Monday 23 September 2019

Here, the animals have right of way... you're in their world

On the home stretch: Horses during training at Ballydoyle. Below, Aidan O’Brien checks up on one of his stars ahead of Champions Weekend. Photo: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
On the home stretch: Horses during training at Ballydoyle. Below, Aidan O’Brien checks up on one of his stars ahead of Champions Weekend. Photo: INPHO/Oisin Keniry
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The heavy mist still rests idly on the ground. Ballydoyle, the patch of earth from where Aidan O'Brien has conquered the world, is not yet ready to reveal itself.

A queue of cars beside the long ranch fencing reassures that you are in the right place. Ballydoyle is throwing open its gates to the media to promote Champions Weekend. Few turn down the opportunity to peer under the hood of this place of champions.

On the left a statue of the great Nijinsky stands sentry at the gate, as if a reminder of the standards expected here. A friendly, raised hand signals for you to stop with no explanation. A few seconds later, a horse and its rider emerge from the fog and walk by. Here, the animals have right of way. You are in their world now. This is horsey country.

Continuing up the long drive lined by giant oaks, it becomes clear that this is an impossibly manicured place. Across all of the sprawling 800 acres, everything is where it should be. However, the invasion of media this morning throws up a problem and the two men in charge of parking wonder aloud if they should let cars up on the grass. They relent, reluctantly.

With a warm smile you're handed a list of more than 130 horses and who will ride them. Walking through the new yard, there's just one horse who hasn't been taken out of his box that throws a hopeful look that perhaps you will set him free and bring him out for a gallop with the rest.

But there's one rule for visitors here: 'Don't touch the horses.'

That's because the smallest things can set them off and throw them out of their rhythm. Nothing is left to chance. Each of the work riders is chosen particularly to suit the character of their mount. Some need cajoling and some need to be bossed. As a horse in Ballydoyle, your every need is catered for.

In the yard, they'll pipe in music or radio to make them feel like they have company. If you're the lonely type, they've been known to install a mirror so that when you wake up in the morning you'll see another horse peering back at you.

Here, the horses' health is everyone's wealth so nothing is left to chance. The places where the horses eat and the humans eat are kept well apart. No food can be brought near the horses for fear that it might do them harm.

The perfectly clipped hedgerows aren't there by accident either. They are chosen because, even if a horse grabbed a mouthful, it would pass harmlessly through their system.

It's 7am now and the 71-strong first string are first taken to a shed where they warm up. It's here the scale of the interest in this place becomes clear. There's around 50 visitors today from various parts of the racing world, including a journalist from Japan.

The horses walk around in a circle, like an equine fashion show. Each one is fabulously bred and worth at least a small fortune. Every horse is covered by a maroon blanket as they warm up. When those blankets are lifted, it's a sign that the horses are ready to start work.

Straddle

By now, morning has hit Ballydoyle. Two perfectly symmetrical white rails straddle either side of the gallop. We stand in the middle on a strip of grass that feels more like a fairway in Augusta than a race track.

The 71 swoosh by in various groupings. O'Brien watches impassively. He's armed with a pair of walkie talkies and his binoculars and nothing else. They use technology here, monitor heart rates and keep them under manned and electronic supervision. But you sense that for O'Brien, training horses is still more about feel and instinct than numbers and science.

As they walk back around, he looks to each jockey in anticipation of the nod that all went well. 'Alright Aidan' or 'very happy Aidan', they reply softly. O'Brien himself is barely audible but he doesn't need to be. There's a lovely calmness to this place. The stillness is broken only by a gentle swish of tails or rumbling of nostrils. If the racing ever doesn't work out, they could run a tidy sideline in making this place a retreat.

Despite the silence, the wheels in O'Brien's head are turning. And as the horses walk by, he switches one to take the lead, sends another further back. It's all about trying to get inside their heads, seeing what gets the most from him. "She loves bullin' along," O'Brien says of one filly. All the while three John Deere tractors roll the gallop the horses have just galloped up, just to have it perfect for their second run.

The group breeze by again and O'Brien seems happy with what he has seen. However, there's two horses scheduled to do some solid work this morning.

A coach has been hired to bring the assembled media to another part of the holding and it's here the vastness and the history of this place becomes apparent.

The old yard, from where Vincent O'Brien trained, looks like a postcard. Down deeper into the estate every acre seemed to be zig-zagged with railing and track to mimic the various surfaces that O'Brien's horses might face around the globe.

As one obeserver notes: "If this place was a race track it'd be the best one in the country." Somewhere out of sight there's even a runway for visitors to dip in and out.

The place is also dotted with what looks like mini air control towers close to each of the gallops. It's doubtful O'Brien ever uses them. They are too far away from the horses. Too impersonal. He's at his happiest when close. Star fillies Magical and I Can Fly are down to work and as they top 40mph, O'Brien is just a few feet away zipping along in his jeep.

Soon it's breakfast time and O'Brien and his wife Anne Marie sit down. Recently retired jockey Fran Berry is there too and talk turns to the usual but harsh reality of racing - keeping weight off and serious injuries, of which Berry has had his share.

The O'Briens know all about that too. They have won on all of racing's biggest days but they've never had a win like the time their daughter Ana recovered fully from a horrendous fall in Killarney.

Across the table Oli Bell, a part of the ITV racing team, has a request for a training masterclass at the upcoming York festival. He informs O'Brien that viewers will be invited to put questions to him and that former Love Island contestant Chris Hughes will be a part of it. As TV shows go, you'd have gotten long odds on that one making it into conversation over breakfast here.

"He went to school with Sam Twiston-Davies," Bell offers, by way of revealing Hughes' bonafides.

O'Brien is obliging. Nothing is a problem once it fits into his window.

"I like to get there an hour or so before our first runner and I'm gone five minutes after the last one runs," he says.

It's a glamorous game but no matter where racing takes him, O'Brien will make every effort to get back to Tipperary. Being at home in the morning is his priority.

With breakfast done there's another run-out for the rest of the horses here, this one slightly smaller. Many of this string are two year olds, kept in a shed all of their own.

After that, the horses are brought back in and fed and washed and essentially tucked in until their next session. In the meantime, they will have had their straw changed and water refreshed and moods checked. When it comes to service, this place is the Ritz for horses.

The work isn't done for O'Brien however, who goes through a question-and-answers session with the media. You get the impression that he is non-plussed by the interest in him. More than 200 people work here and he sees himself only as the keeper of this place, a cog in the wheel.

The spotlight is not his natural habitat. He speaks warmly of Irish racing. Of the men and women who have put him in Ballydoyle, and who help keep him there. Champions Weekend is coming and even for a decorated yard like his, it's marked on the calendar.

"Even though we want to win all the races," he says. "It's important that we don't."

And with that it's over. Cars stream out of horsey country and the shutters come down once more. Ballydoyle gave us a glimpse of its workings but we'll never fully understand its magic.

Irish Independent

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