William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, was Great Britain's pre-eminent politician in the third quarter of the 18th century, dominating British politics as, variously, Leader of the House of Commons during the Seven Years' War, Lord Privy Seal and Prime Minister. Subsequently known as William Pitt The Elder, he was a very hard act to follow, but when his son, William Pitt the Younger, began to make his mark after entering Parliament at the age of 21. Edmund Burke observed of the subsequent 14th Prime Minister of Great Britain, "He's not a chip off the old block; it's the old block itself."
This story has echoes in modern-day racing. From his Ballydoyle Stables in Co. Tipperary, Vincent O'Brien proved himself to be the greatest trainer the world had ever seen. Who, if anyone, could follow in such a man's footsteps? As it has turned out, the man to pick up the baton of O'Brien the Elder was O'Brien the Younger (no relation). When comparing the latter with his great namesake, one might, like Burke, observe that he is not a chip off the old block, but the old block itself. During the first four decades after Second World War, Vincent O'Brien changed the face of the racing world. Come the 1990s, however, Ballydoyle was in danger of becoming a white elephant. Dr. O'Brien was an old man, and his string had dwindled as the wealth of the new middle-eastern investors meant that all European trainers were marginalised bar those with Arab patrons. Notwithstanding their glorious final curtain call at Royal Ascot in 1993 with College Chapel, the golden age in which Vincent O'Brien and Lester Piggott had ruled the world was coming to an end.
At the same time, however, Ballydoyle's sister-property, Coolmore Stud, the brainchild of O'Brien's son-in-law John Magnier, was flourishing. Sadler's Wells (Northern Dancer) was Europe's best sire, Danehill (Danzig) was establishing himself as the next best and Caerleon (Nijinsky) was thriving; and Michael Tabor had joined the team, ready to inject significant further investment. With Ballydoyle available, it made sense to take the training of Coolmore's burgeoning string in-house. But who should be asked to take the reins? Like Vincent O'Brien, Aidan was, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, neither born great nor has he had greatness thrust on him; he has had to achieve greatness. For sure, he owes his permanent position at the top of Ireland's trainers' table to the fact that he trains the best string of horses in Europe. But he got to that position through neither nepotism nor luck: he was appointed to the post of trainer at Ballydoyle because he had already worked his way to the top of the Irish National Hunt trainers' standings. Now he retains the post, and Coolmore retains its dominance, because he keeps winning.
The form book repeatedly confirms that the recruitment of Aidan O'Brien ranks high among John Magnier's many strokes of genius. The first star whom Aidan prepared for his new patrons was Desert King (Danehill), a Group 1 winner at the Curragh in 1996 of the National Stakes and in 1997 of the Irish 2000 Guineas and Irish Derby. While that horse did not turn out to be one of Coolmore's greatest stallions, he certainly set the bar fairly high for the stud careers of his successors, his first Irish crop containing not only Ascot Gold Cup (Gr.1) winner Dr Dinos but also triple Melbourne Cup (Gr.1) winner Makybe Diva. The best of his Australian-conceived stock was his second-crop son Desert War, winner of five Group 1 races. Thereafter, the production line of potential stallions just kept rolling along. King Of Kings (Danehill) took the 1998 2000 Guineas (Gr.1), while in 1999 Stravinsky (Nureyev) was Europe's most impressive sprinter and the unbeaten Fasliyev (Nureyev) it's most impressive 2-year-old. Two years later, Aidan unearthed an even better juvenile, the outstanding Johannesburg (Hennessy).
As one century drew to a close and the next got underway, Classic colts just kept coming. Giant's Causeway (Storm Cat), Black Minnaloushe (Storm Cat), Galileo (Sadler's Wells), Rock Of Gibraltar (Danehill), High Chaparral (Sadler's Wells) and Hawk Wing (Woodman) came along in dazzlingly quick-fire succession. Thanks to a subsequent roll call headed by Derby winners Camelot (Montjeu), Ruler Of The World (Galileo) and Australia (Galileo) this level of success has continued all the way through to last year's dual Guineas winner Gleneagles (Galileo). It would be a major surprise if Ballydoyle colts are not similarly effective in 2016, with last year's champion 2-year-old Air Force Blue (War Front) currently standing as the most obvious potential superstar.
From champion sprinters such as Mozart (Danehill) and Starspangledbanner (Choisir) to the Ascot Gold Cup (Gr.1) heroes Yeats (Sadler's Wells), Fame And Glory (Montjeu) and Leading Light (Montjeu); from champion 2-year-olds to weight-for-age stars such as Dylan Thomas (Danehill), Duke Of Marmalade (Danehill), St Nicholas Abbey (Montjeu) and So You Think (High Chaparral); with jumpers such as three-time Champion Hurdler Istabraq (Sadler's Wells) as well as the flat stars, Aidan O'Brien has shown that he is a master across the complete spectrum of the training game. Not just with colts either: the fillies' roll of honour is equally impressive, while many of Ballydoyle's stars of recent years have been sons or daughters not only of stallions whom Aidan had trained, but of such mares too.
Seven-time Irish champion jockey Christy Roche, stable jockey to Aidan O'Brien's mentor Jim Bolger when Aidan was the stable's amateur rider, came to Ballydoyle with his former colleague. (Looking back on the early days, Roche subsequently made the wry observation that Aidan had been the only employee that Bolger had ever been disappointed to lose - "and that includes me!"). As rider of Desert King, Roche helped to set the ball rolling before his retirement left the door open for Mick Kinane to step into what had become the best job in Europe. The latter enjoyed notable success for the stable, as have his successors: Jamie Spencer, Kieren Fallon, Johnny Murtagh, Joseph O'Brien and Ryan Moore, as well as Seamie Heffernan and Colm O'Donoghue.
Joseph O'Brien, still aged only 22, deserves particular credit. No jockey in the British Isles since Frank Wootton a century ago has made so great an impact at such a young age as he did during his brief riding career, on which the curtain came down last week. As one door closes, though, another opens: after Ivanovich Gorbatov (Montjeu) had become Aidan O'Brien's latest Group 1 winner by landing the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday, the trainer made no secret of the fact that he had delegated the preparation of the 4-year-old to his eldest son, who is reportedly due to receive his trainer's license in May. One suspects that Edmund Burke's famous phrase might soon be due for another airing.
Extract from Thoroughbred Daily News / Go Racing, Cortacabeza, Irish Times (p)