Racing: O'Brien ready to stake claim with Yukon Gold: The son of a legendary trainer is poised to take a challenger to the Cheltenham Festival for the first time. John Cobb reports

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The Independent Online
UNDERSTATEMENT speaks loudly for Charles O'Brien. It is there in his small, neat stables, the dressing down to floppy jumper and jeans, but most of all in his easy manner. When following in the slipstream of a racing legend, who would want to be seen to be trying too hard?

Comparisons with the most successful trainer anywhere, ever, Flat and National Hunt, living or dead, his father Vincent O'Brien, may be difficult to escape next month. If Yukon Gold comes through a trial at Leopardstown this Sunday he will become Charles O'Brien's first runner at the Cheltenham Festival, which his father dominated in the late Forties and Fifties before moving on to even greater conquests.

Yukon Gold's target will be one of the novice events which 20 years ago replaced the Gloucestershire Hurdle, a race that was usually run in two divisions and usually won by Vincent O'Brien - 10 victories in eight years to be exact.

That puts the venture into perspective which, fortunately for Charles O'Brien, is something he possesses in abundance. 'The boss trained 40 Classic winners and more than 20 Cheltenham winners,' he said. 'If I was worried about trying to match that I'd soon end up in a lunatic asylum.' At 26, just a year into his training career, he has time to build his own list of achievements.

'If I win a Classic or an Arc, great. If I don't, well I'm not going to spend any time worrying about it.'

Taking up the reins of responsibility as a trainer at an early age is something he has in common with his father. But while Vincent started as the son of a small-time trainer and farmer from north Cork, whose success was viewed with suspicion by the Anglo-Irish fraternity that then ruled racing, his son was born into the new aristocracy of the Irish turf.

Dispatched to school in England, first Sunningdale then Eton, at the age of eight, he completed his racing education with two of the world's leading trainers, Brian Mayfield Smith in Australia and John Gosden, now Sheikh Mohammed's principal trainer in Britain, but then based in California. He returned to Ireland for stints with his father at the magnificent Ballydoyle training complex and at Coolmore Stud, which houses many of his father's more recent champions.

Of course the O'Brien name opened doors, but for many the burden of following in the same profession as such a famous father would have made them run towards something, anything, different.

'I did an accountancy course, but that was never really my scene,' he said. 'In fairness, there was never any pressure put on me to take up training. I think it did make dad happy. It gave him someone to discuss things with.'

But with marriage and a child, the time came to move away from Ballydoyle. With his father's blessing, he set up at a 40-box yard in a corner of The Curragh last year.

Some horses made the move too and the patronage of his father and his friends among the world's leading owners means that, to the envy of any other rookie trainer, he has offspring of such as Sadler's Wells and Caerleon among the inmates at Ridge Manor Stables. Yukon Gold is closely related to Golden Fleece, his father's 1982 Derby winner.

One difference from Ballydoyle, apart from the lack of grandeur, is the absence of old hands. It was a deliberate policy.

'I like young people around,' O'Brien said. 'Some of the old fellas have been doing things the same way for 40 years. They're not very willing to change.'

The evidence for that can be found in an experience from Ballydoyle when O'Brien junior instituted some minor alterations to the daily pattern of work. As soon as he took a few days away from the yard, the old routine was resumed.

While his staff now might be of similar age and appearance to the trainer, there is no mistaking who is in charge. O'Brien exudes authority and is sufficiently sure of himself to still speak of his father as 'the boss'.

While others of his age, looks and family wealth might only ever see the day break on their journey home, O'Brien is content with early mornings on the gallops and home comforts. Trawling nightclubs for owners, as some trainers do, would not be natural to him.

'I'm anti-social. I'd rather watch telly with the missus and child than go out,' he said. 'I wouldn't be the best at that sort of stuff with owners.

'I'm bad, but (elder brother) David was worse. He just wanted to be with the horses but found dealing with owners a pain.'

Certainly, Charles O'Brien seems to have found a way to cope with the pressures of training that David never quite managed in a brief career punctuated by spectacular successes with Secreto in the Derby and Assert in the Irish and French versions. 'He got out at the right time. He'd already done it all.'

It was his brother, 11 years his senior, who gave Charles some of his early lessons in horse management. 'Dad would be in the office, but David was always out with the horses.'

As well as missing out on the years when his father had more of a hands-on role in the training, Charles O'Brien was born too late to remember much about some of his father's most celebrated performers, but was fully appreciative of the era of El Gran Senor and Sadler's Wells.

'I was only one when Sir Ivor won the Derby and three when Nijinsky was three. What people don't realise though is that when dad was winning all those Group One races in the Seventies and early Eighties, he had only around 35 horses.'

Advice is still sought from his incomparable father, now in his mid-Seventies and electing to train just a handful of horses. 'The boss told me to put Yukon Gold away after his last run in November and the horse will need the race on Sunday to get himself organised,' he said.

At Leopardstown, Yukon Gold will be racing against Danoli, who had only the Champion Hurdle favourite, Fortune And Fame, ahead of him in a race over the course last month. 'It's a good race, but we may as well find out where we are with the horse. At least we'll get a lead.

'After Sunday, we'll decide which Cheltenham race to go for. I've never been there, it's part of my education that's missing. I'm looking forward to it, although with the crowds it might be one of those meetings that's better watched on TV.'

'Another is Royal Ascot. I loathe it with a passion. All those people who wouldn't know which end bites trying to get spotted by Judith Chalmers, while you're trying to get the saddle down to the horse.'

He may not yet feel at ease in racing's grandest arenas but, like his father, he is sure to find that the most comfortable spot on the racecourse is in the winner's enclosure.

(Photograph omitted)

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