The Scottish Mail on Sunday

The Horse Whis­perer

Vic­tory in the Derby was his fourth in six years... and af­ter 28 elite wins in the last 18 months, the in­tensely pri­vate Ai­dan O’Brien has proved his en­dur­ing ge­nius as a trainer — but is his dom­i­nance bad for rac­ing?

- Oliver Holt Derby County F.C. · Derbyshire · Mike Jones · The Rock · United Kingdom · United States of America · George Washington · Irish Sea · Portrush · Bushmills · Old Bushmills Distillery · Epsom · Tattenham Corner · George Washington University · Dylan Thomas · County Kilkenny

KIEREN FAL­LON has played a round of golf in a squall at Royal Portrush and now he is sit­ting back in a lit­tle pub in Bush­mills and talk­ing about the Ep­som Derby, won the day be­fore by Wings of Ea­gles. More specif­i­cally, he is talk­ing about Ai­dan O’Brien, the horse’s trainer, the man at the heart of the all-con­quer­ing Bal­ly­doyle sta­ble, the man many be­lieve is a rac­ing ge­nius.

Fal­lon is one of the great­est jock­eys in the his­tory of Flat rac­ing and he prides him­self on his abil­ity to build a re­la­tion­ship of trust with a horse. He does not yield to many in this re­gard but he does yield to O’Brien, who has now won the Derby six times, and for whom Fal­lon rode for three years.

He says that O’Brien, who was raised, like him, on a farm, is a horse whis­perer and that his abil­ity to soothe an an­i­mal, which has gone beyond the reach of oth­ers, is some­times star­tling to be­hold. ‘He is like a god around horses,’ says Fal­lon. ‘I have seen it. It is like magic. The way he puts them at ease ... it is un­be­liev­able.’

Two days later, the god of horses is sit­ting in a beau­ti­fully ap­pointed of­fice at Bal­ly­doyle, deep in the glo­ri­ous, lush land of Tip­per­ary. It has been rain­ing for much of the day but the gloom has cleared now and Slieve­n­a­mon, a moun­tain 20 miles away to the east, has ap­peared out of the mist.

For many Ir­ish rac­ing folk, this place is heaven. A bronze of Ni­jin­sky, trained here by O’Brien’s pre­de­ces­sor, the great Vin­cent O’Brien (no re­la­tion), and the last win­ner of the Triple Crown, stands just in­side the en­trance to the 500acre com­plex, gaz­ing over at the white rail­ings of the gal­lops and the golden oak and the cop­per beech that help to guard them.

Fur­ther on, a statue of Yeats, which won the As­cot Gold Cup four times in a row, stands on a grass verge. And a like­ness of Gi­ant’s Cause­way guards the en­trance to the Iron Horse­yard, a cir­cu­lar col­lec­tion of 24 sta­bles that is home to some of the princes of the equine world: Cliffs of Mo­her, Churchill, High­land Reel and Or­der of St Ge­orge.

Bio-se­cu­rity — a hand­wash and a shoe-bath — has to be ob­served to gain ac­cess to that lux­ury ho­tel of rac­ing. And then, off to the side, a door opens on to an ante-room and the of­fice of John Mag­nier, the owner of the Cool­more Stud, of which Bal­ly­doyle is the train­ing, rac­ing arm. And the god of horses sits there, wait­ing.

O’Brien, 47, is a scrupu­lously cour­te­ous man. Ac­tu­ally, he is scrupu­lously ev­ery­thing. He is care­ful, he is or­gan­ised, he is watch­ful, he is bril­liant, he is in­tense, he is loyal, he is driven, he is self-ef­fac­ing and he is in con­trol. Al­ways in con­trol.

If a con­ver­sa­tion is go­ing down an av­enue he does not like, he builds a brick wall on the av­enue and turns it into a cul-de-sac. This hap­pens par­tic­u­larly when he is asked to talk about him­self. At­tempt this route, as bet­ter jour­nal­ists than I have dis­cov­ered, and the gi­ant out­crop of the Rock of Cashel, a few miles down the road, will be more forth­com­ing than English rac­ing’s reign­ing cham­pion trainer.

O’Brien, who was Bri­tain’s young­who est cham­pion trainer when he first won the ti­tle in 2001, has a con­sum­ing dread of self-re­gard. It is the en­emy of ev­ery­thing he holds dear. In­stead, he adopts a holis­tic ap­proach to train­ing. His regime is as much about the men­tal well­be­ing of the horses as hon­ing their phys­i­cal at­tributes.

He at­tempts to soothe his work­force, too. For a while, he would is­sue every new em­ployee with a CD of a poem writ­ten dur­ing Amer­ica’s De­pres­sion. ‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ one verse reads, ‘and re­mem­ber what peace there may be in si­lence.’

O’Brien is al­ler­gic to praise. In an age where so many feel com­pelled to trum­pet their achieve­ments, he is the op­po­site. The idea of boast­ful­ness is anath­ema to him. He gives the glory to the peo­ple he works with at Bal­ly­doyle, to those work for him and to ‘the lads’, as he calls them, Mag­nier and his Cool­more part­ners.

In some, you might smell false mod­esty. Not with O’Brien. With O’Brien, the mod­esty is real.

So he lis­tens when it is men­tioned that Fal­lon says he is a god of horses. His ex­pres­sion does not change. He is asked if he un­der­stands what the for­mer six-time cham­pion jockey is get­ting at and when he replies, it is as if he is an­swer­ing another ques­tion. ‘We are very lucky here,’ O’Brien says. ‘We al­ways try to em­ploy the very best spe­cial peo­ple and Kieren was one of those. Those kinds of peo­ple have a sixth sense with horses.’ ‘Do you have that?’ I ask him. ‘They’re the kind of peo­ple who have that,’ he says. ‘It’s a to­tal team thing and a lot of peo­ple here have it. We re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate those peo­ple work­ing here to­gether with ev­ery­body and they’re the peo­ple that make it hap­pen.’

‘Do you recog­nise that in your­self, though?’ I ask him. ‘I would say that the likes of Kieren had it and other peo­ple had it. For me, I can see it in Kieren and other peo­ple here but not a lot of peo­ple have that. Do you know what I mean? I would know by watch­ing those peo­ple work­ing with the horses. They’re the ones that the horses re­ally re­spond to.

‘Kieren was a very sen­si­tive per­son and horses are very sen­si­tive as well. That’s why they re­sponded to him so well. We have a lot of those peo­ple. Those peo­ple have peo­ple around them that are very sen­si­tive. It’s all about those peo­ple col­lec­tively that make it hap­pen.’

To brag would cause O’Brien phys­i­cal pain. And any­way, he has no need. Oth­ers, like his cur­rent lead jockey, Ryan Moore, do it for him. ‘He’s got a great feel for a horse,’ says Moore. ‘He sees things from a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. They’re pre­pared so metic­u­lously. He’s very spe­cial.

O’Brien just lets the achieve­ments of his horses, the en­vi­ron­ment he

over­sees at Bal­ly­doyle, and the regime he runs, both for horses and work­ers, do the talk­ing for him. He is ad­mired, even revered, by his staff. He is a hard taskmas­ter but he treats them with re­spect and loy­alty. It is a happy ship.

The fa­cil­i­ties at Bal­ly­doyle are stun­ning and the at­ten­tion to de­tail end­lessly im­pres­sive. There is the cir­cu­lar swim­ming pool and the salt­wa­ter spa — for the horses, ob­vi­ously — the in­di­vid­ual turn-out pad­docks, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem that al­lows O’Brien to talk to any of his staff at any given time, wher­ever they are on the es­tate.

There are the gal­lops built to repli­cate the un­du­la­tions and turns of Ep­som, com­plete with Tat­ten­ham Cor­ner. There is another gal­lops called The As­cot.

Great panora­mas of green race­track and pris­tine white rail­ings, fac­sim­i­les of English rac­ing’s most hal­lowed turf, nes­tle here in the Tip­per­ary coun­try­side like tem­ples to Cool­more’s in­vest­ment and O’Brien’s metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tion for win­ning.

Cool­more give O’Brien the raw ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing some of the great­est horses of the last two decades, such as Galileo, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Camelot, High Cha­parral, Dy­lan Thomas and Gle­nea­gles, and O’Brien re­pays their faith with win­ners.

This year, his dom­i­na­tion of Flat rac­ing has been, once again, im­pos­si­ble to es­cape. Ear­lier this sum­mer, he be­came the first trainer in the sport’s rich his­tory to win the 1,000 Guineas and 2,000 Guineas on both sides of the Ir­ish Sea in the same year.

He had 22 Group One Flat wins in 2016 and has six so far in 2017. Since 1996, when he took over at Bal­ly­doyle, he has won 28 English clas­sics. He has won three of the four clas­sics staged this sea­son. He ran six horses in the Derby and it was a sign of the strength in depth of the Bal­ly­doyle chal­lenge that Wings of Ea­gles, priced at 40-1 and rid­den by Padraig Beggy, was deemed the out­sider of the six.

For some, Wings of Ea­gles’ vic­tory in the Derby felt like con­fir­ma­tion of the fact that O’Brien and the Cool­more op­er­a­tion now op­er­ate on a dif­fer­ent level to their com­peti­tors. It is one thing be­ing beaten by Bal­ly­doyle’s best en­try in Bri­tain’s most prized Flat race, another thing al­to­gether be­ing beaten by its worst.

‘What you have to re­mem­ber,’ says O’Brien, ‘is that what is com­monly per­ceived by the out­side world might not be the re­al­ity. We be­lieve that all those horses run­ning in the Derby had a chance of per­form­ing big. They were all do­ing what we be­lieved was the right thing for each horse in the race. If any of them won, we were go­ing to be de­lighted.

‘Those very-well bred horses with great physiques and a great team of peo­ple work­ing around them, if ev­ery­thing works, there is a big chance it could hap­pen for them.

‘We don’t get in­volved in whether bet­ting prices go up or if we think a horse is too big a price. We don’t in­ter­fere with that be­cause that’s not our job. That is per­cep­tion. It is not our job to con­trol per­cep­tion. It is our job to give every horse a chance of per­form­ing on the day.’

That kind of suc­cess in­evitably breeds re­sent­ment. Some say Bal­ly­doyle’s dom­i­na­tion is bad for rac­ing. They say it is un­healthy. They say it is pre­dictable. They say it is bad for com­pe­ti­tion. O’Brien de­murs.

‘We do our best all the time and ev­ery­one here does,’ he says. ‘And that’s all we can do. Look, we’re not try­ing to dom­i­nate any­thing, in any way. We un­der­stand that we are try­ing to do our best with the horses that we have. We try to get the best re­sults for our horses but we are not try­ing to dom­i­nate any­body. We want to win every race and that’s what we try to do every day.

‘It’s a sport and we love do­ing it. We re­alise more than any­body that ev­ery­one has to live and ev­ery­one has their job to do.

‘Ev­ery­one has to make a liv­ing. We don’t try to stop any­one from mak­ing a liv­ing. We do our best every race and what­ever the re­sult is, we ac­cept it and move on. Who­ever wins, we are de­lighted for them 100 per cent, I prom­ise you.’

O’Brien gets up. He has to go. He has an ap­point­ment at the yard now be­ing run by his son, Joseph, who won the Derby twice as a jockey and is fol­low­ing in his fa­ther’s foot­steps as a trainer at the fam­ily farm in Own­ing, Co Kilkenny.

Things end al­most as they be­gan. I ask O’Brien if he counts him­self as an ob­ses­sive and he shifts, as al­ways, from the sin­gu­lar to the plural.

‘An ob­ses­sive?’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t think so. I work here with the peo­ple. Some peo­ple are ob­vi­ously un­be­liev­ably com­mit­ted and I watch those peo­ple. That’s what we do re­ally.

‘We are just part of a mas­sive team of peo­ple. In all the dif­fer­ent ar­eas, ev­ery­one is do­ing their best. That’s what makes this place. With Cool­more and ev­ery­thing, it is a whole team thing.’

As he drives out past the golden oak and the cop­per beech, past the gal­lops and the white rails, his staff are watch­ing the weather. The grass is soon to be cut and they want to judge it just right. At Bal­ly­doyle, it is time to make hay.

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 ??  ?? FILL YOUR BOOTS: O’Brien in his of­fice at Bal­ly­doyle; (inset), Wings of Ea­gles, with the pink cap, wins the Derby for un­her­alded jockey Padraig Beggy
FILL YOUR BOOTS: O’Brien in his of­fice at Bal­ly­doyle; (inset), Wings of Ea­gles, with the pink cap, wins the Derby for un­her­alded jockey Padraig Beggy

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