In a remarkable year, primarily for the wrong reasons, one of the least remarkable results of 2020 came on Saturday at Epsom when Aidan O’Brien saddled the winner of the Derby.
It was an eighth win in the race for the Ballydoyle maestro, more than any other trainer in history. That’s eight wins in the past 20 runnings, and two more than Vincent O’Brien, who paved the way of success for the Ballydoyle and Coolmore operations out of Rosegreen, Co Tipperary.
But, in keeping with the strange circumstances of the year, this horse came from relative obscurity. Second to last in a Galway maiden on his only start last season, he was a touch disappointing on his first start this season and was still a maiden until a week before Epsom.
Impressive he may have been on Irish Derby Day at the Curragh, but it was a bold decision by O’Brien to step him up to Group 1 company just seven days earlier.
The naysayers will argue it is all being handed to O’Brien. He has the backing of the biggest breeding operation in the world, and only bluebloods pass the security gates in Ballydoyle. And, yes, he had six of the 16 runners in Saturday’s race, but in any year three of those, based on form, would be more than worthy of their place in the race.
That the race was won from the front by a relatively unconsidered outsider says more about the race than the winner. As Pádraig Beggy will attest, having won the race aboard O’Brien’s 40-1 chance Wings Of Eagles – one of six for team Ballydoyle in the 2017 running - the price does not matter: If you’re aboard an O’Brien runner, you go there with a horse primed to take its chance.
Thirty-year-old Emmet McNamara, son of trainer Eric, was the man benefiting from the genius of O’Brien on this occasion. He controlled the race from the front on a willing partner, fit and fresh despite running a week before.
O’Brien readily, and perhaps a touch tediously, acknowledges he is in a privileged position now, but you will never hear him admit he has earned it.
O’Brien served his time, proved himself a cut above from the very start, and has maintained that appetite to train winners for close on 30 years. For a man of great intensity and a pride in attention to detail in all aspects of his professional life, it is inapt that his first winner, at Tralee in 1993, was a horse called Wandering Thoughts.
A first Classic came less than four years later, when Classic Park led home a one-two in the 1997 Irish 1000 Guineas, and the second came 24 hours later when Desert King won the 2000 Guineas. The very same year, Desert King became the first of 14 Irish Derby winners, to date.
It was a sign of things to come, and the Classic winners keep on flowing: 82 and counting in Ireland and Britain, not to mention all the Group and Grade Ones around the world.
O’Brien’s first Epsom Derby might have been the seminal one, the great Galileo back in 2001, a horse who has since sired five winners of the race, three of them trained by O’Brien. He has formed the backbone of the current Coolmore operation, just as his sire, Sadler’s Wells, did before him. But, without a genius at the helm to get the best out of them, where would they be?
Lest his legacy not already be assured, yesterday afternoon, when Fancy Blue won the Prix de Diane, the French equivalent of the Oaks, son Donnacha O’Brien became the third member of the family to train a Classic winner.