SUPERMAN WITH THE MIDAS TOUCH

11 November 2001

Brough Scott charts Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien’s supersonic journey from obscurity to champion

Clark Kent needed a telephone box to turn himself into Superman. Aidan O’Brien doesn’t even take his glasses off. Soon he’ll be teaching his horses to fly.

He’s certainly got the running sorted. In his native Ireland, this softly spoken 32-year-old tops the trainers’ table for the fifth consecutive year; his £3,427,545 prize- money total being a mere £1,500,000 ahead of the redoubtable Dermot Weld, his nearest rival. While another £3,389,908 earned by his horses over here puts him a cool million clear of runner-up Sir Michael Stoute.

Two weeks ago at Belmont, he added another £630,000 to this not inconsiderable total when St Leger winner Milan ran a gallant second to Fantastic Light in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and then the brilliant two-year-old Johannesburg whipped America’s best in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to become favourite for next year’s Kentucky Derby. In all, the famous Ballydoyle stable, in Tipperary, has logged an unbettered 22-strong set of victories at Group One level this year, with Epsom Derby hero Galileo the star turn among seven European Classics; not bad for a trainer who has also knocked off the last three Champion Hurdles with at Cheltenham with Istabraq.

The greatest compliment you can pay him about this year’s success is to say that, in hindsight, it seems inevitable. Believe me, it need not have been. In March of ’96 I went to see him at his then Piltown base, halfway up a mountain in County Kilkenny. He was already a phenomenon, having taken over the stable from his father-in-law, Joe Crowley, and his own wife, Anne Marie, and in three full seasons topped the jump list each time. In 1995 he recorded an accumulated Flat and jump total of no fewer than 242 winners. The farmer’s son from County Wexford had always been serious about horses. He had thrived under the ultimate taskmaster Jim Bolger, at Coolcullen. He had raced against Ann Marie on the way to becoming a hard-hitting amateur champion rider. The commitment was there. But what about the wisdom?

He was lean, quiet and very focused, just like the 10-horse squad he was preparing to try and break his duck at Cheltenham. From 7.30 until 9.30 it was all uphill hustle with these tough and battle-hardened jumpers. It was a million miles from the manicured serenity and the fragile young minds and limbs of the million dollar two-year-olds at Ballydoyle across the river in Tipperary. But at 9.45, that’s exactly where he drove to.

Fifteen years ago Robert Sangster hired Britain’s jump racing genius, Michael Dickinson, to operate his wonderfully-ambitious Flat racing project at Manton. It didn’t last a season.

John Magnier has long been acknowledged as having the coolest and cutest brain in the thoroughbred firmament. The son-in-law of Ballydoyle’s legendary creator, Vincent (absolutely no relation) O’Brien, Magnier had masterminded Sangster’s stallion-making boom with the likes of The Minstrel, Alleged, and El Gran Senor in the Seventies and Eighties.

Coolmore Stud had become the first truly global breeding operation, apparently above the passing storms in the economic weather. But with Vincent finally retired, to pick a 26-year-old to rush in part-time when his main job was over, seemed the most un-Magnier like thing to do. Some of us prissily clucked our tongues and waited for the fall-out.

It cannot have been easy but Desert King won Ireland’s top two-year-old race that year and in 1997 he took their 2,000 Guineas and Derby to top the table. In 1998 King of Kings came over to win our 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and the new O’Brien legend seemed on the way. Yet a month later, when King of Kings and two other Ballydoyle runners got very publicly stuck in traffic on the way to Epsom before running abysmally in the Derby, there was an element of rushed-naivety about the arrangements, which left at least one of the top stables curling their lips in disapproval. Once again we watchers wondered.

But Magnier was backing his man. “What attracted me,” he says, choosing the words as carefully as he studies a pedigree in the sales ring, “was how Aidan trained lots and lots of winners from ordinary horses when he started. That was a very good sign. And,” John added with typical approval of the publicity-shy ethos established by the new master of Ballydoyle, “he still wears the same size of hat.”

Today the head inside the hat is having to cope with 150 of the most expensive, carefully chosen young stock that any trainer has ever had led out before him. Last summer I rode out on Glyndebourne, a handsome son of Galileo’s sire Sadlers Wells, who a month later finished second to Sinndar in the Irish Derby. It was a gorgeous morning, rooks calling in the trees, the sun shining on the distant green-clad Galtee Mountains, Alex Ferguson was a guest beside Aidan in the Jeep. The trainer was quiet, but not content.

For, every bit as much as Ferguson, he has an operation for which winning trophies is not optional. Magnier and his partner Michael Tabor have amassed funds which can actually outbid the Sheikhs at the Sales. Classic victories and stud value are what the trainer is paid to deliver and the way Aidan has approached the challenge is to narrow his responsibilities not widen them. Vincent O’Brien created and was in charge of all the developments at Ballydoyle. Today Sir Michael Stoute would be the utterly-dominating centrepiece of the currently most effective single-person training operation in the world. But for Aidan, the buying, selling, even the most simple glad-handing is to be avoided whenever possible. He is head coach, not manager.

When the triumphant team had dinner at The Cashel Palace on the night of Galileo’s Derby, Aidan stayed just for a bowl of soup before heading home to Anne Marie and the four children. At Belmont, after the Breeders’ Cup, a taxi was ticking in the car park so that he could race to the overnight plane at JFK and be back on the gallops at Ballydoyle by 8 o’clock next morning.

The plain, but well-appointed family bungalow at the bottom of the gallops is his absolute sanctuary, the gilded training track his workbench. Out there, for all his softly spoken, christian name civility, he can be ruthless to the point of destruction. But this season in particular the top horses have lasted right through the year. It is because the coach cares.

It is about focus. After Glyndebourne had given me that golden canter last summer, we filed past the trainer and for a brief moment those glasses homed in as hard as any Superman laser throw. “He seems fine,” says Aidan. Yes, Clark Kent has X-ray eyes.

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