Tuesday 23 January 2018

Master of 'inexact science' plots Derby glory

O’Brien continues to fine-tune his set-up as Epsom team takes shape

US Army Ranger has a pick of grass under the watchful eye of Donnacha O’Brien. Photo: Healy Racing
US Army Ranger has a pick of grass under the watchful eye of Donnacha O’Brien. Photo: Healy Racing
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

It is 65 years since Vincent O'Brien relocated from his Churchtown base in Co Cork to Ballydoyle, arguably the most seismic shift to occur in the history of Irish racing.

Now, as then, you imagine, the place radiates an aura of excellence. It's not just the pristine surroundings and the stunning thoroughbreds that saunter about with a relaxed casualness that belies their status as elite athletes.

It's in every little detail: from the heart monitors to the blood tests and the stockpiled videos of every single piece of work, going back to the days of Rock Of Gibraltar or Hawk Wing.

"You never know what you might see when you look," Aidan O'Brien insists. "You think you remember things, and then you watch back, and you learn something that might be useful."

O'Brien has long communicated with his work riders through a variety of methods, the common denominator being that he was always in their ear.

He still is, but now he is in everybody's ear at the same time. They can talk back at the press of a button, although it is mostly one-way traffic.

Two separate channels, then, servicing practically the entire 180 staff at Ballydoyle - including the ground and kitchen staff.

When O'Brien speaks to tell them to pull the sheets up off the horses' hind quarters as they warm up or gives the 'horses away' order as they are grazing to cool off, the response is robotic. In unison, an army of 50 riders obeys.

It is regimental, but the appeal to O'Brien is that everyone can do their job better based on the information at hand.

The cooks, dare we say it, know when to get the breakfast on, based on what they hear. Clockwork.

"It's all-inclusive," he explains. "We have no secrets here - it brings everyone closer."

The egalitarian approach extends to his work riders. Both Nina Carberry and Colm O'Donoghue are absent from first lot out on the gallops.

Riders are married to particular horses and do whatever needs doing with them. Carberry and O'Donoghue, the big-race kings, are hand-walking two of yesterday's runners, out of sight.

"We try to build their confidence," says O'Brien of the horses' routine as they circle quietly in the famous old aircraft hanger-style indoor school.

"They are very all very relaxed -asleep. Everything is gentle here."

O'Brien has two Irish Grand National-winning riders at his disposal in the peerless Carberry and Ben Dalton, plus a Champion Hurdle victor in Dean Gallagher.

Also in the mix are Andrew Leigh and Alan Crowe, and Timmy O'Sullivan, who was second on Rust Never Sleeps in the 1995 Irish Grand National. A wealth of expertise. "They bring a lot of experience to the table," he says.

In the 20 years since Desert King secured him a first Group One, O'Brien has also accumulated a lot of experience. Minding's emphatic 1,000 Guineas triumph took his running tally at the highest level to 250. At times, we are all guilty of taking his feats for granted.

It is an all-consuming, relentless, high-pressure existence. On a press morning organised by Derby sponsors Investec, he is fielding many of the same questions that he has done lately.

An insider recently described him after a trying morning as being like "a bear with a sore paw". None of us are immune to the strains of life, but, at 46, O'Brien is as tolerant of those wanting a piece of him as he was at 26.


In summary, then, he is happy with his Derby team. US Army Ranger is still "sleeping" after his narrow Chester win and will be woken up next week.

"That's when we'll find out how much he has come on - I just hope he is not so babyish that he won't be able to take it. He didn't run at two, so we are playing catch up with him."

O'Brien is slow to nominate US Army Ranger above Shogun, Idaho, Port Douglas and Deauville.

"I would be very happy if we end up with a better one, put it that way," he acquiesces.

"We've won trials easily with horses over the years that disappointed in the Derby. The trials are the trials now; I would rather get beaten and know that the horse is going to improve and us learn something about it."

If there is a touch of a control freak about O'Brien, there is also the hint of a genius about him, and his ability to retain information is remarkable.

However, for all that he will push the limits of what he can learn and control in an effort to improve, his primary attribute is his instinct.

He is a horseman with a rare gift, and, while loath to infer anything negative about other people's work, that much is evident in his response to the genetic profiling underpinning the decision to rule the 2,000 Guineas hero Galileo Gold out of the Derby.

"With horses, there is no such thing as impossible," he says diplomatically. "The well-bred horses are full of both genes on both sides. You have to try and activate the genes that you are looking for, but, if you don't try and activate them, they never will kick off.

"It is the most inexact science. You have to keep thinking and thinking - and you will still get it wrong - but there is no law. There are so many variables."

On June 4, O'Brien will seek to plunder his sixth Derby, having won three of the last four. There are many variables, but his ability to deliver in the premier Classic is one of life's inalienable constants.

Irish Independent

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