Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien

Aidan O’Brien

The sounds broke the morning silence: the sound of breathing in tandem with movement, the breath of equine wellbeing, the assured thud of hoof on ground, increasing in intensity as each horse draws closer, the rhythm changing as they passed.  That’s the Doppler Effect.

The O’Brien effect has been a constant at Ballydoyle since its instigation as a centre of excellence for thoroughbred horses in the 1950s.  First Vincent, then Aidan.  All that Vincent achieved, the Classics, the Derbys, you never would have thought that his successor could achieve all of that too, and yet he has.  And more.

Ballydoyle moves to the beat of the Derby like it does to no other race.  It’s the quintessential test of a racehorse, Aidan tells you.  It is the Derby, more than any other race, that tests every attribute of the thoroughbred, mental as well as physical.  Temperament, conformation, pace, resolution, stamina, class.  It’s the reason the thoroughbred exists, renowned Italian breeder Federico Tesio famously said.  The winning post of the Epsom Derby, the piece of wood that marks the end of Epsom’s unforgiving home straight.

The Epsom Derby has gone to Ballydoyle 14 times.  Vincent O’Brien trained six Derby winners, from Larkspur in 1962 to Golden Fleece in 1982.  Aidan emulated that feat when he landed his sixth in 2017 with Wings Of Eagles, and he has since won two more, Anthony Van Dyck in 2019 and Serpentine in 2020.  That’s eight.  More than any other trainer in the near 250-year history of the race. 

Stone Age looked good as he stood there on the lawn that morning, ears pricked as the cameras clicked.  Less than 24 hours after he had won the Derby Trial at Leopardstown, and he looked healthy and comfortable.  Tall and strong and sharp and relaxed, his trainer relaxed beside him, horse and human at ease in each other’s presence. 

“He didn’t really surprise us yesterday,” said the trainer.  “We have always thought that he was a very high-class horse.”

Stone Age was good at Leopardstown.  Ryan Moore allowed him stride on from flagfall.    French Claim moved up to mount a challenge as they rounded the home turn but, when Moore got a little lower in the saddle, Stone Age picked up impressively.  He settled the race as a contest in a couple of strides, and he stayed on willingly all the way to the line, where he was five and a half lengths clear of his closest pursuer.

The Galileo colt didn’t win last year as a juvenile, but he put up some noteworthy performances in defeat.  Beaten a head in the Group 2 Champions Juvenile Stakes, beaten a length and a half in the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud, the ratings say that he progressed with just about every run as a two-year-old.  Then, on his first run at three at the end of March, he won his maiden at Navan by nine lengths.  His Derby Trial win was a step forward from that, and there is every chance that he will step forward again at Epsom next Saturday.

“He learned a lot last year,” said his trainer.  “We wanted to teach him as much as we could.  He was learning and progressing all the time, and he is reaping the benefits of that education this season.” 

It was never about last season for Stone Age.  You know that his trainer started with the first Saturday in June 2022 and worked back.  All that he did last year was part of the process, stepping stones to Epsom.  Winning or losing, that was secondary, as long as he was moving forward towards his ultimate goal.

“I thought that he was very good at Leopardstown.  Nothing wanted to go on, so Ryan did the right thing and went on himself.  I would imagine that Ryan will find it difficult not to ride him, but that will be for him to decide closer to the time.”

The competition for Ryan Moore’s company in the 2022 Cazoo Derby is intense.  Brilliant rider though he is, he can still only ride one of them.

The Lingfield Derby Trial, the Leopardstown Derby Trial, the Dee Stakes, the Chester Vase, these are the recognised pointers to the Derby, and those four races have all been won by an Aidan O’Brien-trained colt this year.  Respectively, United Nations, Stone Age, Star Of India, Changingoftheguard, and Ryan Moore has ridden each colt to victory in his trial. 

The last Derby trial run at York two weeks ago, the Dante, was won by Desert Crown, and Sir Michael Stoute’s colt was parachuted to the top of the Derby market as a consequence.  He is a high-class colt, he was impressive in winning on Thursday, it makes sense that he is high in the Derby betting.

That said, the Ballydoyle challenge looks formidable, and here is strength in-depth.  It isn’t always only about the Ballydoyle number one.  They are all talented and progressive colts who have earned the right to compete at Epsom. 

“Star Of India won well at Chester,” said the trainer.  “He’s a real Galileo, when you ask him to stretch, he lowers his head and gives you everything.  Changingoftheguard won well at Chester too, and he is entitled to go for the Derby, while United Nations really enjoyed stepping up in trip at Lingfield, and his experience of Epsom will stand to him.  We don’t know which of them is the best.  We learn as you learn.  We only find out which of them is the best when they are put together.”

It’s the Derby effect.  And the Ballydoyle beat goes on.

© The Sunday Times, 29th May 2022