To European racegoers of a certain age, there was only ever going to be one contender for the title of the greatest trainer of all time: O’Brien of Ballydoyle. The past couple of decades have caused many to reassess their opinion as a challenger has emerged: O’Brien of Ballydoyle. In one sense, Vincent O’Brien’s achievements will never be surpassed. He created the Ballydoyle empire from scratch, re-shaping the international racing landscape through the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s after having sent out multiple winners of the great jumps races in the post-war years—the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.
— John Berry / Thoroughbred Daily News

Attracting the patronage initially of wealthy American clients such as John McShain, Alice du Pont Mills, Raymond Guest, Charles Engelhard and John Galbreath, and subsequently the British businessman and bloodstock entrepreneur Robert Sangster, he put together a record of high-level success which, horse for horse, will never be repeated. For instance, in 1975 he sent eight horses (all aged three or above) to Royal Ascot and seven of them won - and that was at a time when he only had 15 horses in that age-group in the stable. By modern standards, that is unthinkable. The most notable by-product of Vincent O’Brien’s genius was the consolidation of Coolmore as a world-leading breeding operation under the direction of the trainer’s son-in-law John Magnier.

Sadler’s Wells / Bloodhorse (p)

Operating on a blue-print devised by Magnier, a hand-picked squad of colts were turned into high-class racehorses and then stallions, with the most obvious stars sold to stand in America while some were retained nearby at Coolmore. The arrival of G1 Irish 2000 Guineas winner and G1 Eclipse Stakes winner Sadler’s Wells (USA) (Northern Dancer {Can}) at Coolmore at the end of 1984 proved to be the key required to take the operation to a higher level still, a level at which it is still dominant to this day. It is worth remembering that Sadler’s Wells had not been the best 3-year-old in Ballydoyle that season. Pole position had been held by G1 2000 Guineas and G1 Irish Derby winner El Gran Senor (USA) (Northern Dancer {Can}). Consequently it was El Gran Senor who was dispatched across the Atlantic to stand alongside his father and his Derby-winning paternal half-brother The Minstrel at Windfields Farm in Maryland, enabling Sadler’s Wells to be retained in Ireland at Coolmore. That was very fortunate! Come the 1990s, however, Vincent O’Brien was an old man. The final acts of the greatest show on turf came when Royal Academy (USA) (Nijinsky {Can}) took the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1990 and College Chapel (GB) (Sharpo {USA}) won the G3 Cork And Orrery Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1993, both ridden, of course, by the trainer’s old ally Lester Piggott. The curtain finally came down on O’Brien’s stellar career at the end of the 1994 season. Vincent O’Brien’s retirement created a void which John Magnier soon found that he needed to fill.

Be My Guest

Be My Guest

While the Maktoums were continually increasing their investment through the 1980s, Ballydoyle had started to become marginalised as regards to being competitive in top-class races. Sadler’s Wells, however, changed all that. Coolmore had its first champion sire when the former Ballydoyle inmate Be My Guest (USA) (Northern Dancer {Can}) won the General Sires’ Premiership for Great Britain and Ireland in 1982. Sadler’s Wells became its second champion sire when winning the first of his 14 premierships in 1990; and no other farm has housed a champion sire since then, with Caerleon (USA) (Nijinsky {Can}), Danehill (USA) (Danzig {USA}), Danehill Dancer (Ire) (Danehill {USA}) and (10 times champion to date) Galileo (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {USA}) all also heading the list.

These stallions helped to take the ownership group put together by John Magnier back to the top table and it made sense to put a trainer into Ballydoyle to keep the operation in-house. The question was who could possibly be up to the task of following in Vincent O’Brien’s footsteps?

Born in County Wexford in October 1969, he had started work in stables on leaving school, initially for P. J. Finn at the Curragh and subsequently for Jim Bolger at Coolcullen in County Carlow. He soon became an accomplished amateur rider and topped the amateurs’ jumps premiership in 1993/’94.

Having married Anne-Marie Crowley, he began training in 1993. Anne-Marie’s father Joe had been a successful jumps trainer at Piltown in County Kilkenny and she had won the premiership when she took over the stable before handing control over to her husband. He in turn became champion National Hunt trainer in his first season, 1993/’94, before retaining his title in each of the next four years.

Aidan O’Brien / Racing Post (p)

Aidan O’Brien / Racing Post (p)

Aidan O’Brien’s diligence, horsemanship, industry and integrity had been obvious from the outset, so much so that multiple champion jockey Christy Roche, who rode for Jim Bolger for many years and who ultimately became O’Brien’s first stable jockey at Ballydoyle, once remarked that O’Brien was the only employee whom Bolger was ever sorry to lose A - “and that includes me!”

When Aidan O’Brien became champion trainer (albeit by taking over a stable that was already at the top) in his first season, that was all the confirmation that John Magnier needed.

Having been made an offer which he couldn’t refuse, Aidan O’Brien took up the mantle of Vincent, moving into Ballydoyle in 1996. Needless to say, he produced a champion from his first batch of 2-year-olds when Desert King (Ire) (Danehill {USA}) won the G1 National Stakes as a juvenile before taking the G1 Irish 2000 Guineas and G1 Irish Derby at three. Desert King was not Aidan O’Brien’s first Classic winner: 24 hours before Desert King won the Irish 2000 Guineas, the trainer saddled the quinella in the G1 Irish 1000 Guineas, Classic Park (GB) (Robellino {USA}) beating her better-fancied stablemate Strawberry Roan (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {USA}). O’Brien ended 1997 as Ireland’s champion trainer (with his horses having earned more than the combined totals of the next three trainers, i.e. John Oxx, Jim Bolger and Dermot Weld).

His 2-year-olds that year included Group 1 winners King Of Kings (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {USA}), Saratoga Springs (USA) (El Gran Senor {USA}) and Second Empire (Ire) (Fairy King {USA}) as well as the G2 Coventry Stakes winner Harbour Master (Fr) (Bluebird {USA}). Aidan O’Brien has been Ireland’s champion trainer every year since then.

During his first few years at Ballydoyle, Aidan O’Brien maintained the yard at Piltown (where his and Marie's elder son, former champion jockey Joseph, now trains) and also kept a string of jumpers going, with the great hurdler Istabraq (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {USA}) earning his place in racing history by winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three years running, 1998 to 2000 inclusive. Inevitably, though, the current century has seen him focus on the Flat horses, with his list of champions trained and big races won becoming ever lengthier. He became champion trainer of Great Britain for the first time in 2001, the first Irish-based trainer to top the British premiership since Vincent O’Brien in 1977.

Galileo / Epsom Derby 2001

His winners that year were headed by Galileo (Ire), his first Derby winner. The following year O’Brien again trained the Derby winner with High Chaparral (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {Ire}) and again won the British as well as the Irish trainers’ premiership.

Aidan O’Brien’s domination of European racing has been uninterrupted. He is equally adept at training sprinters and stayers, young horses and old. He has won Ireland’s top juvenile race the G1 National Stakes 11 times and its British counterpart the G1 Dewhurst Stakes six times; while he has saddled the winner of the G1 St Leger six times and the G1 Ascot Gold Cup seven times, most notably with the legendary four-time winner Yeats (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells {USA}).

His success, of course, is not merely confined to Europe, as is confirmed by a wide-ranging list of success including his 12 Breeders’ Cup triumphs as well as the G1 W. S. Cox Plate victory of Adelaide (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) in 2014 and the brace of G1 Hong Kong Vase wins recorded by Highland Reel (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}). Saturday was yet another red-letter day for Aidan O’Brien. Vincent O’Brien trained six Derby winners, starting with Larkspur (Ire) (Never Say Die {USA}) in 1962 and ending with Golden Fleece (USA) (Nijinsky {Can}) in 1982.

Anthony Van Dyck / Investec Derby 2019

The win at Epsom this weekend of Anthony Van Dyck (Ire) (Galileo (Ire}) means that Aidan O’Brien has now passed that total, doing so in a race in which he saddled five of the first six home, and seven of the first 10. He long ago passed Vincent O’Brien’s total of 16 British Classics wins and has a current tally of 35, headlined by 10 victories in the 2000 Guineas. He keeps re-writing the record books - and he’s still aged only 49!

In a sport which, particularly in its upper echelons, can be cut-throatedly competitive, Aidan O’Brien is as notable for his fair play and integrity as for his success. Totally unaffected by fortune and fame, he is as modest and unassuming as the day he started, invariably deflecting praise away from himself and towards his horses, staff and patrons.

A great trainer, he is at least as special a human being, a true credit both to his profession and to himself.

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