Friday 23 February 2018

Horse whisperers of Ballydoyle who conquered the world

His father Aidan is the top horse trainer in the world. Now Joseph O'Brien has beaten his dad to the ­winning post in the Melbourne Cup. Kim Bielenberg profiles the first family of the turf

Hotline to ma: Aidan O'Brien (centre) is congratulated after equalling the world record of 25 Group One winners in a season at Ascot last month. He's since broken the record. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Hotline to ma: Aidan O'Brien (centre) is congratulated after equalling the world record of 25 Group One winners in a season at Ascot last month. He's since broken the record. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

No Irish person excels in his chosen sport as much as Aidan O'Brien, the Wexford-born horse trainer who has recently smashed the record for the most Group One winners in a season.

In racing terms, he is on a par with Tiger Woods in his prime, or Alex Ferguson when he reigned supreme at Manchester United.

But O'Brien has some down-to-earth quirks that are rarely seen among supreme sporting high achievers.

Every time one of his horses wins one of the top races - whether he is moving among billionaires and princes at Royal Ascot or at the Breeders' Cup in California - O'Brien can be seen on his mobile phone talking in an animated fashion.

Viewers are left wondering who he could possibly be talking to at such a moment of victorious crescendo.

It turns out that on each occasion, O'Brien is on the phone to his mother, Stella.

A reporter picked up the words of the loyal son in the winners enclosure in the past fortnight as O'Brien smashed his latest record: "Ma... Thanks very much, ma... Thanks, ma... Oh, thanks, ma...We'll talk to you later."

To the O'Briens, the horse whisperers of Ballydoyle, family means everything.

This is a line of business where pedigree counts for a lot, but to them, nurture is just as important as nature - and that applies to horses as much as people.

This week, it was the turn of Aidan's eldest son Joseph to be showered with plaudits as he became, at 24, the youngest trainer ever to train the winner of the Melbourne Cup, the horse race that is said to stop the entire Australian nation in its tracks.

It was a father-and-son battle that will go down in sporting legend, with Aidan's horse Johannes Vermeer being overtaken in the final stretch by Joseph's less-fancied runner, Rekindling.

Aidan was not over in Australia for the race. So, what did Joseph do immediately after the victory of his horse?

The presentation of the cup was under way and the famous three-handled trophy was about to be handed over, but young Joseph had to take one call - from his father.

Aidan could not have been more proud, and admitted afterwards that he wanted Joseph's horse to win

"I was hoping and praying we'd finish second all the way up the home straight," Aidan said. "It's the perfect result."

The O'Brien family seek horse racing perfection with a single-mindedness that can only be described as obsessive.

And all the family have a part in the operation.

Aidan's wife Anne-Marie has herself been a champion trainer. Joseph has already finished a career as a superstar jockey before he became too big in stature and switched to training. Donnacha is one of the top young jockeys in the country. Both daughters Sarah and Ana are also accomplished race riders.

It is an occupation that does not come without risks. Ana had a near calamitous fall at a meeting in Killarney in the summer and is recovering from a serious neck and back injury.

When they were teenagers, the O'Brien children would be up at six in the morning at Ballydoyle, and riding out, before heading off to school.

Modest and self-effacing like his father, Joseph likes to quote Aidan's pithy nugget of philosophy, borrowed from Mark Twain: "Never let school interfere with your education."

O'Brien senior pursues his vocation with a puritanical zeal, and never drinks alcohol as a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association.

The socialite fripperies of racing are not for him. When he travels to England for a racing festival that goes on for a few days, Aidan likes to fly home to Tipperary every evening to be with his horses, before returning to the meeting on the following day. Both Aidan and his eldest son dislike taking any time off at all, and it seems that they only do so reluctantly.

Joseph said recently: "I don't do well when I'm not busy. I went away for three days there a while ago. I was in Barbados. We went for two weeks one year (as a family) and nearly killed each other!"

Possibly talking about the same family holiday, Aidan said in an interview that being away from Ballydoyle began to tug at him.

"I began to feel like I was in a bottle, one of those big bottles with the thin necks, and I couldn't get out.".

After each victory, interviews with O'Brien senior follow a familiar and easily parodied routine, as he studiously tries to deflect credit away from himself, passing it to named staff who look after his horses.

He has that polite way of referring to the interviewer's first name in conversation, particularly if it's Tracy Piggott, and "please God" is a favourite phrase.

He refers to the multimillionaire owners of his horses, bred at Coolmore, simply as "the lads", and will say: "We're a small link in a big chain and we feel so privileged to be that link."

Few detect any false modesty in this and his regular praise of his team seems genuine. And one suspects that one of the most crucial links in the chain is his wife Anne-Marie.

She was a highly successful trainer before he was, and passed the training baton on to him at her family's farm in Piltown, Co Kilkenny.

They had met when they were both jockeys at Galway Races in 1989.

When Aidan became a trainer, he quickly turned heads with his ability to get the best out of horses.

He was asked by John Magnier, boss of the hugely successful Coolmore horse-breeding operation, to take over Ballydoyle, the base of the retiring training legend, Vincent O'Brien (who was no relation).

"What first attracted me to O'Brien," Magnier has said, "was quite simple. Every day in Coolmore I pick up the papers and give them a good read. Every day this fellow O'Brien was training a winner, then it became two winners and then three."

The jockey Kieran Fallon, who worked for him, said of O'Brien: "He is like a god around horses. It is like magic. The way he puts them at ease... it is unbelievable."

The family seem to have instinctive feeling for horse psychology. Aidan has said of his horses: "When you think something, they feel it. They feel everything. You can see the disappointment in their faces when they lose or when something's not right. You can tell if a horse is feeling down."

Every detail and environmental effect is thought through at Ballydoyle, even down to whether he should allow crows to fly through his yard. Some years ago, Aidan noticed the inventiveness of the birds in stealing food from the horse's trays - and decided they should be allowed.

"I thought it would be good for the horses, sort of keep them competitive, tell them if they don't eat up their food, someone else will. So the crows have stayed with us."

Close observers of the family say Joseph has picked up his father's concern for each individual horse - their mannerisms, likes and dislikes. Visitors to Ballydoyle noticed that from the age of 16, Joseph was advising on details such as whether a champion thoroughbred liked to have his bridle on or off when relaxing after a practice gallop.

Joseph now trains his horses in Piltown, the maternal family base back in Kilkenny.

It is his instinctive feel for the animals that could turn Joseph into a champion as successful as Aidan - and we are likely to see the father/son rivalry playing out on racecourses across the world for many years to come.

@KimBielenberg

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