Winds of change swirl around Coolmore's king

He is among the greatest racehorse trainers in history, but Aiden O'Brien's partnership with the legendary thoroughbred breeder John Magnier is under threat. He tells Chris McGrath about a rival who's close to home

Tuesday 08 April 2014 04:07

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

And remember what peace there may be in silence.

To those among his staff who regard Aidan O'Brien not merely as a boss, but as a daily inspiration, these are the first words they hear every day. They hear them as they dress, or shave, or drive to the stables. He has the CDs stacked in the office, and issues one to everybody who comes to work at Ballydoyle. "Don't mind the music," he says. "It's been set to some kind of music, but it's the words that matter. Listen to that every morning, and the rest will follow."

In the house, his children groan whenever he puts it on. Not this again. But they do not need anyone else to articulate their father's creed. To the rest of us, however, his ingenuous evangelism for this anthem – Desiderata, axioms written during the Depression by a smalltown Indiana lawyer named Max Ehrmann – affords an unusual insight.

For few know any more of O'Brien's philosophy than might be learnt, say, about the roots of a tree from the sigh of its branches in the wind. In the tempests of Derby day, Royal Ascot, the Breeders' Cup, amid the noise and haste, over the past decade or so O'Brien has become as familiar as he remains unknown – as mild of mien as he is palpably intense in purpose, still looking younger even than 39, which is plenty young enough to have been acknowledged, for so many years already, as one of the greatest racehorse trainers in history.

The staff who start their day with Desiderata, though, know that O'Brien started out as a stableboy himself. And that the values condensed by Ehrmann – however hackneyed to more cynical ears – are those of one who will never be deceived by the vanities available in his success.

None should doubt how earnest is his dread of self-regard, or complacency. For while their achievements together have lent an air of immutability to the partnership between O'Brien and his patrons at Coolmore Stud, the man himself shares no such illusions. Sooner or later, he candidly expects the emperors – John Magnier, and his partners at Coolmore – to end up with a new general.

Already there are intimations of a long-term shift. Increasingly, the intake of young horses from Coolmore is being shared between O'Brien and David Wachman, Magnier's son-in-law, who also trains in Co Tipperary, at Longfield. Last season, Wachman's best to date, was also the one when a division of labour became conspicuous between the two stables. Ballydoyle largely received horses likely to need time and distance before coming into their own; Wachman, in contrast, seems to be getting sharper sorts, more likely to be up and running in time for Royal Ascot.

Addressing the trend publicly for the first time, O'Brien attempted no evasion. To the boss, Wachman was family. It would only be human to "look after the people closest to you first". And O'Brien admitted that his old base, at Piltown in Co Kilkenny, has been constantly updated against the day when he moves back with Anne-Marie and the children.

"The time might come, as David progresses, that he might obviously get more of the better horses as every year goes by," he said. "And the reality of that is if he does progress, it would only be human nature for the boss to want to send him all the horses, over a period of time. If that does happen – and I consider myself very good friends with the boss – believe me there would be no hard feelings. We'd have done our best. We have our own place set up. And since we left, every year that went by, it has developed more and we have improved it, so it's a great facility. We've mares there, and Anne-Marie's dad [Joe Crowley] is training there at the moment. We have some mares breeding, with the boss, so hopefully we'd be quite self-sufficient when the time does come."

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,

For always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

For the moment, O'Brien is happy adjusting to a fresh place in the scheme of things. Despite this preponderance of horses with stamina in their genes, he has still come up with two – Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman – fast enough to be fancied for the first Classic of the season, the Stan James 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on 2 May. Most of the other three-year-olds at Ballydoyle, however, will still be groping towards maturity during the coming months. O'Brien does stress that his patrons, these days, are eager to explore the full potential of their stud prospects – "they don't want to be sending a false horse to stud, and their big horses are run hard" – but teases them that sometimes he is merely laying foundations for Mike De Kock, the South African trainer who buys horses when they fall short of the elite status Coolmore require in a stallion.

"We don't get quite as many of the sharper types as we once did, and some do tend to go to Longfield," he accepted. "So a lot of ours are big, Classic-bred horses, and you have to take your time with them, be gentle with them. If you hurt them, mentally or physically, they'll be no good later. I'm always slagging the boss and the lads, saying I'm only getting this one ready for Mike De Kock! Because it would be against us to force them. So we mind them – then sell them when they're made. But the reality of it is that it's a business. All the horses must have their resale value. We don't ever inject here, don't do any of that stuff, everything's natural. Their joints are never interfered with. So when the time comes to sell, they usually pass the vet with flying colours. Because there's no damage done, no matter what people throw at them after that, they're mature enough and ready for it."

At the same time, O'Brien speaks about the need to get the tension just right, to push the horses towards their potential without showing them "the dark side". Horses have their own Desiderata. "We all have to see reality," he stressed. "Everyone has to live in reality."

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.

Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

Does he ever get the balance wrong? "All the time. We destroy more horses than we make."

Yet he feels little pressure, only responsibility. "There are a lot of people employed here, and we have to make sure the show keeps going, that they still get their wages. The bottom line is results. That's where the pressure comes from, I suppose. There's no pressure from the boss, or the lads, it's just trying to keep the business alive."

And there are seldom simple answers, not least during these early skirmishes of the season. "This time of year, it's just a massive puzzle," he said. "There's always a solution to every horse. Sometimes you get it right. The majority of times, you get it wrong."

But surely there must be times when a horse is beyond redemption, when it is simply devoid of talent? The suggestion makes him indignant.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,

Even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

"Why would a horse have no ability? They all do, of course they do. Just as there's no such thing as a person that's not good at something. Obviously, we're lucky, that we have horses with great pedigrees and physiques. But there's always a reason, you know. If I was left, I'd be training them all until they were 15. And I think every year you would do a better job. You'd always know, when the year has gone, to do something different the following year."

The ends may be perfection, but the means are all humility. "I always feel you do your best every day, whatever comes then, you have to accept it," he said. "We all make loads of mistakes, with people, and decisions you make. My own opinion is that if you keep the faith, and say your prayers, it has a chance of working out. I've made loads of mistakes. But I've always been so thankful, going to bed every night. You don't have to believe in God, to ask for God's help. If you ask, it will come. It might not come today, might not come tomorrow, might not come the way you want. But when you look back it will be the right thing."

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

Why would a man who thinks this way fret about whether he trains at Ballydoyle, or back at Piltown? "Nobody knows what's round the corner, where any of us are going to be tomorrow, or in two or three years," he said. "I'm very relaxed. The biggest gift any of us can have is our health. The rest doesn't matter. If you want to look at the bigger picture, we're a bunch of ants running around a little dot. That's the reality of this world. We're all in our bodies to get the best out of them. Our bodies will last maybe 80 years. But then we're gone, gone somewhere else. And where we go, we can never try to understand that, because we're not supposed to. I look at people trying to see heaven or hell, but our minds aren't made to understand that."

It may yet prove that his greatest earthly fulfilment awaits precisely where others might perceive only anticlimax. He talks of a time, "maybe when I'm gone old", when he will train his own horses, not just when they are two, three and four years old, but five or six, even nine or 10. For now, however, the privileges and responsibilities of Ballydoyle remain as treasured as ever, above all in springtime. "Some of the horses will go back, some will stand still, some will go forward – but at the moment they all believe they're champions," he said. "That way, you give them a chance of being right. And it's easier on yourself, too, if you can keep going to bed dreaming."

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,

it is still a beautiful world

Taking the reins: O'Brien's rise

*Born 16 October, 1969, and raised humbly in rural Co Wexford.

*Spends three years as assistant trainer to Jim Bolger, also mentor of the multiple champion jump jockey, Tony McCoy.

*Marries Anne-Marie Crowley, who became Ireland's first woman champion jumps trainer in 1992-93. Aidan was her assistant that season, as well as Ireland's champion amateur rider, but then took over the training licence. Aged just 23, he remains champion trainer over jumps until switching his attention to the Flat. They have four children.

*Backed by John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore Stud. In 1996 moves into the Ballydoyle training complex in Co Tipperary made famous by his namesake, Vincent O'Brien.

*Maintains a monopoly on the Irish Flat trainers' championship for the last 10 years, and also wins the British title four times with his big-race raiders.

*Top horses include:

Derby winners Galileo (2001) and High Chaparral (2002), Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Dylan Thomas (2007),

Breeders' Cup winners Johannesburg (2001) and High Chaparral (2002 and 2003).

*Champions who matched brilliance with durability, like Giant's Causeway or Rock Of Gibraltar, winner of seven consecutive Group One races in 2001 and 2002.

*Also produced one of the all time Cheltenham greats in Istabraq, a triple champion hurdler.

*On 2 May, Mastercraftsman and Rip Van Winkle head his challenge for a sixth success in the Stan James 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. The following month Yeats will try to become the only horse to win the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot four times.

Magnier and the Manchester United connection

The world's most admired and successful thoroughbred breeding empire, Coolmore, is the work of one of its most astute horsemen in John Magnier.

In the 1970s Magnier teamed up with his father-in-law – the record-breaking trainer, Vincent O'Brien – and the pools magnate, Robert Sangster, to develop a commercial stud. Stallions like Sadler's Wells and Danehill made Co Tipperary the headquarters of the bloodstock world, while Coolmore also developed wings in Kentucky and Australia.

After O'Brien retired, Magnier approached his namesake, Aidan O'Brien, and together they mined a new seam of gold in the thoroughbred gene pool, this time in partnership with two men who had made their name in bookmaking, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.

Magnier (above, with jockey Kieren Fallon) is a private man, but in 2003 his formidable personality became known far beyond racing, when he invested in Manchester United. He eventually sold his stake to the Glazer family, while his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson soured after a dispute over the breeding rights in Rock Of Gibraltar, who had raced in the club manager's colours.

In 2002 Magnier's daughter, Katie, had married a young trainer, David Wachman. The couple moved into the lavish Longfield complex, up the road from Coolmore, and the following year Wachman trained a Royal Ascot winner for Magnier in Damson.

Last year Wachman unmistakably came of age, producing two top young horses for Coolmore. Some saw their success as the beginning of a third phase in the Coolmore adventure – and their numbers can now be said to include O'Brien himself.

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