Racing: The horse nurturer of Ballydoyle

Aidan O'Brien is one of the most important figures in world racing. In a rare but revealing interview, he discusses why the brilliance of Kieren Fallon and his wonderhorse George Washington both need careful nurturing, and why losing can be nearly as good as winning

Another furious squall bursts against the elegant conservatory where Aidan O'Brien sits, eating his lunch. In the garden, trees and shrubs are being flayed by the gale. The green Tipperary hills beyond have retreated into grey vapour.

O'Brien remains impassive, his speech soft, his bearing gentle. He is used to dealing with the tempestuous forces of nature. In fact, that is what he is paid for. Among all the people and beasts who congest the volatile, venal world of horseracing, here is a man apart, a stillness in the eye of the storm.

Most brilliant thoroughbreds are egomaniacs, and so are many of the people who deal with them. O'Brien is achieving greatness through humility. Still only 36, over the past decade he has trained a procession of champions here at Ballydoyle, restoring his employers at nearby Coolmore Stud as emperors of the Turf. But he remains wholly innocent of vanity - and it is that fact, rather than the diffidence he has gradually shed among the microphones and claustrophobia of the winner's enclosure, that has made an interview such as this almost unprecedented.

Even now he scrupulously talks about others, rather than himself. None the less, there is much to be learned about him that way. After all, the cyclone that has torn through Ballydoyle this year has left him no hiding place.

It is difficult to resist the kinship between the twin, feral forces that have dominated O'Brien's season. One is George Washington, the champion colt who seemed in danger of surrendering to the demons of his temperament, but bounced back at Ascot on Saturday with a performance that anointed him as Europe's totem at the Breeders' Cup in Kentucky this autumn. The other is Kieren Fallon, the jockey dragged from the pinnacle of his profession by police charges of corruption.

An eavesdropper could not be certain whether O'Brien was talking about Fallon or George Washington when he said: "He has an air of invincibility about him, and of course sometimes that can get you into trouble." Nor, indeed, when he said: "That's part of what makes him so brilliant, that little bit of madness."

Well, the first observation referred to the colt, and the second to the jockey. For while Fallon may seem indomitable in the saddle, O'Brien reveals that he has none of George Washington's certainty. "The worry is that all this might destroy him," he said. "That's the big danger. Now a person can't be living with anger, you can't keep stirring it. You can't go through life with chips and grudges, and Kieren's not a chippy fellow. But what he is, he's a man easily hurt. And when he does get hurt, he's liable to do funny things."

He did not elaborate, though Fallon's serial flirtations with self-destruction made it quite unnecessary. What O'Brien did emphasise was that this was also where the "little bit of madness" came in, feeding the inner drive that elevates Fallon beyond other riders.

Fallon may not be given the chance to clear his name until the end of next season. It is clear from the way he has been uproariously saluted on Irish racecourses this summer that it was prudish to suspend his British licence for fear of damaging the sport's image. As it is, O'Brien and his patrons are left with an intractable problem. Their loyalty to Fallon means that new jockeys must be "parachuted" on to precious stallion prospects, horses Fallon has helped to make.

When George Washington was beaten on his return from injury at Goodwood last month, O'Brien's frank priority was to introduce the colt and his idiosyncrasies to Mick Kinane. It proved a shambles of a race, but at least Kinane had learned for the day that mattered. Next, O'Brien must find a new jockey for Dylan Thomas - on whom Fallon has never been beaten - when he, too, goes to America, and the problem recurs throughout the stable.

"What it's costing us..." O'Brien shook his head. "Every day we're running horses, with riders who don't know them. And those Group One races are too hard to come by to be doing that. They don't come back around."

Not that he was at all dismayed by what happened at Goodwood. "I'm always nervous when everything goes right in a trial," he said. "You nearly want the worst-case scenario in a trial, rather than everything going smoothly. In a Group One race you nearly love getting beat fair and square, because you know where you go next. What will grieve you is when you get beat and are still wondering."

For his runners in Britain, O'Brien hires the best jockey available, with the conspicuous exception of Frankie Dettori, whose patrons have seemingly told him that he is no longer to ride horses trained by O'Brien at Ballydoyle. Yet Dettori's employers, the Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai, apparently make no objections when their jockey rides a Coolmore horse trained elsewhere.

O'Brien is less likely to hanker after Dettori, however, after his childish complaints about "team tactics" at Ascot on Saturday. The Italian goaded the stewards into a 14-day suspension for Seamus Heffernan, who rode another Ballydoyle colt in George Washington's race.

O'Brien was indignant, though his exchange with Dettori in the weighing room afterwards was reminiscent of one of those romantic comedies where the protagonists are always at odds, while nursing an unspoken yearning. A happy ending does seem less plausible than ever, however, given the Maktoums' smouldering resentment towards Coolmore. In refusing to buy yearlings by Coolmore stallions, of course, the sheikhs succeed only in making themselves look foolish. In contrast, the man who directs the Coolmore-Ballydoyle axis, John Magnier, is revered as the merchant genius of bloodstock.

Certainly there is no mistaking the warmth O'Brien feels for the undemonstrative sagacity of Magnier. "The boss never puts himself in front of the right thing - for the horses, for the business, for the place," he said. "You can see from the quality of the people he has put together that he's a special man. I always feel as though I'm doing an apprenticeship, that I'm privileged to watch and listen and learn under a man like that. This is a man who knows if a straw is the wrong way in a stable."

Magnier himself once said that "there is plenty of dialogue between everybody, but ultimately Aidan calls the shots". O'Brien suggests that every decision "goes through" Magnier. "But you see the way he let's people develop," he said. "You see ordinary men turn into very serious men, the way he brings them along. That's how it happens throughout the organisation. And no matter what kind of problem they have, they take it to him. That's where the book starts and stops.

"Never a day goes by when you don't learn here, from horses and people. Every horse is a different project. They're all made up of different things, but you start recognising traits, so that the next time you see one you might know to handle it differently. Before, you might as easily have destroyed it."

Mild and ingenuous as he seems, still boyish in his spectacles - a rural curate, but for the matter of four children - those who know O'Brien insist he is made of iron. Certainly he is engrossed by the epic scale of Magnier's adventure. He rises two hours before the horses go out, as early as 5am in summer, and professed that he was a "nervous wreck" before George Washington ran on Saturday.

This colt seemed wreathed in nimbus from the first time he set foot on the gallops. Magnier was sitting next to O'Brien in the jeep as they bounced alongside. "He's a jet," Magnier gasped.

"You could see it there and then, months before he ever ran," O'Brien recalled. "It's hard to believe when a horse is so much better. You never see horses travel with such ease, as though he's only doing a hack canter in a Group One race. And because he has been that way all his life, he has developed an ego. He's like those good boxers. George has the gene that makes him extra special, the gene very few horses have. He has the whole package, but the one thing he has is that he's super-intelligent. From the first, you could see the movement and the presence in him, the difference in him."

George Washington thrashed the subsequent Derby winner in the 2,000 Guineas in the spring but was then injured in the Irish equivalent. "It would have been easy to say then that it was over," O'Brien admitted. "I thought myself that the horse was 'bunched', that he'd never come back."

In the months when he was away from the track, however, O'Brien did not confine himself to healing the colt's ripped hip muscles. In the spring, George Washington was a preposterous narcissist. He was full of contempt. He even refused to enter the winner's enclosure at Newmarket, and had to be reversed out of the parade ring at the Curragh. On Saturday, however, he was transformed - still proud, but no longer ungovernable.

It has been a masterpiece of training. And the stakes were incalculable. O'Brien knows that the whole operation depends on recycling and refining the genes that make a champion run, and that he needs to vindicate Coolmore's investment at the sales by turning some of the raw yearlings now arriving at Ballydoyle into stallions.

"That's what it's all about in the end," he said. "That's the key, if you can get the gene pool, that's where you're going to get your edge. You soon know what you have. The useless ones you detect just as quick. But the brilliant ones, they're the dream, they take it on to another level altogether. The failure rate is frightening: first to get the good horse, and then to get the good stallion after that.

"But that's what we're always looking for: the special one, the horse that's going to have those special genes, the horse that's made up of some pool other horses haven't had before. Then the next thing is to see if maybe he can produce another like himself. You'll only get one or two from a crop. But when we find one, that makes us feel safer for another while."

O'Brien is unrelated to his namesake, Vincent, who set unprecedented standards after establishing Ballydoyle half a century ago. But he has made his own mark here, his own dominion, and does not suffer by comparison.

Yes, some of the best bloodstock in the world has always come here, and sometimes people make glib assumptions about what they should achieve. George Washington has such a vivid character, however, that its development has been obvious to everyone. Trying to fill the vacuum of O'Brien's ego, George Washington has exhausted his own. After all, horse whisperers should not have to shout.

Road to Ballydoyle: Aidan O'Brien's rise to the top of racing

BORN 16 October 1969

Brought up in Co Wexford, O'Brien's father, a farmer, trained point-to-pointers and O'Brien rode from an early age.


Champion Irish amateur rider over jumps in 1993-94 season.


Spent three years as assistant to Irish Classic-winning trainer Jim Bolger, renowned for his abstemious habits, discipline and attention to detail - traits now equally evident in O'Brien.


Married to Anne-Marie Crowley, sometime model and the daughter of trainer and horse dealer Joe Crowley. They have four children, Joseph, Sarah, Anna and Dennis, aged between eight and 13.


With Aidan as assistant, Anne-Marie became champion jumps trainer in 1992-93.

She immediately handed over the licence to her husband, who recorded his first success on his first day as a trainer, 7 June 1993. He is Irish champion jumps trainer in each of the next five seasons.


Recruited by John Magnier to train from his lavish stables, O'Brien became champion Irish flat trainer in 1997. Deposed the following year, he has been champion every year since.


Won 22 of the 78 top-level (Group One) races run in Europe in 2001, including an unprecedented seven Classics. Becomes first overseas trainer to win British trainers' title since Vincent O'Brien in 1977.


The Derby winners of 2001 and 2002 Galileo and High Chaparral, the outstandingly tough Rock Of Gibraltar and Giant's Causeway and the three-times Champion Hurdler Istabraq top a growing list of O'Brien greats.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...


£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice