Turf Account

Racing’s greatest-ever trainer

Stephen Pollard says Aidan O’Brien is racing’s greatest-ever trainer

Nothing beats cricket for sporting statistics. I love it when the announcer declares: “This has been the highest fifth wicket stand for Sri Lanka at Trent Bridge between two left-handers whose mothers were called Priya” or such like, and everyone applauds.

But it’s even better when someone is so far ahead of his peers that statistics are simply a battering ram with which to express that superiority. Which brings us to Aidan O’Brien.

When Auguste Rodin won the Derby on 3 June, it was the Irish trainer’s ninth win in the Epsom classic. No modern trainer has come close (though Lester Piggott rode eight winners). His first, Galileo in 2001, was perhaps the most influential of all, as the horse went on to be the leading global sire and transform the bloodstock industry.

But even that doesn’t properly describe O’Brien’s dominance of the five British classics (the 1000 and 2000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby and St Leger) since his first win with King Of Kings in the 1998 2000 Guineas. O’Brien has since won 42 classics and he is still only 53. Sir Henry Cecil , regarded by many as the greatest trainer of the last century, was hailed as a genius for managing 25 classic wins in a career that ran from 1975 to 2011 (when the legendary Frankel won the 2000 Guineas).

But it’s not only about the classics. In 2017, O’Brien broke the record for the number of Group 1s (the highest calibre races) in a season by one trainer, sending out 28 winners. In May, Luxembourg’s win at The Curragh brought his total of Group 1 wins to 400.

He has been champion trainer in Ireland every year since 1999. And despite having relatively few runners in Britain, and only in the fiercely competitive big races, he was also British champion trainer in in 2001, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2016 and 2017.

Idiotically, the reaction of some people is to point out, dismissively, that he is in effect the private trainer to the Coolmore breeding operation, which gives him an annual supply of much of the world’s most enviable bloodstock. Well, yes. But in some ways that magnifies his achievements. The pressure on him to deliver is way beyond anything any other trainer has had to deal with — not least because of the bar he has set for himself.

Ballydoyle was an ordinary Tipperary farm when Vincent O’Brien, his unrelated namesake, realised in 1950 that its natural contours lend themselves to the perfect gallops.

Drainage and limestone enabled a good covering of grass, making a surface safe enough for thoroughbreds to let themselves go in training. Vincent O’Brien then spent 15 years adding a peat cushion to the gallops.

John Magnier, the brains behind the Coolmore stud, bet the farm on Aidan O’Brien’s talent when he handed him the keys to the yard. He has said that Ballydoyle today is “the culmination of 70 years of input from two of the world’s greatest racing brains allied to investment on an unparalleled scale.”

The measure of Aidan O’Brien is not just the scale of his achievements but the manner of them. Take Auguste Rodin. Even as a two-year-old, O’Brien was telling everyone the horse was exceptional and last winter he was open about aiming him at the Triple Crown, of the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger, the ultimate achievement for a three-year-old — a feat not achieved since Nijinsky in 1970 (which was itself the first time since 1935).

The 2000 Guineas in May was a disaster and Auguste Rodin trailed in last. Most trainers would have packed the horse away and wondered what on earth to do. O’Brien insisted he would be ready for the Derby four weeks later. And he was. It was one of the most remarkable training performances ever.

O’Brien, typically, deflected the praise to “the most special horse we’ve had at Ballydoyle” (some accolade) and his team — his self-effacement is a standing joke. But really, this is about Aidan O’Brien who, it’s not hyperbole to acknowledge, is the greatest ever.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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