Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A silver Mitsubishi Endeavour pulls up alongside the gate. 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 four­furlong 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 attention to detail here is 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 is logged, the horse’s 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 also 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 definitely intentional. 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.”


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 PJ 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 his 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 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 with characteristic humility.

“How did that happen?”

O’Brien began by dividing his time between the two yards, supervising two lots in Piltown and two lots in Ballydoyle every morning. Although there was a new concentration on the flat horses, the National Hunt side continued to thrive. 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.

Then the records began to tumble. Classic Park provided O’Brien with his first Classic when she landed the Irish 1000 Guineas in 1997. 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 were 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]. 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.”

Horses like Rock Of Gibraltar, Galileo, Giant’s Causeway, High Chaparral, Hawk Wing, Johannesburg and King Of Kings plundered 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. 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 the 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, an 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.”

Perhaps it is O’Brien’s 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.

“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. There are so many people here who are such natural horse people, they know how horses think and feel. 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 then Kieren and now Johnny. And so many other top people.”

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.”

This year, the competition will be intense again, perhaps more intense than it has been in a long time. The purchasing department of other superpower 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 2000 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. “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 this afternoon, 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.

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, and Henrythenavigator may also go straight for the Guineas. 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 horseman, an extraordinary talent.

© The Sunday Times 11th April, 2008