AIDAN O’Brien spent almost two hours giving evidence at the Labour Court in Dublin on Monday. The trainer appeared on behalf of Ballydoyle Racing Stables, which is appealing a compliance notice served by the Workplace Relations Committee [WRC] over alleged infringements of the Working Time Act at the Co Tipperary yard.
Mr O’Brien spoke passionately about his interest in the welfare of Ballydoyle staff and of the workers’ commitment to the horses they cared for. “Some of them are so attached to their horses that they want to report for work on their days off,” he said. “It would be offensive to refuse them. At Ballydoyle we want to comply with all the legislation and we always put people first. All I want is the flexibility to be able to allow people to come in and look after their horses if they want.”
The trainer spent most of his time on the stand answering questions from Noel Travers, senior counsel for the WRC. Mr Travers asked Mr O’Brien why Ballydoyle could not employ more exercise riders so that staff were not required a seven-day week, with just a day and a half off every fortnight.
Mr O’Brien replied that continuity of care was very important in dealing with high-performance thoroughbreds and the feedback received from exercise riders was vital. He said he took great care in assigning a groom and rider to each horse, matching the employees’ personalities with the horses’ behavioural traits.
The trained accepted that occasionally changes of groom and rider were unavoidable but that this increased the likelihood of an accident. “It’s all about knowing your partner. The relationship between a rider and a horse is almost telepathic. It takes a lot of the danger out of it. The risk of an accident becomes much greater if you change the people involved.”
O’Brien also emphasised the close links between Ballydoyle and Coolmore where, it is understood, there are no issues over employee working hours. He said Ballydoyle was a vital link in the chain, receiving the raw materials from Coolmore and returning the elite performers as stallions and broodmares of huge value.
Sylvia Doyle, the employers’ representative on the three-person panel hearing the case, also put questions to Mr O’Brien. After she had established that no horse breeding or livery takes place at Ballydoyle, Ms Doyle put it to the trainer that it was a health and safety risk to have an employee looking after horses who had worked up to four weeks without a day off. Mr O’Brien agreed that rest periods were vital and indicated that the employee being referred to was a special case, a person who lived on-site and had specifically asked to be allowed work every day. "This is her whole life and asking her to stay at home was like putting her in jail," he said.
When told that he was in breach of the law, the trainer said he is now complying with the legislation but now receives phone-calls from partners of employees who tell him how upset the staff are at being prevented from working.
Also addressing the health and safety issue, panel member Jerry Shanahan informed the trainer that the Working Time Act is there to protect employees. “There is a requirement on everyone, no matter what their industry is, to comply,” he said. “You have been served with compliance notices instructing you to reconcile your business with the legislation. This is regardless of what your staff want or don’t want to do. This is what the law says.”
Earlier Mr O'Brien told the court that his motto was "family first" and he always acceded to requests for time off whenever possible. He said it was not unusual for exercise riders to ask if they could accompany 'their' horses to the races, and he often accommodated them on Ballydoyle's private plane.
The hearing will conclude on Tuesday and a verdict is expected within three weeks. It is thought likely that Ballydoyle will appeal any adverse finding to a higher court.
MORE ON THE STORY IN THE IRISH FIELD NEXT WEEKEND