the jumping game and he has been a steady accumulator of winners since making the journey across the Irish Sea nearly 10 years ago.
He became champion amateur, and then champion conditional, and the decision was vindicated when McKelvey just failed to catch Silver Birch to land the 2007 National.
O’Brien’s first ride over the fearsome fences, the Peter Bowen-trained McKelvey came storming up the stand side after appearing to be inspired by the pulsating roar of the crowd.
“Another couple of strides and he would have won. It was that tantalising.
“I thought it was the National that got away and I got quite disillusioned,” said the jockey.
“Now my record is quite good there, I still think there is a Grand National in me. Of that, I have no doubt.
“The Grand National means everything. Winning over those fences means everything. Winning the Becher made my season last year and it would be amazing to win it again.
“Chance Du Roy was sixth in the National in April. He comes alive at Aintree and I think he is definitely entitled to have another crack next year. I probably got a bit excited in last year’s race and sent him towards the front too soon. To win the National, you need a stayer because the fences take so much energy out of horse and rider.
“There is also an element of luck, you need a clear run and you don’t want any mishaps – there is a lot of truth to the saying ‘horses for courses’.
“It is a great test of horsemanship. Look at the ride that Leighton Aspell gave on Pineau De Re. He picked the horse up off the floor four times. Getting into a rhythm is a massive thing.
“Always Waining loved it there, winning three Tophams in total. It was the only place where he came alive. Chance Du Roy is the same.”