Fergal O'Brien: Can 2017 be a showstopper for jump racing's rock and roll trainer?

Trainer Fergal O'Brien
Trainer Fergal O'Brien goes into the Edinburgh National at Musselburgh enjoying his best-ever season

It could almost be jump racing's version of 'The Great British Bake-Off'; celebrations for trainer Fergal O'Brien often revolve around cake.

Not only does O'Brien's extensive social media presence regularly feature the nation's teatime favourite, but the other day in the winners' room at Warwick I witnessed his eyes positively out on stalks at the prospect of a large Victoria sponge laid out on the bar.

It turns out cake is part of a strategy to make certain that the owners of the growing numbers of horses in the trainer's Cotswold string remain happy, even when things aren't going well.

He said: "Someone asked me what I wanted to achieve, and I said to have winners and be fashionable, of course, but when an owner doesn't have a winner, they should still have a good time, and part of that is to get them back to the yard maybe for cake.

"The horses are not going to win every day - we have a good strike-rate at the moment of one winner in five, but that's also four losers in five.

"Actually, it all started with someone asking to visit the yard, and we said 'yes - if you bring a cake', and it all took off from there.

"The cakes keep arriving, homemade, in all shapes and sizes, and between the lads and the owners they all get eaten, there's no waste. I do love a Victoria sponge myself."

Fergal O'Brien Twitter
O'Brien has deployed a secret weapon to keep camaraderie high at his stable... cake

And Team O'Brien, headed by the 44-year-old from the rich racing pastures of County Tipperary, Ireland, has been enjoying plenty of generous slices of action during this National Hunt campaign.

That strike-rate is part of what's set to be by far the 60-horse stable's best season, during which the eye has been drawn in particular to unbeaten Colin's Sister and Poetic Rhythm, who recently finished third in the Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Meanwhile, stable veteran and old favourite Alvarado, twice fourth in the Grand National, travels to Scotland looking to bounce back in Britain's newest version of the feature, the 18th in all, the £40,000 Edinburgh National at Musselburgh.

The race - note that it's just a 'National', with no 'Grand' prefix, because officials believe there should be only one of them - is a sliver over four miles long, and puts the onus on the jockeys not to miscount as it's three circuits of the small, flat track.

Despite having successfully completed the Aintree course twice, Alvarado got no further than the second fence when taking part in the Becher Chase over the famous fences in December, sustaining a head injury in the process.

"I thought that this would be a great year for him after he ran a blinder at Cheltenham first time out [when sixth]," said O'Brien, "but he got a kick in the head at Aintree and he had a haematoma on the top of his neck, so we've given him a bit of time.

Alvarardo
Alvarado will line up at Musselburgh following a head injury in December

"He's the boss, a real character - we always say Alvarado trains Alvarado - but he seems in very good form, and goes well after a break so it'll be good to have a go at a good pot."

Though the horse may struggle to make the cut for a return to the Grand National in April - only the top 40 in the weights get the chance to line-up - the 12-year-old is among the 110 entries.

There must be something in the Cotswold air because O'Brien's base is just across a muddy lane from another in-form trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies.

Twiston-Davies is racking up all kinds of potential stars for jump racing's showpiece Festival at nearby Cheltenham in March, a list headed by Gold Cup hope Bristol De Mai and leading hurdler The New One.

O'Brien was assistant there for 18 years, having arrived when the trainer's jockey son Sam - now 24 and one of jump racing's go-to riders - was just 10 months old.

Their parting, as O'Brien went off to set up a training operation of his own, was not necessarily the most amicable of processes, but relations, especially now they're neighbours, are more cordial these days.

"Having been down the road at Cilldara Stud, we moved back to Nigel's top yard in July 2015 and since our first runner from here won, we've never looked back really.

"The confidence is going, we're rolling along with nice new horses and owners, and the whole place is buzzing.

"There are two gallops - whichever one Nigel is on, we're on the other, and I don't ever seem to get in his way, and anyway our 'work' mornings are different.

"I do think that a feel-good factor is infectious, and it does rub off on each other, so we're both rocking away."

The Bet365 Edinburgh National is on Saturday, 4 February at 14:05 GMT