The Story Of Aidan O’Brien – Flat-Racing’s Top Trainer

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Aidan O'Brien smiling

Aidan O’Brien has established himself as the leading trainer in the British Isles and arguably the whole world, over the last few seasons. In 2017 he broke the record for the highest number of G1 victories. His tally of 27 beat the previous record of 25, which had been held since 2003 by Bobby Frankel. The combination of outstanding ability and an unquenchable thirst for success are what makes the teetotal Irishman (he is a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association) peerless, in the sport today.

Background

O’Brien, one of six children, grew-up in Killegney (near Poulpeasty) in County Wexford. His father Denis, who died in 2008, was also a trainer although farming provided the family’s main source of income. Aidan’s first job in racing was with PJ Finn’s yard, at the Curragh. He would later join Jim Bolger, at Coolcullen (County Carlow).

He is married to Anne-Marie (née Crowley), whose father Joe also ran a yard in County Kilkenny. Anne-Marie briefly took over the operation and became Champion National Hunt Trainer, before Aidan also found himself in the Piltown hot-seat. His tenure was also a short one, however (1993-1996), as he joined Ballydoyle after only three years.

Istabraq

Istabraq

Such is Aidan O’Brien’s dominance, in flat-racing, many are unaware that his teeth were cut in National Hunt. Unfortunate circumstances led to O’Brien being given the charge of a horse that would propel Aidan into the spotlight. John Durkan had sadly contracted leukemia and he asked O’Brien to take on a horse called Istabraq. Durkan hoped to recall his inmate, once he had beaten the illness, but this was not to be and Durkan passed-away in 1998.

Istabraq probably exceeded even Durkan’s best hopes, winning the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle three times (1998, 1999 and 2000) plus the Irish Champion Hurdle in four consecutive campaigns (1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001). This magnificent jumper is still alive and lives at the home of owner, JP McManus. Istabraq was so good, Irish punters even wrote a song about him;

“We’ve had Monksfield, Night Nurse and Dawn Run Danoli and Derrymoyle. But they’d find it hard to beat this one Istabraq from Ballydoyle.”

First Classics

The success of Istabraq came when O’Brien essentially had a foot in both camps (flat and National Hunt). He joined Coolmore in 1996 and his first really important victories came, the following year. Classic Park and Desert King won the 1997 Irish 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas, respectively. Desert King would go on to win the Irish Derby. The following year, O’Brien laid out his stall on English soil, with King Of Kings winning the 2000 Guineas and Shahtoush the Oaks (thanks in no small part to an outstanding tactical ride by Mick Kinane, which visibly shocked Frankie Dettori on Godolphin’s Bahr – the horse Shahtoush cruised past at the business-end of the fillies’ major Classic).

Giant’s Causeway

Over the next few years, other terrific O’Brien inmates would emerge. Giant’s Causeway, a Storm Cat-sired colt, was simply sensational in 2000 and won the Gladness Stakes, the St. James’s Palace Stakes, the Eclipse Stakes, the Sussex Stakes, the Juddmonte International Stakes and the Irish Champion Stakes. Unsurprisingly, Giant’s Causeway was named Cartier Horse of the Year. Following retirement, the Kentucky native became the leading sire in the USA three times (2009, 2010 and 2012). Such was his reputation, for toughness, he was often referred to as ‘The Iron Horse).

Aidan O'Brien with Imagine and Mick Kinane

Imagine

This Sadler’s Wells-sired filly proved to be a real challenge for O’Brien and she did not make an immediate impact, as a juvenile. She made her debut in the Debutante Stakes (finishing 3rd) and then failed to land a real blow in the Moyglare (6th of 10 runners). She was dropped a long way in class and won a modest maiden at Gowran Park, but the C. L. Weld Park Stakes was her only 2000 victory of note. Her Classic Campaign got off to a spluttering start, as well. Imagine was a beaten favourite in both the Leopardstown 1000 Guineas Trial Stakes and the Athasi Stakes and she was getting a reputation for being expensive to back. It’s likely that O’Brien learned a little from Imagine though, with regards to patience and perseverance. She won the Irish 1000 Guineas as a 16/1 shot and followed that up with victory in the Epsom Oaks. What made this win even more impressive was that it was her first race on English turf, due to travel restrictions imposed by the foot-and-mouth crisis. Imagine picked-up a stone bruise injury, shortly after the Oaks and put on a lot of weight. So much so that a tilt at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe proved impossible. She was retired to become a broodmare and excelled. Her progeny include Horatio Nelson, Red Rock Canyon, Kitty Matcham, Viscount Nelson, Guessing, Point Piper, Adeste Fideles and General Macarthur.

Galileo

It could be argued though that Aidan will look back upon a maiden contest that took place at Leopardstown, in October of 2000, as being the most important win of that incredible year for him. A juvenile named Galileo made a late-season debut and fully-justified even-money odds, winning by 14 lengths in an encounter that also featured horses trained by John Oxx and Jim Bolger. The modest crowd had witnessed the emergence of an animal that would dominate the future of flat-racing, every bit as much as Aidan O’Brien would.

Galileo’s 3-year-old campaign saw him win the Ballysax Stakes and the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, before he was Epsom-bound to take on 2000 Guineas Champion Golan in the Derby. He destroyed the field, with an astonishing turn of foot and was given a Timeform rating of 130.

Jockey Mick Kinane said “There is no weakness to him… He is a dream to ride.” after the drubbing was handed out and Galileo went on to win the Irish Derby and the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, before being named European Champion Three-Year-Old Colt of 2001. A somewhat disappointing final-bow at Belmont Park, in the Breeders Cup Classic (run on dirt and for which exercises on Southwell’s artificial surface were far from ideal preparation), was unlikely to have concerned the Coolmore operation to any great extent. They had found their golden goose and he was immediately retired to stand at their main farm in Fethard (Tipperary).

Outstanding progeny immediately began to emerge, including Nightime, Red Rocks and the St Leger-winning Sixties Icon. Even the cream of Galileo’s offspring are too numerous to detail fully here, but the likes of Teofilo, New Approach, Rip Van Winkle, Cape Blanco, Frankel, Nathaniel, Treasure Beach, Noble Mission, Was, Magician, Ruler Of The World, Australia, Found, Gleneagles, Highland Reel, Minding, Churchill and Winter are among them. Galileo simply continues to deliver G1 winners, at a relentless pace.

You can already back the Cheveley Park Stakes Champion Clemmie and the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère-winning Happily to win either the 1000 Guineas or Epsom Oaks, in 2018. Saxon Warrior, winner of the Racing Post Trophy is among the favourites for the 2000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby. All 4 markets are dominated by Galileo-sired horses, something that most pundits would have predicted a long time ago.

Coolmore, O’Brien and Galileo are the trinity that continue to call the shots in European thoroughbred racing and it isn’t easy to judge which is the most-important member. It is clear, however, that as long as the business, the trainer and the stallion all remain in rude health then the opposition will be playing catch-up.

Rock Of Gibraltar

The dust has long settled, on the ownership dispute that took place following Rock Of Gibraltar’s retirement to stud. Given that neither ‘The Lads’ at Coolmore (as O’Brien like to refer to them), or Sir Alex Ferguson, have ever found themselves short of a bob-or-two since the out of court settlement we can forget about the wrangling and concentrate on this magnificent beast’s achievements!

The Railway Stakes, the Gimcrack Stakes, the Grand Critérium and the Dewhurst Stakes were taken in his stride as a juvenile and the major honours kept coming  throughout his 3-year-old season. The 2000 Guineas, the Irish 2000 Guineas, the St. James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp led to Rock Of Gibraltar being named European Horse of the Year and European Champion 3-Yr-Old Colt (2002).

He is now a ‘shuttle stallion’, covering mares in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Eagle Mountain and Society Rock are both among his progeny.

Aidan O'Brien with So You Think

So You Think

This brilliant Australian did not join Coolmore, until his 4-year-old season was at an end. The organisation reportedly paid A$25 million for a majority interest in this amazing horse, who had already won the Cox Plate twice. So You Think readily took to the Northern European conditions, crushing the opposition in the Mooresbridge Stakes and then securing victory in the Tattersalls Gold Cup. He went on to win the Eclipse Stakes, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Prince of Wales’s Stakes.

George Washington

‘Gorgeous’ George Washington was another of O’Brien’s best, winning the Railway Stakes, the Phoenix Stakes and the National Stakes, in 2005. The 2000 Guineas was his first contest as a 3-year-old and he beat Sir Percy, a horse that would go on to win the Epsom Derby. He also won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, but things didn’t go so well for George Washington at stud. Fertility problems saw him return to training, although he was unable to rediscover his previous form and was dogged by injuries. He was euthanized, after fracturing bones in his right-front fetlock, in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Camelot

The word was out on this one, before he had even made his debut and Camelot won that maiden easily, at odds of just 1/3. Such was the hype about Camelot, he was immediately installed as favourite for the Epsom Derby. He would indeed win that race, having already won the Racing Post Trophy and the 2000 Guineas. The Derby win was the first-ever by a father and son (Joseph had been given steering duties). Camelot also won the Irish Derby and racing fans started to believe that he could become the first horse to win the Triple Crown, since Nijinsky in 1970. It was not to be however and debate goes on as to whether the minor traffic problems encountered actually prevented him from winning the St Leger. Fatigue was certainly a factor and he was disappointing in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Camelot’s 4-year-old campaign was also something of a damp squib, although he did win the Mooresbridge Stakes. O’Brien maintains that the horse never really recovered from the colic he contracted in October 2012, but there can be no doubt that he is one of the best horses that Coolmore have ever possessed.

St Nicholas Abbey

Much was expected of this 2009 European Champion Two-year-old colt, as the 2010 campaign got underway. St Nicholas Abbey, a Montjeu-sired colt that had been bought for 200,000 guineas as a yearling, had won the Beresford Stakes and the Racing Post Trophy as a juvenile. Following an impressive public trial, at the Curragh, he started the 2000 Guineas as an even-money favourite. Many of those who were at Headquarters that day were quick to write him off, after he finished 6th of 18, but O’Brien told reporters that he was happy with what he had seen and that only an uneven pace had undone the horse. It would be the last we would see of him in the 2010 season, however, and there were dark murmurings that Coolmore were doing everything they could to protect his stud price. Aidan would soon be fully vindicated though, as St Nicholas Abbey took the spoils in the Ormonde Stakes, the Coronation Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2011. He would go on to win the Coronation Cup again in 2012 and 2013 and was also a Dubai Sheema Classic Champion as a 6-year-old. A combination of injury and colic prevented him from ever becoming a stud horse and he died in January of 2014.

O’Brien’s Character

O’Brien is regarded as a cautious figure, who deals politely with the media without ever giving much away. When interviewed, following yet another big victory, he shows good manners to journalists but generally appears to be in a hurry to move on to the next task. The dark glasses that he usually wears, contribute to what can seem a somewhat distant personality but these are prescription glasses and not indicative of any sense of celebrity. When the camera pans to Aidan, after a big win, he will usually be already on the phone – eagerly reporting back the good news to top connections. The demands on O’Brien are huge and success at the very highest level is expected, rather than just hoped for.

Rare Shot of the O'Briens with John Magnier from 2007

Smart Siblings

The O’Brien family are tight-knit and Aidan must be thrilled that his children have followed him into the racing industry. Joseph had an excellent career as a jockey, winning the Epsom Derby twice (Camelot and Australia). He’s now a trainer himself and recently won the Melbourne Cup with Rekindling.

“It’s unbelievable. The horse took the journey down very well. He’s had a great year and I hoped he could run well, but never dreamt he could win it. It’s one of the biggest races in the world. To have a horse come down, enjoy the occasion, the build-up to the race, to be taking part in it, it’s unbelievable. To actually win it, I can’t really put it into words.” said Joseph, after the unlikely victory.

Donnacha is currently active in the saddle and the 2016 Irish Flat-Racing Champion Apprentice is already a double Moyglare winner (Intricately in 2016 and Happily in 2017). Anastasia and Sarah are also forging careers. ‘Ana’ suffered a setback, over the Summer, sustaining a nasty vertebrae injury in a nasty fall but few would bet against her making a winning return to the track sooner or later.

With the brilliant Aidan at the helm, the O’Brien dynasty looks set to continue long into the future.

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