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