Racing: O'Brien conjures string of kings

Tim Glover studies the phenomenon of racing - a quiet Irish trainer nicknamed Joe 90
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The Independent Online
IF Aidan Patrick O'Brien is ever the subject of This Is Your Life, and given his track record the odds are good, he would probably follow the notorious example of another notable Irishman, Danny Blanchflower, and leave the big red book closed. When Blanchflower was ambushed with the immortal words, "This is your life", he replied, "No it isn't", and did a runner.

O'Brien does not remotely fit the stereotype of a trainer. Garrulous he is not. A "good morning" from O'Brien is tantamount to the Gettysburg address. Nor is he flamboyant. You won't find him in the champagne tent regaling owners and punters with stories of legendary horses and horsemen. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't shout about what he does and what he has done thus far is extraordinary.

Last year he trained the winners of the first four Irish classics. Today he saddles the highly rated Saratoga Springs in the Prix du Jockey Club (the French Derby) at Chantilly. Next Saturday he is expected to have the 2,000 Guineas winner, King Of Kings, in the Derby with Michael Kinane on board. If Second Empire and Saratoga Springs also make it to Epsom, it sets up a fascinating contest between the two most powerful racing establishments, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin and Ireland's green team. In one corner of the paddock, Saeed bin Suroor; in the other, Aidan O'Brien.

The pedigree of the Irish is impeccable. Behind them they have the "production line", the famous Coolmore Stud, and its driving force, John Magnier, who is considered one of the most influential and astute men in racing. He in turn is connected to the equally legendary Ballydoyle stables in Tipperary where Vincent O'Brien, often in harness with Lester Piggott, enjoyed classic success with blue bloods such as Nijinsky, Sir Ivor and Sadler's Wells (a prolific performer at the Coolmore Stud, where money walks on four legs).

Now at Ballydoyle they have another O'Brien, Aidan, no relation to the great Vincent, except in a shared genius of what makes a thoroughbred a classic winner.

With meticulous attention to detail, O'Brien was seen walking the Epsom course a few days ago. "If a trainer had a couple of winners at a meeting, there would be a big celebration," John Geraghty, who has had horses with O'Brien, said. "If Aidan had a treble, he would be more likely to go home and study the video to see how he could improve on the performance. He's a model trainer, a one-off. He knows horses but he sees things that others never see.

"It could be said that he is well-connected but he was successful before he met these people. He has something that money can't buy. He would be just as good training a modest National Hunt horse as a thoroughbred. Nothing in his life is superfluous. He has the knack."

In an industry studded with protocol, old money, old habits and a pecking order, the rise of O'Brien looks like a six-furlong sprint. He grew up around horses, or vice-versa, in that his father, a farmer in Wexford, trained a few point-to-pointers.

In 1993-94 O'Brien was the amateur champion rider and continued his apprenticeship as an assistant trainer to Jim Bolger. He had his first winner, Wandering Thoughts, at Tralee in 1993 and by the age of 23 he and his wife, Anne-Marie, the daughter of the trainer Joe Crowley, had become Ireland's champion National Hunt trainers.

Thereafter, it was not a long way to Tipperary. Like Vincent O'Brien, Aidan began his career in National Hunt and, until he announced on Friday that his future lies on the level, he divided his time between the jumps and the Flat, between a stable in Carriganog in County Kilkenny and Ballydoyle. A few months ago he lifted the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, in style, with Istabraq for the owner and gambler J P McManus. O'Brien is not noted for raiding the satchels of the bookmakers, although it is thought he put a few quid on Istabraq for his stable staff.

With an old-fashioned haircut, that looks as if it has been styled around a pudding bowl, spectacles and a complexion like Kerrygold, O'Brien could just about pass as a choirboy. One nickname is Joe 90. He bears comparison to Michael Dickinson, the Yorkshire trainer who enjoyed phenomenal success before moving to America.

At the age of 28, and in only four years, O'Brien has rounded Tattenham Corner and appears to have a lot in hand. It is said of him that, as success does not go to his head, he will never have to change his hat size.

Should King Of Kings land the Blue Riband in the "Sport of Kings" on Saturday, even O'Brien's modest titfer might be heading for the skies.

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