Donn's Articles » Aidan O'Brien

Aidan O’Brien

It is August 1994. Aidan O’Brien stands in the middle of his yard at Tullahought, just outside Piltown in Co Kilkenny, and watches as his horses encircle him, a human fulcrum. Calmness abounds, a feeling of contentment in everything that you can see, everything that you can sense. Horses lop around, heads bowed, almost in a half-slumber; lads sit comfortably on their backs, motionless but for the rhythm of their bodies in tandem with the beasts beneath; the soft hush of hoof on fibresand, the semi-darkness, the trainer’s easy voice.

“Okay Ger? All right Colm? Okay Mark? Shane?”

You watch as the horses file out of the yard and wend their respective ways towards the gallop that runs up the side of Carriganog Hill, and accept the trainer’s invitation to join him in his Jeep as an observer. He talks as he drives, all the while watching as the horses go through the gap that will bring them up to the gallop. Son of a farmer, left school after his Inter Cert to work as a forklift driver in the Waterford Co-op, left there to take on his first job in racing with PJ Finn on the Curragh at the age of 18, joined Jim Bolger shortly thereafter. It’s all good stuff.

Up ahead, one of the lads is having a little difficulty getting his horse to go through the gap. The horse shies, then goes backward, then forward a little, then to the side. The lad gives it a little smack down the side with his whip. It isn’t anything serious, you would hardly have noticed it, and it has the desired effect. Aidan continues talking as he arrives upsides the lad and rolls down his window.

“Why did you give the filly a smack?”

Same tone. He could have been asking the lad if he took sugar in his coffee.

“She just wouldn’t go through the gap.”

Uncertain glance.

“Yeah, well don’t do it again.”

There is an exact balance to be struck between ensuring that people are happy in what they do and retaining control, between cultivating a sense of teamwork – all in it together – and maintaining authority. That balance is evident at Tullahought. There is no mistaking the sense of contentment that pervades here, human and equine, yet you get the feeling that this lad won’t resort to the stick again for quite some time.

Already, Aidan O’Brien has scaled remarkable heights as a trainer. A fresh-faced 24-year-old who would probably have to produce ID in order to get served in a Dublin city centre bar, he has just been crowned Irish champion jumps trainer for the first time. Last week he became only the fourth person in history to train 100 winners in Ireland in a calendar year, and it is still only August. As well as winning ordinary races, lots of them, flat and National Hunt, with ordinary horses, Dancing Sunset’s victory in the Group 3 Royal Whip Stakes three days ago – the trainer’s first in pattern class – proves that, given the right material, he can also do it at the higher levels.

You try to uncover the key to his success, to unearth the secret ingredient that sets his horses apart. The trainer doesn’t speak about the special talent that other people say he has. He doesn’t talk about horse sense. He doesn’t tell you that, according to Christy Roche, he is the only employee that Jim Bolger was ever sorry to lose. He just shrugs his shoulders.

“I’m not sure that we do things very differently to anyone else,” he says casually. “We just try to keep everybody happy, horses and people. We have a great team of people here, and our horses work hard, eat well, are treated well and run often. We just try to keep them happy and healthy. That’s half the battle. They’re going well now, but for how long can they keep on winning?”

On the way back down the hill, we talk about the future. He could hardly be more pleased with the way things are going now, but he would love to train a better class of horse. He doesn’t really have a preference for flat or National Hunt, but he knows that he will have to go one way or the other at some stage. If he goes down the National Hunt route, he would want to have Cheltenham runners, Cheltenham winners. If he goes down the flat route, he would want to have runners in the top races, the group races. And he would really love to train a classic winner.


It is March 2007. Aidan O’Brien stands in the middle of the indoor school at Ballydoyle, a human rugby ball in the racing journalists’ scrum, microphone in hand, as 50 horses and riders amble around the circumference. On the face of it, the contrast with Tullahought is stark. O’Brien’s waterproofs have been replaced by a George Washington jacket and an Aussie Rules cap. The lads wear matching black jackets and maroon caps. The famed Carriganog Hill has been replaced by the best gallops, the best facilities to be found anywhere in the country and quite probably anywhere in the world. Horses by Boyne Valley, Homo Sapien and Miner’s Lamp have become regally-bred thoroughbreds by Storm Cat, Sadler’s Wells and Danehill. A full-sister to Rock Of Gibraltar, a half-sister to Galileo, a full-brother to One Cool Cat – it’s a long way from training your first Group 3 winner.

But there is a certain familiarity in the atmosphere, a consistency in the air of calm that descends, an atmosphere of contentment. The trainer speaks in the same easy tones.

“Okay Marat? All right Amilea? Can you pull your sheet up James please. Thanks. Okay Ranju?”

Some of the names and nationalities may have changed, but the sentiment is the same and the sense of responsibility that it engenders in the lads is identical.

The trainer talks about the horses as they limber up. “That’s Macarthur, a full-brother to Motivator, he may start off in the Ballysax Stakes. Number 40 there is Spanish Harlem, he’s by Danehill out of Sleepytime, who won the Guineas. He may go for the Guineas Trial at Leopardstown.”

No notes, no reference points. Just a horseman’s eye and instant recognition.

“There’s Mount Nelson. He won a Group 1 race at Saint-Cloud at the back-end of last season. And Duke Of Marmalade. We have always thought a lot of him. He fractured a pastern after the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood last year, but he’s going well. One of those two could be our Guineas horse now.”

For ‘now’, read ‘now that Holy Roman Emperor is gone’. O’Brien makes no effort to conceal his disappointment at the Danehill colt’s retirement to stud. He was their Guineas horse. They were cracking on with him, and they had him just where they wanted him, with the result that they were probably easier on the other three-year-olds than they might otherwise have been. The colt has now been moved down the road to Coolmore Stud to replace the effervescent George Washington, who proved to be less effective in the covering shed than he had been on the racecourse.

Of course it is absolutely irrelevant now, but they really felt that they had a shot at Teofilo this year. They believed that Holy Roman Emperor was unlucky in the Dewhurst at the end of last season, and they were dying to have another crack at Jim Bolger’s colt in the Guineas. Alas, we will never know how he would have fared. Now, O’Brien has to try to uncover another Guineas horse.

“The longer you leave a horse believing that he is good,” he reasons, “the better chance you have of getting a result. That’s why we are where we are now that Holy Roman Emperor is gone. At the moment, all these horses think that they are good, but something is going to have to step up to the mark now. Teofilo and Holy Roman Emperor looked to be well clear of the other juveniles last year. We’re probably going to have to find one that is at least as good as Holy Roman Emperor, and possibly even better, if we are to beat Jim’s horse. That’s not going to be easy. Duke Of Marmalade is officially rated 11lb below Teofilo. That’s a lot of ground that we have to make up.”

The fact that George Washington – who actually got six mares in foal towards the end of his tenure at stud – has returned to Ballydoyle is merely a consolation prize.

“We’re lucky to have him back all right, but he has to start to realise that he can’t cover everything he sees now,” smiles O’Brien. “We’ll try to get his mind unravelled and aim to have him ready for Royal Ascot, for the Queen Anne Stakes.”

This time last year, there was a certain buzz around George Washington. He had won the Phoenix Stakes and the National Stakes as a juvenile, and he was the undisputed Ballydoyle Guineas horse. O’Brien found it difficult to contain himself when he spoke about him, evidence of which we continued to see throughout the year. This season, however, there is no buzz horse. And if one is going to emerge, it might be a little while before it does.

But if there is a latent exceptional talent among the blue-bloods that canter up the all-weather gallop in front of you, rest assured Aidan O’Brien will uncover it. That is what he does, that is what makes him outstanding as a trainer of racehorses.

O’Brien’s ability to get the animals under his care to achieve their potential is quite extraordinary. Handicap chasers or classic prospects, it really has never mattered. Whatever talent they have, whatever ability they possess, if they are under the care of Aidan O’Brien they invariably use it. All of it.

Happy and healthy they are – that means that they are half way there.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd April 2007