He is like a god around horses. It is like magic. The way he puts them at ease... it is un­be­liev­able

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Win­ner: Son Joseph with the Mel­bourne Cup @KimBie­len­berg

No Ir­ish per­son ex­cels in his cho­sen sport as much as Ai­dan O’Brien, the Wex­ford-born horse trainer who has re­cently smashed the record for the most Group One win­ners in a sea­son. In rac­ing terms, he is on a par with Tiger Woods in his prime, or Alex Fer­gu­son when he reigned supreme at Manch­ester United.

But O’Brien has some down-to-earth quirks that are rarely seen among supreme sport­ing high achiev­ers.

Ev­ery time one of his horses wins one of the top races — whether he is mov­ing among bil­lion­aires and princes at Royal As­cot or at the Breed­ers’ Cup in Cal­i­for­nia — O’Brien can be seen on his mo­bile phone talk­ing in an an­i­mated fash­ion.

View­ers are left won­der­ing who he could pos­si­bly be talk­ing to at such a mo­ment of vic­to­ri­ous crescendo.

It turns out that on each oc­ca­sion, O’Brien is on the phone to his mother, Stella.

A reporter picked up the words of the loyal son in the win­ners en­clo­sure in the past fort­night as O’Brien smashed his lat­est record: “Ma... Thanks very much, ma... Thanks, ma... Oh, thanks, ma... We’ll talk to you later.”

To the O’Briens, the horse whis­per­ers of Bal­ly­doyle, fam­ily means ev­ery­thing.

This is a line of busi­ness where pedi­gree counts for a lot, but to them, nur­ture is just as im­por­tant as na­ture — and that ap­plies to horses as much as peo­ple.

This week, it was the turn of Ai­dan’s el­dest son Joseph to be show­ered with plau­dits as he be­came, at 24, the youngest trainer ever to train the win­ner of the Mel­bourne Cup, the horse race that is said to stop the en­tire Aus­tralian na­tion in its tracks.

It was a fa­ther-and-son bat­tle that will go down in sport­ing leg­end, with Ai­dan’s horse Jo­hannes Ver­meer be­ing over­taken in the fi­nal stretch by Joseph’s less-fan­cied run­ner, Rekin­dling.

Ai­dan was not over in Aus­tralia for the race. So, what did Joseph do im­me­di­ately af­ter the vic­tory of his horse?

The pre­sen­ta­tion of the cup was un­der way and the fa­mous three-han­dled tro­phy was about to be handed over, but young Joseph had to take one call — from his fa­ther.

Ai­dan could not have been more proud, and ad­mit­ted af­ter­wards that he wanted Joseph’s horse to win

“I was hop­ing and pray­ing we’d fin­ish sec­ond all the way up the home straight,” Ai­dan said. “It’s the per­fect re­sult.”

The O’Brien fam­ily seek horse rac­ing per­fec­tion with a sin­gle-mind­ed­ness that can only be de­scribed as ob­ses­sive. And all the fam­ily have a part in the op­er­a­tion. Ai­dan’s wife Anne-Marie has her­self been a cham­pion trainer. Joseph has al­ready fin­ished a ca­reer as a su­per­star jockey be­fore he be­came too big in stature and switched to train­ing. Don­nacha is one of the top young jock­eys in the coun­try. Both daugh­ters Sarah and Ana are also ac­com­plished race riders.

It is an oc­cu­pa­tion that does not come with­out risks. Ana had a near calami­tous fall at a meet­ing in Kil­lar­ney in the sum­mer and is re­cov­er­ing from a se­ri­ous neck and back in­jury.

When they were teenagers, the O’Brien chil­dren would be up at six in the morn­ing at Bal­ly­doyle, and rid­ing out, be­fore head­ing off to school.

Mod­est and self-ef­fac­ing like his fa­ther, Joseph likes to quote Ai­dan’s pithy nugget of phi­los­o­phy, bor­rowed from Mark Twain: “Never let school in­ter­fere with your ed­u­ca­tion.”

O’Brien se­nior pur­sues his vocation with a pu­ri­tan­i­cal zeal, and never drinks al­co­hol as a mem­ber of the Pioneer To­tal Ab­sti­nence As­so­ci­a­tion.

The so­cialite frip­peries of rac­ing are not for him. When he trav­els to Eng­land for a rac­ing fes­ti­val that goes on for a few days, Ai­dan likes to fly home to Tip­per­ary ev­ery evening to be with his horses, be­fore re­turn­ing to the meet­ing on the fol­low­ing day. Both Ai­dan and his el­dest son dis­like tak­ing any time off at all, and it seems that they only do so re­luc­tantly.

Joseph said re­cently: “I don’t do well when I’m not busy. I went away for three days there a while ago. I was in Bar­ba­dos. We went for two weeks one year (as a fam­ily) and nearly killed each other!”

Pos­si­bly talk­ing about the same fam­ily hol­i­day, Ai­dan said in an interview that be­ing away from Bal­ly­doyle be­gan to tug at him.

“I be­gan to feel like I was in a bottle, one of those big bot­tles with the thin necks, and I couldn’t get out.”.

Af­ter each vic­tory, in­ter­views with O’Brien se­nior fol­low a fa­mil­iar and eas­ily par­o­died rou­tine, as he stu­diously tries to de­flect credit away from him­self, pass­ing it to named staff who look af­ter his horses.

He has that po­lite way of re­fer­ring to the in­ter­viewer’s first name in con­ver­sa­tion, par­tic­u­larly if it’s Tracy Pig­gott, and “please God” is a favourite phrase.

He refers to the mul­timil­lion­aire own­ers of his horses, bred at Cool­more, sim­ply as “the lads”, and will say: “We’re a small link in a big chain and we feel so priv­i­leged to be that link.”

Few de­tect any false mod­esty in this and his reg­u­lar praise of his team seems gen­uine. And one sus­pects that one of the most cru­cial links in the chain is his wife Anne-Marie.

She was a highly suc­cess­ful trainer be­fore he was, and passed the train­ing ba­ton on to him at her fam­ily’s farm in Pil­town, Co Kilkenny.

They had met when they were both jock­eys at Gal­way Races in 1989.

When Ai­dan be­came a trainer, he quickly turned heads with his abil­ity to get the best out of horses.

He was asked by John Mag­nier, boss of the hugely suc­cess­ful Cool­more horse-breed­ing op- er­a­tion, to take over Bal­ly­doyle, the base of the re­tir­ing train­ing leg­end, Vin­cent O’Brien (who was no re­la­tion). “What first at­tracted me to O’Brien,” Mag­nier has said, “was quite sim­ple. Ev­ery day in Cool­more I pick up the papers and give them a good read. Ev­ery day this fel­low O’Brien was train­ing a win­ner, then it be­came two win­ners and then three.” The jockey Kieran Fal­lon, who worked for him, said of O’Brien: “He is like a god around horses. It is like magic. The way he puts them at ease... it is un­be­liev­able.” The fam­ily seem to have in­stinc­tive feeling for horse psy­chol­ogy. Ai­dan has said of his horses: “When you think some­thing, they feel it. They feel ev­ery­thing. You can see the dis­ap­point­ment in their faces when they lose or when some­thing’s not right. You can tell if a horse is feeling down.” Ev­ery de­tail and en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fect is thought through at Bal­ly­doyle, even down to whether he should al­low crows to fly through his yard. Some years ago, Ai­dan no­ticed the in­ven­tive­ness of the birds in steal­ing food from the horse’s trays — and de­cided they should be al­lowed. “I thought it would be good for the horses, sort of keep them com­pet­i­tive, tell them if they don’t eat up their food, some­one else will. So the crows have stayed with us.” Close ob­servers of the fam­ily say Joseph has picked up his fa­ther’s con­cern for each in­di­vid­ual horse — their man­ner­isms, likes and dis­likes. Vis­i­tors to Bal­ly­doyle no­ticed that from the age of 16, Joseph was ad­vis­ing on de­tails such as whether a cham­pion thor­ough­bred liked to have his bri­dle on or off when re­lax­ing af­ter a prac­tice gal­lop. Joseph now trains his horses in Pil­town, the ma­ter­nal fam­ily base back in Kilkenny. It is his in­stinc­tive feel for the an­i­mals that could turn Joseph into a cham­pion as suc­cess­ful as Ai­dan — and we are likely to see the fa­ther/son ri­valry play­ing out on race­courses across the world for many years to come.

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