(first appearing in The Equiery’s March 2013 issue)
Like most Thoroughbreds, the 1999 dark bay by State Craft (out of Lance’s Chance/Ziggy’s Boy) was bred for the flat track. Purchased as a yearling for $7,000, Tumultuous never started on the flat track. His first start was in 2003 on a steeplechase course for owner Sharon Sheppard and trainer Alicia Murphy, finishing 9th in a maiden flat in a field of 12.
Passed from trainer to trainer, the horse eventually landed with Tracy O’Brien, to be sold as a foxhunter sales prospect. It was 1998, and Tumultuous was by now 9 years old. Husband Darren was assigned the task of hacking him to a nearby farm for someone else to try. By the time Darren made it to the farm, however, Tumultuous was his, and Darren was reluctant to leave him on trial. “He just felt right,” explained Darren.
A builder-turned-lawyer with no horse background, Darren O’Brien had fallen in love with the girl, and the horses came along with her. Being the good husband, he went “all in,” eventually joining her in the hunt field—but never thinking that he might one day race over fences!
The pair immediately began hunting, and soon Darren was sniffing around Rod Cameron’s barn, curious about this racing over the sticks, and asking for pointers from Rod, as Rod had been competing his foxhunters successfully in timber races. “Rod was tough,” explains Darren with a grin, “but he always had Tommy’s safety and health as first priority—and he let me know that! Frequently! I came second and it was a distant second.”
Their first race was the restricted maiden at the 2009 Bull Run Point-to-Point. “It was great! Most exciting!,” recalls Darren. “My first race, and I had forgotten my racing saddle. And it was raining. The race was on, then off, then on. I was completely and totally soaked, as was the ground. I had only one pair of goggles, so at times I just could not see, and it was all Tommy! He took care of me. He allowed me to ride along, and I did not touch his mouth. He set the pace and picked his spots. And we finished. Fourth in a field of four, but it felt like first place because there was so much drama! But I knew at that point that Tommy was a special horse—and that he was my horse.”
Alas, at the next race, the 2009 NAPPA Championships, the pair went off course.
2010: The Fever
In 2010, Darren and Tommy were back, starting in four races that spring, with tough luck in three of them (pulling up at Piedmont, off course at Elkridge-Harford, and losing the rider at Howard County). But there was one bright, shining and inspiring race that spring, the Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point, the race that changed everything!
In 2010, officials ran the amateur heavyweight timber with the foxhunter timber. Although Darren went on to win more races, this is the race of which he is the most proud, and this is the race that changed his life. The field included Hunt Cup winner Patrick Worrall on open timber winner Bequeathed, Hunt Cup winner Charlie Fenwick III on Irv Naylor’s Hunt Cup horse Askim, and Jason Griswold on timber champion Western Fling (owned by Stewart Strawbridge).
In less than one hour, Darren moved from crippling self-doubt to soaring self-confidence.
“I was sitting in the jockey’s tent,” explains Darren, “looking at Billy Santoro and Mark Beecher, Patrick Worrall and Charlie Fenwick the third. I thought to myself, ‘OK! Maybe everyone is right! I may indeed need to seek professional attention, a shrink, or maybe some medications that would quell that self-destructive, addictive adrenaline craving, something that will dilute the testosterone levels. I need help!’”
But then, off we flew! And next thing I knew, I was keeping pace with the big dogs, and then I was giving them a lead around the course! I was in front by one length, coming around the final turn with one jump left. I was attempting to move inside for the short line, when all of a sudden a voice boomed: ‘Don’t try it, jock! That’s my line!’ Holy crap! I froze! Hell,I almost jumped off. I was shook, and Patrick Worrall grabbed that line, and the lead, and won the race. But even though I came in second, in that moment, I realized that those seasoned jockeys had taken me seriously, and had only beaten me because of my inexperience. I was in it now!”
Despite coming in second in the race, Darren was first in his division, and that win helped him secure the Gentleman Rider/Hunter Chase Timber award for the season.
2011: A Crisis of Faith
It was the end of the hunt season and the voices in Darren’s head had started to get louder: “I was a little too old. I started too late. I was up against professional trainers, I was up against ‘real jockeys’ and Maryland Hunt Cup-nominated horses. I was out of my league? Should I even be racing?”
The turning point for Darren came when he stumbled on an article in The Equiery. (Editor’s disclaimer: yes, this is our favorite part of this article, so we let Darren tell the story from here.)
“I stopped my normal routine, walked to the closest comfortable chair and read the story,” recalls Darren. “I read it twice, maybe even three times that day. The author [Margaret Worrall] connected me to that era, the era of Jay Trump, Mountain Dew—and to this foxhunter, this Hurdy Gurdy and his rider, Kingdon Gould. This foxhunter with this desire and determination to race. Who was this Hurdy Gurdy? This Mr. Gould?
“A potential parallel universe? A very different time period, but nonetheless, a connection. Mr. Gould’s determination, at just the right time with just the right horse. Yes, the perfect horse!
“As I read on about Mr. Gould and the wonderful Hurdy Gurdy, I tried to take myself back to what I thought the races would have been like 30 years ago, the lack of technology, the nasty useless helmets, no lightweight vests, no shock pads on the arms, spine or hips, no shock trauma helicopters, no ambulances or paramedics strategically placed along the course. These are significant advantages in racing these days. Not that one plans on falling. But the point is, if I am doubting my age and my capabilities, with all these high-tech safety nets, what must it have been like for Mr. Gould in the 1960s? If he could do it then, surely I could do it now.
“Mr. Gould seemed to execute everything he decided to pursue with a high degree of precision and strategic planning. Take it on, and do it right! Put more in, get more out! This Mr. Gould understood—hell, he wrote the book! As the article intimates, and what I believe, is if you put more into your life and into the people around you, you get more out of life. More meaning, more depth, more love, more caring—and far more excitement!
“But more importantly, in the story of Hurdy Gurdy and Mr. Gould, I realized that I could do this, even though I am not—and do not consider myself to be—a ‘real jockey.’ Like Mr. Gould, I am determined. I love the challenge, the adrenaline, and the competitive athletics. I have a wonderful, supportive family. But most importantly, like Mr. Gould, I am lucky to have a magic horse; I am lucky to have Tumultuous, my Hurdy.”
His spirits revived, Tommy and Darren made neat work of the 2011 season, entering and winning two races.
2012: Movin’ Up
Now, come 2012, things got a bit more interesting. Tommy and Darren started off strong, winning their home race, Green Spring Foxhunter Timber, with a respectable field of four. Next up, Elkridge-Harford, coming in second behind winner Brands Hatch.
But his final race of the season is one Darren would rather forget, but at the same time, is proud that he did. The pair had stepped up to an open timber, the $10,000 Howard County Cup, which had a full field of six horses. “Tommy was so fit, he should have won. I held him back way too long. I had made a bit change the week before the race—against better advice. When we finished the race, Tommy was very upset. You could see it. He was not happy with me. He had hardly broken a sweat. He could have run that race twice.” The duo came in fourth, with Sportsmans Hall’s Nondo crossing the wire first, Billy Santoro up.
The season was over.
Darren and his wife, as usual, graciously attended the 2012 Maryland Steeplechase Awards Reception. For several years in a row, Darren and Tumultuous had received the Gentleman Rider/Hunter Chase Timber Series Champion Award, an award based purely on who among the qualified has the best racing record that season. It’s a routine award.
The board of directors of the Maryland Steeplechase Association had a new award to present: The Hurdy Gurdy, which was to be presented to the foxhunting horse and rider combination who met all eligible foxhunting criteria, and who had the best racing season as determined by the committee. The award conditions do not limit the foxhunting horse and rider to foxhunter-only races. The award is given in memory of the great foxhunter, Hurdy Gurdy, and his amateur/owner foxchasing rider, Kingdon Gould.
For the committee, the choice was obvious: Tumultuous and Darren O’Brien exhibited gameness and sport in the spirit of Hurdy Gurdy and his rider.
But while obvious to the committee, the award would come as something of a surprise to Darren! Darren had not noticed that the 2012 Conditions Book featured a new award, and the story of Hurdy Gurdy had receded back into the sands of time. When his name was called, along with Tumultuous, as the inaugural recipient of the Hurdy Gurdy Perpetual trophy, Darren was at first struck speechless. As the applause and camera flashes died down, a still-stunned Darren effusively told the audience that it was the story of Hurdy and Mr. Gould that inspired him to kick on, to keep racing, to keep trying.
For 2013: Hunt Cup Hopes
After Rod Cameron’s paternal oversight, Darren and Tumultuous are ramping up the intensity in their training under the tutelage of Billy Meister.
“Billy, he is a technician. He has that magic touch. But Tracy is still our biggest influence. She found Tommy, she helps me condition him and care for him—and for me!
“We had a difficult start to the winter. Tommy started with a bad bruise and ended with a bad split in the right front heel. He was not sound until early February, but we are moving forward now. The ideal plan would be that I would start him in a Green Spring race with a nice finish, and then move him on to the Western Run Plate at the Grand National, and after that…maybe the Hunt Cup!”
With Darren or Billy in the irons? “I would like it to be me!” laughs Darren, “If Kingdon and Hurdy could run in it, then we can do it! But we will see. It will be a group decision, with Billy and Tracy holding most of the votes!”