Bred to win
INTERVIEW:It’s a family business, they say, so what’s it really like inside the Aidan O’Brien household? ROISIN INGLEspends a day with Irish racing’s first family
IRELAND’S FIRST FAMILY of horse racing boring? The world famous O’Briens of Ballydoyle? The female head of this country’s First Family of Horse Racing, Anne-Marie O’Brien, reckons some people might say so. “I think you’d find us a very boring household if you weren’t into horses,” smiles the wife of world-famous trainer Aidan, mother of teenage jockey wünderkind Joseph and his three siblings, all accomplished riders and walking Wikipedias when it comes to the horse racing industry.
“As a family, we don’t talk about much that doesn’t involve racing,” she says, driving around the Co Tipperary horse-training facility on an unusually sunny day in this wet rag of a summer. She wears the Ballydoyle uniform of blue jeans but her sunglasses are encrusted with diamante hearts. “It’s our business and it’s our life and it takes over everything. That’s just the way it’s always been and the way it always will be.”
The plan is to talk to Anne-Marie, Aidan and the children, but first she suggests a quick tour of beautiful Ballydoyle, all rolling meadows and stable floors you could eat your dinner off. Located just outside Cashel, this is where some of the world’s most illustrious race horses work, rest and work some more. It’s an environment of five-star equine luxury. The most elite horses reside in stables with their own individual back gardens; there is a horse spa and swimming pool and pristine gallops that resemble sections of famous English courses such as Ascot. There’s even a treadmill designed specifically for work-outs of the four-legged kind.
But even this place of equine perfection is subject to the vagaries of our dreadful summer. Because of the rain, Anne-Marie says the horses haven’t been able to run much on the grass gallops, and the hay has yet to be saved. The tour comes to an end in the Giant’s Causeway yard where Camelot, one of the yard’s many superstars, snorts away happily as music and chat courtesy of 2FM hums from the stable speakers.
The O’Brien children all ride out every morning and have been travelling with Aidan and Anne-Marie to meetings from Ascot to Longchamp to Dubai since they were knee-high to the statue of racing legend Nijinsky that stands in the driveway at Ballydoyle.
“Growing up here, you get sucked into it,” says Anne-Marie, an attractive woman with arresting green eyes and faint threads of silver running through dark hair. “If we didn’t go on the same journey as Aidan, we’d never see him at all. The thing about racing is if you get a taste of it as a child, you suddenly become involved in this adult world that you can be part of and you are able to contribute to the family business at a young age. There are very few industries like that.”
The tour complete, we’ve settled in the plush reception area of the Giant’s Causeway yard. Joseph (19) is racing in Naas later so can’t be here but Anne-Marie and Aidan, with their children Sarah (17), Ana (16) and Donnacha, who turns 14 the day we meet, have gathered for a rare family interview. The problem is the children are about as interested in talking to this magazine as Aidan O’Brien is partial to watching Coronation Street of an evening. For the record, he’s never seen it, or most other television programmes either. Not surprising really. You don’t get to be the world’s most successful trainer by keeping up with Fair City, Mad Men or even The Killing.
So while it’s all very pleasant, the room decorated with pictures of Ballydoyle’s past glories, a pot of coffee and chocolate fingers arranged neatly on a tray, it’s the conversational equivalent of pulling teeth. Like most teenagers, the 0Brien children clam up under even the gentlest of interrogations.
An opener about the inevitability of being horse-mad growing up in Ballydoyle is greeted with silence, before their father answers, saying: “I suppose you’d say since their eyes were open they’ve seen and heard nothing else.”
“We were holding you on horses before you could walk,” he says, gesturing to each child, placing a reassuring hand on Ana’s elbow. “You get exposed to something so young that it does take you over. Isn’t that it?” he says, coaxing his brood.
“I suppose so,” one of them answers. More silence. “Come on,” says Aidan gently, flicking a graceful hand towards their heads. “We want to know what’s really going on in there.”
I may not be able to tell one end of a thoroughbred from the other but even I know the answer to that one. It doesn’t take Tracy Piggott to deduce that there are horses cantering through the minds of every one of the O’Brien children and their parents at all times. They are consumed by them. Observing them. Grooming them. Feeding them. Breeding them. Winning the biggest races with them. In the 16 years that Aidan O’Brien has been Master of Ballydoyle, taking over from the late legendary MV O’Brien (no relation), he’s had a stunning run of success, right up to this season which has seen him take 10 Group 1 winners already, bringing his career total to more than 200.
Since former stable jockey Johnny Murtagh parted company with the yard in 2010, the majority of horses have been ridden by Joseph, who had his first big win in the Breeders’ Cup last November. The family’s most memorable moment this year came when Joseph won the Epsom Derby on Camelot, marking the first time in history a father and son jockey/trainer combination won the race. Camelot, ridden by Joseph again, also won the Irish Derby, claiming a new trainer record of 28 Irish Classic wins for O’Brien, a record previously held by the previous master of Ballydoyle. And not forgetting Joseph’s win on the same horse in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. So, if Camelot, with Joseph on board, scoops the St Leger at York in September, he will become the first horse since Nijinsky in 1970 to secure horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Apart from one disappointing haul in 2004, O’Brien has had an astonishingly consistent run of success. Everybody in the business will tell you he has a way with horses, a magic touch. Given the financial muscle wielded by Ballydoyle and Coolmore Stud owners John Magnier and his associates, they might not shout about it, but certain racing insiders will also tell you that if other trainers had the horses that are selected for Aidan O’Brien they’d be notching up winners at the same relentless rate. But then again, before he ever came to Ballydoyle, where he gets to pick from the cream of racehorses, the trainer had already broken plenty of records.
There are also no shortage of racing folk who’ll say that if other jockeys were given the opportunity to ride the kind of dream animals Joseph O’Brien has to choose from, they’d be coming down with Group 1 winners too. “Good horses make good jockeys,” they might say, well out of earshot of the O’Briens, naturally. Such industry chatter is irrelevant to a family who know better than most the natural skill, killer timing and ability to perform under pressure it takes to become a champion jockey.