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O'Farrell capitalizing on his second chance in the saddle

Posted: November 11, 2010 1:20 p.m.
Updated: November 12, 2010 5:00 a.m.

LONDON -- Irish jump jockey James O’Farrell has crossed the Atlantic this week in the hope of achieving an amazing American double to cap an astonishing year of recovery.

Three weeks ago he won the American Grand National aboard Percussionist, a nine-year-old which was fourth in the 2004 Epsom Derby for top British trainer John Gosden. On Saturday, he rides the horse in the Colonial Cup in Camden, another highly prestigious U.S. race which, like the National, is a Grade One event.

Behind this prospect of a dream double lies a tale of anguish, determination and true grit. 

In March 2009 O’Farrell, 25, had a crashing, potentially fatal fall at Kelso in Scotland in which he broke his C2 vertebra, infamous as the ‘hangman’s bone’ as it was the bone executioners would aim to snap during a hanging.  Remarkably, he carried on riding for a week, but knew something was wrong and eventually went to hospital for a scan which revealed the break.

“The doctors told me that if anybody had pushed me in the back during that week it could have killed me,” said James, from Kilkenny in Ireland, who is based with British trainer Howard Johnson.

He was in a neck brace for four months and was told by the experts there was little chance he would return to riding.  He was always determined he would come back, but used his time out  to complete numerous courses such as saddlery and truck-driving with help from Jets, the jockeys’ employment and training scheme in Britain which helps with alternative careers for riders.

After 11 months on the sidelines, he returned earlier this year and secured several rides in Norway, where he had made contacts in the past through successfully representing Ireland in the Fegentri world championships for amateurs.  He won the Norwegian Champion Hurdle in September on Percussionist, which had Danish owners at the time, and became champion jump jockey in Norway.

Last month he headed to Far Hills, New Jersey, for the American Grand National, where in front of 40,000 race fans, Percussionist won easily from his U.S. rivals for Scandinavian trainer Hanne Bechmann. The son of Sadler’s Wells was so impressive he was snapped up by new American owner Irving Naylor, who has placed him with trainer Kristin Close, and they are hoping he’ll complete the big US double on Saturday at Springdale Race Course in Camden.

 “I’ve been really lucky to get such a wonderful horse to ride after coming back from injury, and it would be fantastic to complete the double,” said O’Farrell.

“If we were to win it would be great to keep the momentum going with more winners when I’m back in Britain.  But everybody has been so wonderful in America I would be only too happy to take some more rides here.”

O’Farrell rode for top Irish trainers such as Francis Flood, Paul Nolan, Charlie Swan and Michael Hourigan before moving to Britain. He won the coveted Grade One GPT Amateur Handicap at the famous Galway Festival in Ireland in 2006 aboard Flood’s P’tit Fute.

The Colonial Cup, run over 2m 6f (2 ¾-miles), has been won by a number of British jockeys in the past, including Tommy Carberry (Inkslinger, 1971), Ron Barry (Grand Canyon, 1976), John Francome (Flatterer, 1984) and Richard Dunwoody (Highland Bud, 1989), although the last to triumph was Steve Smith-Eccles, aboard Declare Your Wish, in 1993.

After finishing fourth in the Epsom Derby in 2004 Percussionist was bought by British owner Graham Wylie and trained by Johnson, for whom he won the Yorkshire Cup in 2006.  The globe-trotting horse later moved to France, then Italy, then back to England to go jumping, before moving on to Denmark and now the U.S.

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