Local trainer has cleans with more to come

IT'S little wonder Danny O'Brien didn't make it to the bacon-and-eggs part of the Breakfast with the Stars promotion at Flemington this week.

He already had plenty on his plate.

As one of racing's fast-rising stars, the 37-year-old trainer of Villain, one of the best chances in today's AAMI Victoria Derby, and Master O'Reilly, the Melbourne Cup favourite, is in the middle of the most eventful few weeks of his life.

In quick succession, he has become a father for the first time, produced the winner and the runner-up in the Caulfield Cup and endured his first visit to a hospital to have his infected appendix out.

No sooner was he out of the surgeon's hands, he was back overseeing the work of 70 horses - a four-hour task - on Tuesday, while heavily dosed up on antibiotics.

"It keeps you a bit low for a while, but it makes no difference to the job," he says.

"I don't ride them any more, so as long as I'm there to watch, everything should go pretty smoothly."

There are also the not so minor matters of keeping a multi-million dollar business employing some 30 staff ticking over, monitoring the progress of a luxurious new training complex being built at Barwon Heads and dealing with an upsurge of media interest - including writing a column of his own in the Herald Sun.

It seems like a massive workload.

It is fortunate, then, that O'Brien considers his job to be fun.

In many ways, he's just a kid living the dream. But you don't have to spend long in his presence to realise that it would be a major mistake to confuse that boyish enthusiasm with any lack of hard-nosed professionalism or driving ambition.

O'Brien has a clear vision of where he's headed, and it's up alongside David Hayes, Lee Freedman, John Hawkes and Bart Cummings.

With the Caulfield Cup 1-2 already in the bag and big things hopefully to come today and on Tuesday, he is poised to take his already substantial 10-year career to another level.

He is like an Olympic diver standing on the springboard - the next thing we see and hear could be the big splash.

His little sister, Mary-Rose, might see that gold medal imagery as appropriate. Asked about him this week, she giggled and said: "You mean the golden child?"

This might be little more than sibling mischief, at least as far as O'Brien is concerned. "I don't know where she got that one," he said, blinking.

But Mary-Rose, 23, who works in public relations at the VRC, just 100m from her brother's stables, says: "It's a bit of a joke really, but we all refer to him that way.

"He's the first-born, the head of the family, he guides everyone. He can't put a foot wrong - but you don't, when you work as hard as he does.

"He's a great guy who looks out for everyone. Very generous. He doesn't throw it all out there, but you can always rely on him to step in at the right time. He reads situations very well."

The O'Briens, like many other Irish families, are steeped in racing. The siblings, Danny, Katie, Seamus, Peter and Mary-Rose, all work in it or play hard at it, their dad Peter was a trainer as well as a doctor, and his dad, James, was a publican and SP bookmaker who raced good horses.

Their mum Helen is, well, a fan. At Caulfield on cup day, she couldn't help herself when Master O'Reilly saluted, and gate-crashed the mounting yard without a pass.

"That's my son," she announced to the bemused security guards, who let her through.

"You know what mothers are like," sighs Danny.

Peter O'Brien always had horses and his oldest boy loved being around them, so although he armed himself with degrees in economics and law there was never any real doubt about what he would end up doing.

He has always had the passion, which has underpinned everything.

He remembers watching the Cup on a black-and-white TV in Grade 4 in 1979, the year the great Dulcify was destroyed after being galloped on during the race.

"I loved that horse, and when it broke down they turned the TV off at school - we only had three minutes to watch the race - and I ran all the way home to ask Mum what happened to it," he says.

"The next year Dad took me to the Cup for the first time, when Beldale Ball won."

Now Australia's most famous sporting trophy lies tantalisingly within reach of that small boy - literally so, his stables being adjacent to the race start - and he desperately wants to touch it.

"The Melbourne Cup is different," he says. "It's above and beyond what it's going to do for your business.

"When you start out training horses, it's the one Holy Grail you'd love to achieve.

"If I achieve it this year, it would just be something to be really proud about for the rest of my career.

"It's not only the blokes who have won it, but the blokes who haven't. A lot of great trainers haven't been able to win it, so it would be a great thing to have done."

It would be even more special, he says, to do it as a born-and-bred Melbourne boy, unlike, say, Freedman, Hayes, Cummings and Hawkes - who are all interstaters originally - or all the overseas raiders.

Having started with just one horse, O'Brien now has 150. He has come a long way - and not by accident.

"When I decided not to go down the path of law or whatever, to become a trainer, I wanted to do it as well as I could," he says.

"I started fairly young, probably younger than most, and I had a broad vision of where I wanted to get to.

"This is one industry where you just can't have success without hard work - and persistence. It's a long haul.

"The old saying that overnight success takes 20 years - there's nothing truer in horse racing, particularly when you start from scratch.

"You've just got to keep punching away for a long time.

"We're in a nice position coming into the Cup, but it's probably been 15 years of hard work - it hasn't just fallen into my lap."

It seems not that long ago that O'Brien used to go to Hanging Rock on Australia Day with just one horse, for the fun of it, and not care too much if it won or not.

Now he goes to Royal Ascot - you could hardly get two more opposite ends of the spectrum - as he did this year with the now-retired mare Glamour Puss.

"It's the same variables - everyone is trying to get a quid and have a bit of fun. It's just amped up a bit," he says.

O'Brien travels every year, visiting big international stables in England, Ireland, France, America and Hong Kong, just to see what he can learn.

"Looking over other people's shoulders, you learn from their mistakes rather than making them yourself," he says. "It's a lot easier."

Now glory beckons with Master O'Reilly, a five-year-old gelding who was bred in Christchurch, New Zealand. The last Cup winner from those parts was Phar Lap, so this one has got something to live up to.

As was well documented after Caulfield, owner Bill Sutcliffe declined to sell the horse to O'Brien but did give it to him to train, compensating incumbent mentor Judy Mawer with a 10 per cent slice of the action. That translated to $150,000 prizemoney.

"It's been a good story with no losers," O'Brien says.

"It will be a better story if I can go one better.

"He is one of those horses that is very, very good at stamina racing -- a natural long-distance athlete.

"He conserves energy in the run, is very relaxed and when other horses are getting tired he's just warming up.

"In the Caulfield Cup, he just went to sleep, we trotted him up to the corner and he went very strongly to the line.

"We always thought the Melbourne Cup would be his best race, because it's a real test of stamina.

"If there's one race in Australia this horse is made for, it's the Melbourne Cup and I'm just looking forward to seeing him in it.

"He's a pretty confident sort of horse, just likes to be left alone and probably knows he's got plenty of ability.

"His race-day game face is very good. He just switches off and doesn't do anything wrong in a race.

"Whatever the bloke on him wants him to be, he'll be. He knows the last half of a race is where it's won and tracks into it pretty quickly.

"He knows how to win a race and he's got all the attributes to win a Melbourne Cup."

That last bit is the trainer talking about the horse, of course. But it could easily be the horse talking about the trainer, too.

by Ron Reed - Herald Sun

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