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?
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.