Donn's Articles » Royal Ascot preview – Aidan O’Brien

Royal Ascot preview – Aidan O’Brien

Aidan O’Brien sent out seven winners at Royal Ascot in 2016. In so doing, he equaled the late Sir Henry Cecil’s post-war record of Royal Ascot wins in one year, and he brought his overall Royal Ascot tally to 55. Yet the trainer did not bask in the achievement. He just smiled, shook hands and moved on.

On Ascot Gold Cup day last year, after he had won the Gold Cup with Order Of St George and the Ribblesdale Stakes with Even Song, he also had two winners at Leopardstown in the evening.

It is easy to become complacent about Aidan O’Brien’s achievements. When you get used to the extraordinary, it ceases to be extraordinary. When the extraordinary becomes commonplace, the extraordinary becomes the expected.

The march continues in 2017. The current season is but a couple of months old, and already Aidan O’Brien has hit new landmarks.

When he sent out Churchill to win the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket last month, he was winning the colts’ Classic for the eighth time, more times than any other trainer in the 208-year history of the race. When he sent out Wings Of Eagles two weeks ago to win the Epsom Derby, the race regarded by many as the defining race of the thoroughbred, he was winning it for the fourth time in six years and the sixth time since the turn of the millennium, thereby equalling the post-war record set by his predecessor at Ballydoyle, Dr Vincent O’Brien.

He has trained the winners of five of the six Classics run in Britain and Ireland this season so far. The 1-2 in the 1000 Guineas, the 1-2 in the Epsom Derby, the 1-2-3 in the Irish 1000 Guineas. And he had the second and third in the Epsom Oaks, the only one that he didn’t win.

It is difficult to evaluate the magnitude of the influence that a trainer has on a racehorse’s performance. How much is down to conditioning and how much is down to the horse’s natural ability?  Does the trainer make the horses or do the horses make the trainer?

Of course, the raw equine talent with which Aidan O’Brien has to work is unsurpassed, but it is the trainer’s responsibility to get that equine talent to realize its potential. And it is indisputable that O’Brien does that consistently, continually.

The conditioning of racehorses is a fusion of science and art. The science is there in Ballydoyle, but the art is also there in the intangible, in the trainer. Call it horse sense, call it genius.

Aidan O’Brien was breaking records before he started at Ballydoyle. It was because of that proven ability that he was recruited to Ballydoyle. In 1994, he became just the fourth trainer in history to clock up 100 winners in Ireland in a calendar year, and he did it by August, with four months to spare. That was the year that he was crowned champion National Hunt trainer for the first time. More importantly, it was also the year that he sent out his first Group race winner.

He spoke at the time of his desire to train a better class of horse, about competing at the top level.

Now look.

And sitting in his armchair now in Ballydoyle on the eve of Royal Ascot 2017, he could bask in the glory of six Group 1 winners this season so far, but he doesn’t.

“It’s a big team effort,” he says quietly. “I am only a small part of the team. A lot of people put in a lot of hard work. It’s a big chain of people and, when it happens, we’re just delighted for everybody.”

Or he could reflect triumphantly on Royal Ascot last year: Caravaggio, Even Song, Order Of St George, Brave Anna, Sword Fighter, Churchill, Sir Isaac Newton. Again he doesn’t. It is all about looking forward, the next target, the next thing, continuing to improve. And this year’s Royal Ascot team again looks strong.

Dual Guineas winners Churchill and Winter are on track, set for the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Coronation Stakes respectively.

“The plan was always to go straight to the Guineas at Newmarket with Churchill for his debut this season,” says the trainer. “He was always a horse who was able to quicken very well, so we were always hopeful and we were delighted with his win.”

Aidan O’Brien has won the St James’s Palace Stakes seven times, more times than any other trainer.

“And we were delighted with his win at The Curragh then in the Irish 2000 Guineas. The ground was easier than ideal for him there, but he quickened well. After that, the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot was the obvious target for him, and everybody has been happy with him since.”

Winter did have a run before she went to Newmarket for the 1000 Guineas.

“David (Wachman) always liked her a lot last year, she had a lovely run first time at Leopardstown, and then from there she went to Newmarket. We were going to Newmarket hopeful, we had Rhododendron for the race too, whom we also thought the world of, and the two of them ran really good races. Winter was good at The Curragh too and, as long as everything went well with her there, the lads were thinking Coronation Stakes. We have been very happy with her since.”

Order Of St George is well and on track for the Gold Cup, Caravaggio is well and on track for the Commonwealth Cup. At present, there are five red-hot Royal Ascot favourites, and Aidan O’Brien trains four of them. And there are others, Highland Reel and Declarationofpeace and September and Murillo and more. It’s a big week.

“Royal Ascot is massive really,” says the trainer. “It has everything that you want. All the best horses are there, the best races, the best facilities, it’s an unbelievable occasion really.”

Ask him if he could repeat or better last year’s haul of seven winners, and he is circumspect.

“It’s tough to have any winner there,” he says. “We don’t ever think of the year gone by, we just try to have the horses as well as we can have them for each race. We just try to do our best.”

And that’s extraordinarily good.


© Sunday Times 18th of June 2017