O’Dwyer Returns to Florida from Dubai: ‘It’s Unbelievable’
Trainer Earned First G1 Victory in Golden Shaheen with Sibelius
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Three years ago, trainer Jerry O’Dwyer traveled to Dubai with Shotski, his first graded-stakes winner, and, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic canceling racing, came home without ever having had the chance to run.
Based at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, O’Dwyer arrived back in South Florida early Tuesday afternoon under much different circumstances.
His current stable star, Jun Park and Delia Nash’s Sibelius – winner of Gulfstream’s Mr. Prospector (G3) Dec. 31 – pulled off a thrilling upset of defending champion Switzerland in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) March 25 at Meydan Racecourse.
It was the third straight victory for Sibelius, all in stakes, and first Grade 1 for both the 5-year-old gelding and his 41-year-old trainer, who admitted to still grasping the magnitude of their accomplishment.
“It’s still feels like a day’s work, I guess. It’s just something you do. We prepared for it and it came off. Every now and again you think about it and you say, ‘Wow, it’s unbelievable. We just won a Grade 1 halfway around the world.’ It’s unreal,” O’Dwyer said. “We got a plethora of texts and calls. It was great. Lots of well wishes.”
O’Dwyer headed to Dubai ‘quietly confident’ in Sibelius, who earned his first stakes victory in the Lite the Fuse last September at historic Pimlico Race Course. From there he ran fourth in the Phoenix (G2) at Keeneland and second in the Bet on Sunshine at Churchill Downs before kicking off his win streak in the Mr. Prospector.
Sibelius punched his ticket to the Golden Shaheen with a record-setting triumph in the Feb. 11 Pelican at Tampa Bay Downs. He left for Dubai via Miami March 12 with assistant trainer and exercise rider Chelsea Raabe, who were joined by O’Dwyer six days later.
“I was feeling good going into the race. He’s been slowly developing and getting better since the second half of last year. He’s been able to keep going,” O’Dwyer said. “A lot of people told me I was mad by saying we hadn’t gotten to the bottom of him yet, and he’s turning 5. But, I’ve seen the horse every day and seen what he’s doing and was pretty adamant that we hadn’t seen the best of him just yet.
“He flew to Dubai and everything went perfect. He flew in great, he settled in well, was eating good and looking bright,” he added. “He really enjoyed the place, and that gave me a lot of confidence that he was going to run his best race. Whether his best was good enough to win it, I wasn’t going to be putting my life on the line to say it was. But, I was quietly confident of him running a big race and getting a good piece of it.”
Even before the race Sibelius was a popular subject during his time in Dubai, showing up on several social media platforms as well as international television coverage.
“He’s a good looking horse, he’s got a great personality, loves to go out to the track and stand out. He’s very nosy when he sees people,” O’Dwyer said. “He kinds of goes over to them to see what they’re doing. He got a big following out there, which was nice. He really enjoyed the attention.”
A slower start than normal had Sibelius unusually off the pace and stuck inside in the Golden Shaheen but got a heady ride from European champion Ryan Moore, aboard for the first time.
“I wasn’t feeling too good at the start when he broke very flat-footed and didn’t get up in a forward position like he normally does. That wasn’t a good feeling, but then you could see he was holding his position around fifth or sixth on the inside,” O’Dwyer said. “I would have liked to see him get on the bridle and travel for a few strides at some stage, but he didn’t even do that.
“Ryan just kept niggling away at him and the horse kept finding for him. Turning for home you’re thinking maybe he’ll be fourth or third but he just kept coming and coming and grinding it out,” he added. “I knew he was going to be gritty in that sense. He’s hardened now. I was a little worried early on in the race when he was a little further back than I’m used to seeing him.”
As he anxiously awaited the photo finish, O’Dwyer said he felt Sibelius was a winner when he crossed the wire.
“We were standing right on the rail looking at it,” he said. “I thought we’d won but then they were taking ages with the photo and you start questioning yourself. ‘Was I seeing things? Was I just seeing it the way I wanted to see it?’ But luckily, they called the photo in our favor.”
O’Dwyer said Sibelius is scheduled to get some time off and then begin preparing for the next step with the trainer’s string in Kentucky. A possibility could be the seven-furlong Churchill Downs (G1) on the Kentucky Derby (G1) undercard May 6.
“He’ll leave Dubai and he’ll go to Chicago for a few days of quarantine and then he’s going to ship to Kentucky. We’ll give him a couple of easy weeks on the farm there and freshen him up and we’ll probably keep him in Kentucky and decide where we’re going to run him from there,” he said. “We haven’t made any plans yet. There’s a race for him on Derby day, but that’s not set in stone. We’ll let him to the talking.”
According to O’Dwyer, spending the winter at Palm Meadows was instrumental in Sibelius’ development overall and, in particular, his success in Dubai.
“The Florida weather is very similar to the Dubai weather, so I think that it was good that he was down here for a while and acclimatized to the conditions,” he said. “Dubai was very similar, cool in the mornings and heated up in the afternoon. Florida has been very good to us.”
It’s right back to work for O’Dwyer, a native of Tipperary, Ireland where he grew up riding ponies and attending horse sales with his father. He ultimately graduated from the Irish Racing Academy with designs on being a jockey despite his 5-foot-10 frame. After serving as an apprentice to trainer David Hanley, now general manager of WinStar Farm, O'Dwyer rode more than 100 winners in Ireland and England before coming to the U.S. at the urging of trainer John Ennis.
O'Dwyer got a job with trainer Al Stall Jr. in Kentucky, spent a summer in Saratoga and prepped 2-year-olds in Florida before settling on a training career. His first of 159 winners to date came courtesy of Aleutian Queen at Belterra Park Sept. 27, 2014.
In addition to Sibelius and 2019 Remsen (G2) winner Shotski, other top horses trained by O'Dwyer include stakes winners Needs Supervision, Rookie Salsa, Cooke Creek, Cruise and Danze and V.I.P. Ticket.
“I’ll be back in the barn, checking a few of those 2-year-olds out and seeing if we can find the next Sibelius,” O’Dwyer said. “A big shout out to the whole team. Everyone did such a great job taking care of him and getting him ready,” he added. “It’s not like it’s just my horse or your horse, he’s everybody’s horse at the barn and we’re super proud of him.”