Danny O'Brien the master of his own destiny

Trainer Danny O'Brien is planning for the future - a future he fears may be out of reach of many colleagues.

The man who trained Master O'Reilly and Douro Valley to quinella last year's Caulfield Cup has concerns Australia may go the way of the United Kingdom where conglomerates Godolphin and Coolmore dominate.

At 38 and with a law and economics degree behind him, O'Brien is building a lavish training complex at Barwon Heads as well as using the fabulous facilities at Flemington.

"It is a huge investment but the only way to go," he said as he prepared his Spring Carnival campaigners in a bid to help pay for his dream.

"Otherwise it is like a painter with only two colours - training on the sand or the grass. With this new facility you have a palate with the colours of the rainbow to create something."

The dual training venture has an urgency about it because O'Brien knows the training caper will become harder for those not near the top of the tree within a decade.

"I would hate Australian racing to end up like in the UK, with Godolphin and Coolmore dominating," he said.

"Everyone gets a go in Australia. But within 10 years the big international stables (Coolmore and Darley) could own all the top stallions and quality mares, and send scraps to the sale ring.

"If that happens and it is all about a couple of owners, it will not matter how good a trainer you are. All the best stock will end up in the hands of a few, elite and select trainers.

"That would be a disaster for the smaller and middle-of-the-road trainers, because they will be left with scraps to fight over, and virtually no chance of winning major races.

"I'd prefer everyone to get a chance - for eight or 10 blokes to buy a horse for a few thousand dollars each and end up with Weekend Hussler or whoever, and for them to choose their trainer."

O'Brien's warning should be given due consideration as he is one of the new breed who could shape the industry for the next three decades.

He has 150 horses on his books, with 60 in work. His vision for Barwon Heads will give him similar facilities and options (tracks as well as beach and rolling hills) to Lee Freedman at Rye and David Hayes at Lindsay Park.

The boy from Kyabram cut his teeth on all aspects of the industry. The son of Peter, a breeder who held an owner/trainer licence, he grew up working with stallions, mares, foals and racehorses.

He worked part-time with Bart Cummings during his law and economics studies at Monash University, and then full time with James Riley before taking out a licence in 1996.

"After 12 months, racing officials closed Epsom. I was lucky to secure the Flemington boxes used by Lee Freedman, because he went to Caulfield," O'Brien said.

"I was 24 and a trainer, and I knew early that I didn't want to be a lawyer and that my life would be in racing, so long as I could survive at it.

"It helps to be educated and able to speak with the owners and breeders, and understand a bit of legal and economic matters.

"Potential clients want commitments these days. They are not happy to just be told to front up at the races on Saturday and keep mum.

"They put in a lot of money and they want more from trainers than 20 years ago. They want communication and direction, and commitment. That's their right for owning the horse, and you must provide it."

O'Brien's first tentative steps were with Mad Hatter.

"He won his first three in town, which gave me a good start, but he broke down three months later and it was back to square one within a year of having my licence," he said.

"I had to go back to buying yearlings and found four top gallopers.

"I always try to get quality. I would prefer three or four who can win in town rather than 30 or 40 who can't.

"In 2005 I had four Group 1 winners. Glamour Puss won the Goodwood Hcp and Demerger won the Adelaide Cup, a training effort that hadn't been done for 100 years.

"Then in the Spring Glamour Puss won the Salinger Stakes and The Classic, and Valedictum won the Emirates Stakes.

"But last year was the big one. Getting the quinella with Master O'Reilly and Douro Valley in the Caulfield Cup was huge.

"I didn't realise how big the three majors - the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup - are for a trainer.

"I had people suddenly recognise me, even though I had been training plenty of winners. I guess a lot of people concentrate only on the big races, and it doesn't matter how many other races you win, it is not until you snag one of the big three that people suddenly sit up and take notice.

"They are so hard to win. But if you do, people respect that you are getting the job done in the big races, and suddenly you are an option for them as a trainer of quality gallopers.

"There are only so many sheiks to go around so every new owner is a bonus."

As for spring, O'Brien is looking for Master O'Reilly to win back-to-back Caulfield Cups, and he believes Gallopin, last year's Bagot Hcp winner with 58kg, could be a sneaky chance with 51kg in the Melbourne Cup.

"We must keep winning big races or we cannot justify ventures like Barwon Heads. Now we are totally committed to that, I'm extremely keen to repeat the successes of last Spring to boost my own stocks and to help pay for the future," he said.

By Rod Nicholson

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Photo by Bruno Cannatelli

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