As Ireland’s most successful sportsperson celebrates a landmark birthday tomorrow. Darren Norris counts down Aidan O’Brien’s 50 greatest moments.
Every story has a beginning.
Aidan O’Brien’s began in Tralee 26 years ago when a four-year-old called Wandering Thoughts won a 12-runner handicap over seven furlongs at odds of 5-2 to give a then-unknown 23-year-old trainer his first winner on his first day as a licensed trainer. O’Brien was on his way.
While he has since become famous for his expert handling of impeccably-bred Flat horses, the early years of his career were defined by considerable success over jumps, O’Brien being crowned champion trainer five times in a row from the 93/94 season to the 97/98 campaign.
A particularly significant achievement came his way in the Galway Festival of 1995 when he became the first trainer to saddle a one-two-three in the Galway Plate, Life Of A Lord defeating Kelly's Pearl and Loshian.
Fast forward to 2017 and O’Brien is enjoying an utterly sensational season, even by his extraordinary standards. This was a campaign when his ability to find the right race for his horses was close to flawless.
This was seen to best effect with Roly Poly, a gutsy but somewhat limited filly who was placed so shrewdly that she contributed three Group 1 successes to O’Brien’s world record tally of 28.
O’Brien’s dominance of that 2017 season was never more in evidence than in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October.
His four runners filled the first places, U S Navy Flag, leading home stablemates Mendelssohn, Seahenge, and Threeandfourpence.
Dominance doesn’t come more total than that.
The Master of Ballydoyle has won the Irish Derby 13 times and counting but his most impressive success came in 2001 when Galileo followed up his Epsom triumph with a bloodless win at odds of just 4-11.
A four-length margin at the line only began to tell the tale of his superiority.
If Derby day at Epsom is the single most significant date on the Ballydoyle calendar, there’s little doubt Royal Ascot is the week that matters most to “the lads”, Coolmore chiefs John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith.
Success at the Flat equivalent of Cheltenham isn’t just desired, it’s demanded. And in O’Brien, they have the closest thing you can have to a guarantee of success.
Since winning the Coventry Stakes with Harbour Master in 1997, O’Brien has only twice (1998 and 2003) ended the week empty-handed, his most successful year coming in 2016 when he equalled the late Henry Cecil’s all-time record by saddling seven winners.
With his overall Royal Ascot record now standing at 70, it’s surely only a matter of time before he surpasses Cecil’s record of 75 and Michael Stoute’s haul of 81.
A feature of O’Brien’s genius is his ability to ready one for a big day. And for three-year-old colts, days don’t come much bigger than the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, a race contested on the first Saturday of May. Coming so early in the season, the Guineas is a huge challenge for trainers but it was one O’Brien mastered early, King Of Kings winning the 1998 renewal in the hands of Mick Kinane. Nine further successes have followed.
Shortly before the off in 1000 Guineas of 2014, Ballydoyle filly Tapestry was backed into 4-1 favouritism. Those who followed the money got their fingers burnt, the daughter of Galileo failing to beat a single rival.
She ran significantly better on her next two starts but it was still hard to see her losing run ending when she lined up against John Gosden’s Taghrooda in the Yorkshire Oaks on her fourth start of the season.
Having won the Epsom Oaks and the King George, Taghrooda was sent off the 1-5 favourite at York but surrendered her unbeaten record to Tapestry, the 8-1 outsider swooping late to snatch the spoils.
As it so often the case, Ballydoyle dominated this year’s Epsom Derby trials and Circus Maximus booked his ticket to Epsom when justifying favouritism in the Dee Stakes at Chester. However, his limitations were seemingly exposed when he could finish no better than sixth on the first Saturday in June.
Therefore it was quite the surprise when Circus Maximus was supplemented for the St James’s Palace Stakes over a mile at Royal Ascot. But the doubters were firmly silenced when Circus Maximus belied odds of 10-1 to fend off King Of Comedy’s late thrust.
Having spent the early part of his three-year-old campaign looking at the backside of Sea The Stars, Rip Van Winkle looked likely to remembered – if he would be remembered at all – as a nearly horse.
However, his adversary was not in opposition when Rip Van Winkle lined up in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and he took full advantage, winning with the authority of a top-class colt.
His final five unsuccessful runs may have tainted his legacy a tad but Churchill was a serious beast at his best, winning six races on the bounce, four at the highest level.
And though he may have done the Guineas double at a three-year-old, his most visually impressive display came as a juvenile when winning the National Stakes at the Curragh with the swagger of an absolute monster.
However, that would be last time Peeping Fawn would taste defeat, the Danehill filly winning her four subsequent starts, a Group 1 four-timer that included a three-and-a-half victory over Light Shift in the Irish Oaks.
Like Rip Van Winkle, Mastercraftsman found Sea The Stars an immovable object in 2009 but he still managed to prove himself a top-class operator in his own right, winning the Irish 2,000 Guineas in dominant style before digging deep to deny Delegator in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Having already completed a Guineas double, Winter was one of the bankers of the week when she lined up in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2017. And the grey didn’t disappoint, winning with the authority a 4-9 shot should.
She would go on to make if four Group 1s in as many months when scoring at Goodwood next time out.
Few horses provide a better example of O’Brien’s genius than Scorpion. To say the Montjeu colt was a bit tricky would be an understatement of epic proportions but O’Brien knew how to placate his headstrong charge, to the extent that he ended his career with three Group 1 successes on his CV, a big-race haul that included victory in the 2005 St Leger at Doncaster.
Merchant Navy was already established as a Group 1 sprinter when he arrived in Co Tipperary from Australia with a view to winning the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot last year.
And he did just that, winning by a short head before returning to Australia.
After his four runs as a three-year-old, it looked unlikely that Oratorio would be remembered as anything special.
But one of O’Brien’s great strengths is his knack for getting horses to suddenly take a huge leap forward and Oratorio did just that in the Coral-Eclipse of 2005, defying odds of 12-1 to beat Derby hero Motivator by half a length.
He proved that win was no fluke in the rematch, beating Motivator by the same margin in the Irish Champion Stakes.
His need for good ground meant he wasn’t seen as frequently as people wanted as a three-year-old but he was imperious in the early part of that 2015 season, completing the Guineas double before easing to victory in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
It all went spectacularly wrong as a three-year-old but Air Force Blue was some sight as a two-year-old, putting together a Group 1 hat-trick that suggested he could go on to become the best horse O’Brien ever trained. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
O’Brien is renowned for his handling of middle-distance horses but he’s no slouch when it comes to sprinters either and proved as much with his expert handling of Caravaggio.
Unbeaten in four starts as a juvenile, the Scat Daddy colt enjoyed his finest hour when beating the Godolphin pair of Harry Angel and Blue Point in a vintage renewal of the Commonwealth Cup in 2017.
A son of Japanese superstar Deep Impact, Saxon Warrior provided O’Brien with his 300th Group 1 winner on the Flat when winning last year’s 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in the hands of the trainer’s son, Donnacha. Things unravelled thereafter but that on that May day he was simply majestic.
Galileo had proven himself the dominant three-year-old of 2001 when he made the journey to Ascot to take on his elders in the King George.
Could he deliver against the big boys? That question was answered in emphatic fashion as Galileo put the five-year-old Fantastic Light firmly in his place in the style of a true champion.
A stayer with the class and pace to be placed in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Order Of St George enjoyed his finest hour when justifying 10-11 favouritism in the 2016 Ascot Gold Cup. He looked in trouble five furlongs from home but powered home in the hands of Ryan Moore.
Before Aidan O’Brien, there was Vincent O’Brien, the original Master of Ballydoyle. Though not related, both shared a genius for training horses. Indeed, Vincent was so good that he was twice crowned champion trainer of Britain, an achievement his namesake and successor at Ballydoyle emulated in 2001.
His current tally of British titles stands at seven. It seems safe to assume it won’t end there.
Every trainer needs a horse who catapults him or her to the big-time. Desert King was that horse for O’Brien. It was he who gave O’Brien his first Classic success, winning the Irish 2,000 Guineas in 1997.
A month later, the same horse provided O’Brien with his first Irish Derby success. He had arrived.
She may never have got the better of dual Arc heroine Enable but Magical was a serious talent in her own right, something she proved when winning the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown last month.
It may not have been the strongest Group 1 ever run but nobody would begrudge Magical her day in the sun.
Being by Galileo and out of Ouija Board, Australia was bred to win the Derby and he did just in 2014, justifying 11-8 favouritism in the hands of the trainer’s son, Joseph.
In obliging, Australia gave O’Brien a record-breaking third Derby winner in a row. Victory over his elders in the Juddmonte Stakes over a mile and a quarter confirmed his status as a top-class colt.
Another victim of Sea The Stars, Fame And Glory came into his own as a four-year-old in 2010, following up an emphatic victory in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh with another Group 1 success when getting the better of Sariska in the Coronation Cup.
When Ten Sovereigns reverted to sprinting after a failed attempt at staying a mile in this year’s 2000 Guineas, the expectation was he would get back in the winning groove on his return to six furlongs. However, when he failed to oblige in the Commonwealth Cup the doubters were out in force.
But the No Nay Never colt silenced the naysayers in the July Cup at Newmarket, turning the tables on Royal Ascot conqueror Advertise in devastating style.
Had Duke Of Marmalade been retired at the end of his three-year-old campaign, he wouldn’t be remembered as anything special.
However O’Brien and/or “the lads” took the view that he was worth persevering with and were rewarded with a stellar four-year-old campaign that saw Duke Of Marmalade win five Group 1s on the trot in 2008, the golden run completed with victory in the Juddmonte International.
A superstar in Australia, So You Think made the journey to Ballydoyle in March 2011. He won his first two races for his new boss but blotted his copybook when beaten by Rewilding in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot at prohibitive odds of 4-11.
However, true champions bounce back from adversary and So You Think proved he was such a beast when getting the better of 2010 Epsom Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown on his next start.
The Arc was a bridge too far earlier this month but Epsom Derby third Japan proved he was a colt of immense talent when getting the better of the admirable Crystal Ocean in the Juddmonte Stakes at York in August. Should he stay in training, further success at the top table seems likely in 2020.
Though Raven’s Pass eventually got his measure, Henrythenavigator dominated mile division in the early part of the 2008 season.
He got the better of subsequent Derby winner New Approach and Raven’s Pass to win the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket before following up in the Curragh equivalent.
Another victory over Raven’s Pass followed in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot before a glorious four-timer was completed when Henrythenavigator again saw off the same horse in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood.
Another slow-burner, Highland Reel looked an unlikely superstar throughout much of his three-year-old season, though he still ended that 2015 campaign a dual Group 1 winner.
However, the teak-tough, free-sweating son of Galileo got better as he got older, scoring three times at the highest level as a five-year-old, his finest hour arguably coming when winning the 2017 Prince Of Wales’s Stakes.
Like Scorpion, George Washington was a tricky customer, one who tested O’Brien’s horsemanship skills to the limit. But boy was he talented.
O’Brien knew this and handled the Danehill colt so shrewdly that the son of Danehill won both the 2000 Guineas and the Queen Elizabeth Stakes in 2006.
Like Galileo, High Chaparral completed the English and Irish Derby double and ended 2002 with victory the Breeders' Cup Turf, a title he retained – albeit in a dead-heat - 12 months later. However, he is probably best remembered for edging out Falbrav in the Irish Champion Stakes in 2003, a race that illustrated his iron will.
As mentioned earlier O’Brien’s early success came over obstacles and the horse who really revealed his trainer’s genius to the racing world was the great Istabraq.
A four-time Cheltenham Festival winner, his most visually impressive display came when winning his first Champion Hurdle in 1998, a stunning 12-length drubbing of stablemate Theatreworld.
A three-time winner of the Coronation Cup at Epsom, St Nicholas Abbey provided O’Brien with one of the sweetest successes of his career when winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in the hands of the-then 18-year-old Joseph in 2011.
At the time, Anne-Marie, the jockey’s mother and trainer’s wife, described this victory as the family’s proudest sporting moment.
When Rock Of Gibraltar got the better of his better-fancied stable companion Hawk Wing in the 2000 Guineas in 2002, the initial impression was the better horse, inconvenienced by being drawn in the wrong group, had lost.
However, the winner went on to complete a Guineas double when scoring at the Curragh before following up in Sussex and the Prix du Moulin. Far from being a lucky horse, Rock Of Gibraltar was simply a top-drawer one.
That 2000 Guineas reversal was one of four top-level races where Hawk Wing found one too good in 2002 and, though he got his day in the sun when winning that year’s Eclipse at Sandown, it wasn’t until he rocked at Newbury for the Lockinge in 2003 that the public got to see him at his devastating best.
Eleven lengths was the official winning margin after Hawk Wing produced an awesome display of sustained power.
The quality O'Brien admires most in horses is toughness and there was none tougher than Giant's Causeway. The Iron Horse won nine of his 13 starts and finished second in the other four.
The Coral-Eclipse in 2000 saw him at his tenacious best as he saw off Michael Stoute's Kalanisi by a head, a feat he repeated in the Juddmonte International at York later that season.
The National Stakes for two-year-olds often reveals future Classic winners. It proved thus in 1997 when 11-1 shot Desert King gave O'Brien a first Group success when digging deep to land the spoils in the hands of Walter Swinburn at the Curragh.
In doing so, the future Irish 2,000 Guineas and Irish Derby hero proved O'Brien could cut it at the top.
It takes a horse with a serious constitution to maintain its form through the rigours of a full Flat season.
Minging had both the necessary steel and the skill, something she showed time and again throughout the 2016 season.
A dual Group 1 as a two-year-old, she added five further top-level successes at three, a run of big-race success that included victory in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Investec Oaks at Epsom. She may well be remembered as the best filly O'Brien ever trained.
History was made in the 233rd running of the Epsom Derby in 2012 when Camelot, who had won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket a month earlier, powered to victory at odds of 8-13. It was Joseph O’Brien, then just 19, who did the steering and he showed nerves of steel to ensure he and his old man became the first father/son, trainer/jockey combination to land the most famous Classic of them all.
With the notable exception of the Melbourne Cup, there are few iconic Flat races that O’Brien has failed to plunder. However, the Arc, Europe’s most lucrative contest, was to prove a tough nut to crack. Genghis Khan, the 6-4 co-favourite, trailed in last in 1999, Milan was fifth in 2001 before High Chaparral finished third in both 2002 and 2003.
A year later 100-1 outsider Acropolis finished fourth while Scorpion could finish no better than 10th in 2005. O’Brien didn’t even have a runner in Paris in 2006 but it all came right in 2006 when Dylan Thomas held off the fast-finishing Youmzain in the hands of Kieren Fallon. The itch had finally been scratched.
Getting Yeats right for the 2006 Ascot Gold Cup having not run for 242 days has to rank as one of O’Brien’s finest training feats. The 7-1 shot didn’t just win that day, he cruised to victory.
But that was merely the beginning of the story. He retained his crown 12 months later before completing the hat-trick in 2008. And then, he went where no horse had went before and won a fourth in 2009, a truly staggering achievement.
While O’Brien would almost certainly not agree, not all of his seven Derby winners were great horses. However, nobody could argue against the merits of his first Epsom hero. Galileo was electrifying in winning the 2001 Derby in the hands of Mick Kinane and went on to win Irish equivalent and the King George.
He was a truly great horse but it is his phenomenal exploits as a stallion that has ensured he will leave lasting legacy on the sport. Nobody is more aware than O’Brien of the thanks he owes a horse who has passed on his ability and extraordinary determination to his offspring.
After his tour de force in the Champion Hurdle of 1998, Istrabraq wasn’t quite as superior in 1999 but those who backed him at prohibitive odds of 4-9 never had any real cause for concern. Victory gave the son of Sadler’s Wells the chance to become only the fifth horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times.
An 11th-hour trickle of blood from the champion’s nose only added to tension ahead of his date with destiny but Istabraq wasn’t to be denied, crossing the line four lengths clear of Hors La Loi III. Had the 2001 Cheltenham Festival not been cancelled due to foot and mouth, Istabraq would probably have won the race for an unprecedented fourth time. No matter, his greatness was well established by then. As indeed was that of his trainer.
When Found lined up for the 2016 Arc, she did so having finished second in her five previous starts, a sequence that must have even tested the patience of her famously unflappable trainer.
But if ever there was a day to go one better, this was it and Found did just that at Chantilly, responding willingly to every Ryan Moore request.
Victory was impressive in itself but what made this an extraordinary achievement was the fact her closest pursuers were stablemates Highland Reel and Order Of St George, the first time in the great race’s storied history that first three home had been trained by the same man.
“You dream about winning but this is something you can’t even dream about,” he said in the aftermath. “It’s beyond a dream.” Rarely were truer words spoken.
Though Frankel, a horse ironically sired by Galileo, was to prove an unstoppable force for Ballydoyle and everyone else over the course of three dominant seasons at the start of this decade, the 2017 season would see O’Brien surpass the trainer after whom the unbeaten champion was named.
In 2003, American trainer Bobby Frankel set a world-record tally of 25 Group 1 wins in a calendar year, a staggering tally that could only have been eclipsed by a true genius. But O’Brien falls into that category and when Rhododendron made it four top-level wins in 24 hours by winning the Prix de l’Opera on Arc day, there was inevitably about what was to transpire.
And so it proved as O’Brien eclipsed Frankel when Saxon Warrior landed the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. Two further Group 1 successes in 2017 would bring his final tally to 28. Though his famous humility would never allow him admit it publicly, O’Brien must have known he had achieved something utterly exceptional.