By Tony Stafford
While Minding was sweeping through the field to overcome trouble in running and adding the Investec Oaks to her 1,000 Guineas triumph for the Aidan O’Brien stable on Friday, three of his four children were back home in Ireland minding the shop.
Joseph, the eldest at 23, for some months the custodian of his maternal family farm at Piltown, spent Friday night over-seeing the O’Brien runners at Leopardstown, where they were rewarded with a five-timer to add to the spectacular Epsom Classic success.
Three of the five were partnered by Joseph’s 17-year-old brother Donnacha, already down to a 3lb claim less than a year into his riding career, and one other by younger sister Ana. Her taller sibling Sara, an amateur and second eldest took the rare chance with time off from veterinary college, to have a couple of days on the Downs.
Ana was left alone on Saturday back home with mum riding on a less successful day for the team – if you could say second and third in the Derby and runner-up (to a star like Postponed) in the Coronation Cup was disappointing? Donnacha had a first Derby (ride) unplaced, while Joseph, resplendent in top hat and tails, escorted the elder sister for the day.
Of course, this was the day before the day before the storm, with O’Brien junior finally getting his own name alongside the horses in his care, around 30 minutes’ drive from Ballydoyle.
From today, the name Joseph Patrick O’Brien will adorn swathes of runners if this afternoon’s opening salvo at Gowran Park (four) and Listowel (three) is anything to go by, which it clearly is.
At Listowel, two J P McManus horses, the first with retained rider Barry Geraghty aboard, and sister Sara in the bumper, sandwich a Brian O’Connell-ridden runner in the handicap hurdle.
The history-defining moment comes at 2.05 at Gowran where Joseph encounters a first-time inmate of his father’s string – now we know where we are – and his runner could have an experience advantage.
Three later runners include two in the same race, with Donnacha, who also rides the first two, and Ana sharing the responsibilities.
The wait for Joseph to get the licence, given the almost-unconscionable amount of experience he has packed in his few short years, with Derby and God knows what else wins and riding championships, brought some mystified head scratching, at least for me.
But it seems the requirement of taking a course to satisfy the authorities of his credentials could not be set up apparently until at least ten applicants were in place. Robbie McNamara was among this group I believe, along with some retired jockeys and permit trainers wishing to upgrade to the full public licence.
Well satisfy them he did, and this morning might be different in terms of licensing, but not in work load. Joseph does first lot every morning at Ballydoyle before driving down to Piltown for a 9.15 a.m. start. Blimey, Clive Brittain in his heyday would be tucking into bed by then most mornings! The others are based at home, but no doubt they will be employed to hone horses for imminent objectives whenever needed.
One of the major O’Brien and Coolmore associates and long-standing friends is Demi O’Byrne, a brilliant vet who for many years was described as Michael Tabor’s Racing Manager. He is the owner of Lundy, twice narrowly beaten by Royal Ascot-bound juveniles, either side of an easy win.
Lundy will be one of the most eagerly-sought lots in the forthcoming Goffs London sale on the eve of Royal Ascot next Monday in Kensington showing that financial enterprise is equally regarded with ambition in the fledgling stable.
There is something about the number 23 where the O’Brien’s are concerned. Twenty three years ago, a few months before the arrival of Aidan and Anne Marie’s first-born, Anne Marie Crowley-O’Brien, as some of the record books at the time would tell us, was preparing a team of horses for her first challenge to the Cheltenham Festival.
The much-respected John Cobb wrote a perceptive article in the Independent – sadly now just a web-newspaper – suggesting that half a dozen would be going to the Festival a month to the day of the piece.
He pointed out that Anne Marie, assisted by her young husband, a recent graduate from Jim Bolger’s stable, had already sent out 40 winners to lead Noel Meade by some way and at a comfortably better strike-rate (27%) at that stage of the season than perennial British champion Martin Pipe.
Coincidentally both were 23 years of age, and like their son a generation on, Aidan had to wait, presumably until motherhood took over, to get his first licence. In the event, only one of the sextet turned up at Cheltenham, a four-year-old filly called Loshian, who finished a close fifth of 25 in the Triumph Hurdle.
She stayed in training for three more seasons and among those to ride her were their loyal stalwart Seamie Heffernan, who partnered Loshian to her first win, Johnny Murtagh, Richard Dunwoody, John Egan, the assistant trainer (13th of 15 on their only outing together), Charlie Swan and A P McCoy, like Aidan a graduate of the Jim Bolger school of character forming.
Within a few years, Aidan was to comprehensively rewrite what could be possible in the history of Irish jumping making the call from John Magnier to take over from namesake Vincent (no relation) O’Brien at Ballydoyle inevitable.
By the end of that first Piltown year, 1993, Aidan had 18 Flat wins, followed by 49, 76, 80 and 116. The jumpers won 67 races in the first year, followed by 136, 154, 136 again and 94 before the summons from Coolmore.
When Anne Marie held the licence – for just two seasons – her five younger sisters all rode in the mornings as they had for their father Joe Crowley beforehand, and they “worked all day until 9.30 p.m”. John Cobb also showed just how shrewd Jim Bolger was, telling the writer he would have done anything to keep Aidan after his three years there, short of marrying him!
Bolger said on that February day: “I’m sure they’ll be a force on the Flat, but I hope later rather than sooner.” Twenty-three years on Bolger is still at the top of his profession, but his former pupil has become the master and also the founder of a dynasty that will surely go on for many years to come.