Saturday 20 January 2018

The O'Briens of Ballydoyle: The First family of the turf

Aidan and Ann Marie with the children in 2001.
Aidan and Ann Marie with the children in 2001.
Sarah, Anne-Marie, Gemma O' Doherty, Joseph, Anna and Aidan O'Brien pictured at the stud farm in Tipperary.
Aidan and Joseph in 2013 at Leopardstown.
Ruler of the World pictured at the Tipperary farm.

Gemma O'Doherty

Exclusive: Aidan O'Brien and his wife Annemarie talk about their greatest success – the four children who are following in his famous footsteps.

Leaving Cert exams, show-jumping lessons, photo exhibitions, the renovation of the family home after a fire, oh and that minor matter of the Irish Derby just days away – you could understand if Ireland's greatest sporting family were feeling the heat this week.

But down on Aidan O'Brien's farm in Ballydoyle, beneath the heathery slopes of Slievenamon, the mood is one of mind-boggling calm.

It's the horses' favourite time of day, when their grooms take them for a stroll through the tree-lined paddocks for a welcome graze.

Epsom hero and the favourite for today's showpiece at the Curragh, Ruler of the World, meanders leisurely in the midday sun among a herd of equine wonders and youngsters learning their trade.

A distant siren distracts his stable-mates momentarily, but he barely pricks an ear, a picture of contentment in the rolling Tipperary pasture.

In a nearby yard, the world's greatest racehorse trainer, fresh from his stunning week at Ascot, proves he's not beyond performing stable duties as he takes a brush to a beautiful bay and gently strokes his mane.

Three of Aidan's four children, each generously endowed with the talent that made their father a racing legend, gather round to help as their mother Annemarie, a successful horsewoman and photographer, quietly looks on.

But the 'lads', as their parents call them in typical Tipperary speak, have inherited more than just the O'Brien gene for equestrian stardom.

They share the same impeccable manners and modesty that strangers are always struck by when they meet Aidan and Annemarie for the first time.

The eldest, Joseph, a soft-spoken gentleman, rode into the history books as Irish champion jockey last year at just 19, racking up an impressive tally of big-race winners, the highlight being the Epsom Derby on Camelot last year.

Sarah (18) has just finished school and would like to be a vet, although her horse sense is very much in demand at Ballydoyle. The brave young rider has notched up countless achievements in eventing, the toughest of the equestrian sports, including a bronze at the European Pony Championships.

Another rising star, Ana, is already a triple European medal winner in eventing for Ireland at just 17. She is going into her Leaving Cert cycle and rode her first winner on the track earlier this year.

Donnacha, too, the youngest at 15, is galloping right behind in his siblings' footsteps, and has been chosen to ride for his country in the European eventing championships in Italy in July. He hopes to get his apprentice racing licence next year.

It's a spectacular record for such a young team, but don't they ever yearn for a day off?

"They wouldn't take a morning off if you paid them," says Annemarie, as she serves up cappuccino in her country kitchen.

"They're up at six every morning, have breakfast, and ride out before school. They have about three lots of horses each. I often watch them falling asleep on the sofa at around eight at night and say 'Aidan, can they have the morning off?', but they wouldn't dream of it. They laugh at the idea.

"They just love riding. Because they have been brought up with it 24/7, they've never really known anything else.

"If one of them said 'I'd love to go off and be a pilot', we'd say 'oh yeah, great, go' but nobody is saying that.

"When you get involved in this industry, it becomes all-consuming. It's very hard to look beyond it. And, in this game, as long as they can all stay safe, that's the main thing."

Having the support of his young family around him means the world to Aidan, who has trained nine of the last 12 Irish Derby winners, including the last seven in a row.

"It's great that the children are interested," he says.

"It makes our job much easier. We've always been in this as a family. It's a huge team effort and we're all in it together. When we do have success, it's great for everybody. But racing keeps you grounded. As soon as you win, you get beaten the next time.

"Anyone dealing with horses has a great sense of reality all the time. They are flesh and blood like humans. Like us, they don't tick the same every day."

It's a philosophy that is at the core of Ballydoyle's global domination in racing and which fuels its relentless pursuit of total, unblemished perfection. Everybody, be they two-legged or four, is treated with respect, dignity and humanity. Power is not allowed to intoxicate or corrupt. Nobody is allowed to lose the run of themselves. Nothing is left to chance. And victories are earned through dogged hard work and a fundamental belief that you learn from the mistakes of today and then move swiftly on to tomorrow.

"It's very easy to keep your feet on the ground in this business," says Annemarie.

"Racing is the greatest leveller of them all. No matter what you do, the disappointments are more plentiful than the successes. That's the reality and it is a paradigm for life.

"We are the worst family in the world for remembering the winners. If somebody asked us how many we had this year, we wouldn't have a clue. It's because racing is the day job. You might win a big race today but tomorrow you could be disappointed.

"When we left Royal Ascot last week, with Aidan as leading trainer with four winners, probably what he remembers from coming out of there were the ones who didn't win. His focus is on what happened there and correcting it.

"You are striving for it to go right always, but it can't. That's not possible. A lot of people say how stressful the Leaving Cert can be. It barely registered in our house.

"Sarah gave her best shot at each exam but she would say at the end of it, it's over. That's the one thing that racing teaches you. Everything is transient. You have a great big winner. Great, but next you have a loser. Get over it and move on. I think we apply that to our own lives. You try not to dwell on things."

One thing that does occupy the minds of Aidan and Annemarie, however, is their belief that racing doesn't get the recognition it deserves relative to its contribution to the Irish economy.

"Racing has been affected by the recession, like everything else," says Annemarie.

"There are 20pc fewer licensed jockeys. The number of horses in training has dropped by nearly 30pc since 2008 and the number of owners with horses in training has fallen by 35pc.

"We are very lucky in Ballydoyle and we are very proud to be part of the Irish racing industry. It is a great feeling to win a race in America or Dubai or France but the industry here badly needs investment.

'In most racing nations, horse racing receives funding from betting – but in Ireland we have the lowest tax on betting in the world, at just 1pc. It was 10pc 15 years ago.

"The Government is working on bringing online betting into the tax net at last because the amount of money being gambled in Ireland has gone up and up, but the tax take has gone down and down. Racing needs a fairer share.

"It employs more than 17,000 people full-time but a huge number of people make some income from it in rural areas. If you take Ballydoyle and Coolmore, there are about 300 people employed in this tiny little part of rural Tipperary between the two farms alone.

"We see what they are doing in other countries and we believe Ireland can grow a lot of tourism around racing once the facilities are improved. You only have to look at where Queen Elizabeth went when she came here.

"She wanted to go to the National Stud and Coolmore because she holds the industry in such high esteem.

"Racing has had such consistent international success over the last number of decades but it needs investment. I just hope that happens soon."

Irish Independent

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