By Alex Cairns
Lineage matters in racing. The entire thoroughbred endeavour is based on selective breeding aimed at producing quality and even ‘perfection.’ Of course, thoroughbred breeding isn’t an exact science, with humbly bred horses sometimes defying their roots and blue-bloods regularly failing to live up to the promise of their page. But pedigree still reigns as the most reliable gauge of innate ability in racehorses.
In centuries gone by, humans too were judged on their parentage and given a particular standing based less on aptitude than origin. These days our social structure tends to be more of a meritocracy, in which people are born equal and gain a position through achievement.
Being the grandson of a successful trainer, son of two successful trainers, and nephew of a successful trainer, those in the racing game might say Joseph O’Brien has the perfect pedigree for the job and will logically excel.
At the same time, his background has afforded him a head start via a family owned yard and well-stocked address book. As we discovered in a recent interview, however, the soon-to-be-25-year-old takes nothing for granted and is determined that his operation will succeed on its own merits.
Severe snow and unseasonable cold had brought much of Britain and Ireland to a standstill in the week prior to our interview with Joseph O’Brien. Such conditions can prove a challenge even on the flattest, most accessible terrain. O’Brien’s yard, which operates under the banner of ‘Carriganog Racing,’ rests on the slopes of Owning Hill in County Kilkenny, a secluded location accessible only by small country roads.
This setting might be problematic in extreme weather, but it provides the foundation for a gallop that has proven its value in the training of several decades’ worth of winning racehorses. A steep uphill stretch of seven furlongs with a high hedge on one side, it was masterminded by Joseph’s grandfather Joseph Crowley. It then passed into the hands of Crowley’s daughter Annemarie. A certain Aidan O’Brien took the reins after marrying Annemarie, and then Annemarie’s sister Frances kept things in the family when the O’Briens moved to Coolmore’s famed training facility at Ballydoyle in 1996.
Stepping out of the crisp morning air into the yard office, Joseph reflects on his family’s longstanding relationship with this land. “Granddad originally came here and it was just fields. He had a few horses and started cantering them from the bottom of the hill to the top on a dogleg. Then Mum and Dad took over, then Frances. Over time it was a plough gallop, then artificial, but the layout is pretty much the same as it was 40 or 50 years ago. This office is actually where my bedroom used to be, though I don’t really remember living here as we moved over to Ballydoyle when I was four or five.”
With two trainers as parents, Joseph has been steeped in the profession from day one, making the training vocation a question of both nature and nurture. “All my life I’ve been in this environment and training was always my goal. There was no backup plan, as I don’t know anything else, to be honest. I was raised at Ballydoyle and worked there from as soon as I was able. I went to Jim Bolger’s for a week for work experience at school, but other than that I never really saw anyone else training except Dad.”