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 GREAT HORSES
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.
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