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Threaten to Win: Brian O’Connor

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 11 March 2012.

When you meet Brian O’Connor he seems like a gentle, mild mannered chap, but when it comes to his opinions, think cat and pigeons. The Irish Times racing correspondent writes a “Tipping Point” column on Mondays that tends to get people’s back up, including comedian Dara O’Briain, who took to Twitter earlier this year, to vent spleen.

O’Connor had claimed O’Briain’s choice of expletive – ‘feck’ – said something ‘lame’ about his comedy.

O’Briain tweeted: “Just got a call from some telly people. We managed to get 29 f**ks into that edit of TITS on in December. Happy Christmas! Ho fuckin’ ho!” He went on: “To illustrate: if you “Fecked” someone or something, it would usually mean to throw/fling/project it.”

And on: “Interesting etimological fact: “feck” is similar to “f**k” in most uses but has no sexual content.”

And on…

But O’Briain isn’t the only one whose hackles have been raised.

On the subject of golf, O’Connor observed: “never in the history of human kind has a sport turned so many otherwise normal, functioning people into arse-licking, clubhouse-stalking, tuppence ha’penny peeing down on tupponece, polo-shirt wearing inadequates.”

When it came to athletics, he said: “Anyone can wearily look at the detritus of athletic ideals that have been scattered throughout the last number of decades and concluded the whole thing is a corrupt, syringe wielding, piss tampering mess.”

But that’s O’Connor on a mild day. His Irish RacingServices.com blog is the most successful sporting blog in Britain and Ireland and averages 200 comments a week covering a range of subjects from the use of the whip to corruption on the track.

“Some professions should not be entered into if you like popularity ,” O’Connor wrote in one. “Nobody for instance likes a clamper, or a tax official, or a lawyer, or indeed a reporter. In racing terms, it’s the bookie who’s the easy-fit bad guy. But there’s one role guaranteed to trump even bookie in terms of unpopularity and that’s steward. Or at least it should be.”

His non fiction, Add A Zero about his attempt to turn €5,000 into €50,000 by backing horses was equally thought provoking and it’s since been followed by Kings of the Saddle and Ireland’s Greatest Racehorses.

He’s a man who knows his racing. But his skills don’t end there. It’s his mastery of language that is the most striking aspect of his novels.

Bloodline, published last year, drew on O’Connor’s experiences at the track that couldn’t be published in The Irish Times or on the blog, conjuring up comparisons to a Dick Francis style thriller. Now the sequel is out with Poolbeg, Threaten To Win. It’s about blackmail and race-fixing in the glamorous world of top-flight international racing, and moves between glitzy racecourses and gritty back-streets of Dublin:

Ex-jockey Lorcan Donovan is in charge of the bloodstock empire of American billionaire, Jake Weinberger. But behind the big money glamour all is not as it seems.

Weinberger’s jockey Mike Clancy is in the pocket of the ruthless gangster Pinkie Duggan who wants to stop the brilliant Derby favourite Kentish Town from winning.

With millions riding on the result, the psychotic Duggan does everything to get his way and Donovan becomes a pawn in a vicious game of kidnapping and blackmail. And the only one he can trust is himself.

“The book is set in the horse of racing and bloodstock and horses but the themes are common to any kind of thriller, in fact any kind of story,” O’Connor told Writing.ie. “There are certain things, like jealousy and greed, that are common any kind of story so it should appeal to people not just interested in horses or gambling. At least I hope so.”

It’s a fact however that horses and Ireland go together like milk and sugar. Nowhere else in the world does racing have such an imprint on the sporting psyche as in this country. So there will be plenty of expert viewpoints ready, willing and able to pounce on any horsey detail that doesn’t tally.

The good news for readers of Threaten To Win is that O’Connor’s knowledge of his general subject doesn’t stop him from putting together a narrative that clips along at a champion pace yet doesn’t get bogged down in racing jargon or the nuts and bolts of how one horse runs faster than another. There is enough here for the expert, and plenty for those just looking for a good story.

“That’s pretty much a fundamental. It takes some amount of conceit to put something out there and expect people to pony up for the privilege of reading you. The least you can do is make it as readable as possible,” O’Connor says.

Questions about motivation and inspiration are not likely to get very far with The Irish Times man. “You do what you do,” he says. “Sometimes you read stuff from authors about where their stories come from and it’s like where do you get the time to actually write? Is there any time left after all that time doing the writer pose? The reality is you have to sit down in front of the damn screen and fill it. If you’re lucky, something half decent will come up at the end. But anyone looking for inspiration is going to spend a long time waiting.”

Acerbic, on point, Threaten to Win demonstrates just how ‘write what you know’ makes perfect sense when that world is the fast paced, fascinating world of international racing.

(c) Sam Blake March 2012