Racing: O'Brien's record talks loud even in Texas

Ireland's modest champion trainer leads the European raiding party at today's Breeders' Cup extravaganza at Lone Star Park. By Richard Edmondson in Dallas
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The Independent Online

It was Wednesday morning, his first day at the Lone Star Park track, when Aidan O'Brien conducted his annual on-site Breeders' Cup press conference. As usual, only the fittest survived. The premier Irish trainer was 35 two weeks ago and, with achievement and seasoning behind him, his terror of public speaking has abated. Nevertheless, the massed ranks of the media appearing out of the darkness at Grand Prairie must have been an arresting sight. O'Brien could probably see the bloodshot in their eyes.

In cases like this, it is his instinct to retreat. By the end of an audience with this trainer you can find yourself some way from where interlocution started. On Wednesday, O'Brien finished backed up against the chicken wire of the quarantine block. Once again the man could be seen as vulnerable. It is an assumption we should have stopped making by now.

It has not been the most successful of seasons for O'Brien, but a measure of the pole-vault height bar he has set himself is that he again won the Irish trainers' championship as well as saddling Group One winners abroad. Indeed, the hue of the whole season could be altered today if one of O'Brien's five runners is successful at Breeders' Cup XXI, the world thoroughbred championships.

Texas and O'Brien has been a neat juxtaposition this week. One loud, brash and attention-seeking, the other O'Brien. Yet the bespectacled trainer can step into his own call box and come out a completely different character. This man, you must remind yourself, runs the most devouring racing machine in Europe and probably the world.

"Mr Nice Guy only goes so far," a Ballydoyle insider said this week. "You could not run a place like that without having a core of steel. You have to remember that Aidan also has [his wife] Anne-Marie and she was champion [jumps] trainer herself. She helps him. She rides out and you can tell by the way they are around each other and the horses that it is a partnership. It's all en famille. It's always been like that and the only possible comparison is with Mark and Deirdre Johnston."

There have been the O'Brien family scenes this week. The cygnet line of his four children following papa out of a coach, each wearing a black stetson. The father, not a man to embrace the flamboyant, stuck to his baseball cap. Later he was supervising the youngsters on mechanical bull rides at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth, which, this being Texas, was emblazoned with the legend "the biggest Honky Tonk in the World".

O'Brien looked a picture of contentment as his twin interests were gently weaving. If you are not interested in horses or family you could spend several quiet hours with him.

Ballydoyle has regained self-belief after a barren run. We are not yet into a decade of O'Brien's reign at the Co Tipperary yard, and since his first British Classic winner with King Of Kings in the 1998 2,000 Guineas, it seems to have been a blur of triumph.

In 2001, O'Brien won seven European Classics, 22 of 78 Group One races contested, and became the first overseas figure since Vincent O'Brien in 1977 to win the British trainers' championship. The following season was the time of Rock Of Gibraltar, the seven consecutive Group Ones, yet his Breeders' Cup defeat, in the Mile at Chicago, seemed to break the spell.

Ballydoyle became infected from the sideshow over Rock Of Gibraltar's breeding career that enveloped owner John Magnier and Sir Alex Ferguson. There were changes too among personnel. The old soldier of Mick Kinane was told to no longer report for duty and was replaced as stable jockey by Jamie Spencer. The young man brings promise to the table, but has not yet put as much solid food on it as Kinane.

And then there is the modest despot of O'Brien himself. The Wexford man has set himself the impossible task of removing all uncertainties from what is essentially a capricious sport. O'Brien's tinkering with his methods in the search for perfection occasionally leads down a cul-de-sac. "You make decisions as the year goes on and do things you mightn't do the following year," he said this week. "But you have to learn from one year to another and move on. I don't know if I was too hard on the horses in the spring, but I just couldn't get anything to work.

"If things don't go right you have to question the horses, question yourself and the things you did. Every year there are different horses and different climate factors you train them in. You wonder about how long you work a horse for, what sort of ground you work him on. It's small fractions, but they make big differences. If you just had to do the same every year it would be easy, you would have the pattern and carry on with it. But you get different circumstances. This year we had a good few changes, including a new jockey."

As he attempts to win his fourth race at a Breeders' Cup series, Aidan O'Brien can steel himself with the thought that the wheel has spun in his favour again. The Ballydoyle horses are back in form, so much so that their master can allow himself a rare grandiloquent moment.

"Up to two months ago we were looking slim on talent," the trainer said. "Then the horses suddenly turned. They started changing their physiques. It looks like we've got a lot more possibilities. Anybody who is in racing and around horses is realistic about what can happen. It wouldn't be normal and very dull if the same person was winning everything, every single year. Unless it was us."