Joseph O’Brien is in the middle of the best rookie season in Irish flat racing since… well, since his father, Aidan, and perhaps ever, writes Tony Keenan. Of course, he’s had every advantage in his racing life, biological and experiential, but the blend of nature and nurture that has produced this rising force still needs to be placed in context.
Let’s consider the first season records of the top thirty Irish flat trainers by winners trained in 2016 along with a few other notables like David Wachman who are having a quiet time. Some names are missing – Weld, Bolger, Halford, Kevin Prendergast, Lynam, Stack, Oxx and Joe Murphy – because they started training before 1988; that defines the modern era for me or at least is as far as the database goes back!
A bad rookie year is not necessarily a pre-cursor to a mediocre training career; Ger Lyons for instance had only one winner in 1994 but has become a perennial top-five trainer since. But the best three first seasons have clearly come from Aidan O’Brien, Johnny Murtagh and Charles O’Brien, trainers that are linked directly or indirectly; Charles is the son of the original Master of Ballydoyle, Vincent O’Brien, a yard Aidan now inhabits, while Johnny Murtagh rode for Aidan between 2008 and 2010, his departure rumoured to have been hastened by the emergence of Joseph O’Brien as a jockey.
All three of Aidan O’Brien, Charles O’Brien and Johnny Murtagh would have begun their training careers from privileged positions (as Joseph does now) but it is interesting to see how their careers have developed.
Aidan has become arguably the greatest trainer of all time, holding the record for most Group 1 winners trained, whereas Charles has had a largely disappointing career, maxing out at 20 Irish flat winners in 2007, the 112-rated Lord Admiral about his best horse. With Murtagh, the jury is out; his first season was followed by a disappointing sophomore year, though he has again been in good form in 2016.
Joseph, however, threatens to best them all in terms of rookie seasons; at the time of writing, he has 13 winners from 75 runners on the flat for a strikerate of 17.3% - and it is only early August – along with 11 winners this current jumps season.
Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story as we spent the first five months of 2016 in a deeply unsatisfactory and confusing situation about who was training what under the A P O’Brien moniker as Joseph awaited the arrival of his training license. My conservative estimates credit him with 15 further winners in that period: Aidan O’Brien ‘trained’ six national hunt winners in Ireland between January and May while his mother Ann-Marie (whose flat horses are now exclusively trained by Joseph) had nine winners on the level in the same period.
The official first day of Joseph O’Brien’s training career was June 6th and he sent out four winners across two Irish meetings; that is as many winners as all but four of the current top 3o Irish flat trainers had in their first season! Success has followed since, notably at Galway where he sent out a pair of winners, including Motherland who won a flat handicap by seventeen lengths, and that achievement should not be underplayed as it is perhaps the hardest Irish meeting at which to train a winner.
The young trainer has shown a deft hand with different types of horses from jumpers to improving three-year-olds to juveniles. Ivanovich Gorbatov is the standout performer in the first category and time may show how good a training performance it was to get such a problem horse right for the Triumph Hurdle. Motherland has been a huge improver as a three-year-old, rising 21lbs in the ratings, but so too have No Bigger (16lbs rise) and Arya Tara (21lbs), the last-named giving the yard a Listed win at Leopardstown.
His juveniles too have been sharp but perhaps even sharper is the trainer’s ability to sell them at the right time; Lundy got an amazing £400,000 at the Goffs London Sale while Justice Frederick cost a similarly excessive £200,000 at the same event.
Irish racing is filled with behemoths, from trainers like O’Brien, Weld and Bolger on the flat to Mullins and Elliott over jumps to massive ownership concerns like Coolmore and Godolphin, Gigginstown and JP McManus. Their strangleholds are hard to break as we have seen at the top of the flat game in recent years. Between 2000 and 2010, the top five Irish trainers each year were basically different permutations of O’Brien, Weld, Bolger, Oxx and Prendergast with only Mick Halford (fourth in 2005) and Ger Lyons fourth in 2008, fifth in 2009) breaking through. While Oxx and Prendergast have since fallen out of that group, supplanted by Lyons and [mainly] Halford, there remains very little room at the top.
But it would take a brave man to bet against Joseph O’Brien making that breakthrough. His father had a winner on his first day training and was Champion Trainer within six years, winning that prize in 1998 for the first time and not relinquishing it since. He did that with the backing of Coolmore but Joseph too has his own major backer in JP McManus (who has Coolmore connections of course) and it may not be long before Joseph trains his first runner in the Magnier, Tabor or Smith colours.
In reality, the only point of comparison one can take with Joseph is his father, and his career seems more likely on a paternally parallel trajectory than any other.
- Tony Keenan
Follow Tony on twitter at @racingtrends