Living the life of O'Brien

Andrew Stevenson meets two trainers who share a surname and the rare ability to make horses run quickly.In the middle of the 1990s two young men on opposite sides of the world, but born under the sign of the hoof, nailed up their own signs on a stable door: "O'Brien, trainer." Both had grown up with fathers who dabbled in thoroughbreds, men who trained and bred not as part of some grand enterprise but because of their love of horses. Both their boys shared a dream, to build on that inheritance, to make a life of their fathers' hobbies.

What couldn't have been more different were the stable doors, and the animals which lay behind.

In 1996 Aidan O'Brien took over Ballydoyle in County Tipperary, an established institution in the world of racing, owned by Robert Sangster and John Magnier, with more than 100 fine horses already in residence. Since then he has won virtually every major European race plus countless more in the United States.

When Danny O'Brien started at Epsom in Melbourne in 1995, Mad Hatterwas his one and only horse. His star is still ascending.

Today, by these most divergent paths, the two O'Briens, both still shy of 40, arrive at Flemington racecourse - along with another 115,000 people - the trainers to beat in this year's Melbourne Cup.

Danny, 37, saddles the favourite, Master O'Reilly, and an outsider Douro Valley, while Aidan has brought Mahler (which is about the $11 mark) from Ireland, hoping to add Australian racing's most prestigious prize to his endless winning list.

But, if the Melbourne Cup would be another feather in an already well-stuffed cap for Aidan, for Danny, still trying to break into Australian racing's top shelf, victory could set him up for life.

"Within the industry I think I've already ticked all the boxes and got the respect of the right sort of people but, obviously, winning a Melbourne Cup introduces your name to the 95 per cent of people who are once-a-year race people," he explains.

"It's a career-defining thing. The Melbourne Cup is the biggest horse race in Australia, some might say the world, and to win it is something you're going to be thrilled to have done.

"But any tangible benefit you might get for your business is never going to be matched by that sense of achievement, that you've got that Melbourne Cup that so many great trainers still haven't won. For us, as trainers, it's the race we'd all love to win: if we could only win one race for the rest of our lives we'd all say, 'I'd just love to win a Melbourne Cup'."

While Danny has imbibed the Melbourne Cup and it's story from birth, Aidan, 38, is new to the adventure. Last year, he sent out Yeats, but couldn't make it himself, instead leaving the horse in the care of jockey Kieren Fallon, who is absent this year and starring instead in a London trial, charged over a race-fixing scandal.

Despite the glory already his, Aidan sounds sincere in his admiration of the phenomenon that is Flemington in November. "It's amazing really, an example to everyone, all over the world, and I think it's a credit to everyone involved in racing down here," he explains. "There's nothing like this, anywhere in the world. People have to come here to see this."

Win or lose, perhaps the two trainers will have a chat today. Years ago Danny O'Brien took the advice Aidan is now extending and spent a morning in the heart of Aidan's world, sponging for the one-percenters that might make a difference on a day like this. "He trains the best horses in the world at the best facilities in the world: he's probably the best trainer in the world," proffers Danny.

"He's certainly the envy of every trainer because of what he gets to train and where he gets to train them. At the same time, I'm sure you'd want to be pretty confident to put your hand up and say you could do a better job than him."

The visit - especially the 10-1 winner Aidan tipped him into which helped pay for his trip - made a big impression on Danny. Aidan remembers his guest but has a clearer picture of what he's become. "He's a great fella. He's very sharp and he's just on a big upward curve. Danny's obviously a great trainer." Maybe something did rub off, although there'll be no leg-up tips in return.

Another rival trainer, the England-based Italian Luca Cumani (preparing Purple Moon) believes Aidan O'Brien has the best - and the hardest - job in racing.

"I'm envious of the horses he gets to train; I'm not envious of the pressure he has on him," says Cumani. "But I hope he doesn't get much better than he is already, otherwise he gives us no chance."

If the crowds and passion of Melbourne spring racing have opened Aidan's eyes, they typically have a similar, not particularly useful, effect on foreign horses, unused to such mass attention. The trainer will have his work cut out ensuring Mahler, a winner over this distance at Ascot, handles the challenge of his first race in Australia today.

He concedes it's a big ask. "We think Mahler is going to be an exceptional stayer next year. He's only a baby, a three-year-old with us, though you count him as a four-year-old [in the southern hemisphere]," he says. "He's progressed well and he's in at a very good weight. It's probably asking a lot of him."

Master O'Reilly, however, comes to the track a much more hardened animal, with form on his side, having won the Caulfield Cup two weeks ago. "His one race of the spring was always going to be the Melbourne Cup. He's won three others, including the Caulfield Cup, along the way," Danny O'Brien says.

Despite three wins and a third from his past four starts, O'Brien is convinced Master O'Reilly has got better. And it's all in the looks, he says, with his winter coat dropping out. "I think he's improved since Caulfield Cup day and it's my intention to present him in the best shape of his life on Melbourne Cup day. At Caulfield he was still looking a bit wintry and woolly.

"He'll look the part on Tuesday and if I can see that coat really gleaming I'll be confident he has improved that little bit and he'll be healthy, well and ready to go."

by Andrew Stevenson - Sydney Morning Herald

Read the full article here at the Sydney Morning Herald