Years of labour before glory

A lot of skill, time and effort go into a racehorse's preparation, long before any cups are lifted.

In some ways, being a horse trainer is simpler than being a rugby league coach.

''Rugby league players read the papers,'' top trainer Danny O'Brien says. ''Horses can't, so you don't have to worry about them getting a big head. Also, we lock them up at night, so we know exactly what they've done in the 12 hours we're not there.''

Sure, trainers need not be wary of overflowing egos or whether their star has got into mischief at a Kings Cross nightclub.

But, in other ways, the liabilities weighing on a trainer are greater than any other type of sporting coach. They appear relaxed and dapper on race day, glamorously fitted in classy suits or fashionable dresses.

Behind the scenes, the life of a trainer is a relentless, 365-day-a-year pattern of pressure, financial obligation, communication, tactical analysis and diverse managerial tasks. ''It's a long day and it's every day of the year,'' O'Brien says. ''It's like having children - you can't just have a day off.''

O'Brien's day begins at 4.30am. His operation has about 150 horses, 60 of which at any one time are kept at Flemington. The first thing he does is check each horse, take their temperatures and make sure they're in order to work that day.

''We'll take them for a walk, get a saddle on and get them ready to work, whether it's a slow canter or a fast gallop, depending on what stage of their preparation they're at and when and where they're racing next,'' he says. Afterwards, the horses have a swim, perhaps have another walk and then return to the stable.

The vets come in to check the horses and then, between 9am and 11am, O'Brien's staff - there's about one person for every three horses - will groom the animals. Some horses will have physio, ultrasounds and other typical upkeep required for a professional athlete.

''If there's no racing that day, we'll finish up and come back a bit later, about 2pm,'' he says. ''Every horse goes out for a walk in the afternoon and sometimes a swim as well, particularly in summer. Then at about 5pm we leave them be and come back the next morning to do it all again.''

The trainer's task is to manage the entire operation. He puts the routines in place and makes sure they are carried out smoothly.

''I'm there every day, overseeing everything, keeping an eye on how each horse is handling themselves and how they're progressing,'' O'Brien says.

''There are younger horses that we're educating to race in maybe 12 months' time and others, like our Caulfield Cup runners, that are right up there and about to have a career-defining moment.

"In some ways it's like being a football coach - you have horses at different stages of their career and all requiring a different style and preparation for what they're trying to achieve for that day or week or month. It's a two- to three-year process to get a horse ready for a major race.''

A trainer is an employer, but also works for investors. Some horses are owned by one person, others are owned by syndicates.

O'Brien estimates his stable of horses is owned by as many as 1000 investors. All expect results and it's up to the trainer to ensure each horse is ready at the right time and will be ridden in the best way.

''As it comes up to the big race you have to get the horse fit at the right time so it's at its peak,'' he says.

''Then you need to work your tactics. Every horse has got a different style of racing. Some need to get out early and lead from the front. Others are better sitting back early and finishing harder. You work out the horse and chat to your jockey and you discuss how best to ride.''

It's high pressure but, like a football coach, once on the field, it is up to the competitors to perform.

''On race day it's all out of your control,'' O'Brien says. ''It's all down to the horse and jockey. It's in the lap of the gods. If your horse is going to get beaten, you just hope that it's beaten fairly. You don't want bad luck or a bad ride.''

O'Brien had some bad luck last week when his horse Vigor, which had been favourite for last weekend's Caulfield Cup, drew an outside barrier and drifted in the betting. Things can happen that way in racing, but O'Brien relishes the business just as it is.

''It's a full-on lifestyle, 365-day-a-year job and unless you love it, you couldn't do it,'' he says.

Story by David Sygall, to view full Sydney Morning Herald story click here

Photo by Bruno Cannatelli, to view Bruno's website click here