There’s is no sense of joy, just palpable relief

HANDS clasped tightly, resting uneasy on his knees, mouth tight-lipped, downturned, and eyes unfocused, gazing into oblivion.

Aidan O’Brien cuts a solemn figure at the post-race press conference. Not the demeanour one expects of a man who has just trained his seventh consecutive Irish Derby winner — his tenth in total.

Under questioning he releases his hands, rubs them nervously on his thighs, answers courteously and honestly, and then reverts to an apparent state of trance. There’s no sense of joy, just palpable relief — the pressure, one suspects, of training multi-million pound thoroughbreds expected to perform on this stage.

And in Camelot, the three-year-old colt that has just galloped to a third Classic victory after his successes in the Newmarket 2000 Guineas and Epsom Derby, he has a horse that has carried him to the verge of immortality.

“He’s the best we’ve ever dealt with. There’s no doubt about that,” says the man who has been the educator of such equine luminaries as Galileo, High Chaparral, Rock Of Gibraltar and Hawk Wing, to name but a few.

But the inclement weather of last week provided thoroughly testing underfoot conditions — the type to leave their mark on a horse long beyond a mile and a half — and O’Brien was reluctant to allow this special horse go to post.

Much of the day, he admits, had been spent agonising over the pros and cons of running the unbeaten son of the late Montjeu. There was more than Saturday to think about. But the decision was ultimately taken out of his hands.

“It was a very brave decision,” admits O’Brien. “Joseph [O’Brien, jockey] always thought soft ground was a big problem for him. He’s a real good-moving, good-ground horse. It’s all credit to John [Magnier, part-owner], Michael [Tabor] and Derrick [Smith] for letting it happen. I have to say I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it.

“It was tough going out there and I’m very relieved it’s worked out. Joseph said his wheels were spinning all the way. We put him to a test today — we put him to a test with the floor moving. It was a very difficult thing to do. I can’t tell you how delighted we are.”

But O’Brien was looking to the future. The Ballydoyle maestro is just 14 furlongs away from becoming the first trainer to win all five English Classics in the same season and if, on September 15, Camelot is the colt to give him a fourth Doncaster St Leger, his trainer will have reason for double delight.

For now, O’Brien lives and works in the shadow of another true great: Nijinsky, the last Triple Crown winner, trained by former Ballydoyle boss Vincent O’Brien.

“We have a statue of Nijinsky inside the gates in Ballydoyle and he looks at us going in and out every day,” says O’Brien. “We always dreamed that some day we would have a horse that could be a statue at the other side.”

And that will have weighed heaviest on his mind before sending Camelot out on the rain soaked plains of the Curragh. On this occasion, it came off.

Can the same be said of the decision to move the Derby meeting from its familiar Sunday sitting to a Saturday evening?

At first announcement, there was a sense of disappointment that in the land of the thoroughbred, the premier race of the flat racing calendar could not holds its own. But the move was neither offensive nor ill-conceived.

Up until 1995 the Epsom Derby was run on a Wednesday — a day or date of no historical significance save that at some stage during the late 1830s it fitted in with the local railway timetables. But for all the furore surrounding that switch, it now sits nicely into a Saturday slot more akin to hosting horse racing.

For many years, attendances at the Irish Derby meeting have battled against the superior attraction of Gaelic games, often clashing with matches involving the track’s own county, Kildare, and nearest neighbour Dublin.

For that reason alone, the decision was something of a no-brainer and one widely accepted by the bookmakers. “At least they’re doing something,” was the layers’ reaction. Thorough commendation from these quarters.

I daren’t ask what they thought of the drafting of Ronan Keating to attract and entertain younger race-goers with a free, post-meeting concert.

During the Celtic Tiger the bookmakers’ boards stretched all the way down past the capacious stands to the position of the temporarily erected bandstand which, on this evening, would host the former Boyzone singer.

Contrarily, I found some solace in the fact that the crowd of 22,311 was up just 500 on last year. Evidence, perhaps, that Mr Keating’s appeal may also have peaked when that particular feline was still a cub.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox