He is so uncharismatic that he was once refused entry to the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure – even though he’d just won the Champion Hurdle.
He gave me perhaps the worst interview of my life; it was clear from the start that he would infinitely prefer a root-canal filling over my mild questions, answering each one in more or less the same way: “We’ve a great team here and we all work very hard, and we all try and do our best for the horses.”
That, then, is the secret behind what is perhaps the most successful racing operation in history. Sounds easy enough. Wonder why nobody else never thought of it.
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Aidan O’Brien trains out of Ballydoyle in County Tipperary, and among his likely Derby runners is the long-term favourite, Saxon Warrior, who has already won the 2,000 Guineas. O’Brien has trained six Derby winners in total, four in the last six years.
What would be the day of a lifetime for most is for him a matter of routine. You’d think that continued success would have given him an air of swagger, the kind of enviable self-confidence you find among sport’s serial champions: Mo Farah, Lewis Hamilton, Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams.
But O’Brien has continued to carry himself with an almost apologetic air – as if he is sorry to show up the shortcomings of other horses and trainers. After all, it’s nothing to do with him: he’s lucky to have a great team, he works very hard and he does his best for the horses.
When the interview was over, to our profound mutual relief, he showed me round Ballydoyle. Side by side in the Land Rover, no more of that eye contact stuff, we started to talk about horses.
I found myself describing, to his flattering but I think genuine interest, a time riding western-trained horses when I performed a series of crashhalts without bridle or reins. That’s when he began to talk about the mysteries of his trade, not in any boastful way, but as a horseman of genius explaining things to a horseman of infinitely less ability.
Above all, I became aware of his skill at tuning in – and that’s where the self-confidence of the champion at last made itself obvious. Everyone tries to tune into horses – that’s what horsemanship is all about, whether you’re in the Pony Club Games or the Derby.
O’Brien is acutely, almost painfully gifted in this area – and what’s more, he has no doubt whatsoever about being right.
We paid a visit to his delicate, brilliant hurdler Istabraq: “If you tune his mind up too early before a race he will slowly destruct his body… you have to be very careful as you tune his mind up.”
With some people that would be self-serving nonsense. With O’Brien, it’s quite obvious that this is a genuine understanding of the horse. There are a thousand little decisions to be made every day in every racing yard, and successful training is about getting more of them right than wrong. Some get more right than others.
There has seldom been a great team without a great leader. The Ballydoyle team is defined by that acute, almost eerie sense of understanding what a horse really needs – and then making sure that they get it.
So if Saxon Warrior wins, O’Brien will once again face the cameras and, hidden behind his prescription sunglasses, he will praise the jockey, the owners and the team. Anything but the thing that matters more than anything else.
Racing: the Derby Saturday 1.30pm ITV; 4pm Radio 5 Live