‘Tongue-tied’ is not a term you’d ordinarily apply to a man who just last week was named number one trainer in the world, but it seems it’s quite often used in connection with some of his top runners. To get a sense of where we’re heading with this, it’s a common practice among racehorse conditioners to apply aids like blinkers, visors, hoods, cheek pieces and tongue ties to assist in the regulation of things like gate and cruising speed, lethargy, concentration and easier breathing, and nobody it seems, pays more attention to these details than the top man in his profession.
Aidan O'Brien / McGowan Racing (p)

Aidan O'Brien / McGowan Racing (p)

It needs to be said, as the TDN did last week, that Aidan O’Brien is a phenomenon: here we should remember that he stepped into the biggest shoes of all-time, those of Vincent O’Brien (namesake, not relative) who was voted the outstanding horseman of the last century, and like just about everybody else, we have to admit to a touch of scepticism as to whether he or for that matter, anyone, would be up to the task. That he’s managed it and might even be in the process of exceeding it, is so; that could not have been better illustrated than in his one-two-three in Europe’s greatest prize, the Gr.1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, a culmination of almost two decades of unyielding success at the very highest level of the sport. The overflow of praise he inevitably deflects to the rest of his team, was a universal symptom of where the man has arrived.

Kevin Blake points to the factors behind Aidan O’Brien’s road to greatness: “The backing of Coolmore, the most formidable commercial breeding operation on the planet; along with the use of a world-class training facility in Ballydoyle; staffed with the very best horse people are often rightly cited as major factors in his success, but such emphasis does an injustice to O'Brien's own contribution as the overseer of all that goes on in Ballydoyle. A remarkably focused and dedicated trainer who has the benefit of his family being just as dedicated to his cause as he is, O'Brien quite clearly lives and breathes training racehorses on an unrelenting 24/7 basis. As much as anything, what really shines through when watching him at work in Ballydoyle is that despite all the remarkable success he has enjoyed there in the last two decades, he is still striving to squeeze more improvement out of “the system,” as he calls it.

Every conceivable aspect of what he can control in Ballydoyle and at the races is under constant examination to find ways that might bring about even modicums of improvement. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it might not, but that O'Brien is still striving to make changes in pursuit of marginal gains after 20 years of unrelenting success is as good a pointer as any to why he is the best at what he does. Of course, much of this experimentation and change is unseen work that is undertaken behind the gates of Ballydoyle, but occasionally we are able to observe these changes playing out on the racecourse and it makes for fascinating viewing. One example of this is how O'Brien has used headgear on his horses in recent years and the conclusions that he has seemed to have drawn from it. The following is a year-by-year table of how many individual horses O'Brien has applied various types of headgear to.

The bracketed figure is how many of those horses won when having that headgear applied for the first time. For information sake, hoods and visors only became declarable in Ireland in December 2012, prior to that their use had been officially registered as blinkers.

Year Blinkers Visor Cheek-Pieces Total Hood Tongue Tie
2009 9 (3) N/A 0 (0) 9 (3) N/A 0
2010 30 (5) N/A 9 (1) 39 (6) N/A 1(0)
2011 22 (2) N/A 12 (0) 34 (2) N/A 0
2012 23 (2) N/A 21 (9) 44 (11) N/A 0
2013 20 (7) 21 (8) 35 (10) 76 (25) 14 (3) 0
2014 24 (5) 8 (1) 23 (3) 55 (9) 10 (2) 8 (1)
2015 18 (6) 1 (0) 25 (4) 44 (10) 12 (5) 25 (4)
2016 3 (0) 4 (0) 10 (0) 17 (0) 6 (0) 49 (9)

The above figures show O'Brien's use of headgear that seeks to increase concentration, namely blinkers, visors and cheekpieces, very much increased in a short space of time leading to a peak in 2013. It was during this time that his use of such headgear became the subject of much public comment, which peaked when he saddled Ruler Of The World (Galileo) to win the G1 Derby in cheekpieces. Though, despite the clear successes he enjoyed when increasing his use of such headgear, it is interesting to note that his use of it has dropped in the years that have followed and indeed, he has utilised such headgear on notably fewer occasions in 2016. Just as interesting as O'Brien's move away from such headgear in recent years, is his significant increase in the use of a tongue tie. Indeed, this came into very sharp focus at the start of this season, as many eyebrows were raised when O'Brien choose to apply a tongue tie for the first time to the European champion 2-year-old Air Force Blue (War Front) on his seasonal reappearance in the G1 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. For many, this set off alarm bells, with the suggestion being that Air Force Blue may have developed a breathing issue during the winter months, such is the common association people make between tongue ties and breathing issues. When I asked O'Brien for his reasoning behind choosing a tongue tie for him, he replied that the objective was to help him settle, as in his experience he found that combining a crossed noseband and a tongue tie on a horse can help make them more tractable.

While Air Force Blue's subsequently disappointing season added fuel to the speculation around why the tongue tie was applied, when one looks at the overall trend of how O'Brien has used tongue ties on his horses this season, his explanation stands up to scrutiny. Indeed, as can be seen in the above table, having hardly ever used a tongue tie on his horses prior to 2014, his use of it has gone up significantly in the years since. This year alone he has applied a tongue tie to high-profile horses such as The Gurkha (Galileo), Ballydoyle (Galileo), Washington DC (Zoffany), Deauville (Galileo) and Capri (Galileo).  

To suggest that O'Brien's significantly increased use of tongue ties has been in response to a freakish increase in breathing problems amongst the horses trained in Ballydoyle would be fanciful to say the least. It is clear that he feels there are other benefits of using them and the results thus far certainly don't seem to discourage that view. One of the bigger-picture ramifications of all of this is that O'Brien's increased use of headgear such as blinkers and cheekpieces in recent years has helped remove much of the stigma surrounding their use. A historically common view of such headgear was that they were only applied to ungenuine horses. While that view was steadily changing, O'Brien's use of these aids on high-profile horses put the emphasis on the positive impacts that such headgear can have on the concentration levels of an otherwise genuine horse. With this in mind, perhaps O'Brien's increased use of tongue ties will lead to the commonly held view that they are only applied to horses with breathing problems being diminished, and an increase in awareness of the other benefits of using them. One thing for sure is that if Aidan O'Brien sees value in using tongue ties, they are something that every other trainer would be well-advised to consider”.

Feature Image: Ruler Of World / Metro (p)