Life of O’Brien: behind the scenes at Coolmore and Ballydoyle
Conor Pope gets a rare glimpse at the working life of Aidan O’Brien’s stud farms and training grounds to see what puts them among the best in the world
Aidan O’Brien is joined on the gallops by Conor Pope for morning exercise. Photograph: Ni Riain Photography
When I tell horsey people I’m off to Ballydoyle and Coolmore to “work” under Aidan O’Brien they look at me with jealous eyes, as if securing an extremely rare invite to one of the best thoroughbred breeding and training grounds in the world has gifted me the magical secrets of the horse whisperers of Co Tipperary.
It hasn’t. Invite or no invite, I know nothing about horses and as the sun rises in south Tipperary, I wait for O’Brien’s wife Annemarie to shepherd me through security and fret that this A-team of dream makers will quickly peg me as someone who’s wilfully ignorant of the world which consumes them.
As cars full of Ballydoyle jockeys, therapists, stable hands, farriers, cooks and gardeners stream through the only gate on the 800-acre stud farm in early morning’s half light, it dawns on me that the very notion that I’m here to work is absurd. It could never happen.
There’s absolutely no circumstance in which I’d be allowed to lay a finger on anything that matters. O’Brien knows the value of the kingdom he’s ruled since 1996, and nothing that disturbs its perfectly pitched rhythms is tolerated.
Annemarie pulls up in a silver Land Rover, nods to the security guard who’s been eyeing me suspiciously, and tells me to hop in. And we’re off. We head for a stable complex where 40 jockeys – including all four O’Brien children – are getting ready to ride out on mounts selected for them the night before by Ireland’s top trainer.
Donnacha is the O’Brien’s youngest son. He got his Leaving Cert results yesterday and is looking sprightly for someone who was celebrating last night. It’s unsurprising – he doesn’t drink and was home before 1am. “He did grand, seeing as how he left school last Christmas,” Annemarie says. “In fact, he left almost all his exams early so he could get home in time to watch Ascot on the television, so he did pretty well.”
Joseph, her eldest son and Ballydoyle’s lead jockey, strolls past. At six feet tall, he doesn’t look like a typical rider. “I was told all jockeys were tiny,” I say. He’s clearly heard this before.
“Who told you that?” he says with a shake of his head. Truth is, jockeys don’t have to be small, they just have to be light. And a six footer keeping his weight under nine stone takes a whole lot more discipline than it does if they’re eight inches shorter. Joseph leads Gleneagles, the latest in a long line of Ballydoyle stars, out of his stable towards the barn nearby, where the horses’ warm-up begins.
Ian Dempsey is sounding chirpy this morning. Today FM’s breakfast show booms from speakers hanging from the barn walls. I ask Annemarie if the jockeys like the radio. “It’s not for them, it’s for the horses. When they hear it in the morning, they know it’s time to work. Then at around 12.30pm they’ll have lunch and the radio goes off and they’ll know it’s time to rest.”
Suddenly Aidan O’Brien is at my shoulder, his reflective prescription sunglasses lightening in the gloom. In silence, we watch his horses circling. “They’re really relaxed right now,” he says. “But if something small changes, even a coat being hung in a different place, that can unsettle them.”
I silently hope they don’t get unsettled. I’ll be blamed.
The couple’s daughter Ana rides past. “She’d a winner in Gowran Park last night so she’s delighted,” Annemarie tells me.
I wonder if they ever worry about their children, aged between 17 and 22, embedded in a sport fraught with danger. She answers quickly. “Of course. Donnacha had a bad one on the gallops in April when his horse broke a leg. He went to hospital in a neck brace. Not long ago Ana had a fall on Adelaide after something spooked him, and Sarah had a bad one in Killarney. Joseph, of course, has had plenty of falls. There’s a reason every race run has two ambulances coming behind.”
Her voice trails off. O’Brien stands in the centre of the barn, like the conductor of an equine orchestra, staring intently at his passing charges. He’s gauging their moods, making sure everything’s okay.
He’s joined by Tom Curtis, who keeps a close eye on the horses’ vital signs using heart rate monitors strapped to their chests. He’s checking heart consistency and recovery rates. He tells me a horse’s heart can reach 220 beats per minute when they’re at full tilt, falling to just 30 at rest. But the monitors don’t just tell Curtis how fast a horse’s heart is beating. They tell him what they’re thinking too.
My face tells him what I’m thinking. Before I can verbalise my question, he answers it. Horses are so sensitive to their surroundings and Curtis so tuned in to their sensitivities that if a horse is paired with a new jockey or is having a bad day for some other reason, the subtle shift in its heart rhythms will alert him.
O’Brien addresses each jockey by name as they head for the gallops – the multi-surfaced tracks where the real training’s done. Every horse has a different schedule and O’Brien remembers their specific requirements without referring to notes. “It’s just what I do,” he says when I ask about his memory. He’s forever playing down his skills. “I’m just a small part of a massive team,” he says repeatedly. “It is all about the people around me. You can have the place and the horses but you need the team working together. It is all about the people.”
When the horses are on the gallops O’Brien’s in constant contact with jockeys and ground staff through walkie-talkies. The first gallop done, he addresses each rider by name again. “All good Aidan” they respond. It’s an almost hypnotic routine.
After they pass, O’Brien leaps into his black Land Rover and beckons me over. We race around the Ballydoyle complex, taking corners sharply, heading for another track. “I want to get there quickly,” he explains. “I don’t want the horses waiting. I don’t want them getting anxious.”
It’s all about the horses. Always.
We get there and the horses look nice and chilled. Before they set off, he tells the jockeys what he wants. “I’m looking for a nice building swing,” he says to one. “And I want you following along nicely,” he tells another. Riding parallel, 10ft from to the track, we quickly reach 60km an hour. He points to the lead horse. “He’s lazy,” he says. But we’re going at a fair old clip, I say. “Ah but look at his ears. They’re straight up. If he was pushing himself they’d be flat back.”
Travelling so close to racehorses as they’re put through their paces is exhilarating. They’re magnificent. As the session reaches its climax both horses – even the “lazy” fella – do their best to finish first. Their intense concentration is matched by the determination of the jockeys. O’Brien says nothing. He just drives alongside, watching every muscle and sinew move. All sessions are taped and jockeys’ thoughts recorded as they dismount. The attention to detail is extraordinary.
It’s just after 9am and time for family breakfast. We head back to the O’Brien home beside the original stables built by Vincent O’Brien, the unrelated racing legend who made Ballydoyle.
O’Brien discusses horse psychology. “When you think something, they feel it. They’re remarkable. They feel everything. You can see the disappointment in their faces when they lose or when something’s not right. You’d pull a horse out of a race if his mood wasn’t right.”
We pass a colt having his morning shower. “See how happy he is,” O’Brien says with a smile. “You can tell straight away if a horse is feeling down. He’s not feeling down.”
“We pass the horses and jockeys we met earlier in the barn. They’re lounging in the sun, some rolling around like puppies with their legs in the air – the horses not the jockeys, the jockeys are way too focussed on watching their charges for such merriment. “They’re relieving some stress,” O’Brien says. He points to Gleneagles. He’s the only one with his bridle removed. “He likes it taken off as soon as he’s finished his work. It was Joseph who realised that. None of the other horses want their bridle off. It’s strange but that’s the way he likes it. If we thought he liked being put in that tree over there, we’d do it – whatever they want, they get.”
Annemarie mentions George Washington, another beloved Ballydoyle graduate. “He was a great horse,” she says with affection. “But he could really test your patience couldn’t he?”
The other O’Brien laughs. “Oh you’d have to be very firm with him alright or he’d walk all over you. He used to take his reprimand at the stable right enough, but he’d remember it and he’d know you couldn’t give out to him on the track, so he’d be up to pure devilment there and giving me the two fingers.”
They’re like an indulgent couple talking about their kids. They’ve probably been like it since they met at the Galway races nearly 30 years ago, when she approached him for the loan of ring bit. Both were accomplished jockeys and Annemarie was also a champion National Hunt trainer.
O’Brien describes Gleneagles as the best horse in Ballydoyle now and “possibly the most important horse we’ve ever worked with”. He was a top class two-year-old and is a top class three-year-old. This is his last season and all going well when this year’s races are done – and hopefully won – he’ll be sent to Coolmore. Before that, he’s scheduled to run in Leopardstown as part of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend. Australia, with Joseph in the saddle, missed out by half a nose last year. The loss still hurts and this year the O’Brien son hopes to put things right.
Coolmore and Ballydoyle are two sides of the same coin. Putting a figure on their worth might be possible. A top stallion can earn €250,000 each time he covers a mare. But focusing on the bottom line ignores what makes Ballydoyle and Coolmore truly special. That’s something money can’t buy – tradition. The places are steeped in a tradition going back to the early 19th century when the Magnier family started breeding race horses in Co Cork.
Fast forward 150 years to the 1970s. A 27-year-old John Magnier took charge of two studs near Coolmore, where former Battle of Britain ace Tim Vigors already had an operation. Vincent O’Brien, a successful National Hunt trainer, was based at Ballydoyle, a few miles away. O’Brien and Vigors joined forces and then Magnier came on board. Coolmore was born.
“If our owners win €2 million in prize money, it goes straight back into the horses for training and staff and feed and the rest,” Annemarie says. “The idea is to find the next Galileo or Gleneagles or Australia.” And that’s never a sure thing. “We’ve more than 160 horses each year and if we find just one of that calibre, it’s a result.”
Today the stud team are in France buying horses. When they come home, it will fall to John Magnier’s wife Susan to name them “She’s great at it,” Annemarie says. “Australia. Camelot. Galileo, Gleneagles. They’re strong names that fit the horses perfectly. That’s no accident.”
Sometimes, before a horse is raced, their name gets changed. If it’s not going so well, a cool name might be taken off it and given to a better horse. It’s lucky horses don’t speak fluent English, a sensitive one would never recover from such a slight.
Annemarie takes me to the horse spa. The treadmill and swimming pool are here, as well as a cold salt water tank. There’s a sauna and a solarium with heated lamps. Recent additions include a vibrating plate to get horses’ legs warmed ahead of their go on a new underwater treadmill.
“When you’re walking in water, you have to walk properly,” says Eamonn Kavanagh, who travelled from Ireland to Germany and then Kentucky on behalf of O’Brien to assess options before having a bespoke piece of kit built. “You can’t be slacking off in the water. The horses love it. And it is of great benefit, both mentally and physically. It is a great low impact, high resistance work out,” he says.
Annemarie walks me back to the house. The family have been here for 20 years. Does she see herself here 20 years from now? “We would like to think so, but who knows? No one is indispensable. It’s like any other sport. You’re only as good as what you’re doing this minute.”
We’re talking in the couple’s study. The house was rebuilt a couple of years ago after being destroyed by a chimney fire. “The new house has the same footprint as Dr and Mrs O’Brien’s” she says – her use of the formal honorific is striking. She points to the wood panelling lining the office walls. “We were able to rescue that from their old office.” Tradition matters.
Before I join the O’Briens for an evening meeting at Leopardstown, I ask if I can see Coolmore. It’s not something everyone gets to see. It’s very private. Annemarie makes a couple of phone calls and arranges a brief visit. It’s awesome. Most of the stallions are in Australia for the stud season, and in the US, but as I wander through the stables, Australia and Galileo wander past me. Strut, might be a better word.
These horses have it made. All they’ve to do until they canter off to the great stable in the sky to meet Nijinsky and Sadler’s Wells is be pampered and go on the occasional, um, date, with a lady friend brought in at great expense.
Watching O’Brien at the track is something else. He’s on top of everything. He talks to the press and the punters. He takes calls from owners, telling them how the horses should run. He tells his jockeys what to do and walks the the course to assess the going.
We walk the turf together and he tells me what he expects this evening. He has a filly in the first. It’s her debut. “I want her to think she’s the best,” he says. He doesn’t think she’ll win but he wants her to enjoy the experience. She’ll win next time. He fancies his other two more (they both romp home).
Before his filly runs, the horse in a neighbouring stall takes fright. His filly gets jumpy in turn. Watching from high in the stands, O’Brien is straight on the phone to his people on the ground. “Take her home. Take her home now and be gentle,” he tells them. She’ll run again, but only when conditions are perfect. Because for O’Brien perfection is the goal. It might be impossible but there’s no one getting closer than he is.
The Longines Irish Champions Weekend takes place on Saturday, September 12th at Leopardstown racecourse and on Sunday, September 13th at The Curragh racecourse. The weekend is the first leg of a European Triple Crown of championship meetings leading into the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in early October and QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot two weeks later.