By Jon Lees
USA: Kentucky Derby hopeful Shotski flew to Dubai this week to shoot for a big-money win in the $2.5 million UAE Derby and write the latest chapter in the remarkable career of Jeremiah O’Dwyer.
The three-year-old Shotski is the star of O’Dwyer’s barn at Laurel Park in Maryland, who gave the Tipperary native his biggest training success so far when he won the G2 Remsen Stakes in 2019.
With Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Velazquez booked to ride, Shotski will go into Meydan as one of the leading contenders on Saturday week.
It provides a stark illustration of how far O’Dwyer, 38, has come in the nine years since a British Horseracing Authority disciplinary panel effectively ended his career as a jockey in Britain when he was banned from riding for 18 months over his involvement in the controversial Sabre Light affair.
Then known as Jerry O’Dwyer, he was found to have conspired with former trainers Jeff Pearce and Geoff Huffer to ensure Sabre Light did not run on his merits when he was beaten in a Lingfield claiming race.
‘The Sabre Light thing was sad’
Pearce was disqualified for three years and former 2,000 Guineas-winning trainer Huffer for four years at the end of a lengthy corruption inquiry, which also resulted in seven other individuals who staked substantial lay bets on the horse being excluded indefinitely. The panel took the view that O’Dwyer had not been party to Pearce and Huffer’s plan but was used to put it into effect.
O’Dwyer very much regrets his involvement in the case but has managed to employ that experience as the spur he needed to lift himself from rock bottom to become a rising talent in the US training ranks.
“The Sabre Light thing was sad,” he says. “I don’t like getting into anything like that because I pride myself on being honest and doing the best I can for my owners.
“But at the end of the day when I look back, I don’t want to say I don’t regret it…of course I regret getting the suspension, but I think it was the best thing in the world to happen to me. It gave me a wake-up call to definitely come to America and start doing what I am doing now.
“I feel I am very good at it and I really enjoy it. It’s hard work, it’s different to riding. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and I am very happy where I am now.
“It happened,” he goes on. “There is no denying it but I do believe it was a blessing in disguise. Sometimes you need a wake-up call and a push in the right direction. I think that’s what we got. It’s worked out well.”
‘I was never really that good of a rider’
As a jockey O’Dwyer rode nearly 150 winners in Britain and Ireland. His biggest successes came in the 1999 Irish Cambridgeshire on the Dave Hanley-trained Seefinn and he gained one of two Listed wins on the John Ryan-trained Ocean’s Minstrel on Oaks day in 2009. He went to the US for a fresh start.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to go back to England just getting a few rides around Wolverhampton and places,” he says. “Even though I enjoyed it thoroughly I was never really that good of a rider.”
O’Dwyer put himself to good use working at breeze-up sales and learning the training ropes under Al Stall, Bill Mott, Andrew McKeever and Michael Matz.
“I tried to surround myself with good operators to see how they do things,” he says. “Then I set up in Lexington doing a bit of pre-training. I always had a handful of my own and then three years ago I said to my wife Alison, ‘This is it, I want to go training’.
“I went up to Laurel Park with three horses, started steadily picking up business, having winners and owners started to come to us.
“We had 17 winners two years ago, then 31 winners last year and over $1m in prize-money. It started taking off. People took notice and we sold a few two-year-olds that won good to some big owners and they left them in the stable which gives you a big boost.
“Normally when a horse goes for big money they want to take them to someone proven. Thankfully they gave us a chance and it has proved to be fruitful. Right now we will have about 40 horses once the two-year-olds come in.”
One of those owners was Gary Barber, owner of Preakness Stakes winner War Of Will, who bought a stake in Shotski after he won his maiden by four lengths. Two starts later the colt won the Remsen.
This year he went back to Aqueduct to finish second in the G3 Withers Stakes then finished fourth in the G2 Fountain Of Youth at Gulfstream, nine lengths behind Ete Indien.
Part of the aim of running in the UAE Derby was to gain some valuable ranking points to secure a place in the Kentucky Derby field, although the Run For The Roses has been postponed until September.
“We wanted to go to Dubai and get Derby points, but we also want to go to Dubai to try to win a big race,” says O’Dwyer. “It’s a Grade 2 with a big prize attached to it.
‘He is going to get stronger and better’
“If he had finished a bit closer in the Fountain Of Youth the last day we might have stayed to take on some of the better horses, but when he finished where he did we said he is probably not up to beating the best three-year-olds in the country at the moment, so why not take a shot at a prize that he might be able to win?
“He is going to get stronger and better as the year goes on. I’m a big fan of trying to find the easiest opportunity for my horse to win and try to gain confidence.
“He had a very wide trip at Gulfstream, four wide most of the way, and Johnny was having to ride him to keep him in contention, not let him get too far out of it. The horses that finished second and third had a smoother trip and covered less distance.
“We were never going to beat the winner on the day but I think with a smoother trip we would have finished second. I was very proud of his big effort. He never shies away from a fight. He always gives his all.”
Shotski could line up against Japan’s Full Flat, the Saudi Derby winner, and Doug O’Neill’s UAE Guineas victor Fore Left. “The UAE Derby is not going to be an easy race,” says O’Dwyer. “We are trying to turn up in good shape and will give it our best shot.”
Much the same could be said of his career in the US, where he is making the most of opportunities he may never have got at home. “Training in the US is a different set-up to Europe,” he explains.
“I only had three horses when I started and even at the training centre I only had to pay for three stalls. You don’t have to set up a whole yard and have a big backer behind you.
“I just love the American style of racing, the way they do things here. I love watching European racing but America is built on the dirt horses. I’d love to make it back to Royal Ascot with a two-year-old some day but we keep steadily setting goals and hope they come to fruition.”