There has to be more to Aidan O’Brien’s success than just ‘luck’
Rather enigmatic sporting figure has really delivered and is likely to keep doing so
Aidan O’Brien celebrates as Saxon Warrior wins at Doncaster to secure the trainer a record 26 Group One winners in a single year. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
World records are easy to understand and inevitably provoke fascination about the holder.
So Aidan O’Brien’s magnificent achievement in saddling a record number of top-class winners in a calendar year has prodded even some who can’t tell a Group One from F1 – and are gullible to think the Racing Correspondent for this organisation should know – into asking me what’s he really like?
The straightforward answer is I don’t know. A few scattered interviews over the years and leaning into a multitude of post-race media huddles is no basis for greater insight into a truly singular individual than anyone basing their impression of O’Brien on his public face.
Everyone chooses such a face to project to the world. O’Brien’s different only because millions recognise it. Publicly the man is overwhelmingly modest. Often it seems his readiness to deflect credit to everyone else is exceeded only by his speed in taking the blame when something goes wrong. Softly spoken and still ridiculously fresh-faced at 48, he can seem almost artless in the media glare.
Where other top trainers affect a patrician air, O’Brien, it appears , would rather stab himself in the eye with his pioneer pin than project extravagance.
He never fails to proclaim his “luck” in working with the elite bloodstock provided to him at the legendary Ballydoyle stables by John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud.
Others may tumble over themselves to portray his talent for training winners in mystical ‘horse-whisperer’ terms yet he invariably puts success down to hard work and a superb team.
And there is a fundamental decency and down-to-earth consideration in O’Brien that does him immense credit considering he has rewritten much of racing’s 300-year old record book in the last two decades. That public face is genuine. Yet questions about what he’s really like reflect a widespread instinct that it can’t be the sum total of such an immense sporting figure.
Maybe it’s because he can seem to over-egg the humility sometimes. This is a farmer’s son from Wexford who left school at 15 and worked in the local co-op driving a forklift before starting on racing’s shop-floor. That he is now a seminal figure at the top of a global sport and industry, where billionaires and royalty regard him with awe, is a towering achievement that can’t be just luck.
Behind the mild exterior, O’Brien is a man used to making decisions and having them obeyed
It doesn’t risk accusations of cod-psychiatry then to assume the public face is only one side of the man. Given that Magnier’s empire adopts a Cistercian attitude to public curiosity anyway, a one-dimensional projection probably suits everybody involved. But such an ingenuous image is hardly an accurate portrayal.
He was just 27 when given the keys of the Ballydoyle kingdom with a brief to maintain an annual turnover of blue-blooded talent for Coolmore’s multi-billion Euro breeding arm. The pressure to succeed was immense then and remains relentless. O’Brien’s competitors marvel at how driven and ferociously competitive he continues to be.
Such longevity testifies to both mastery of his craft but also political savvy. Racing is famously bitchy. At elite level it can be cut-throat and Coolmore is a resolutely commercial empire owned by men used to neither excuses or dissent. The unassuming manner clearly isn’t incompatible with sure-footedly picking a way through various types of minefield.
Kieren Fallon is one of the top jockeys that have come and gone during O’Brien’s Ballydoyle tenure. He recalled last week a hardly original but still revealing piece of advice given to him by his former boss – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” It’s a sentiment hardly smacking of guilelessness.
Behind the mild exterior, O’Brien is a man used to making decisions and having them obeyed. O’Brien invariably nods to Magnier and the Coolmore syndicate – “The Lads” – when predicting running plans for horses but many insist it’s little more than courtesy. Softly spoken he may be but no one should mistake that for any lack of self-assurance.
One of Brien’s first visits to the headlines in 2017 was an unwelcome one when a run by Music Box at Dundalk in March resulted in penalties being imposed under new ‘non-trier’ rules. it was noticeable at a subsequent appeal hearing how assertive O’Brien was, interjecting to an extent that a panel containing both a Supreme Court judge and a High Court judge had to remind him not to interrupt.
O’Brien’s habit of starting sentences with ‘listen’ was once noted during a memorably tense encounter with a Melbourne Cup stewards panel in Australia, the Irishman frequently asking: “Listen, do you understand what I’m saying?” The chairman replied: “I’ve been listening a lot”.
It was on one level a simple misunderstanding over a verbal tic. It also suggested a man used to being in charge no matter how unobtrusive the wide-eyed public face might be.
O’Brien is in a unique position of receiving a couple of hundred of the best bred and soundest young horses every year
Whether straightforward tots are an accurate measure of sporting merit is debatable. Some will argue about how relatively arbitrary a Group One record is. Racing sceptics might even query its sporting status; it is the horses and jockeys who are the athletes after all, although no one suggests Jose Mourinho isn’t a sporting figure and the coaching comparison seems valid.
O’Brien is also in a unique position of receiving a couple of hundred of the best bred and soundest young horses every year. He is spared the talent-spotting hustle that is most trainers’ lot. The link between that raw material and the results he gains with them is as inextricable as it is immeasurable.
A definitive answer as to whether others could deliver the same results with the same material as the new world record holder is impossible. What’s indisputable is that a remarkable and still rather enigmatic sporting figure has really delivered. And he promises to keep doing so for a long time yet.