Relaxed O’Brien gearing up for another successful campaign

With a world record 28 Group One wins last year, Ballydoyle maestro at peak of his powers

Aidan O’Brien talks to the press at Ballydoyle. “Can you teach a computer gut feeling?” Photograph:  Brian Lawless/PA

Aidan O’Brien talks to the press at Ballydoyle. “Can you teach a computer gut feeling?” Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

At 48, the world’s most successful trainer, Aidan O’Brien, remains a fresh-faced advertisement for how horses can be good for your health.

“If you want to know what someone’s personality is really like, put them on a horse for three weeks or a month and that horse will develop the personality of that human being,” he said on Wednesday.

“It’s very strange. If that person is a little bit grumpy, the horse becomes grumpy; if the person’s happy the horses becomes very happy. It’s a fascinating thing – to see that bond. And it works the other way too.

“Emotionally it can be very good for a person, working with horses. When you get up in the morning you might not want to see another human being. But you’re very happy to see the animal. That’s one of the big plusses about working with horses,” he added.

It’s a comment to feed a widespread perception of O’Brien as some ultimate horse whisperer.

The man who has rewritten the racing’s centuries old record book can project an ethereal quality sometimes. However it co-exists with competitive drive and political savvy which has seen him thrive for over two decades in the most enviable yet pressurised training environment in the world.

Sceptics might argue that dealing day-to-day with expensive Coolmore Stud -owned animals who are bred in the purple provides a psychological boost rather different to the low-grade headcases others make do with. But no one can argue with the results this rare combination produces.  

In 2017 came perhaps the ultimate proof of the statistical phenomenon O’Brien is with a world record 28 Group One victories in a single year. John Magnier & Co provide unparalleled raw material. But no one doubts O’Brien’s singular ability to mould it to his will to win.

It was a Group One haul that included four classics each in Britain and Ireland. Only the Arc heroine Enable prevented an unprecedented clean sweep in both countries.

Wings Of Eagles was O’Brien’s sixth Epsom Derby winner, equalling the haul of Vincent O’Brien, his predecessor at the legendary Ballydoyle stables. The unbeaten Saxon Warrior is favourite to make it seven and is the most visible component of an upcoming 2018 classic picture dominated by O’Brien.

But on Wednesday, when Ballydoyle staged a media event to plug the start of Ireland’s turf flat season at Naas on Sunday, there was a noticeable equanimity to the host that seemed to speak volumes about his happiest outcome in 2017.

In July O’Brien’s daughter, Ana, suffered a serious fall during a race in Killarney that left with her serious neck and back injuries. Success and acclaim became irrelevant in the face of despairing perspective no one wants. But Ana O’Brien recovered and has even started to ride out again.

“Nothing else matters. All the stuff we do every day; we work so we have enough money to feed ourselves and stay alive.

Thankless task

“But really all the stuff doesn’t matter. With Ana it could have been total . . .We were so lucky. The alternative was terrible. When you go that place, it makes everything . . .,” her father said, not needing to finish the thought.

O’Brien himself is starting his 23rd year at the helm in Ballydoyle. Considering there’s still some snow on the ground, talk of a changing of the seasons seems unlikely. But on cue the start of Ireland’s flat season assumes its regular unpromising position on the racing schedule.

With less than a week since Cheltenham, Fairyhouse’s Easter festival coming up, closely followed by Liverpool and then Punchestown, trying to generate excitement for the summer game in March has always been a cold, thankless task.

In reality though, flat racing doesn’t take a break these days. Ballydoyle horses have been racing through the winter in Dundalk. There’s even been a pre-Cheltenham trip to Lingfield. A seven-horse raid from Ballydoyle on Dubai’s upcoming World Cup extravaganza is planned.

Even one of the stables’ big classic hopes, Mendelssohn, has already won on the all-weather ahead of that trip to the Middle East. Ultimately his aim is to break new ground in May’s Kentucky Derby.

That would be new even for the man who has seen and won most everything many times over. However the task of identifying and extracting the potential of every horse under his care has never lost its appeal for O’Brien.   

Every possible technical aid is employed to help, including exact measurements of what each animal eats and drinks, what they weigh, heart monitors, GPS when they’re galloping. O’Brien loves information but ultimately all of it comes down to his judgement.

“Can you teach a computer gut feeling?” he asks at one stage.

Judged by the relaxed figure their trainer cuts, the horses under O’Brien’s care shape as being happy enough to enjoy another epic season.

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