Rid­ing high

RTÉ Guide Christmas Edition 2018 - - Interview -

A er a morn­ing in which Storm Diana blew across the coun­try, the sun­shine is be­gin­ning to creep out over the rolling Tip­per­ary pas­tures as we ap­proach Bal­ly­doyle. ere’s no sign in­di­cat­ing we’ve ar­rived at one of the world’s best horserac­ing fa­cil­i­ties, but the guarded elec­tric gates and a fancier-thanaver­age horse­box sug­gest we’re in the right place. We’re met by John, the a able se­cu­rity man, who a er a quick chat over a walki­etalkie, gives us a vis­i­tor pass and di­rects us to­wards the main house.

Ai­dan, Joseph and Don­nacha O’brien ar­rive min­utes later. Busy peo­ple and yet not a minute late for our in­ter­view.

Once the photos are taken, I ask if they’d like to check if they’re happy with them. Joseph and Don­nacha are only too happy to, while Ai­dan doesn’t bother. He’s more con­cerned with the pho­tog­ra­pher get­ting ‘a cup of some­thing’ be­fore he heads back to Dublin. “ e van­ity of

An­drea Byrne talks to the O’brien broth­ers, Don­nacha and Joseph and their fa­ther, Ai­dan, about their hugely suc­cess­ful fam­ily busi­ness, their l ove, pas­sion and com­mit­ment to the world of horses, train­ing and rac­ing and why they never com­plain about never hav­ing time off

youth,” he teases his sons.

As I’d been told to ex­pect by peo­ple who know more about horse-rac­ing than I do, the O’brien man­ner is un­der­stated, with lit­tle hint of their achieve­ments, in­di­vid­u­ally and as a fam­ily busi­ness. How­ever, there’s plenty of ev­i­dence on the walls, lled with rac­ing plau­dits won by the world’s most suc­cess­ful horse trainer, Ai­dan, and his two sons, Joseph and Don­nacha. e el­dest, Joseph, at 25, has es­tab­lished him­self as one of the coun­try’s best dual-pur­pose train­ers, and Don­nacha, just two years a er get­ting his pro­fes­sional jockey li­cence, was crowned Cham­pion Jockey for 2018.

It’s been quite the year, but what are the high­lights? “ e high­light for us would be the Ir­ish Derby. It was a spe­cial day,” Ai­dan smiles. e horse Ai­dan trained didn’t win that day, but Latrobe, which was trained by Joseph and rid­den by Don­nacha, did. “We had a lot of big days, but that’s what stands out. For us all. We were all there. My mother was there, we had a big fam­ily cel­e­bra­tion,” Ai­dan adds.

A er a very suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a jockey, Joseph O’brien turned his at­ten­tion to train­ing just over two years ago. He operates at the old fam­ily sta­bles in Pil­town, Co kilkenny, the yard started by his grand­fa­ther, Joe Crow­ley, the same place his fa­ther rst showed his train­ing prow­ess be­fore be­ing head­hunted by Cool­more

23 years ago. Given the fam­ily his­tory, did he feel any pres­sure at the start? “ ere was a bit, but I sup­pose from be­ing a jockey I was quite used to the pres­sure of rid­ing for Dad so I think it is what it is and you just have to get on with it.”

If there was in any doubt about how good Joseph was go­ing to be as a trainer, he quickly let us know by win­ning the il­lus­tri­ous Melbourne Cup in his rst year. 2018 con­tin­ues that tra­jec­tory. Joseph has close to 200 horses in his yard and a sta of 100. “ is year was prob­a­bly bet­ter than we ex­pected. We’re lucky to be sup­ported by great owners and to have great horses. But once the year is over, it’s over. In this in­dus­try, six months is a long time and next year is the im­por­tant one. We’ll con­tinue to strive for bet­ter.” ere’s a be­lief in rac­ing cir­cles that Joseph is the heir-ap­par­ent at Bal­ly­doyle, although he assures me he doesn’t think that far ahead.

Don­nacha, a six foot tall jockey like Joe­sph, iis work­ing hard to prove that his height won’t in­hibit his suc­cess. He has en­joyed a re­mark­able year on the track. “Ob­vi­ously, the Derby and the 2000 Guineas were the two races that stand out for me (Don­nacha won on Saxon War­rior, which was trained by his fa­ther). But over­all, to win Cham­pion Jockey was a dream come true. When you’re rid­ing for the two of them,” he smiles at his Dad and brother, “it’s a bit eas­ier.” What’s not easy, how­ever, is hav­ing to choose be­tween them. “It’s the hard part, but at the end of the day, you pick the horse that you think has the best chance. Some­times you pick the wrong one, but you just have to get over it and I am very used to it by now. You’re not go­ing to get it right all of the time. You ac­knowl­edge when you get it wrong and you move on.” Wise words from some­one who hasn’t even cel­e­brated his 21st birth­day.

Although it’s the O’brien lads with us to­day, the three O’brien women have a huge part to play in this fam­ily suc­cess story. Ai­dan’s wife An­n­marie, also a suc­cess­ful horse trainer, or­gan­isedg the in­ter­view. E cient, pleas­ant and ac­com­mo­dat­ing, she had hoped to join us but had to go to Dublin. “An­n­marie is in­volved in ev­ery part of it. She con­trols ev­ery­thing,” Ai­dan says of his wife of 27 years. “ e boss?” I ask. ey all nod in agree­ment and laugh.

Sarah, the sec­ond el­dest, has re­cently quali ed as a vet and works nearby. “She had a lot of win­ners on the track over the years too, but when things got se­ri­ous in col­lege, that took over,” Joseph ex­plains.

en there’s Ana, the third born, and an­other su­per­star jockey. Last year, how­ever, she su ered a ter­ri­ble fall and had to be airli ed to Cork Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal, hav­ing frac­tured ver­te­brae in her back and neck. In­dica­tive of just how tightly knit this fam­ily are, Sarah stayed at home to mind Ana rather than go­ing to Amer­ica. “Ana made a full re­cov­ery, thank God,” Ai­dan says. “She’s in great form. She rides out ev­ery morn­ing. She’s a big part of the scene here and she’s very in­ter­ested in breed­ing.” I’m also told she looks a er a lot of Bal­ly­doyle’s so­cial me­dia.

Life away from rac­ing doesn’t re­ally ex­ist for Ai­dan, Joseph and Don­nacha and they wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s what we do and it’s what we love do­ing. We’ve never known any­thing else: it’s our hobby, our life and our work all rolled into one,” Ai­dan says, with Joseph adding, “It’s pretty much a 24/7 job. ey’re an­i­mals and they have to be looked a er. Ev­ery day they have to be ex­er­cised.

ere is no such thing as dis­ap­pear­ing for a week­end and wor­ry­ing about it three days later. It is a way of life, as op­posed to it be­ing a job, but hon­estly, we wouldn’t want to be do­ing any­thing else.”

As for Christmas Day, well it’s work as al­ways, just with a nicer-than-usual din­ner at the end of it. “We’ll all ride out to­gether,” Joseph says. “I have a lot of horses run­ning in Leop­ard­stown a er Christmas, so usu­ally the lads will come up and we’ll ride out, Dad too.” Ai­dan is smil­ing, “I am just nd­ing this out now,” he says, clearly amused. “ en,” Joseph con­tin­ues, “We’ll come home and have din­ner here. “Mam cooks, Don­nacha cleans,” he says, smirk­ing at the baby of the fam­ily.

‘Lucky’ is a word used by all three men at some point to de­scribe their achieve­ments. Ai­dan’s mod­esty is well-doc­u­mented, but it seems to have trick­led down to the next gen­er­a­tion. How do they stay grounded, ap­par­ently with­out ego, given the level of suc­cess and wealth that comes with it? “ e best pos­si­ble sce­nario is that your horses are win­ning 20 to 25% of the time, so 80% of the time you’re go­ing home with your tail be­tween your legs. It’s not too hard to keep your feet on your ground when most of the time you’re los­ing. It’s a hum­bling in­dus­try,” Joseph says. Same goes for life as a jockey.

“You ride a win­ner and ev­ery­one is telling you you’re great, the next day you could go out and you’re the vil­lain,” Don­nacha says. “We’re all very re­al­is­tic,” Ai­dan adds. “We all ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­thing we get. And we ap­pre­ci­ate the fa­cil­i­ties that we have, the peo­ple that we work for and with. We feel very grate­ful to be in the po­si­tion we’re in and to work with so many spe­cial peo­ple. at is the re­al­ity of it and we don’t take any­thing or any­one for granted.”

When we nish, I’m walked to my car, thanked and in­vited back. Ev­ery­one had told me how nice the O’brien fam­ily are, but noth­ing can pre­pare you for just how nice.

We’ve never known any­thing else, it’s our hobby, our life and our work all rolled into one

At home with the O’briens (l-r) Joseph, Don­nacha and Ai­dan

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