Aidan O’Brien cut a supremely relaxed figure yesterday morning as he hosted the launch of the new Irish Flat racing season, which gets under way at Naas on Sunday.
Some of his established and potential stars went through what he described as “maintenance work” up the Ballydoyle gallops that have conditioned some of the greatest thoroughbreds the world has ever seen.
The champion trainer, who regained his world record for Group 1 wins last year when his phenomenal tally of 28 bettered Bobby Frankel’s mark of 25, filled in the gaggle of media on his plans for a slew of his charges, with a bid for a first ever Kentucky Derby by Mendelssohn high in the list of early priorities.
In the process, he unveiled little insights into his attention to detail and more than that, his absolute fascination with the horse.
“Sometimes you learn very quick and sometimes you take a long time,” he asserts with an enthusiasm that makes it obvious that solving different puzzles is of far more interest to him than if his charges were identical automatons.
“We always believe there’s a key to every horse. Sometimes you run out of time and don’t find the key. Sometimes you get the key very quick. Learn their distance, what work they like, whether they need to be lighter or heavier, whether they need to be very fit or not very fit. Just because they’re fit, you mightn’t see their best performance. It’s a very strange thing with Flat horses. It’s to get the key to them.”
Even when you think you have, you can’t become glib.
“When you’re training horses, you have a plan – A, B, C, D. But after A, the plan could go completely different because you’ve seen something you didn’t know before and it can change totally and you have to be prepared to change.”
And collating information from losing isn’t just a cliché trotted out by losers.
“You do your best and when you fail, you try and learn what you could do better the next time.”
He has had a wonderful record with fillies recently, Found in particular proving remarkably durable and finishing 2016 as Champion Older Horse after leading home O’Brien’s historic 1-2-3 in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
“We’re gentle with them. We mind them. Often with colts you have to chase them a little bit and colts might take a little bit more discipline than fillies, whereas fillies respond to kindness. If they’re enjoying life they will race often and will perform but they’ll be having a very nice time at home.”
The relationship between man and beast is pivotal.
“Emotionally it can be very good for a person to be working with a horse because horses can be very sensitive to human beings and they can get a great response.
“I see some people here and their horses are nearly like their pets. When you meet them in the morning, they mightn’t always want to see another human being but they’re very happy to see their pets.
“If you want to know what someone’s personality is really like, you put them on a horse for three weeks or a month and that horse will develop the personality of the person that’s riding him. If the person riding is grumpy, the horse becomes grumpy. If the rider is happy, the horse becomes very happy.
“So we try to put a grumpy person with a happy horse (to get the influence the other way!) It’s a very strange thing with horses. They do really respond to human beings and human beings respond to them.”
This is what gets his juices flowing more than almost anything. All that is above his love of the horse is his family, and he makes no bones about how his daughter Ana’s recovery from a horrific catalogue of injures that included fractures to the C1 vertebra in her neck, the T5 and T6 vertebrae in her back, the base of her skull, her right eye socket, right cheekbone and jaw, following a fall in Killarney last July, trumped any of his glorious triumphs of 2017.
“Nothing else mattered. All the stuff we do every day… we work so we can have enough money so we can feed ourselves and stay alive, but really, it’s all only ‘stuff’. It doesn’t matter. What happened Ana, it could have been just total… you know what I mean? We were just so lucky. The alternative was terrible
“When you go to that place, it just puts everything (into context).”
Rhododendron is an intended runner at Naas on Sunday but with 20 millimetres of rain forecast between now and then, her seasonal bow may be postponed. O’Brien is a huge fan of the track however and the impact it has made since taking up the slack in the Flat programme while the Curragh undergoes its facelift.
“It’s an incredible facility. It’s brilliant that people are that proactive for us in racing in Ireland; people that are not afraid to push out the boat and do these things. The reality is to be competitive all over the world, we have to have those facilities for people to go racing and horses to go to race.”
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