The only downside about going racing is irritation born of encountering pig ignorant people who talk through their pockets. Beside me at a Newmarket betting counter on Saturday shortly after Aidan O’Brien had once more dominated the big event of the day, not only winning the Dewhurst Stakes with his Derby prospect Churchill but taking second place as well with his 66-1 pacemaker Lancaster Bomber, was a disgruntled punter who told his companion sourly: ‘One day they’ll find out what he’s giving them.’ I was tempted to remind him of boxer George Foreman’s response when someone asked him if a fight had been fixed. ‘Of course it was fixed,’ he replied. ‘I fixed it with a right cross.’ What Aidan O’Brien ‘gives them’, like his famous though unrelated predecessor Vincent O’Brien, is meticulous attention to detail and a perfectly planned preparation.
The most recent trainer to be labelled a genius before the current master of Bally-doyle was Michael Dickinson, whose feat in training the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1983 will never be equalled. I have been lucky enough to spend some time with Michael this year researching a new book on jump racing, and one story he told me was typical of the genius breed and their attention to detail. Not only did he conduct studies into feedstuffs and turf management but he was prepared to learn lessons to apply to his horses from any field of human activity.
He and Flat trainer Michael Stoute (now of course Sir Michael) had dinner during a long past Olympic Games. Noting how human athletes were breaking all records they mused that there must be much to learn from how they were doing it. There followed a series of meetings with the British team’s trainers and doctors. Michael doesn’t overdo the connection but he notes, ‘The next year Stoutey trained Shergar to win the Derby and I won the Gold Cup with Silver Buck.’
When it comes to comparing genius between Michael Dickinson and Aidan O’Brien it is the most obvious of unlevel playing fields. Aidan O’Brien’s horses don’t these days jump fences but the scale of his achievements is incredible and, if there is a single feat to rival Michael’s Famous Five, it is surely what Aidan did at Chantilly in the first week of October. In the world’s richest race on turf, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, against the cream of the competition from England, Ireland, Germany and Japan, he filled the first three places with the filly Found, Highland Reel and Order of St George. In typical O’Brien fashion he tried to divert credit to his Ballydoyle patrons — ‘the lads’ as he calls them — but no one in the sport is in any doubt any longer that it is the trainer himself who deserves the ‘genius’ tag.
True the lads provide him with the best horses — of the 20 Group Ones he has won so far this season, 17 were sired by the remarkable Coolmore stallion Galileo — and with Ryan Moore riding most of them Aidan has the best jockey in the world at present, but what O’Brien does in his quiet and methodical way is to make good horses still better. Former top jockey Richard Hughes, now a trainer himself, adds an interesting point: O’Brien’s horses are, he says, impeccably well-behaved in the parade ring and on the racecourse. They have been brought up by their trainer to brush their teeth every morning and evening and to finish their homework before they go to bed. In the end that consistent horse-parenting is down to one man: asked on a Ballydoyle media open day if the unique communication system which allows him to speak directly into the ears of 180 staff was twoway, O’Brien confirmed that it was. So did the staff speak back to him? ‘Ah, no. It’s mostly one way,’ he replied with a smile.
O’Brien never stops and he has just demonstrated his strength in depth in the future champions races. The day before Saturday’s 1-2 with Churchill he had produced the first two home in the Fillies Mile, the other Group One for two-years-olds, with Rhododendron and Hydrangea. Churchill is now a cramped 2-1 favourite for the 2000 Guineas next spring, but will he make a Derby horse too? His trainer, who has already won the race five times, isn’t ruling it out, saying that he is an economical galloper who wasn’t even blowing after the Dewhurst. He says, ‘He has a massive engine in there. He has tons up his sleeve. He is a big, physically very imposing horse. He is powerful and has a great mind. He relaxes and sleeps. He just does the minimum and is a great traveller, so the qualities are there in abundance. His mind will allow him to get most trips as long as the speed doesn’t stretch out too far.’ That sounds to me like a good reason to take some of the 8-1 available for Epsom as I write.