‘I think you'd find us very boring if you weren't into horses’
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.
When I ask Anne-Marie if she has experienced any resentment about the opportunities afforded Joseph, she shrugs and says: “I am sure there probably is but you know what, you just get on with it don’t you? When somebody else comes on the scene and starts riding lots of winners it lessens opportunities for others . . . it’s the same in any top level competitive sport.”
It’s clear the other children are as ambitious as Joseph to have a starring role in the family business, but it’s difficult to get them to talk about it. So instead Aidan explains that Sarah, who often gets mistaken for her mother at meetings, has had her amateur licence for a year and wants to be a vet after she does her Leaving Cert next year.
Ana, the most reserved of the children, represents Ireland on the pony eventing team and is applying for her first riding licence at the moment. After school, she’s thinking about studying to be an equine chiropractor. Donnacha rides out with the others every morning and will apply for his licence when he is old enough. In the meantime, he says he’s not mad about school and laughs about certain teachers in nearby Rockwell College asking him for racing tips.
“If you are brought up in this environment and you’ve ridden from the time you can walk, it’s a natural progression that you would want to get a licence and ride,” says Anne-Marie, herself a former jockey and champion National Hunt trainer. Of course size and weight can restrict how far you will go. Take Joseph, for example. Anne-Marie explains that although he is 5ft 11ins, her son often has to remain below 9st. This means during important racing weeks such as Ascot, the unusually tall jockey is on a punishing regime of dieting and exercise.
Breakfast might consist of a few strawberries and a coffee before he works out in several layers of clothes and woolly hats, sometimes shedding four pounds in a session. “It’s hard to see what he has to put himself through,” says his mother. “I never thought he’d be able to keep his weight at that level . . . it’s really hard work; you have to be totally committed or you couldn’t do it.”
Are the other children proud of their big brother? “They bollock him when things go wrong and they don’t praise him when things go right, isn’t that it?” says Aidan, who when asked about his own take on Joseph’s success opts to share the praise. “He works very hard, they all work very hard,” he says.
THE FIRST ALARM clock goes off in the O’Brien house each morning at 5.30am. Aidan gets up first and then around half an hour later, will wake the children, who fight over two copies of the Racing Post – they recently increased their order from one – before studying more racing news on their phones. They tack up and ride out anything up to six horses before coming back for breakfast and a dose of vitamins and fish oils. Breakfast is fresh juice and scrambled eggs from their own hens with smoked salmon and brown bread. (These days, Joseph can only drool at the sight and pop another strawberry.)
During term time, the three youngest often sneak late into school and can sometimes be found in classes texting notes regarding the form of the horses they’ve ridden that morning back to staff in Ballydoyle. “So they’ve had a long job of work before they even go to school,” says Anne-Marie. “What’s that called, child labour?” jokes their father. “If we didn’t want to do it we wouldn’t,” pipes up Sarah. “We all love being with the horses and we’re very grateful to be in this position.”
When the children return from school they get caught up in the workings of Ballydoyle again. By 9pm, they are on their way to bed or falling asleep on the sofa. They eat healthily and, like their father, are vehemently anti-smoking and anti-drinking. Anne-Marie O’Brien just doesn’t have the same worries as other mothers of teenagers. At the end of the average day her children have no energy left to go even slightly off the rails.
NEAT IS THE word that comes to mind when you look at Aidan O’Brien, whether in top hat and tails at Ascot or wearing his trademark prescription Oakley sunglasses. When I was last here, four years ago, he revealed something interesting about his daily ablutions. Each morning and evening when he puts the toothbrush back on the sink, he explained that he had to return it to the same spot, the brush pointing a specific direction an indicator perhaps that his perfectionist, veering on OCD, approach to training horses also dominates in the domestic setting. I bring up the toothbrush with his family because I’m hoping the children might take the opportunity to highlight some of his other interesting habits. “If you start asking them about this you’ll find out how much of a freak I really am,” says Aidan, leaning back on a cushion. I look expectantly at Sarah, Donnacha and Ana, who reward me with barely suppressed giggles but not much in the way of freaky anecdotes about what drives them mad about Dad.
As the silence lengthens it finally dawns on me that when it comes to dealing with the media these children are probably even more well-trained than the horses in the yard outside the window. They are also fully fluent in the kind of humble Aidan O’Brienisms we’ve come to expect from the trainer. There’s lots of “we know we are very lucky” from the children and “we are grateful every day to be in this position” and “we just do our best, that’s all you can do”.
In relation to Toothbrushgate, Sarah says: “It’s nice to do the best you can, there’s no point in taking shortcuts when you are trying to get places . . . when you are with the horses every day you are used to doing things properly and there’s nothing wrong with doing things properly.”
But is there actually a proper way to point a toothbrush? Aidan takes up his daughter’s point: “It’s a mindset. I suppose all the way along, with everything, whether it’s sweeping the floor or anything else, there’s a way to do it and there’s a right way to put your toothbrush back. I am sure it drives Anne-Marie mad.”
“All our lives we’ve been used to it, everything has its place” says Donnacha when I ask him what he thinks.
What about non-horsey distractions? Music? Socialising? Aidan answers for the children. “They don’t have time for any of that stuff . . . it’s full on here the whole time, when we are not racing we are discussing pedigrees or the mating, the only chance the lads have of escaping is on their phones . . . would that be right Ana? Would that be right lads? I should be letting you talk.”
But they don’t want to, so Aidan muses about their school education and the different kind of schooling they’ve received at Ballydoyle, a “very adult” world. He says he wasn’t “near as academic” as his children are when he was at school. He was obsessed with horse racing growing up in Co Wexford and his late father Denis gave him the opportunity as a teenager to train horses on the farm.
“I was so stupid, they definitely got their brains from their mother’s side,” he says. What about family holidays? “We go to heaven for three weeks in November,” says Aidan. “Heaven” is the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados owned by John Magnier. The children and Anne-Marie dispute the three week part, saying it’s more like two. Joseph has said in the past that his favourite meal is the breakfast buffet there.
Aidan and Anne-Marie O’Brien famously didn’t go on honeymoon, riding out on their wedding day and the morning after. Because of the non-stop nature of their job at Ballydoyle, they never go out on dates alone but they probably spend more time in each other’s company than most other married couples.
“I’d say we are more in love now than we were 25 years ago,” says Aidan, while Anne-Marie and the children grimace with embarrassment.
I ask what he thinks he’d be doing had he not met her when he was just 17. “There is no doubt Anne-Marie changed my whole life. I couldn’t believe the first day she spoke to me and then she came back and spoke to me again, I couldn’t believe it.” That meeting led to marriage but also to Aidan taking over Anne-Marie’s training licence. His success with her father Joe Crowley’s horses meant he eventually caught the eye of John Magnier and before long he was installed in Ballydoyle where, in an interesting twist to the Aidan O’Brien story, he’d once been turned down for a job as stable hand.
IT’S TIME FOR Joseph’s races at Naas. The television is turned on and I watch Aidan O’Brien watching his son compete in the sport that is the lifeblood of this family. The win eludes the teenager this time and the minute the race ends Joseph is on the phone to analyse it with his father. “Listen, don’t worry about that at all, he just got stuck in the ground . . . don’t worry,” says Aidan. “You could do nothing more with him. Best of luck on the next, good man. Good luck.”
“You don’t look back or dwell on things too much, it’s always ‘now, what’s next’ in racing,” says Anne-Marie.
It’s time to leave the Ballydoyle bubble. I say goodbye to Aidan and the children who are suddenly all chat, checking their phones for race statistics, telling their dad about the breeding and the owners of the horses in Naas and how the ground is likely to affect Joseph’s rides. “They’ve been talking about this all their lives and they have great instincts,” Aidan says in admiration.
Anne-Marie drives me down the road to Cashel. We chat about where Aidan would be had he not become involved with Anne-Marie and her family. She smiles at the thought. “We all know he would have been a success at whatever he did because he is a perfectionist, he puts everything he has into what he does, anybody who does that is going to become successful, it doesn’t matter what field they choose.”
I try to probe a bit more about Aidan at home. Earlier, the strong Catholic, pioneer-badge-wearing trainer had launched into a mini-rant about alcohol, which he said had “most of Ireland destroyed”. “Young people should be in control of their own destiny, alcohol takes away that control.” Is he a strict father? Anne-Marie pauses, considering this. “Yeah I suppose he is strict. He wouldn’t tolerate any kind of attitude from anybody, do you know what I mean . . . I’d probably be more relaxed.”
She talks about Ballydoyle, how it’s their home but also their business, and how their involvement in this country’s half a billion euro horse racing industry makes it impossible to separate those two things. “The riding gear is all in the kitchen and the kitchen looks out at the yard where everybody tacks up in the morning. There are no boundaries, there is no separation. They’ve grown up in a disciplined environment because everything in racing is on a strict time schedule, but does that make them on time for school every morning? No ...” she laughs.
She drops me where I need to go and I think about how the O’Brien’s of Ballydoyle are really quite fascinating, even if they will insist on banging on about horses the whole time. They all have this watchful reserve and enviable self-discipline and a lack of interest in any of life’s usual distractions. The very last thing they want to do is talk at length to journalists but they endure it occasionally to keep the work they do in the spotlight.
A few days later I manage to talk to Joseph on the phone and he says nothing that veers off the script apart from when I ask him what qualities he admires in his dad. “Janey,” he says, sounding genuinely flummoxed. “If I started talking about that, the conversation would never end.”
The O’Brien’s of Ballydoyle. A family with unwavering focus, tunnel vision, a tireless work ethic and dedication to always doing the best they can in a high pressure, high stakes sport.
Today, for example, Anne-Marie, Sarah and Donnacha are due to be in Fontainebleau near Paris watching Ana compete in the cross-country phase of the European Pony Championships. Meanwhile Aidan will be watching Joseph ride St Nicholas Abbey at Ascot before they fly to Paris and watch Ana show jumping tomorrow morning. If all goes to plan, the whole family will fly back to Dublin and drive straight to the Curragh where tomorrow Joseph will ride one of the Ballydoyle horses in the Irish Oaks and Sarah will take part in the Ladies Derby.
So not boring then. Not one bit. But if you want to get anything out of the O’Briens of Ballydoyle that’s unrelated to four-legged animals with very long faces, well, the best of luck with that. They don’t bother with much else. It’s just the way it is. Always has been. Always will be.