'The best win at the Curragh. You're either good enough or you're not'
Since Desert King's victory in the 1997 Irish Derby, Aidan O'Brien has dominated the race. He tells Vincent Hogan that his success is down to teamwork and the expertise of his Ballydoyle 'family'
Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30
Here they come then, announcing themselves up the sandy rise with that frothing, rat-a-tat pant of sublime thoroughbreds in perfect harmony with the morning.
Aidan O'Brien stands listening. Behind him, washed in pale sunlight, the crook of Slievenamon looms in watchful majesty. This is a love affair. "Do you hear that sound?" he smiles. "That's what you want to hear. You want to hear them relaxed in their breathing, nothing in their larynx, not struggling in any way."
A line of perfectly sculpted two-year-olds goes juddering past, their riders stiff-backed and alert, almost waxwork forms in the cool, clean air.
"Phhhhwwwtt!" is the sound you hear off each one, like an imaginary whip cracking. "Phhhwwwtt . . ."
"All you want is a glimpse," says the young master of Ballydoyle. "You want to see them just moving well with a happy expression on their face. It's like human beings. You look into someone's face, you know whether they're stressed or not. You know whether they're worried, you can see stress straight away.
"But they're all lovely blows now, do you hear that? They're happy working."
A walkie-talkie crackles with the voice of Seamus Brady from the foot of the gallop. "All good here Aidan. . ." O'Brien instantly expresses thanks. His unceasing courtesy towards his workers has long italicised O'Brien's reputation as an eminently likeable man. Now, as the horses come strolling down the other side, he harvests feedback.
"Happy enough, Nina?"
"All okay, Seamus?"
Maybe 50 horses ease past, names stitched onto their striped blankets. O'Brien logs information from every rider, using Christian names all the time. Remarkably, he does not stumble for the right name once. The jockeys wear earpieces so that walkie-talkie communication accesses all ears here. This is a place where life must, by necessity, be tuned into a single frequency.
So the rhythms are eternal, the mornings endlessly urgent and business-like.
O'Brien must compress his days to suit that ritual, ordinarily retiring to bed soon after the main evening TV News and always rising before 6.0. The schedule demands that he protects, not just his health, but the sharpness of his mind. Sleep is his comfort blanket.
"As you can see the morning is busy here, a lot of stuff happens in a very short space of time," he says. "All I can do is try and keep myself as healthy as possible so that I can get the best out of myself every day. So my lifestyle is very simple. It's go to bed early and get up early. If you didn't do that, you'd have no chance of lasting.
"The way I look at it is I'm 45 now. I have all the experience, so the job is to use that experience. I'd usually go to bed after the 9.0 news. I have to. Because I find, with me anyway, if you don't get sleep, you get emotional. And an emotional being is a little off, they will crack under pressure.
"I have to stay level and the most important thing is sleep. When I go to bed, everything is gone out of my mind. Because I know I have to get that sleep. If I don't, I know I won't last. Like you have to keep yourself physically fit, eat the right stuff and all that. So you're hoping that's going to take care of itself.
"But if you don't rest your mind, you've no chance. Because you can't do anything half-heartedly here. If you did, you'd get wiped out."
For all the daily thrust, there is still a palpable serenity in this valley. The voices seem uniformly warm, the sense of unity quite palpable. Three of those riding out this morning, Joseph, Sarah and Anna, are children of Aidan and Ann-Marie. A fourth, Donnacha, would be here too but for Leaving Cert obligations in Rockwell College.
The devotion to horses has been passed on without any conscious effort here.
When Aidan O'Brien was maybe ten, he remembers writing to Coolmore for their brochures "just so I could look at the pictures of their horses". Even then, the vocation had already bedded deep into his bones. "It's all I was fascinated with," he smiles. "Maybe the only thing that ever really interested me.
"Now they have been reared with this," he says of his children. "They've never known anything else, seven days a week."
His jeep sweeps from one gallop to the next now on roads that run like narrow veins across this precious landscape. He is open and warmly conversational but, occasionally, sentences drift unfinished into the ether as something else snatches his attention. He is here 20 years now, yet Aidan O'Brien has never shed the sense of feeling blessed.
Vincent O'Brien bought these acres in the heart of the Golden Vale in 1951 and respect for the past always punctuates his namesake's conversation. He refers to his Ballydoyle predecessor as "Dr O'Brien" and is quick to identify those great stretches of the estate, like the simulated Tattenham Corner downhill swing or the five-furlong Ascot finish rise that were all in place before he got here.
Modernity comes intertwined with history here. If the stern, bronze form of Nijinsky still stands in aristocratic pomp by the long entrance leading up to the hub of business, it is a statue of four-time Ascot Gold Cup winner, Yeats, that fronts the almost futuristic Giant's Causeway yard where the marquee stars of Ballydoyle are housed today.
Here, each individual stable has an adjoining tack room and peering out over the half-doors are some of the most intelligent equine faces you could imagine.
One of them, Gleneagles, seems almost boyishly enquiring of new visitors, while another, Giovanni Canaletto, looks mildly affronted at the intrusion. Nearby, are swimming-pool, spa and water treadmill facilities that only the most refined racing establishments now house.
Great, epochal triumphs have been stockpiled by this yard, but you can tell that minds will never be contaminated by amnesia.
Highly-strung racehorses can leave their form behind in an instant and the window of opportunity, for Classics especially, is forbiddingly narrow. So, for all the great, plumed triumphs then, O'Brien is drawn easily back to the formative days, to victories they could use as building-blocks.
Maybe prime among them all then was Desert King's victory under Christy Roche in the '97 Irish Derby. Why? Well, for a great raft of reasons.
O'Brien has saddled eight of the last nine winners of this Irish Classic, yet Desert King won it for him when he had no real way of knowing if he could. You see, he'd grown up in thrall to superstars of the Flat like Shergar and Sadler's Wells, to high rollers of the Turf who seemed to live at an entirely different altitude.
"When we started training, I suppose you'd be afraid to think you'd ever have a horse good enough to win it," he says now. "Desert King had won the Guineas and we had other horses for the Irish Derby. We weren't even thinking of bringing Desert King.
"I remember saying it to Christy. Would that be mad?
"The minute I said it, his eyes lit up. In Christy's opinion, he was a different class of horse. Oh I cannot tell you the thrill when we won it. To be able to believe that we could train a Classic horse at that Classic mile-and-a-half distance was massive. I suppose it gave great confidence to everybody that this was possible, that we could do this."
To this day, if O'Brien has a favourite place beyond these rolling Tipperary hills, it is probably that regal stretch of the Curragh.
"Listen, it's a very important race and it's on a great track," he says of the Irish Derby. "It's probably the fairest track in the world. What I mean by that is the best horse always wins at the Curragh. Because there's no hiding place, it's a big, open mile-and-a-half. You're either good enough or you're not.
"In some other tracks, you can be lucky to win and you can be unlucky to lose. That very rarely happens at the Curragh. Every horse gets a run. You have to stay a mile-and-a-half real well, it's the fairest track. I'd say the Curragh is possibly the best track in the world. You can't cheat at the Curragh, you're either good enough or you're not."
He has yet to win a French Derby, but got agonisingly close this year with his own son, Joseph, aboard Highland Reel finishing a close second.
French racing, he says, is highly tactical and the Derby venue, Chantilly, is "a tricky, sharp kind of switchback track" that doesn't always deliver the best horse to the winner's enclosure.
"Often you go there and don't win even if you have the best horse," he says. "But we ran a real good race the last day, we're getting closer. We'll work it out, that track."
Still, Aidan O'Brien understands that there can be no God-given entitlements in this game. Maybe people see the relentless arithmetic of Ballydoyle and imagine that, at some point, it might just generate complacency. If so, they do not understand him.
"When it goes wrong, believe me it does hurt," he stresses. "Because it has to hurt. If it didn't hurt, it wouldn't matter. We also understand that other people have to win races.
"When we're on the winning side, we have to be very grateful for it and when we're on the losing side we have to be very gracious.
"When it goes well, there's - above all - a sense of relief.
"And that's the reality of sport I suppose. Like the minute you go to bed that night, that day is over. One thing Roy Keane used to say was, 'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail'. That's so true. But it will come and get you, even when you've done everything right. If you haven't got your preparation done on every race and everybody, it will kick you.
"It's very difficult. People have lives, there's a lot of stuff going on. If the smallest link is weak, the chain will snap. There's no doubt about that.
"It always comes down to team and how strong that team is. And we're so lucky that we've world-class people working with us here."
The names of those riding work this morning endorse that sentiment.
Nina Carberry recently came here full-time, but she is not alone as a big-race winner now immersed in the Ballydoyle rhythms. Of the most familiar are Emmet McNamara, Colm O'Donoghue, Seamus Heffernan, Ben Dalton, Michael Hussey, Dean Gallagher, Alan Crowe and Ian Queally.
And, of course, the biggest big-race winner of them all, young Joseph.
He is 22 now and wrestling with the weight issues of any six-footer looking to ride Classics. But Aidan's last two Irish Derby winners, Camelot in 2012 and Australia last year, were ridden by Joseph. And, famously, both combinations triumphed those same years at Epsom too, the first father and son coalition to do so.
If Aidan is innately reluctant to place one victory above another then, he does admit that Joseph's involvement on those occasions made the experience "extra-special".
"He's had an awful lot of experience for a fella who's only 22," he stresses. "And even this year now . . . when his weight was a problem . . . like he's eating better now that he's been able to take a little step back. For me, him doing nine stone . . . he's doing incredibly well. He's doing great. Obviously, he's not riding as many as he was last year, which is a bit hard on him.
"But Joseph knows. He rides the likes of Gleneagles at home every day and no-one else ever rides him."
When the morning's work is done here, Joseph heads to the original family farm in Piltown where the National Hunt and bumper horses are prepared. There are no idle hours at this pace. There is no scope for diffidence.
Yet, Aidan describes the life he leads today as his "hobby", despite their being roughly 170 employees under his wing, the bulk of them living in houses on the estate. The way he reads this industry, you must earn the right to chase the sun.
"It's such a pleasure working with these people because everyone wants the same thing," he says.
"Everyone is doing their best and totally committed with a real good attitude. We all have the same passion, from the youngest right up to the most senior. Everyone is doing the right thing by the team.
"It's a massive operation. I mean even before the foals are born, there's a big decision about who the mares are mated to. And their progress is watched and logged all the way up along. So there is no off-time. It's 24 hours, seven days a week.
"Because to feel it, you have to see it, do you understand? You have all the information and all the people, but you have to see it every day to feel it."
And few men see it better.