Aidan O’Brien is partial to aphorisms about always looking forward and never back. But reminded that this is his 30th year with a trainer’s licence and even he momentarily takes a peep in the rear-view mirror.
Wandering Thoughts at Tralee in June 1993 was the first winner of a career that has turned racing’s record books upside-down and inside out. A lot has changed since. There isn’t even a racetrack in Tralee any more. It’s enough for anyone to reflect on time moving on.
“Those things come up on Twitter, some of the old interviews, and I don’t look like the same man. It’s like a different person,” O’Brien recalled on Monday. “I always wore these big round glasses – Clare Balding used to call me Harry Potter!”
The 53-year-old’s eldest son Joseph was born a couple of weeks before Wandering Thoughts earned his footnote in racing history. Now Joseph is a training rival with a prime classic hope of his own this season in Al Riffa. His little brother Donnacha has one too in Proud And Regal.
But when it comes to the Spring ritual of trying to identify future stars for the upcoming flat season all roads still lead to the source and the historic Ballydoyle stables near Cashel.
O’Brien has been here since 1996. Such was his immediate impact over jumps in particular that within three years of Wandering Thoughts he was invited by the Coolmore supremo John Magnier to take over the reins at the world’s most famous training yard.
A record tally of 47 Irish classics has followed. 41 classics in England is also a record. Throw in another eight in France and a once scarcely imaginable century of Europe’s most coveted races looks all but inevitable this summer.
The geeky looking farmer’s son who left school at 15 has transformed the parameters of success in the old game and the appetite for more persists.
He still looks fit enough to recall the champion amateur jockey he once was and still behaves like he would rather jam the sharp point of one of those old pairs of glasses into his eye than be accused of boasting.
Perhaps familiarity has lent a certain presumptive tone to coverage of racing’s most successful operation. Coolmore’s vast wealth means O’Brien starts every year with a couple of hundred of the best-bred horses on the planet to work with.
But if it’s true that the key to longevity is avoiding stress and worry, then the man’s enduring drive after more than two and a half decades in such a pressure-cooker position is a marvel of perseverance.
Mind you, it does help to have an annual crop of the best classic prospects in the game outside your door.
At this time of year, it’s all about promise and potential. Disillusionment is still off the pace. There might indeed be a successor to Galileo or Camelot among an emerging three-year-old crop. Memories of previous great white hopes that fizzled out like One Cool Cat or Air Force Blue can be parked to the side.
If we have a horse that could do that, he’s definitely the one
This time the big two prospects are Little Big Bear and Auguste Rodin. Both won Group 1′s as juveniles, top betting lists for the 2,000 Guineas in six weeks’ time and are being trained for the Newmarket classic.
Little Big Bear was Europe’s champion two-year-old. But every hint, substantial or not, gets parsed for meaning at these Spring media mornings and Auguste Rodin was the one chosen to stand in with his trainer.
Already there’s talk of him maybe becoming the first since Nijinsky in 1970 to land England’s Triple Crown. Even O’Brien, who always walks a fine line between caution and promotion, didn’t poo-poo the idea.
“If we have a horse that could do that, he’s definitely the one,” he said.
“He’s an exceptional mover, very slick, very long low mover. He’s that type of horse that could start in the Guineas and stretch out. He’s always been very classy from the first time Ryan (Moore) rode him in February as a two-year-old and he was raving about him then,” O’Brien added.
[ O’Brien’s leading classic hope Auguste Rodin 16-1 for Triple Crown glory ]
Little Big Bear would have no problem going sprinting if necessary but his trainer reckons there’s a “very good chance” he can last a mile.
Of the fillies, Meditate is on course to do the honours in the 1,000 as her highly regarded stable mate Statuette has had a setback and misses out. Like many others she had a workout after racing at the Curragh on Saturday.
“She did a gentle piece at the Curragh, because she was at Tipperary a month before that and she was a little bit ‘ouchy’ afterwards, so we had to be gentle with her.
“The plan is to go straight to Newmarket with her. She’s a very professional filly, she’s not over big but she’s strong,” O’Brien said.
Luxembourg is a reminder of how classic plans can unravel through injury but he’s back for a four-year-old campaign and will start off in Paris in the Prix Ganay. The star stayer Kyprios though has a joint issue and looks set to miss Ascot.
Asked about any specific remaining ambitions and the man in the middle of Monday’s media mob said doing the right thing by individual horses dictates targets, not the other way around.
It will be the case too with a new two-year-old crop that includes a brother to Sioux Nation called Alabama that apparently hasn’t been hiding his talent under any metaphorical bushel up the Balldydoyle gallops.
“You must keep going forward; don’t look back,” his trainer said. “But then, when you think 30 years, that is a long time.”