It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The gates to Ballydoyle open slowly as a man in a navy jacket emerges from the gate house and approaches my car. I roll down my window and tell him my name. ‘You’re early,’ he says. ‘You weren’t expected until 11.30.’ I look at the clock on the dashboard. Almost 11.20. ‘Just pull over here and I’ll see if I can get someone to come down and bring you up to the house.’
Bernie and I have barely finished exchanging pleasantries on the weather when a silver Mitsubishi Endeavour pulls up alongside. It isn’t cold, but the driver Aidan O’Brien is well wrapped up in a black fleece and black woolly cap, a packet of Lockets and a packet of tissues close at hand. He barely breaks stride in his telephone conversation to extend a warm and firm hand: welcome to Ballydoyle.
We arrive at the gallop just in time to see Septimus stride up the hill, followed by Egyptian Hero, an as yet unraced son of Danzig who cost $5.2 million at Keeneland as a yearling, pursued by Mahler. Aidan names the rest of the horses as they follow up the four-furlong gallop, every single one of them, one by one, by name or breeding or both. When they walk back down, the trainer stops by each one and asks every rider if he or she is happy, each rider by name, Joe or Hazel or Kotsuke, a query for one, a joke for another, a question from another. There are some 30 horses per lot, yet the trainer has as much time to spend with each rider as each one needs.
If you were to go looking for the one thing that sets Ballydoyle apart as the most successful racehorse training establishment in the world, human and equine incumbents notwithstanding, you probably wouldn’t find it. But if you take all the little things, all the almost negligible edges that are immediately apparent in just one morning, and add them all up, you can easily see why unprecedented success ensues.
Of course they have the correct raw material with which to start. They have access to a top-class breeding operation, they have the resources to be competitive at the very top end of the market in the global sales ring, and they have some of the best horse-judges in the business to finalise the shopping lists. But that is just the beginning. The facilities at Ballydoyle are as close to perfection as you will see, the attention to detail unyielding. Even now, as we watch the horses canter up the woodchip gallop, between us and them there is a team of about 20 people replacing divots on the grass gallop.
Each rider has a GPS system strapped to his or her arm so that every piece of work can be timed and monitored. The information is logged and printed out every evening. Every piece of work is videoed, every comment that every rider ever made about every horse is recorded. Every piece of information about every horse is logged, his weight, what he ate, if he didn’t sleep, his temperature. If you wanted, you could look up the details on every piece of work that any Ballydoyle horse ever did.
The emphasis is on keeping the horses happy. Each horse has its own paddock, a solitary haven in which he can recline or frolic after a morning’s work. All walking is done by hand, not by horse-walker (‘How would you like it if the floor was moving under your feet?’), and routine is embraced – there are enough variables that you cannot control without going out of your way to create some more.
Put a man with Aidan O’Brien’s talent into this environment, and it is hardly surprising that it bursts with success. O’Brien’s affinity with horses is world-renowned, but the operation could not possibly work as well as it does if he did not have an affinity with people.
When you hear O’Brien interviewed by the media after a big race win, you invariably hear talk of the team of people who worked so hard to make it happen. You might be forgiven for thinking that this was just an effort to deflect attention away from himself, or a hat-tilt towards modesty, but if you did, you would be wrong. Make no mistake, this is a team game, and every member is integral to its success, from the lad who tells Aidan that he thinks his horse will want a trip to the girl who cuts her lunch break short because she has just thought of something that might work on an injury.
Calling each rider by his or her first name is very deliberate. Each member of staff seems to have a huge sense of ownership that is quite deliberately and noticeably nurtured, and which only comes with the granting of responsibility. The team spirit that O’Brien has created is palpable. Focus on the individual to benefit the collective. Motivation is not an issue.
We wait in the indoor school and watch as fourth lot come in, all two-year-olds, almost all without a name yet. A Montjeu, a Galileo, a Sadler’s Wells, a half-brother to Alexandrova. You marvel as O’Brien names them at how he can recognise every one of them. A teacher with a classroom full of students, each one a member of the same class – junior infants here – yet each an individual and treated as such.
‘This is all I do,’ says O’Brien simply. ‘I’m with these horses every day. They’re as distinct as humans to me, you recognise each of them like you’d recognise a person. I know them by their breeding, then when they get named I have to go and learn their names all over again.’
It is October 1994, Dr Vincent O’Brien has just announced his retirement from training, and speculation about who will succeed him at Ballydoyle is rife. Vincent’s son Charles is thought to be the early front-runner, but it soon becomes apparent that Charles is happy to stay at his current base at Rathbride on The Curragh. After that, Aidan O’Brien – no relation – is the only man who is ever really mentioned.
From a farming and point-to-pointing background, the Wexford lad left school after fifth year and got a job driving a forklift truck at the Waterford Co-op. Always a keen horseman, he got his first job in racing with Curragh trainer P. J. Finn when he was 18. When that yard closed down a couple of months later, he moved to Jim Bolger’s. When he left Bolger’s three years later, Christy Roche, then Bolger’s stable jockey, said that O’Brien was the only employee whom Bolger was ever sorry to see leave.
Last year, in 1993 O’Brien took over the training licence from his wife Anne Marie Crowley – whom he met as they circled before the start of a Galway bumper – daughter of Joe Crowley, herself an accomplished horsewoman and champion National Hunt trainer in 1992-93, the first lady to land the title. Aidan has just landed his first trainers’ title in 1993-94, and has been crowned champion amateur rider to boot. It is only October, and already he has burst through the 100-winner barrier for the calendar year, one of only four Irish trainers to have done so. He decides to tone down the riding in order that he can concentrate on training. We don’t know it at the time, but it will turn out to be an astute decision, as he will go on to be crowned champion National Hunt trainer for each of the subsequent five seasons.
The talk is of the similarities between Vincent and Aidan, both ahead of their time, both with an innate understanding of horses, both record-breakers in the National Hunt sphere. But there are doubts. Success with National Hunt horses and inexpensive Flat horses in run-of-the-mill contests does not necessarily guarantee success at the very highest level of the business of Flat racing. Although Aidan has trained 136 winners this year so far, 91 of those have been in National Hunt races, and he has only just won his first Group race. Just because the living legend that is Vincent O’Brien can train Grand National and Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup winners, then go on to land 44 Classics, including six Epsom Derbies and six Irish Derbies, it does not mean that success in one sphere automatically begets success in the other.
The Michael Dickinson Manton experience is still relatively fresh in people’s minds. Dickinson was a genius with National Hunt horses, one of the leading trainers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He trained the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, a feat that will probably never be bettered or even equalled. In 1984 he moved into the state-of-the-art training establishment that was Manton to train for Robert Sangster and, for various reasons, abjectly failed to deliver. He lasted barely a season.
Nevertheless, rumours about Aidan O’Brien’s future at Ballydoyle are circulating around Goffs at the yearling sales even before Vincent’s retirement is official, no doubt fuelled by Aidan’s purchase of a Sadler’s Wells filly for 275,000 guineas, a price tag that is not consistent with his purchasing policy hitherto. Suggestions that the yearling is for a new client associated with Coolmore Stud are confirmed, and soon afterwards the news seeps out. O’Brien’s National Hunt horses will remain at his base at Piltown, just beneath Carriganog Hill, but his Flat horses will move to Ballydoyle, and some of those horses will be owned by John Magnier and his associates.
If all this seems like a long time ago now, that’s because it is. Aidan O’Brien was just a week off his 25th birthday, son Joseph, now aspirant jockey Joseph, was well shy of his first, and Joseph’s three full-siblings had not even been considered.
‘Of course I knew about Dr O’Brien,’ says Aidan. ‘And I remember Sadler’s Wells racing. He used to race with his head sideways. I always had a fixation in my head about him, for some reason. But I don’t think we were that daunted about coming down here, really. When I was growing up, nothing was ever really daunting. We were so delighted to be getting to train in some place where all these winners came from. We knew the programme down here worked. And the man, our boss [John Magnier], he was the most solid of all. He understood horses and people more than anybody. He had the experience, he had the wisdom and he had the people around him.’
Coincidentally, Aidan was in Belmont Park when the Vincent O’Brien-trained Royal Academy won the Breeders’ Cup Mile under Lester Piggott in 1990. Jim Bolger and Harry Dobson had paid for a holiday for him and Anne Marie to go to New York, so they were there as racing fans, no more, no less. Now they are based in the establishment from where Royal Academy was sent for that implausible assault. The trainer shakes his head, characteristically humble. ‘How did that happen?’
O’Brien was surprised when he received a call from Paul Shanahan to enquire if he would be interested in training out of Ballydoyle. Surprised and delighted. He thinks that it was because of the JP McManus connection. He was training a horse for JP in Piltown at the time, That’s My Man, who won the Royal Bond Hurdle by 13 lengths, probably the best National Hunt horse he had ever trained. He was sure that he would win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, but the horse broke a leg on the gallops one morning during the lead up to Cheltenham. The decision to go to Ballydoyle was a no-brainer. There was never really a decision to be made. ‘We were happy to change over,’ he says. ‘We were ready.’
O’Brien began by dividing his time between the two yards, doing two lots in Piltown and two lots in Ballydoyle. They were full in Piltown, so within three days of the time they decided to move into Ballydoyle, the place was full, some 150 extra horses. That’s how many horses were waiting to be trained by Aidan O’Brien. They had six horses for John Magnier at Ballydoyle the first year, and 12 the second year. And the National Hunt side thrived simultaneously. There was triple Champion Hurdler Istabraq to look after, and in 1995 O’Brien saddled the first three home in the Galway Plate, one of the most competitive handicap chases on the calendar.
When John Magnier decided that they would take over the whole of Ballydoyle, the records began to tumble. Desert King provided O’Brien with his first Classic when he landed the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1997, and it took off. In 2001, as well as training 23 Group or Grade 1 winners, bettering D Wayne Lucas’s record that had stood for 14 years and looked set to stand for a lot longer, O’Brien became the first foreign-based trainer since Vincent O’Brien in 1977 to claim the British trainers’ title. He repeated the feat in 2002, and did so again last year, finishing almost £1 million clear of his closest pursuer.
‘We’re just lucky to be here and to be training in the place that Dr O’Brien has set up,’ says Aidan. ‘He set it up from scratch, it’s only just maturing now. Generations of time and work went into this place, with the team of people working for the boss man, John and Sue, and the people who are with him now, Michael [Tabor] and Derrick [Smith]. To be in that position is fantastic. The boss is an unbelievable man. He’s got such vision, he’s a big picture man, but he understands horses and people like no other man I know. We’re lucky to be around at the same time as him. We won’t always be in this position, that’s reality, isn’t it? We’ll do our best to stay in it, that’s all we can do, isn’t it?’
Horses like Rock Of Gibraltar, Galileo, Giant’s Causeway, High Chaparral, Hawk Wing, Johannesburg and King Of Kings plundered the top prizes all over the world. Try to get Aidan to nominate the best of them, however, and you will fail. Even as you ask the question, you almost anticipate the answer.
‘They were all very special. All those big prizes are very special. We were very lucky to have Dylan Thomas last year. It was great for everybody. You don’t start off with any goals like that, you just play your hand as you find it, try to do the best for the horses. And Royal Ascot was great for the lads last year. It’s a business for them, but it is important that they really enjoy their business. The St James’s Palace Stakes, the Irish Derby, the Arc, they were all great days. When you’re there, they’re great days. But when that day is gone, you don’t get it back. It’s down in history. But sure, what good is history to you? You have to get on with the next job, the next horse, finding the next two-year-old.’
The danger is that O’Brien’s mind is racing so fast, constantly striving for excellence, looking for the next thing that will give him a competitive edge, that he may miss the here-and-now, that he may fail to fully appreciate his achievements, but no. The achievement is in gaining that competitive edge. A 1-2-3 in the Irish Derby, a 1-2-3 in the St James’s Palace Stakes, and Arc de Triomphe win, these are merely the results of the means, proof that the methods work. And all the while he reverts to the team. It is not his achievement, everybody on the team has a piece of it.
‘It’s human nature to look forward. You have to be able to look forward. If you dwell on what happened you might stand still. If you’re trying to always be ahead, you can’t stand still. Sometimes, you have to take a little time out and say, that was great, everyone has to do that, you have to enjoy it, but that’s where I’m probably a little different to most people, that’s where I turn into a little bit of a drip, I’d always be afraid that if I slacken back a little bit I’d be in trouble, I’d have to keep my mind fresh. I shouldn’t be saying it but I always feel that I need to be as sharp as I am in order to survive. I don’t believe that I’m clever enough to take my foot off the throttle. Of course everyone here feels a sense of satisfaction when we’d have big winners, because everyone has been a part of it. Everyone is part of the system, each person keeps their own wheel turning so that the system can work, and everyone congratulates everyone when we have a big winner. That’s why I think the boss man is so important, he’s so different, he recognises all those things. It’s all about the team.’
He talks about his brain being only quarter full, about being all the while on the lookout for more information to put alongside what he already has so that his understanding of horses will increase exponentially. That is the experience of which he speaks. A school kid with an unlimited capacity for information and an insatiable appetite to learn.
‘We do our best every day here, every minute of the day, we don’t think about anything else every minute of the day. That light is on all the time. And just before you go to bed you have to turn off that light so that you’re able to go to sleep. But that’s the only time it’s turned off. My mind is racing all the time with different notions and ideas. Listen, that can make a very dull person of you, but that’s just the way it is. We’re lucky because we love doing it.’
Perhaps it is his desire and ability to continually strive for new information that sets him apart, the humility to be of the notion that he still has lots to learn. Perhaps it is why he is so successful. He realises that he will never know it all. He hasn’t spent large swathes of time in America or Australia or Japan trying to learn new methods, but he has picked up little bits from every horseperson with whom he has ever come in contact, and is all the while trying to improve.
‘Everybody has something to contribute in life,’ he says. ‘If you take the trouble to spend some time talking to the man who is sweeping the roads, you are sure to learn something from him. It is just a case of respecting everyone’s opinion. Everyone has something to add. There are so many people here who are such natural horse people, they know how horses think and feel.
‘When I think back now, we knew so little when we came here first. Jim’s gallop was uphill, and we had the hill down in Piltown, and then we come down here and the gallop is nearly flat. But we were very lucky with the people we have worked with. We had Christy [Roche] with us, and Christy had experience from Darkie [Prendergast], and David O’Brien and Dr O’Brien and Tommy Murphy. Charlie [Swan] was there, who had experience of his dad’s methods and of Kevin Prendergast’s, and then we had Mick [Kinane], who had come from Dermot [Weld]’s. And so many other top people. Horses are all individuals – well, we believe they are anyway – and if someone can come up with a solution that might work with a certain horse, we’ll try it. We find with training horses, experience is by far and away the most important thing. And if you can have the real special people to pull it off, well then you have a chance.’
He takes nothing for granted. He realises the fickleness of life, the fine line between success and failure and the flimsiness of the decisions that can lead to both.
‘Every night we say our prayers, we say a rosary and we thank God for how lucky we are, how lucky we were that the day has gone by, and be thankful for it, how lucky we are to be in the position we are in, thank God for our health. Every night. We never take it for granted. That never happens. I hope that doesn’t sound strange, but I’m so grateful for everything. You must remember, first where I was reared, and all the things that went into giving me the attitude I have and the way I’m made up, came from my parents. And I knew the way they struggled to give us everything. Then to work for someone like Jim Bolger, how lucky I was to meet Anne Marie, and then to get married to someone like Anne Marie, and to have the success we had, and to have four great healthy kids, and then to get the job here. It’s unbelievable. It’s been an unbelievable journey.
‘I would never take it for granted. You know how fickle a human being’s mind is, how much it can be influenced every day by different decisions, and how lucky you have to be able to make more right decisions than wrong ones. For me, I can never understand how people would take too much to drink, or whatever, I’m just about able to deal with my mind myself when I’m in the full of my senses every day. I’d be thinking about so many things, I’d read into so many things, I’d be thinking about what someone said or how they said it or what they meant. I say my prayers in the morning and hope that I make the right decisions by myself and by others, and sometimes there can be no real reason why you decide to do one thing instead of another. That’s how fickle we all are.’
This year, the competition will be intense again, perhaps more intense than it has been in a long time. The purchasing department of the other main power in the world of Thoroughbred racing, Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, has been busy of late, with the result that Sheikh Mohammed now owns or part-owns the top three in the betting for the 2,000 Guineas and five of the top nine. O’Brien smiles a tiny smile when he is reminded.
‘Sure it will be a challenge, won’t it?’
It is a new regime at Ballydoyle in lots of ways. Exit Dylan Thomas, Excellent Art and Scorpion, enter new flag-bearers Soldier Of Fortune, Peeping Fawn, Jupiter Pluvius, Washington Irving. Exit Kieren Fallon, enter Johnny Murtagh.
‘We’re delighted to have Johnny,’ says Aidan. ‘When Kieren got the job a couple of years ago, it was very close between him and Johnny as to who would get it. And the years Kieren was here, Johnny only kept getting better and better. He has the experience, he has the maturity, he has the physical strength, he has the genuineness, he has the commitment. We were really chuffed when he decided to come to us. We think he’s only starting to get near his peak now.’
‘Kieren was great. We were delighted that he came to us when he came. He’s a great fellow and a great jockey, and will come back and ride big winners. He will always be a big race man when he does come back. But he just has to deal with his demons. Johnny has had his demons, but he has dealt with them, straight up and open. He knows there are no shortcuts, and that everybody needs help. I hope that Kieren will get it back together now when he serves his ban, but he just has to deal with those things.’
And the horses are being readied. Peeping Fawn is back cantering and they hope to have her for the second part of the season, when she will probably take on the colts. Soldier Of Fortune is fairly forward and may start off in the Tattersalls Gold Cup. US Ranger goes in the Gladness Stakes, and may step up to a mile for the Lockinge Stakes after that. Septimus and Yeats have the Ascot Gold Cup as a potential target, although Septimus may be a mile-and-a-half horse as well, as could Honolulu. Mahler may go back to Flemington to have another crack at the Melbourne Cup.
Duke Of Marmalade may start off in the Prix Ganay, which Dylan Thomas won last year. Astronomer Royal may go back sprinting, Mount Nelson should be ready for the Lockinge, and Macarthur, who has improved a lot from three to four, will be looking at the Coronation Cup at Epsom.
Of the three-year-old fillies Savethisdanceforme could go straight for the Guineas now after finishing second at The Curragh last week. Sail will improve for her debut and may make up into an Oaks filly. Psalm, whose saddle slipped on her debut at Leopardstown last weekend (‘My fault for not putting the saddle on properly’), was working well and may go straight to the Guineas. Kitty Matcham will go straight to the Guineas.
Washington Irving showed plenty of pace last week and may go for the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial. Jupiter Pluvius is in good shape and is starting his build up for the Guineas now. He won’t run before the Guineas. Henrythenavigator may also go straight for the Guineas. He shows a lot of speed, but may not get a mile, and fast ground is probably a must for him. Plan is working with Jupiter Pluvius and is looking towards the Guineas. As they get closer they will decide if he is good enough to go there.
At the moment, they all think they are champions. And, you never know, they all may be. Like their trainer. An extraordinary talent.Back