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Aidan O'Brien wins his Seventh Derby

Sunday Times Sport - 2nd June 2019

Passion is the thing. There are many qualities that make Aidan O’Brien a record-breaking trainer but at the heart it is his abiding fascination and passion for the handling of the thoroughbred racehorse that drives him on. That Anthony Van Dyck gave him a seventh Derby with his stable companions following in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth places added to the accolades but they are merely the public success of a very private man.

Aidan will be 50 this October but much of his manner and his voice retains the awestruck enthusiasm of the boy who first encountered top class racehorses when he went to work for Jim Bolger at 16 and then went on a meteoric rise through a brief amateur riding career before becoming champion jump trainer at only 25. Five more jump titles followed, the last one coinciding with his first flat championship from Ballydoyle in 1997.

One spring morning a year later he sped me alongside three Derby hopefuls, looked at the speedometer and said in hushed tones “isn’t it amazing what they can do.” Those three finished out with the washing at Epsom, but in 2001 Galileo strode home majestically to confirm O’Brien as a trainer and the horse as the greatest sire of modern times - with Anthony Van Dyck being Galileo’s third Derby winner and five of the other O’Brien finishers either sons or grandsons of the potentate. What with super sire and super trainer, any ordinary operation would have slowed with the sheer mound of success.

But the tones are still hushed. Aidan still takes your arm and says “listen, this is a really lovely horse. He is something special. We can’t be sure we haven’t had anything better.” You would want to hate him for it and there is no doubt that beneath all the self-deprecating humility there is a taskmaster which makes slackers a long extinct species in his corner of Tipperary.

Of course he now has back up unlike anything in Epsom’s 220 year history. It is already deep into racing legend how the marvellously astute John Magnier has built up his Coolmore Stud into the world’s premier breeding operation and how he and his partners Michael Tabor and Derek Smith have bet the farm on Galileo to provide O’Brien with a depth of ammunition no one else can match. There were 13 runners in yesterday’s Derby, seven of them came from nearby Ballydoyle on poignantly the tenth anniversary of the death of Magnier’s legendary  father-in-law, Vincent O’Brien (no relation) who himself saddled six winners of ‘The Blue Riband of The Turf’.

This is as if Formula One had one manufacturer on the first three rows of the grid and for the sake of the game, one can only hope that the other big battalions will field stronger teams in the years ahead. What they are unlikely to get is a lessening of the edge that O’Brien is always working for. He is a master in a multi-million pound business but still feels as if he is blessed with his good fortune and, most winningly of all, can make this heavy hitting operation seem a family affair.

For years there was the slightly comic sight of him and his wife Anne Marie with their children like little ducklings in tow. Now they are all part of the team and if there was one disappointment for them yesterday, it would have been that their younger son Donnacha could not, although a close 4th on Japan, match his older sibling Joseph who landed O’Brien father-son triumphs with Camelot and Australia in 2012 and 2014.

Not that Aidan was showing anything. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m so delighted and privileged to be working with everybody at Ballydoyle and Coolmore day in and day out – they put so much effort into it. The Derby is such a tough race to win. All the way down the straight, we had a big team of horses challenging to win. We won the race but we didn’t even have the second!”

“I’m just so delighted for everyone. I know how tough a race this is. We do not put any of our Derby horses together at home. We just try to have them at their best for when they get to the racecourse. The boss (John Magnier) always says that the Derby is the Holy Grail and that it is the backbone of the thoroughbred. This is the ultimate test. You don’t know what horse is going to handle the track, the preliminaries, whether they will have the stamina.”

“Anthony Van Dyck is a very solid horse. He danced every dance last year and did everything we asked of him. He ran a very good trial when winning at Lingfield. He passed all the tests.”

If you want to be cynical, this is a standard O’Brien script in the aftermath of yet another triumph. But get close to him, spend time with him and his family and it’s even difficult to get cynical with what must be one of the ultimate of understatements. “I’m very privileged” says Aidan O’Brien, “to be a small part of a great team.”