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Aidan O’Brien

It is press morning at Ballydoyle, a typical crisp Tipperary spring-almost-summer morning, with the season stretching in front of you, over the horizon and into the unknown.

The benefit of the morning will inevitably be to the press and, by extension, to the racing public, and Aidan O’Brien is the perfect host, beginning by shaking hands with every member of the assembled press group, one by one. If you have a name-tag hanging around your neck, you get a handshake from the boss. It’s the rule.

Much easier, of course, were he to take the microphone in hand and welcome everybody collectively. One universal good morning would have sufficed, but that would not be the O’Brien way. Individual attention is key at Ballydoyle. Each horse has its own paddock. Every horse is hand-walked. Every rider is stopped after a piece of work and asked how the horse went, if there is anything to report. One by one, first name by first name.

Every rider has a number strapped to his or her arm this morning. Every member of the media has a list of horses with riders and numbers, for ease of identification, as the horses breeze past, two by two.

The trainer stands easily on the grass beside the gallop, encircled by hacks armed with questions. It’s an oft-viewed scene, although it is usually a scene from a racecourse, with a steaming horse in the background and another Group 1 prize in the bag. This morning, it is different. Jeans and jumpers instead of shirts and suits and ties. The tape recorders are whirring all right, but the constraining sense of urgency is lacking. The focus is on the qualitative.

Most of the questions inevitably centre around Derby favourite Australia. Like, why do you say that he could be the best you have ever trained?

“From the very first time he worked as a two-year-old,” says the trainer in the easy relaxed tones that have become part of him, “the lads always rated him very highly. He was half-speeding with horses with whom he shouldn’t have been able to half-speed. He’d be pulling up at the end of a piece of work and yawning.

“He did a piece of work over five furlongs, and he did four of those furlongs in 11 seconds. One after the other, four 11-second furlongs. I didn’t know it at the time, but the lads got the report and my phone started ringing. Do you see what he’s after doing?”

The explanation is thorough, concise, convincing. Perhaps that is the main benefit of a morning like this for Aidan O’Brien. Perhaps it is easier for him to explain his thinking in a relaxed environment, on home ground, with the microphone in his hand and not thrust in his face, when he has the time to go into the explanation in depth.

Perhaps the short sharp sound bytes that reporters gather in winners’ enclosures in Britain and Ireland, and give to subs to turn into attention-grabbing headlines, could never do justice to the depth of rationale that is behind the quote.

History beats through every towering tree here, through every blade of grass, going back to the 1950s when Vincent O’Brien first thought of Ballydoyle as an ideal place for the conditioning of thoroughbred racehorses. And Ballydoyle moves to the beat of the Epsom Derby like it does to no other race. Larkspur, in 1962, was the first Ballydoyle Derby winner. The latest was Ruler Of The World last year.

Vincent trained six Derby winners, Aidan has trained four, and counting, including the last two, Camelot and Ruler Of The World. Nobody has ever trained three Derby winners in a row. If Australia – or one of the other Ballydoyle Derby possibles, including Orchestra and Geoffrey Chaucer – could bring the prize back to Ballydoyle this year, that would be another record that would fall to Aidan O’Brien. There aren’t that many left.

We didn’t know that Australia coughed before the 2000 Guineas. That was new. Six weeks before the first Classic, and O’Brien had to lay off on the Galileo colt’s training, tread the fine line between keeping him fit and overdoing it. It was obviously a concern, but it makes his run in the Guineas even more impressive than it looked on the day.

“We were delighted with him in the Guineas,” says the trainer. “They went a fast pace, but he was able to cruise along with them. Joseph knew that the far side were in front, so he had to go for home earlier than he wanted to. He won his race on the near side well, he was just beaten by two horses on the far side. But he didn’t know that he had been beaten.”

By the Derby winner Galileo, an influence for class and stamina, out of the Oaks winner Ouija Board, Australia is bred to race over a mile and a half. The mile of the Guineas was always going to be sharper than ideal for him, so it was an exceptional performance for him to finish third, to get as close as he did.

“He has that determination that all Galileos have. Their heads go out and down. They have an unusual willingness. But he has extraordinary speed for a Galileo. You don’t know for sure if he will stay a mile and a half or not, but you’d be surprised if he didn’t, wouldn’t you?”

The truth is that he should excel over a mile and a half.

“He’s very uncomplicated. He’s relaxed. He has a great mind. He’s very talented. He has been doing things here that we have never seen before. All of that makes him exceptional.”

It’s Aidan O’Brien on Australia again, but the quote could fit the person as readily as it fits the horse.

© The Sunday Times, 18th May 2014