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The turf

There is no escaping the O’Brien factor

I found myself wishing guiltily that someone else would win the 2,000 Guineas for a change

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

I suppose, given the income and the opportunity to indulge, you could eventually tire of even Meursault, Mauritius and Mrs Oakley’s sublime chicken pudding. Guiltily, because racing means nothing if it is not a celebration of the best, I notice a fleeting thought going through my mind as I slalom through Swinley Bottom and approach Newmarket for the first of the season’s Flat racing Classics: ‘Please can somebody other than Aidan O’Brien win the 2,000 Guineas this year.’

Before this year’s race, the genius who prepares the horses for John Magnier’s Coolmore operation at Ballydoyle Stables in Co. Tipperary had won the race a record eight times, and sure enough Saxon Warrior, whose softly spoken trainer described him as ‘an absolute monster’ on Saturday, won the race for a record ninth time. Human instinct being what it is (and Aidan himself being away at the Kentucky Derby), immediately after the race there were as many of us clustered around the connections of the second horse home, Tip Two Win, as there were around the Coolmore team.


The 50–1 outsider, a plucky little grey jeep to Saxon Warrior’s Sherman tank, had run a brave race to pick up for his owner Anne Cowley the second prize of £107,500, more than Lambourn trainer Roger Teal’s 25-strong team won between them last season. Efforts like theirs, which ensure that the dream stays alive for many smaller-scale owners and trainers, are vital to keep racing’s show on the road. The likeable trainer, associated with the successful globetrotter Running Stag in his days as assistant to Philip Mitchell in Epsom, had gone for the Guineas after Tip Two Win had won twice in Qatar over the winter. He rightly revelled in their achievement saying: ‘I didn’t pitch him in here because we wanted a day out. We came here because we’ve got a nice horse. He was only 50–1 because he was trained by me and not by John Gosden. I know the Doha form doesn’t stack up over here but it does now. He’s a little champion and never lets me down.’ Had he managed to sleep the night before such an adventure? ‘Eventually — though I think a couple of bottles of wine helped.’

Even against that you could not begrudge yet another O’Brien success, especially given the demeanour of the winning jockey Donnacha, the youngest of Aidan and Annemarie’s four children after Sarah, Joseph and Ana. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, once declared: ‘If only I had a little humility, I’d be perfect.’ The sheer grace of the O’Briens in handling their conveyor belt of success is a lesson to all in an age of chest-beating sportsmen. Just imagine the pressure last Saturday on young Donnacha in a hard-working family in which sublime ability is taken as the norm even before the teenage spots have cleared. At just 19 Donnacha was only riding Saxon Warrior because Ryan Moore was over in Kentucky for the Derby. His father, champion trainer in Ireland since 1998 and six times in Britain too, had up to that moment trained 299 Group One winners, including eight 2,000 Guineas and five Epsom Derbies. His mother had been champion trainer in Ireland too. His two sisters were both winning jockeys and his brother Joseph, a basketball player’s body squeezed into a jockey’s silks, had won ten Classics in England and Ireland before giving up the battle with his weight and retiring at just 22. He then became a trainer himself and in his second season won a Melbourne Cup — with a horse of his father’s in second place.

Though he chided himself afterwards for coming a tad too soon, Donnacha had Saxon Warrior perfectly poised to make his move two furlongs out and the 300th O’Brien Group One victory was assured the moment he asked him to finish the job. Soon he was facing the media pack with modesty and realism, thanking his father for the opportunity and his elder brother, who won the 2,000 on Camelot in 2012, for his advice. Asked when he had been sure of victory on Saxon Warrior, he replied: ‘Last Thursday — he has been working so well.’ Donnacha acknowledged that he would not have got the ride if he hadn’t been his father’s son: ‘I am under no illusions that’s the only reason I’m riding them, but I am glad that I can do the business.’ And although he can do 9st comfortably at the moment, he admits, too, that he is likely to follow brother Joseph’s path: ‘One day in the future I will wake up and be too heavy.’

You just cannot escape the O’Brien factor. When the 1,000 Guineas was won the next day by 66–1 shot Billesdon Brook, the third string for the multi-horsepower Richard Hannon operation, she was ridden by Sean Levey who became the first mixed-race rider to win a Guineas. The rider’s mother Tini, from Swaziland, is housekeeper to the O’Brien clan and Levey’s early experience was gained on the Ballydoyle gallops.


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