Tuesday 13 November 2018

Aidan O’Brien shines brightest of all Irish stars in 2017

Ballydoyle maestro's record 28 Group One wins is simply remarkable, even by his high standards

Aidan OBrien winner of the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year 2017 award pictured at the star-studded 29th Irish Independent Sportstar Awards hosted in Croke Park Stadium in association with The Croke Park Hotel. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Aidan OBrien winner of the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year 2017 award pictured at the star-studded 29th Irish Independent Sportstar Awards hosted in Croke Park Stadium in association with The Croke Park Hotel. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Hall of Fame recipient Sonia O’Sullivan pictured with, from left, David Matthews, Niamh Matthews and Gerard Hartmann at the Irish Independent Sportstar Awards in association with The Croke Park Hotel. Photo: Sportsfile

Wayne Bailey

You'd think it ought to be easy to explain why Aidan O'Brien was last night named the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year.

I could simply copy and paste a results table on to this page and let it speak for itself. The difficult part here is trying to put those accomplishments into context - and emphasise just how much he's achieved in this year alone when he wins so much every year. Because the truth is, we've become so accustomed to associating O'Brien with top-class success, we almost let it pass us by.

Joe Canning collecting his Irish Independent Magic Moment 2017 award for his last-gasp winning point against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Canning collecting his Irish Independent Magic Moment 2017 award for his last-gasp winning point against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

Perhaps we've become immune to his accomplishments as an Irish sports figure. But we simply can't let his amazing feats pass us by because racing is a so-called minority sport, even though the combined annual attendance figures at race meetings would put some popular sports to shame.

Of course, the main reason O'Brien has been voted the Sportstar of the Year is because Saxon Warrior won the 2017 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster, giving O'Brien a record 26th top-level (Group or Graded) win in a calendar year, before eventually finishing 2017 with 28 top-class victories.

The record of 25 had previously been set by the late American trainer Bobby Frankel, a very different character to the reserved O'Brien but very much a genius too.

Proudly

INM CEO Michael Doorly, the 2017 Sportstar of the Year Aidan O’Brien and INM Editor in Chief Stephen Rea in attendance at the Irish Independent Sportstar Awards hosted in Croke Park Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
INM CEO Michael Doorly, the 2017 Sportstar of the Year Aidan O’Brien and INM Editor in Chief Stephen Rea in attendance at the Irish Independent Sportstar Awards hosted in Croke Park Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile

It's become fashionable to mock anything that appears untrendy or old-fashioned in Ireland. But here is a man, like Jim Bolger and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, who proudly wears a pin to say he's a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, a Catholic group of teetotallers.

In these days of excess, cynicism and self-promotion, wearing that pin in itself deserves an award. To see sportspeople stand up for their values and lead by example in a modest, dignified way is a breath of fresh air.

It's that work ethic and attention to detail which has brought O'Brien well-deserved success. I mentioned cynicism, and after Saxon Warrior's success, the predictable social media negative comments went up.

The gist of it was that it's easy to win everything when you have the money and top horses behind you. And while it's true to say that expensive horses generally perform better, it's never that simple.

Former Ireland managers Brian Kerr, left, and Eoin Hand at last night’s Irish Independent Sportstar Awards in association with The Croke Park Hotel last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Ireland managers Brian Kerr, left, and Eoin Hand at last night’s Irish Independent Sportstar Awards in association with The Croke Park Hotel last night. Photo: Sportsfile

You can buy a certain amount of success but there are no guarantees. Every animal must be cared for, finely tuned and understood. It's not something just anyone can do.

In the wrong hands, a top-class racehorse can be wasted. Money helps, but it doesn't guarantee that you win the Epsom Derby three times in a row, as O'Brien did from 2012 to 2014.

It doesn't guarantee that you have the first three home in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe as O'Brien had in 2016. The pressure of having animals worth millions in your care is immense, and it's not always plain sailing.

In 2013, for example, O'Brien had just seven Group One winners in the UK and Ireland. And who can forget the ill-fated 2,000 Guineas winner George Washington, which returned to racing following fertility problems only to fracture his cannon bone.

Former Cork camogie player Anna Geary and Eoin Conroy. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Cork camogie player Anna Geary and Eoin Conroy. Photo: Sportsfile

It was the likes of O'Brien and his namesake Vincent before him at Ballydoyle, who raised the bar for all Irish trainers and made Ireland the envy of the world in a sport.

Dermot Weld broke the Melbourne Cup mould in 1993 with Vintage Crop, but that incredibly high standard was evident recently when O'Brien's son Joseph won it with Rekindling.

Aidan's Johannes Vermeer took the runner-up spot and Willie Mullins's Max Dynamite came home in third. An incredible sporting achievement for a small island.

It's not just about fancied runners. According to the betting, O'Brien's Wings Of Eagles had a 2.4pc chance of winning the 2017 Derby, the supreme test of a thoroughbred. A fluke? Absolutely not.

Look back at the race and you'll see a deserving winner at 40/1.

Ballydoyle and Coolmore didn't fall on his lap. He was young when taking out a licence in 1993 but his talent quickly became clear, initially in National Hunt, where he broke records including a 1-2-3 in the 1995 Galway Plate.

Then, of course, we had Istabraq, which won the Champion Hurdle three times. I must admit I have a soft spot for that horse. My first large bet was placed on Istabraq in the 1998 Champion Hurdle. For better, or perhaps worse, he won - and I was hooked.

O'Brien has built on that success each year, especially on the Flat, and has been Irish champion trainer since 1999. In summary, O'Brien packs into one season what others hope for in a lifetime. To see that level of success for O'Brien may be the norm, but every now and then - and particularly in 2017 - it's worth stopping and recognising it. And celebrating it.

O'Brien's 28

Churchill (Qipco 2,000 Guineas) Newmarket, May 6

Winter (Qipco 1,000 Guineas) Newmarket, May 7

Churchill (Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas) Curragh, May 27

Winter (Tattersalls Irish 1,000 Guineas) Curragh, May 28

Highland Reel (Investec Coronation Cup) Epsom, June 2

Wings Of Eagles (Investec Derby) Epsom, June 3

Highland Reel (Prince of Wales's Stakes) Ascot, June 21

Caravaggio (Commonwealth Cup) Ascot, June 23

Winter (Coronation Stakes) Ascot, June 23

Capri (Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby) Curragh, July 1

Roly Poly (Tattersalls Falmouth Stakes) Newmarket, July 14

Roly Poly (Prix Rothschild) Deauville, July 30

Winter (Qatar Nassau Stakes) Goodwood, August 3

Sioux Nation (Keeneland Phoenix Stakes) Curragh, August 13

Hydrangea (Coolmore Matron Stakes) Leopardstown, September 9

Happily (Moyglare Stud Stakes) Curragh, September 10

Order Of St George (Comer Group Irish St Leger) Curragh, September 10

Capri (William Hill St Leger) Doncaster, September 16

Clemmie (Juddmonte Cheveley Park) Newmarket, September 30

US Navy Flag (Juddmonte Middle Park) Newmarket, September 30

Happily (Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere) Chantilly, October 1

Rhododendron (Prix de l'Opera) Chantilly, October 1

Roly Poly (Sun Chariot Stakes) Newmarket, October 7

US Navy Flag (Darley Dewhurst Stakes) Newmarket, October 14

Hydrangea (Qipco British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes) Ascot, October 21

Saxon Warrior (Racing Post Trophy) Doncaster, October 28

Mendelssohn (Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf) Del Mer November 3

Highland Reel (Hong Kong Vase) December 10

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport