Why Ballydoyle has the edge in the Investec Derby
Seven-time Epsom Derby winner Aidan O’Brien opens the stable doors to reveal the workings behind one of the world’s most successful sporting facilities.
To the casual observer on a quiet afternoon drive through the beautiful Irish county of Tipperary it would be easy to sail straight past the modest entrance without even a flicker of recognition. The only clue to the magic that is cast within what many racing experts consider to be the finest training establishment in the world is a jet-black statue of Nijinsky, tucked beyond a small security building a few yards inside the entrance.
It’s only as you enter the grounds, up the trail alongside a sprint gallop, that you begin to get a sense of the mystery behind the estate that has trotted out 13 Epsom Derby winners in the past 60 years.
It was while visiting the working farm in 1950 that Vincent O’Brien (right) spotted the potential within the sweeping fields and gentle hills for an elite training operation, but he would have been hard-pushed to foresee the influence that the grounds would have on Irish racing folklore.
When he handed over the reins of Ballydoyle to Aidan O’Brien (no relation) in 1995 he had notched up six winners in the greatest flat race. But Aidan knows a bit about winning. A little more than 20 years later and he has surpassed his predecessor’s achievements, after Anthony Van Dyck passed the finishing post ahead of the field in 2019, in the process equalling the all-time Epsom Derby trainers’ record, with seven victories.
But if you still needed convincing, a walk around the elite training facility casts firmly aside any thoughts that success bred within the grounds is down to chance. The attention to detail is the result of more than 60 years of racing expertise combining to create a purpose-built facility that is designed to win the Epsom Derby.
As Aidan O’Brien says: “[Epsom] is a very demanding track. It's up down left right, switch back, it is the ultimate test of a thoroughbred. The surface is always brilliant, but the track itself tests every muscle and sinew in a horse’s body. They race back into the crowd so it tests them mentally as well.”
They have to be ready for a tough battle and you can’t really think of the next day when you’re training them
He adds: “The Derby can't be much tougher. The best colts turn out - you might think you know the best colt going into it, but you'll definitely know the best colts coming out, so that's the exciting thing about the day.”
When Vincent changed his focus from national hunt horses to flat racing he set about redesigning aspects of the Ballydoyle gallops to try and find the competitive advantage that would give his horses an edge over the field. He found that the fertile limestone and natural drainage across the land was perfect for growing a good covering of grass. But with hard ground during the summer months fraught with danger for the fragile legs of a racehorse, and little room for manoeuvre in the tight training schedules for fledgling colts, more needed to be done.
Even Aidan’s softly spoken words seem to harden slightly when speaking of the challenges of preparing a horse for the Investec Derby: “They have to be ready for a tough battle and you can't really think of the next day when you’re training them for it. You have to train them like there's no tomorrow, hopefully they come out of it and they race on after.”
The Ballydoyle gallops include a replica of Epsom's tricky Tattenham Corner, which sweeps round on a camber before the racehorses enter the final straight. As soon as horses start training as two-year-olds, to go down to the main gallop they have to canter round this section.
It took 15 years to shift tons of peat, found naturally within the farm, in thin layers to the gallops, providing a cushion to protect the delicate legs of thoroughbred racehorses as they thundered up the gentle inclines, allowing them to find that marginal gain and push themselves that little bit more than previously without putting too much strain on their legs. The grass is regularly checked in order to ensure that it remains at the optimum length – too long and it can get clogged in hooves, potentially causing horses to turn ankles and break their legs, but too short and it fails to provide sufficient protection.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop there.
Vincent set about recreating his very own version of racing’s hallowed ground, replicating the tricky Tattenham Corner, a unique section of the Epsom course which sweeps round on a camber before the racehorses enter the final straight.
The [Epsom] track tests every muscle and sinew in a horse’s body. They race back into the crowd so it tests them mentally as well.
As Aidan says: “When the horses start working on the grass it’s the only way home, so from the time they start as two-year-olds, to go down to the main gallop they have to canter round Tattenham Corner. They’d have cantered around hundreds of times before. In [Vincent] O’Brien's time it was all about Epsom so he had it laid out every horse when they were finished at work they had to canter home around it.”
It is in this group of two-year-olds that Aidan hopes to find next year’s Derby winner, but there are no special favours. Aidan reveals: “We don't try judge them for a long time, we get them through the maidens and try and get them into trials if we can, and after the trials, then if they show us that they can compete in the Derby even if they didn't win a trial we let them take their chance.”
Aidan can be found, binoculars in hand, firing instructions through earpieces to jockeys as they streak across the gallops across the hill, fine tuning techniques, asking them to push harder or ease up. “We try and give as many of them as we can a chance to run in the Derby, and get them there in one piece and then giving them a chance to perform.”
Joseph O'Brien riding Camelot to victory in the 2012 Investec Derby. The race favourite was also trained by his father Aidan O'Brien
Aidan attributes a fair share of his Derby success in 2012 and 2014 to his son Joseph, who rode to victory on Camelot, to become the first father/son combination to win the Epsom Derby, and then Australia. “When Joseph was riding he knew all the work. It just made our job so much easier and we didn't have to worry about explaining anything or telling him anything.
“He understood and he felt it and he knew more about them than we did really, and he knew what stage of work to be at, whether to be easy on them, to be hard on them or whatever.”
With a record like Aidan’s, it would be easy to sit back and bask in your victories. But his passion for success still burns as brightly as ever.
“What happened in the past is not much good to us because it's all past tense. We try and take learnings from the past, any things we did we shouldn't do, and any of the things that we worked we try to remember them.
“The past is experience and experience is always an advantage but that's all it is. You need to have success in the future and look to the future. Every time you have runners it's great to be able to remember it, but it is the past. You have to keep striving to the future.”