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A Living Legend in the Hall of Fame

We could run the numbers, as they say. What they will tell us is that Aidan O’Brien has dominated racing both in his home country of Ireland and its nearest neighbour, where he will this Saturday be inducted into the QIPCO British Horseracing Hall of Fame.

It doesn’t end there, of course. He is known and revered around the world, his tally of 419 Group or Grade 1 winners (including National Hunt) having also been chalked up in America, Australia, Canada, Dubai, France, Hong Kong and Italy.

No other trainer benefits from such a tantalizing supply of equine talent; it is not merely a stream that never runs dry, more an apparently bottomless well. Those bluebloods are either bred or selected at the sales by the group which has become known as “The Lads”. John Magnier is at the head of that group. His sons MV and Tom also now play leading roles in Coolmore’s European and Australian ventures respectively, while the key partners in the most powerful owner-breeder cohort in racing’s history are Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Georg von Opel, and Peter Brant. Significant partnerships have also been made with the Sangster and Niarchos families over the years.


O’Brien’s is a job which may well be the envy of many of his counterparts in the training ranks. But it carries with it the burden of ensuring that a significant number of those smart yearlings that arrive at Ballydoyle each year leave there several seasons later as top-drawer stable and broodmare prospects. Pedigree is a given, but it must be backed up by performance, and any failure in the vital cog that is the training process weakens the entire machine. In this regard, the trainer rarely misses a beat.

In considering how O’Brien came to be the lynchpin of this operation – and to hold on to the job for half of his life – it is perhaps best to start at home, a place he is doubtless loath to leave other than to go racing .

“You have to see it if you want to feel it,” he says in the midst of counting down to the Guineas and the unleashing of the horse whose return is hotly anticipated this Saturday: City Of Troy (Justify).

“The Classics are the ultimate test of a pedigree, really, and always have been for the Thoroughbred generations gone by. So I suppose you’re always trying to breed a horse that’s going to mature early, and one that’s going to be able to get a mile-plus. That’s what the Thoroughbred pedigree is built on.”

It’s important for the Thoroughbred breed that Flat horses can
run fast early, and that they can cover distance

O’Brien continues, “They all come in and obviously you’re hoping that they’re going to be mature, but they’re all different. So I suppose you’re feeling your way every day. That’s why I suppose the difficult part about it is you have to be here every day because you have to see it if you want to feel it. You need every hour in the day to do that every single day because the window is very short, because really the Classic horse has to perform at two and three. It’s very hard to ask them to compete at three if they haven’t had a season of training at two.

“Sometimes it happens. But commercially they have to perform at two and three and it’s important for the Thoroughbred breed that Flat horses can run fast early, and that they can cover distance. This is probably the ultimate test of soundness. It’s like any herd animal in the wild. The weak will get weeded out and then the herd will get stronger.”

A trainer retiring after a long and illustrious career would doubtless be content in the knowledge that they had been champion trainer 26 times in Ireland and six times in Britain. That they had won 43 British Classics, 50 in Ireland and 13 in France. That they had once been responsible for the first three home in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and had won that great race twice, not to mention 18 Breeders’ Cup races. But the worrying element for O’Brien’s rivals is that, at 54, he is still very much in his prime. Those record books that he has already torn to shreds will likely need several revisions before he decides to don his slippers and put his feet up.

His obsession – and it is fair to call it that, for all involved in sport must yield to obsessive tendencies to succeed – began at his family home in Co Wexford, where his father Denis and mother Stella had horses and ponies as a sideline to their main business of farming.

“My dad and mum always had a few point-to-pointers and an odd horse would run on the track,” he recalls. “My dad always probably had difficult horses. He was a small farmer but always had difficult horses to re-break and re-train. It was ponies before that. People used to send him ponies to get them going and that’s where we started off. The ponies were always troublesome, obviously. I suppose that’s what my mum and dad made their living from, on the side of a small farm.”

It tends to be the troublesome ones that teach riders and trainers more than the easy ones. With that grounding, perhaps sometimes literally, it wasn’t long before the young O’Brien set out on the path that would lead him to the gates of the fabled Ballydoyle at the age of just 26.

He worked briefly on the Curragh for PJ Finn, before Finn’s assistant trainer Pat Kelly found him a job with Jim Bolger. An exacting taskmaster and training legend in his own right, Bolger shares O’Brien’s meticulous eye for a horse and abstinence from alcohol.

“I was very young at the time, and Christy Roche was Jim’s main rider,” says O’Brien of his Coolcullen days. “When we started training, Christy came and rode for us, so we would’ve learned an awful fate from him.”

Joseph, Sarah, Annemarie, Donnacha, Ana and Aidan O’Brien | Racing photos

It was around this time that he encountered the woman who would become his wife, and it will come as no surprise to hear that O’Brien didn’t meet Annemarie in a Dublin nightclub. Instead, entirely appropriately for one of racing’s power couples, their eyes met as they circled at the start ahead of riding against each other in a bumper. He doesn’t mention who had the upper hand in that particular race, but Annemarie had a head start on her future husband as a trainer. She succeeded her father Joe Crowley to train at Owning Hill and remains the only woman to have been crowned Champion National Hunt trainer (Annemarie’s sister Frances Crowley was runner-up in the Irish championship to Willlie Mullins in 2000/01).

Recalling their first meeting, O’Brien says, “I rode as an amateur for Jim and would’ve learned an awful fate there from him. Then when I was riding a horse for Jim one day, I met Annemarie at the start of a race in Galway and we started going out together.”

Simple, really. No need for dating apps in those analogue days.

He continues, “I got a fall on the gallop one day in Jims’s and I broke my shoulder. At that time I went to help Annemarie because she was training by then and I suppose then I ended up never going back to Jim really after that.

“Annemarie’s dad was training first as a permit-holder, and then with a license, and he was a massive influence as well. Then Annemarie took over the training but when Joseph was born, Annemarie said that we would change the license to my name and it just worked on the same as always.

“We trained there for four or five years, and then we got approached by Paul Shanahan for John Magnier, who asked would we be interested in leasing Ballydoyle for a couple of seasons. At the time we had an overflow of horses so it suited us to go to Ballydoyle.

“So we ran Ballydoyle for a year or two and then John said to us we would be interested in just training his own horses. That’s how it happened. Then Michael Tabor came in with John, and John gave JP McManus a present of a horse called Thats My Man, to be trained by us. So that’s how we met JP, and he obviously would’ve been a big influence, as well as Christy, about us coming to Ballydoyle full time, rather than just being a tenant.”

Asked if he knew whether he was being tested for the main job during his initial foray as lease-holder, he replies, “I’ve known John for 30 years now and what I’ve always found of him is that he sees a long way into the future, more than anybody I’ve ever known. I never asked him or spoke to him about it, but every decision that he makes, it’s always very calculated and a lot of thought goes into it.”

O’Brien was of course by that stage already a successful trainer and a multiple champion in the National Hunt sphere. Magnier’s instinct that he could convert to the Flat and return Ballydoyle to the glorious days of the long tenure of his own father-in-law, Vincent O’Brien, was not only quickly vindicated, but continues to be.

Despite his own long run of success in the stable, O’Brien routinely refers deferentially not just to John and Sue Magnier, but also Michael and Doreen Tabor, Derrick and Gay Smith, Peter and Stephanie Brant, and Georg and Emily von Opel, name -checking them as metronomically as he does his team of riders and grooms.

“They’re all involved,” he says. “Everyone is getting all the information rapidly every day, then they’re all communicating among themselves and they come up with a plan. Then John tells us what he is feeling and what he thinks. We always know the direction that we would like to go in. We don’t ever question that because the information is out there for everyone to see, and we always understand why the decisions are made if they are made. Then we follow the plan the best we can.”

We try to go to bed late at night when we have good days
and go to bed early when we have bad days

Teamwork, then, though it is his name on the license and it will remain in the annals of racing history, in the Hall of Fame and beyond. But O’Brien is plainly uncomfortable with the suggestion that he is a hero to many who follow the sport, and that modesty appears to be genuine.

“I don’t think too much about anything really,” he says. “I take it day by day. Obviously, our little ones were all reared in it, and now they’re all grown up and they’re all gone. So it all happens very quickly, really. It’s hard to believe that it’s this long but, no, I definitely couldn’t have ever dreamed about it really. It’s incredible. But listen, it’s all about an awful lot of people all together, and we were very lucky to be able to work with them all the way along.”

He doesn’t cite too many racing heroes of his own either and, when pressed, nominates the horse whose first Derby winner he would end up training and whose name, Galileo, would remain intrinsically linked with his own.

He says “Going back, I don’t remember too much about racing when I was young, other than going to point-to-points with my dad and mum, but probably the first thing I would remember, funnily enough, was the Coolmore brochures. That would’ve been as a very young child. Sadler’s Wells would’ve been a big influence for me getting those brochures as a young child and looking through them and looking at the pictures.

“Obviously, then, Dr O’Brien would’ve been in those brochures and Sadler’s Wells was one of the horses that always stuck out in my mind. I suppose Shergar was always another one. Shergar was such an unbelievable horse, trained by Sir Michael (Stoute), and I would’ve remembered Sir Henry (Cecil), and all those people, as a very young child.”

In one sentence he has named the only other three trainers to have preceded him in being inducted into the British Horseracing Hall of Fame, which was launched in 2021. Since then he has passed the landmark of 4,000 wins, notched in grand style by Henry Longfellow (Ire) in last year’s G1 National S. at the Curragh, some four months after Luxembourg (Ire) had become his 400th Group/Grade 1 winner in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.

“There are so many special days. We don’t take any of them for granted, we appreciate every one of them,” he says. “Then the reality is when you go to bed that night, it’s gone. So we try to go to bed late at night when we have good days and go to bed early when we have bad days.”

Of his coronation as a Hall of Famer, he adds, “We feel privileged and over the moon. As you know, we’re a small part of a big team of a lot of people. I’m very grateful to be the small part that we are and we feel so honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as all those special people. We’re so grateful to QIPCO, to Sheikh Fahad and his family, and to the British Champions Series.”

O’Brien will have other things on his mind come Saturday, but he will be presented with his commemorative medallion at Newmarket before racing starts. Then it’s up to City Of Troy to ensure that his trainer stays up late that night.