Racing: Trouble in horse heaven

The Ballydoyle stables are the envy of the racing world but after two fallow years the pressure is on trainer Aidan O'Brien
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The Independent Online

A misty Irish morn gave way to pale blue skies yesterday over the stables of Ballydoyle, perhaps the foremost racing establishment on the planet. It was unusual weather at the Co Tipperary premises, which have been persistently visited by storms this spring, but then these are unusual times at Ballydoyle.

A misty Irish morn gave way to pale blue skies yesterday over the stables of Ballydoyle, perhaps the foremost racing establishment on the planet. It was unusual weather at the Co Tipperary premises, which have been persistently visited by storms this spring, but then these are unusual times at Ballydoyle.

From the high water mark of 2001, when the horses trained by Aidan O'Brien scooped 23 Group One races, contests at the highest level of the sport, trouble has set in. A serpent appears to have arrived in the land they call the Golden Vale. And it has been spitting poison. The yard's fortunes have plummeted in recent seasons to the point where just three Group Ones came their way last season. For Ballydoyle and the nearby twin citadel of the Coolmore Stud, to where most of the great stallions are retired for stud duty, that is unacceptable.

Something has had to give. The principal victim has been Jamie Spencer, the young rider who lasted just one season as stable jockey. His birthright as the godson of the Ballydoyle and the Coolmore supremo John Magnier may have helped him get the job, but it did not prevent him also losing it. When things start going wrong, racing lore has it, you cannot exactly fire the horses.

Spencer was a relatively unproven rider with a squeaky clean image. In his place has come the mirror opposite. Kieren Fallon is the best rider these islands have seen in recent memory, yet, at 40, controversy remains his consistent pillion passenger. The multiple champion jockey of Britain remains on bail as part of a police investigation into race fixing, although he strongly denies any wrongdoing.

The early evidence is that the new marriage will lead to another honeymoon period in this acre of Co Tipperary. The Ballydoyle package was probably too much for a man of Spencer's youth, the requirement not just to ride horses but to nurture valuable commodities to greatness on the home gallops. It is not a prospect which fazes Fallon. He was a solemn figure on the trial grounds yesterday, while he was working, but a much more relaxed character on the ground.

The new job has allowed Fallon to step off the centrifugal merry-go-round of British racing. It has also afforded him a degree of privacy back in his native land. "The pace for me [in Britain] was too much for too long. Too much crammed in every day and all the ducking and diving," he said yesterday. "Something had to crack in the end. I am enjoying myself here."

It is a measure of Fallon's expertise that he has now worked for three of the foremost trainers in his sport, following postings with Henry Cecil and Michael Stoute. "You could compare Aidan with Sir Michael Stoute," he said. "He trains his horses as individuals. Most trainers train their horses in groups.

"The gallops here are perfect, some of them are just like a racecourse. And, unlike Newmarket, no one else gets to have a go on them. There is a lot of history here. The man they still talk about, [the original trainer] Vincent O'Brien [no relation] and all those years Lester [Piggott] was here."

It was in 1951 - at a cost of £17,000 - that Vincent O'Brien purchased the land that was to become the world's foremost private training establishment. Fast horses have come out of here ever since, to put a modern touch to the myth which surrounds the area's dominating Slievenamon [Gaelic for hill of the women] mountain. It is said that the ancient kings used to take as their brides the women that ran swiftest from the valley to the peak. Speed has always been cherished in these parts.

Ballydoyle has been the cradle for some of the greatest horses in British racing, such as Sir Ivor and Nijinsky, The Minstrel and Alleged, and, during the modern O'Brien's tenure, Giant's Causeway and the Derby winners Galileo and High Chaparral.

The last-named was commemorated on the baseball cap and windcheater the trainer wore yesterday morning. Hope always rages at this end of the Flat season, when every horse is a potential champion until it proves otherwise, and there was no sign of the man who appeared close to breaking point when last season's supposed superstar, One Cool Cat, failed, yet again, at York.

It is O'Brien's custom to retreat into the team formation when asked about the relative famine of recent times. "Things didn't work last year," he said. "There was a combination of a lot of things, including the fact that we didn't have much luck. The horses were really ready early and didn't finish very well. Everybody works very hard here and it's heartbreak on everyone, especially the lads, when things don't go right.

"I'm disappointed for everyone when it doesn't go the right way. I'd be disappointed more for everyone else than myself. But I wouldn't call it pressure. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Pressure is for tyres.

"Now we have a different jockey this year and a different approach. Kieren works very much as part of the team. He likes to mind his horses. He understands that they need to be ready to make that next step. He's slowed down the whole thing.

"He's an obsessive sort of a fella. He's putting an awful lot of thought in here and he wants to know everything, like how they're eating. He'd nearly want to know how many droppings they'd leave in the box."

It is a consideration for O'Brien that the wounds of the last two seasons may have been self-inflicted. One theory is that he asked his horses to do too much in the build-up to what has become an extremely long international racing season. "I just might have overtrained the horses two years ago," he said. "I might have done it last year as well. But we've very much taken it gently first this year."

In that respect, the appalling weather this year has been a sunny accomplice. O'Brien could not have overtrained his horses even if he wanted to. He has not had much opportunity to train them at all.

Soon, however, the truth will be bared. O'Brien will discover if there is much shining in the bottom of his sieving pan. The portents, it must be said, are not particularly auspicious. By this stage of the season there is usually a Ballydoyle stand-out, a horse reputedly leaving scorch marks on the gallops (Yeats was 3-1 favourite for the Derby this time last year).

Yet there was no stellar name on the lips of the horse whisperers on Sunday night at McCarthys, the legendary racing bar in adjacent Fethard. This year, it seems, no one knows.

As a result there seems to be a buckshot approach to the Classic trials both in Ireland and England. The Ballydoyle horses which can raise a convincing gallop will be pointed domestically at Leopardstown and, over the Irish Sea, at Chester, Lingfield and York. First off, though, is the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on Saturday, when Footstepsinthesand (Fallon's mount) and Oratorio attempt to put down a marker for the yard.

"Footsteps is a natural athlete, full of enthusiasm. He is a generous worker," O'Brien said. "The other one would just eat and sleep if you let him. He is a lazy worker who will do what you ask him and no more. They are total opposites. Hopefully, we will find out in the trials and everyone will find out together. It's close to finding out. The coming weeks will tell a few stories."

It is about time for Aidan O'Brien to discover a happy ending once again. Failure is not an option at Ballydoyle, especially for the men the trainer engagingly refers to as "the lads". Magnier and his main co-owner, Michael Tabor, run a business as much as they run horses. For O'Brien, the joy is just being with thoroughbreds.

The trainer treats his expensive animals just as horses. He has to. If you imagined the investment they represented it could be time for the funny farm. There were gentle noises around Ballydoyle yesterday, the wafting muzak thought to soothe the beasts, the voice of O'Brien himself. He would not shout even if his house was on fire.

"Obviously it's intense here," he said. "I'm very aware about how much these horses cost and their potential value. For us to keep the team going and keep the lads happy we have to keep getting [successful] horses. So there is no place to hide. You wouldn't be coming here pretending.

"But you wouldn't call it a treadmill because a treadmill is the same thing every day. Every horse is an individual and different work has to go into him. I'm a very lucky man. This is a hobby for me as well. Some people love going off to the match. I like it right here. Right here."