FIVE years ago, Aidan O’Brien looked on in quiet awe as cancer-stricken Sir Henry Cecil’s wonderhorse Frankel returned to the York winner’s enclosure.
“The greatest racehorse – and the greatest trainer,” the softly-spoken O’Brien told this correspondent as he observed the emotional celebrations.
Yet it’s a tribute which could equally be applied to the Ballydoyle genius if one of his four horses wins today’s Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster – the pick of the quartet are Saxon Warrior and The Pentagon who head the ante-post betting for next year’s Epsom Derby.
Already a seven-time winner of this mile contest for future champions, victory for O’Brien would be a world record 26th elite Group One success this year – eclipsing legendary American trainer Bobby Frankel whose record was honoured so memorably by Cecil’s equine champion.
For, while O’Brien’s dominance has been unrivalled since he took the reins at Ballydoyle in 1996 on behalf of the Coolmore breeding empire headed by racing magnates John Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, it is their 2001 Epsom Derby winner Galileo who has been a champion stallion like no other.
Yet, while Galileo and his progeny mean O’Brien, 48, has access to the best young horses in the world each year, they still have to be trained to perfection at the picture perfect Ballydoyle Stables in County Tipperary.
This was epitomised by the aforementioned Tabor’s tribute after the filly Hydrangea’s win at last week’s Qipco Champions Day meeting at Ascot saw O’Brien draw level with Frankel. “I suppose it is like baking a cake. You have to have all the ingredients and if you don’t have one of them the cake is OK but not quite right.
“Hopefully we have all the right ingredients and I suppose the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” said the multi-millionaire businessman and gambler.
“I think he takes it all in his stride. I don’t think there is one particular skill. I think it is his all-round conscientious day-in-day-out relentless attention to detail. I think in all walks of life, attention to detail is important and he certainly typifies that.”
This is echoed by former champion jockey Kieren Fallon who enjoyed a a successful partnership with O’Brien. His just-published book Form: My Autobiography offers a fascinating incident into O’Brien’s rapport with his horses.
“I have never seen anybody like Aidan around horses,” says Fallon who had previously ridden with distinction for Cecil. “It is the energy he carries. He just has to put his hand on them to quieten them. I know horses and I pride myself in being able to switch them off and calm them down but Aidan is on another level.”
Yet one person hoping to delay O’Brien’s history-making win is Oisin Murphy who partners John Gosden’s unbeaten juvenile Roaring Lion, a horse of great promise, in today’s stellar race which has also attracted Jim Bolger’s highly-regarded prospect Verbal Dexterity.
Murphy, 22, spent a formative year as a work rider at Ballydoyle before turning pro in 2013. He’s ridden his first two Group One winners this month, courtesy of Aclaim and Blond Me, and this week surpassed the 115 winners that he rode last year.
“I would say he is the ultimate professional,” Murphy told The Yorkshire Post. “This is no disrespect to anyone else, but I have never come across someone who takes it so seriously.
“It would be safe to say that he doesn’t do anything else other than train horses. He’s a complete gentleman.
“At the same time, when he has something to say, you would never hear him shout. He doesn’t need to because he has so much respect.”
It speaks volumes that Murphy, one of the most naturally gifted horsemen of recent times, had to move to Britain to further his career – this in itself speaks volumes about the quality of riders at Ballydoyle.
“He’s completely meticulous. He’s a walking encyclopedia. Any horse, he will know the full family history,” said the jockey. “He knows the races that will suit each horse.”
As for Qatar Racing-owned Roaring Lion, Murphy said: “He’s done nothing wrong so far, winning his three starts.
“I know Rab Havlin has sat on him at John Gosden’s and he’s very happy. He knows better than most what a good horse is like.”
Yet, as always, Murphy – and the rest of racing – know that the great Aidan O’Brien remains the one to beat and that it will require a true champion to do so.