They attack in droves, constantly searching for new lands to conquer. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, Aidan O’Brien can be called the modern day Alexander the Great and his four-legged Ballydoyle bruisers the Macedonian army. Alexander ruled a good portion of the world while in his 20s. Aidan O’Brien has looked like he’s in his 20s for as long as anyone can remember. His magnificent steeds come and go, but O’Brien still retains that same youthful appearance.
His empire is known as Coolmore, which actually rules Ballydoyle, supplying O’Brien with the finest horseflesh in the world year after year. For more than two decades they have sent O’Brien off on his numerous invasions of Europe and North America, collecting tremendous riches along the way.
It is in late October or early November when racing fans across the United States witness firsthand this powerful force. That is when O’Brien shows up on our shores looking to take as many Breeders’ Cup trophies back to Ireland to be placed on the Coolmore mantelpiece. This year will be no different when he sends more than a dozen top-class horses over, targeting yet another attempt at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, likely with his tenacious and resilient filly Found.
But what goes on behind the walls of Ballydoyle, and how do they come up with classic winners, champions, and hordes of group I horses every year, whether in the spring classics or the big fall championship races?
In 2002, I had the privilege of infiltrating those walls and seeing how this remarkable machine operates.
Ballydoyle has been the training ground of numerous champions well before O’Brien took over. Founded and built by legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien (no relation), Ballydoyle spawned such champions and classic winners as Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, The Minstrel, Roberto, Sadler’s Wells and Caerleon, just to name a few. Aidan O’Brien took over the training in 1996, with the Coolmore team now comprised of Vincent O’Brien’s son-in-law John Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith.
There were no signs leading into Ballydoyle when we arrived, only a row of fencing and an amiable security officer at the entrance. Visitors are cordially asked to wait while their scheduled visit is confirmed. Just beyond the booth is a bronze statue of the great Nijinsky, who in 1970 became the last horse to sweep the English Triple Crown (2,000 Guineas, Derby, and St. Leger).
We arrived at a time when Ballydoyle was truly emerging as a major power and attempting to conquer new worlds, having nearly pulled off an unprecedented victory in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic with the amazing iron horse Giant’s Causeway and then capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Johannesburg the following year.
Giant’s Causeway was O’Brien’s first big splash in the Breeders’ Cup, having sent a handful of lesser regarded horses over in 1998 and ’99. It was Wayne Lukas who actually ponied Giant’s Causeway to the track, as O’Brien followed on foot. He listened intently as Lukas, who trained for Coolmore, filled in the young trainer on the shoeing process, the medication rules, and introduced him to Churchill Downs starter Roger Nagle. It was Lukas who recommended that O’Brien send the colt to the post with a lead pony because of his tendency to look around. Giant’s Causeway turned in yet another of his trademark gusty efforts in his dirt debut after a long grueling campaign, losing by a neck to Tiznow, with jockey Michael Kinane dropping his right reins in deep stretch.
It was 2001 that was a breakthrough year for Ballydoyle, as O’Brien won a record 23 group I stakes, including the English and Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Galileo, who, as a stallion, would send Coolmore soaring to heights not even they could have dreamed of.
One of my highlights of the 2001 Breeders’ Cup was being at JFK airport when O’Brien’s contingent arrived, headed by Galileo. The DC-8 Air Transport International jet landed at 4:30 in the afternoon carrying one of the most expensive shipments of horseflesh in history. I was informed by the shipping agent that the insurance company had appraised Ballydoyle’s arsenal at nearly $200 million, with Galileo alone valued at $65 million.
Ballydoyle’s major stars of 2002 were 3-year-olds High Chapparral, who not only would win the English and Irish Derby, but became the first horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf; Rock of Gibraltar, winner of seven consecutive group I stakes in less than a year (five in a four-month period), including the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas, St. James’s Palace Stakes, and Sussex Stakes; and Eclipse Stakes winner Hawk Wing, a three-time group I winner and runner-up in the English Derby and 2,000 Guineas. It was a thrill having O’Brien take me, my wife and daughter to visit all three colts and seeing them close up.
To emphasize O’Brien’s success in 2002, he became the first trainer ever to win the English, Irish, and French 2,000 Guineas in the same year, as well as finishing one-two in the English Derby and one-two-three in the Irish Derby.
It’s been 14 years since our visit, and Ballydoyle continues to grow in strength, thanks in great part to the spectacular success of Galileo. To demonstrate their domination of international racing, they have won the Irish Derby 11 times, the Irish 2,000 Guineas 10 times, the English 2,000 Guineas and Ascot Gold Cup seven times, the English Derby, Irish Oaks, and Breeders’ Cup Turf five times, the Arlington Million twice, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice, including an extraordinary and unprecedented 1, 2, 3, finish this year. Another remarkable feat was sending Cape Blanco on three separate transatlantic flights to America in 2011 and winning grade I stakes (Man o’War, Arlington Million, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic) each time. And there was Yeats winning the marathon Ascot Gold Cup a record four consecutive years at ages 5, 6, 7, and 8.
This year so far, O’Brien was won 20 group I stakes in Europe and one grade I stakes (Belmont Derby) in the United States. Those 21 group and grade I stakes have been won by 12 different horses.
The success of Ballydoyle, O’Brien, and Coolmore is not just a result of breeding and purchasing some of the best-bred horses in the world. It is the operation itself and the genius of O’Brien, as well as the camaraderie that is so prevalent and the way O’Brien relates to all the help.
Soft spoken and all consuming, O’Brien’s voice can, as the saying goes, “soothe a savage breast, soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
On this particular August morning, O’Brien got into his Mitsubishi Shogun and tore through the narrow paths of Ballydoyle, darting precariously between fences and buildings with such velocity it was like being on a ride at Six Flags. He pulled up to an intersection on one of the dirt tracks just as a string of 45 2-year-olds were approaching from the right. He took a quick look, then put his vehicle in reverse and headed back down the track to await them.
The dirt track at Ballydoyle is extremely narrow by American standards, leaving only a few feet of space between O’Brien’s Mitsubishi and the railing. But not one of the Ballydoyle babies even flinched, walking calmly by as O’Brien conducted what can best be described as a melodic symphony of instructions to the riders. Not only did O’Brien have no hesitation in recognizing every one of the 45 horses, he made it a point to follow each set of instructions with the rider’s name. Even when one of their names briefly escaped him, he would not continue until he addressed that rider by name.
So, the symphony began, with O’Brien’s soft, calming voice the only instrument.
“Hack and a nice steady, Vivian.”
“Hack and a nice steady, Niall.”
“One hack, Seamus, and back into the barn.”
“Michael, you can do two hacks, then go to the last of the colts.”
“Hack and a nice steady, Andrew.”
“Hack and a nice steady, Melissa.”
“Hack and a nice steady.…James.”
He would not continue until he got James’s name out. It went on like this with 45 horses and riders. And it was only the beginning.
“They’re going to do a hack the first time,” O’Brien said. “Then we’ll see them again. Depending on how they are, they’ll do another canter. We look mostly at their overall well-being and the look in their eye. Then we’ll talk to the lads before we decide what to do the second time. The first canter is just to loosen up, so we can see how well they’re moving and how they’re feeling.”
Despite looking at so many horses (these were just the 2-year-olds), O’Brien doesn’t miss a thing.
“Their eyes can tell you an awful lot about them and how they’re behaving,” O’Brien said. “The bad ones show themselves very quickly, especially amongst good horses. You know very early, sometimes in February or March, what they’re capable of.”
O’Brien proceeded to rattle off the names of several of the 2-year-olds and their pedigrees. I marveled at some of the elite pedigrees, but O’Brien put that in perspective, saying, “Elvis had no brothers who could sing.”
Needless to say, Ballydoyle has the best of everything, including its high-tech training facilities and state-of-the-art operation. When Vincent O’Brien moved to Tipperary in 1951 he purchased 280 acres of land, which he later expanded to 600 acres. At that time, his partners were John Magnier and Robert Sangster, with the latter eventually leaving the partnership. O’Brien retired in 1994 and Magnier bought him out, making Ballydoyle the training arm for the Coolmore operation. Not far from the training grounds is Coolmore Stud, a magnificent farm where we visited their dynamic duo of stallions Sadler’s Wells and Danehill.
Aidan O’Brien inherited quite an operation, as Vincent demanded only the best of everything, from veterinary facilities, a computerized health-check system, and an isolation area to assure that horses about to race would be free of any viral infections that might be going around. There is a variety of lush grass courses and all-weather courses mingling together to form arguably the finest training facility in the world. O’Brien even built his own runway on the farm, so he could fly his horses to racetracks all over Europe direct from Ballydoyle.
To master Epsom’s notorious Tattenham Corner with its sharp downhill run, O’Brien constructed a duplicate turn where horses face the same steep dip in the ground, which is also at a severe angle. The result was six English Derby winners for Vincent and five for Aidan.
If there is one race that has eluded and haunted O’Brien it is the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After nearly winning it with Giant’s Causeway, he has made a dozen more attempts. He came fairly close again in 2008, finishing second with Henrythenavigator, with the race run on an all-weather track. But he was beaten by Henry’s arch rival Raven’s Pass, while finishing ahead of America’s Horse of the Year Curlin. In 2013 O’Brien was beaten two noses with Declaration of War. It’s been right there for him, but he just hasn’t been able to grab hold of it.
He also suffered the heartbreak of seeing one of the most popular horses ever to come out of Ballydoyle, George Washington, suffer a fatal injury in the slop at Monmouth in 2007, which left his wife Anne-Marie in tears.
“The Classic is a great race and as long as we’re alive we’ll keep trying,” O’Brien said. “We’ve brought all types of horses and we haven’t been able to win it, so we’ll just keep trying to find the right horse. The season has been a long one for some of the horses and we’ve had some near misses. But that’s the way it goes. You just do your best every day. Sometimes you make good decisions and sometimes you make bad decisions and you just learn from the bad ones and try again.
“You need a very good horse and there can’t be any flaws. We’ve been lucky to have horses we felt were good enough to run in it. It’s frustrating never to have won it and we’ve had some bad luck. But there are loads of things in life that can frustrate you. All you can do is your best and hope some day it will happen.”
That day may be this year if his tough hard-knocking filly Found can handle the dirt and knock off California Chrome, Arrogate, Frosted and the others the way she knocked off most of Europe’s top horses in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on October 2 and the way she upset champion Golden Horn in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf. Like last year, she will come to America having run in the Arc and Champion Stakes, which are only two weeks apart, and then only three weeks back in the Breeders’ Cup. But this iron filly seems to thrive on it. She again ran her heart out in the Champion Stakes, finishing second to the best horse in Europe, France’s Almanzor.
This will be O’Brien’s first attempt at the Classic with a filly, but, ironically, the last Arc de Triomphe winner to win a race after the Arc that same year was a filly, All Along, who would go on to be voted Horse of the Year in America.
O’Brien was scheduled to pre-enter Found in both the Classic (first preference) and Turf, but has King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner and Arc runner-up Highland Reel for the Turf, with a second preference in the Classic. So it looks as if O’Brien is determined to try once again. In all, O’Brien is expected to have more than a dozen horses pre-entered in the Breeders’ Cup.
So, when you handicap and watch the Breeders’ Cup and see all the top-class horses coming from Ballydoyle, don’t just look at it as the big machine, devoid of personality, churning out one royally bred stakes winner after another and invading major events. These horses didn’t become major stars for no reason or because they simply are well-bred. O’Brien has created a perfect environment for man and horse that is both regimented yet blissful; hustling yet serene, all of which adds up to successful.
At least that’s how one person felt as he left Ballydoyle, having experienced something very special and unique.