AIDAN O’Brien has never been one to look back. In attempting to get into the minds of at least a couple of hundred horses at Ballydoyle each season, it makes sense that his laser-like focus is constantly beamed on the present and future, as opposed to dwelling on what has come before.
That said, whenever the record-shattering trainer does sit down in years to come and reflects on his body of work, surely Auguste Rodin’s extraordinary turnaround from Guineas flop to Derby champion in the space of four weeks will rank extremely close to the top of his standout career achievements.
In fact, a case could be made for this even being O’Brien’s greatest training performance on an individual basis - and that is saying something.
Dr Devious, who finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby before flying back around the globe to land the world-famous classic in 1992, is the only Derby winner in living memory who has achieved anything remotely like Auguste Rodin in terms of having overcome a difficult and unorthodox Epsom prep.
However, it was O’Brien’s unwavering belief in the Deep Impact colt that made the victory all the more special.
Most trainers wouldn’t have even run Auguste Rodin in what is often referred to as the ultimate test of the thoroughbred following a miserable Newmarket defeat, tailing off by no fewer than 22 lengths. Aidan O’Brien is not most trainers, though. The Ballydoyle visionary instead doubled down on his colt’s credentials and managed to have the Coolmore homebred shine brighter than ever on the biggest stage. The outcome was awesome.
For the Coolmore partners, this was surely as sweet as it gets too. Winning with a colt who was bred with remarkable foresight out of a top-class Galileo mare, trained by the man they have trusted most for decades, excelling with a spellbinding ride by the world’s best jockey and pulled out of the fire in the race always valued higher than any other by the organisation. You could tell this comeback success really meant the world to all involved.
All in all, the Epsom triumph capped a massive turnaround in fortunes for Ballydoyle’s three-year-olds.
After classic disappointments at Newmarket and Longchamp that generally cast doubts over their prowess, last season’s highly-regarded crop of juveniles roared back to life a week before Epsom with an Irish 2000 Guineas success for Paddington and a Sandy Lane Stakes strike for Little Big Bear at Haydock. O’Brien insists he never lost faith.
We have only just gone past the first week in June and the Rosegreen maestro has recorded 23 blacktype successes in 2023 - 15 of which have come through three-year-olds like Savethelastdance, The Antarctic, Never Ending Story and Cairo. It seems they are not a bad bunch after all.
When assessing what performances are in the mix to be considered O’Brien’s greatest training feat, a massive candidate in opposition to Auguste Rodin must be Ballydoyle’s genuinely exceptional one-two-three in the 2016 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, with Found leading home stablemates Highland Reel and Order Of St George in a stunning Paris highlight. It came just a year after the 53-year-old set a new world record for the number of flat Group 1/Grade 1 winners trained in a calendar year. Still, the Epsom achievement is noteworthy in a different way.
Even when drilling down into O’Brien’s results over the past handful of years alone, there have been a number of world-class training efforts that arguably make the extraordinary seem routine.
On the topic of Derby turnarounds, it was an inspired move from the 81-time Royal Ascot-winning trainer to drop Epsom sixth Circus Maximus significantly down in trip to beat the likes of Too Darn Hot and Phoenix Of Spain over a mile in the 2019 St James’s Palace Stakes.
Sparked by first-time blinkers, it was a call that led to reinventing the son of Galileo as one of Europe’s leading milers.
On Circus Maximus’ final start in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile, he finished second as part of a one-two-three in the race for Ballydoyle. Again, the winner, Order Of Australia, benefited from an extremely bold shake-up in distance, having recorded his previous two wins over an extended mile and a quarter and a mile and a half.
Not many who watched those races at Dundalk and the Curragh would have seen Order Of Australia as a miler poised to excel in top-level company around Keeneland, but O’Brien clearly viewed things differently.
How many people would have been able to revitalise Luxembourg in time from a mid-season setback to plunder what looked one of the strongest recent renewals of the Irish Champion Stakes last year? You get the sense O’Brien and his team managed to move heaven and earth to get the middle-distance star up to concert pitch for his toughest test at Leopardstown, and boy, did Luxembourg deliver.
Numbers adding up
The same Camelot colt racked up O’Brien’s 400th Group 1/Grade 1 victory at the Curragh last month in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.
O’Brien’s management of the previous year’s Irish Champion Stakes hero, St Mark’s Basilica, was also a joy to watch, with the Siyouni colt becoming the first French 2000 Guineas hero to win without a prep run since 1995. Brilliant dual Irish Champion Stakes scorer Magical, who retired with a haul of seven Group 1s, stood up to 16 races across her final two seasons and was still posting huge efforts right at the end of her five-year-old campaign.
Fast forward to this spring, and worthy of good mention is the engineering of major progress with Paddington, who went from handicap company to classic riches in the space of three runs and two months. The improving Siyouni colt may yet have more to offer going forward too.
Of course, the obvious common denominator throughout O’Brien’s Ballydoyle tenure is that he is dealing with some of the best stock in the world through the investment and relentless drive of Coolmore. Having quality horses and delivering top results are two very different things, though.
Since the beginning of 2016, O’Brien has won a staggering 98 of the 348 Group 1 races run in Britain and Ireland. In Ireland alone, he has won a third of the 92 top-level contests held during that period.
As for three-year-old-only Group 1s across the two nations, his record since 2016 stands at an impressive 33 wins from the 90 events. Huge returns.
This week marked 30 years since Wandering Thoughts provided O’Brien with his first winner at Tralee back in 1993, and the prolific handler has set bundles of records in the intervening period.
While the numbers and statistics surrounding his career make for astounding reading, it is a training performance like Auguste Rodin’s Epsom redemption that really exemplifies his standing as a horseman for the history books. This training feat will live long in the memory.