“We have no targets. Our only target is to be alive this time next year. And for us all to be as healthy and well as we can be. Live every day as best as you can because this is it, you only get one go at it” – Aidan O’Brien,
BALLYDOYLE, Aidan O’Brien, April: so often the prism through which the racing eye refocuses itself from jumps to flat. The 50-year-old record-breaking trainer stood in the middle of a scrum of iPhones just over a year ago and as ever, fielded any question put to him.
Then, the main focus was simple. Could the hugely exciting Ten Sovereigns stay a mile in the Guineas? Tell us more about this Invincible Spirit colt Magna Grecia. Who could emerge from an ever-strong Derby squad. What for Magical, Kew Gardens, the sprinter Sergei Prokofiev, the first American Pharoah two-year-olds.
They were simpler times. Times everyone in the racing industry fully yearns for now. Today should be 2000 Guineas day. It should be O’Brien going for his fourth win in a row in the classic, his 11th in all, but with the might of last year’s champion two-year-old, Godolphin’s Pinatubo, in his way.
But it’s not to be just yet. The perspective O’Brien had in these simpler times, the perspective he’s always had, rings fully through today.
“Human beings always come first,” he says. “People and their families always come first. That is the way it is and that is the way it has to be. It can’t be any other way.
“I think everyone really appreciates the efforts from all the doctors, nurses and everyone on the frontline. All the people in healthcare and all the people making the decisions. They are doing amazing work keeping everything going.
“Everyone here is good, thank God. Everyone is working in their own locality and staying within that space. Joseph and Donnacha are working away, Sarah is very busy working as a vet on the road with John Halley and Ana is down in the stud working with all the mares and foals. It’s myself and Annemarie here in Ballydoyle.
“Mum is good as well, thank God. We would have been very aware even before the lockdown came in that for anyone of my mum’s age, like we would have been taking no chances. My mum would be very conscious of it too, and everything we can do to make her safe we will do.”
While O’Brien will always put people first, he also sees the needs of the industry to return, and in general, for the economy to get going again.
“It’s just about getting that balance right,” he says. “The economy doesn’t just stop so people can’t rear their families and have a life. Everyone has done such a wonderful job with this so far but it’s all going to have to start back soon because the reality of it is that while everybody is hoping that a vaccine is found, it’s very possible that it might not be found.
“You’d have to be cautious of everything getting cut out – the country and the economy can only hold for so long before it cuts out completely.
“It’s just trying to find that balance between people’s mental health and their physical health, the economy and people being able to raise their families. Even within families, people need a little bit of good spirit. You can only go so long having people locked up together.
“I know it’s a physical health thing but mental health is important as well. It’s just about getting that balance right for everybody. But absolutely, people and families always come first.”
It seems like so long ago now, given the way life has changed in between, but it’s just under two months since O’Brien’s father-in-law Joe Crowley passed away at the age of 91. O’Brien, his wife Annemarie and his sister-in-law Frances all trained out of Owning Hill which was the base for Joe for many years previously. Now Joseph O’Brien, named after his grandfather, is the latest in the family to train from the Hill.
“Mr Crowley was a very special man,” O’Brien reflects. “He was unwell for a long time but he was in good form and very comfortable when he passed, just before the lockdown restrictions started coming in.
“From the very start, when myself and Annemarie started going out, he was always there for everything, for advice and for encouragement, no matter if it was about life, or the horses, or training, or working with people.
“He was always there for Annemarie and the girls long before I met her, but he was always full of encouragement in every way and no matter what, he was always there for us.
“You could ask him anything really. He had his own way of training horses which was very unique. He showed us a way of training horses that we’d never seen before and he was always a massive source of information for us.
“He’d never ask anyone to do a job he wouldn’t do himself and he always felt there was a job there for everyone.
“Everyone looked up to him.Like for Joseph, Donnacha, Sarah and Ana, ever since they started riding ponies, he was there for them to give them advice. He helped Joseph a lot when he started training.”
Racing is on hold now and that is exactly how O’Brien describes the status of his string ahead of what could be a very busy period when racing does resume.
“I’d say there at a holding stage now,” he explains. “The horses are in third gear, just cruising along. We’re like an aeroplane just waiting to take off, just in the holding stage until we can get the green light.
“We just have them ticking over, without getting too serious, but at the same time just keeping them at a stage that when we do need to step it up, they’re ready to do so. When that happens, it’ll be a different scenario for each horse (to be ready to race).
“Some horses will take little work and some will take plenty. We’re not too worried about that though, we’ll just be delighted to have racing back really.”
The O'Brien family after Ana (silks) recorded a double on Joseph's (to her left) Arya Tara at Leopardstown \Healy Racing
Luckily, Ballydoyle is as busy as ever. The new safety protocols may have been tricky at the start but they are completely necessary, and are something O’Brien says everyone on the team is on board with.
“I think everyone here is in good form and thankful to be working still. Everyone is very responsible. Everyone knows it’s (the new rules) in their best interest and everyone is very respectful of each other.
“We would have always been aware of biosecurity here anyway. Obviously when you have horses, the biggest threat of all is viruses. So we are just extending that to humans now.
“Everyone’s temperature is checked every morning and I think everyone is happy with that. We would have always done that with horses and now it’s just a case of doing it with humans as well, all of us.”
When racing does restart, as ever at Ballydoyle, there is so much to look forward to, perhaps nothing more so than having last year’s star performer Magical back for another season.
The daughter of Galileo was due to be covered by No Nay Never but did so well physically over the winter, O’Brien enquired about keeping her in training and has had that wish granted. She could now take on an exciting international campaign.
O’Brien said: “She did exceptionally well over the winter and she is great form now. The lads were happy for her stay in training and we’re delighted with that. All of her targets will be in the autumn and we’re looking at travelling her abroad. She took well to the travelling last season.”
The carrots that keep older horses in training are getting bigger with each passing year it seems, with an international circuit that now goes year round, Saudi Arabia the latest jurisdiction to put up huge prize money for races.
“For the lads, these big races around the world is what they are thinking of now,” O’Brien explains. “The season is gone long and there is great prize money for horses all over the world now.
“That is what everyone is trying to aspire to, to have the horses to compete in those races. When you have those horses, you’re lucky to have them so in a way it’s only right that they have the chance to go to all these big races.
“I think it’s great for racing because it brings everything together as now you can compare horses all over the world in different countries, different track situations and whatever. It brings the whole thoroughbred breed together.
“Magical is 100% right now. We’d be looking at the second half of the season and if she is well, she’ll travel. We saw she was very happy to travel last season and that sort of international campaign is what we’re thinking of, everything going well.”
Magical could be set for an international campaign late this year \Healy Racing
O’Brien is happy with where his three-year-olds are at, without being fully sure of how they have developed as they are still in this holding stage.
What races will be there for them when racing resumes is still something of a guessing game. The classics are an obvious priority for Ballydoyle and he is very hopeful that when restrictions lift, horses will be allowed to travel from Ireland to Britain and France.
“I think you have to look at the classics and work around them,” he says. “The classics are the backbone of every generation in the thoroughbred racing industry. That’s where all the racing starts and finishes, and how generations are compared. That is just the way it is.”
With regard to travelling, O’Brien adds: “Obviously horses don’t carry the virus so there isn’t a risk through them travelling to different countries. Hopefully there won’t be a problem and I think that’s the best situation for everybody from each country, everybody wants to be able to compete in the big races.
“Obviously humans are travelling from Ireland to England at the moment and everybody is very respectful and very sensible about the protocols in place.
“It’s good that everybody is so aware of the virus now. That keeps things in control, everyone realises the threat. It’s about having all the checks there to make sure that when people do travel, that just like horses going in quarantine, that they’ve no temperatures.
“The danger is complacency, so it’s important for people to keep talking about the virus, keep going through the checks, obeying the rules.
“No one wants to be at risk of getting sick or giving the sickness to anyone else and I think everybody is very conscious of that now, much more so than a month or six weeks ago.”
Formidable partnership: O'Brien and Ryan Moore \Healy Racing
A significant part of the intrigue at Ballydoyle at this time of the year is derived from the new two-year-olds, particularly those representing the first crop of their sire. It’s an education phase at this stage, O’Brien relying on his team to get to know each horse but they have already spotted an interesting trend with one new sire.
“We have some Air Force Blues this year and they seem to have come to hand very quickly which is very interesting,” he says. “I think that is just a bit unusual. We have three Air Force Blues and they are all really fast and very early. They all look like Ascot types.
“Air Force Blue could be something different, something we might not have had for a couple of years so it will be interesting to see how they go.
“We have a few by The Gurkha and they go very well also. We always loved The Gurkha as a racehorse. They look like Danehill/Galileo type horses, maybe six- or seven-furlong horses now, whereas the Air Force Blues look like straight five-, six-furlong horses.”
Hopefully we’ll see these two-year-olds and all the rest take to an Irish track very soon. O’Brien is just like everyone else, hoping racing can return sooner rather than later, when it is safe to do so.
“We’re lucky in racing that people don’t have to be in close proximity at any time really and even the jockeys, during a race, they’re travelling at great speeds and a lot of strong air goes around them.
“When we were racing before the lockdown, when other countries had stopped, I think everybody saw how sensible and how correct everyone behaved and how safe it was at the time.
“I don’t think HRI have ever been found wanting (in this episode). They want to help everybody in all kinds of races and have always been very proactive. Brian Kavanagh and his team, they listen to everybody and take everyone’s view on board. They are very aware that everybody has to make a living and that all different types of horses have to be catered for.”
Enthusiastic as ever, just like his perspective hasn’t changed from this time last year, and any other year for that matter, O’Brien’s advice is also the same in these uncertain and often scary times.
“All anybody can do is their best. Take one day at a time, one hour at a time and one minute at a time. Try and keep going the best you can is all any of us can do. Try look after everyone around you.
“All we can do then is hope and pray that everyone stays well and hopefully this will pass. Everybody has to be extra aware of other people’s mental and physical health and be there to help in anyway they can.
“Looking out for each other is all anyone can do.”
Four Ballydoyle big guns
We always thought that he was a fine big rangy horse. A very well made horse. He always looked like a horse with plenty of scope to go on at three. We were very happy with him last year. His best run came at the Dewhurst and that was on softish ground that he wouldn’t have been mad about and then he went to America and ran very well from a very bad draw. He has that experience now which will stand to him this year.
Arizona has given the impression that he can improve significantly from two to three \Healy Racing
We’re hopeful he’s one of our Derby horses. He has done very well physically. He’s a big powerful, strong horse by Galileo out of a Danehill mare, and he shows a lot of traits of both of those sires. We always thought that middle distances would suit him well.
Physically he has done very well and we’re very happy with everything he has done. He didn’t always have the perfect preparation in the spring last year but he developed through the season and he got better. We were delighted with his run in the Derby and then he went from strength to strength. He is very much a horse we’re looking forward to this year and the Arc could be on his agenda again.
We were looking at starting him in Dubai this year but obviously he didn’t go there. We have an eye on the Gold Cup for him and maybe a run before it but we’ll have to see about that, see how things work out in the coming weeks. But what he has been doing, we’re very happy with.
The O'Brien family after Yeats's fourth Gold Cup at Royal Ascot \carolinenorris.ie