Trainer Magazine

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Joseph O'Brien - King of the Hill

PROFILEWeb Master
  JOSEPH O’BRIEN    King of the Hill       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.       THE HILL    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.”       Being raised at Ballydoyle and having begun riding at the top level when still a teenager, Joseph has gathered experience far beyond his years. Has anything surprised him since beginning training full-time in 2016? “I was aware that it was a full-on job and had a fair idea of what was coming, but there have still been some challenging aspects, for example the management of so many people. Horses can always surprise you, but I like to keep things as simple as possible. Just have them healthy and fit and try to place them in the right races. So whether it’s a sprinter or a three-mile chaser, you can’t go too far wrong if you focus on those basics.”       Many trainers would agree that common sense and horse health are the founding principles of a successful training establishment, even if it can be difficult to stick to such an ethos. How does a young trainer starting out get an edge over established rivals? “The edge that I have is the facilities and the gallop. There have been a huge amount of winners trained out of here. And it’s a private facility, too, which is a huge asset. There aren’t really any other trainers around here and the gallop is very unusual. I couldn’t think of another like it in the world. And you can train anything up here. We do a similar routine with every horse, whether they’re Flat or National Hunt. On a normal day they’ll do five furlongs; on a work day they might go a bit further.”       Aidan O’Brien is often described as a “genius” due to his exceptional achievements as a trainer and almost otherworldly connection to the horse. But Joseph knows him as “Dad,” and as a man who has worked hard for his success. I wonder whether Joseph believes training skill is developed through learning and experience, or whether intangibles such as feel and instinct might play a part? “An awful lot of it is feel and has to do with the individual horse. What you do with one might not necessarily work for another, and it’s a question of knowing what to tweak in terms of routine or diet in order to eke out that little bit of improvement. There’s no science for that, even if vets’ reports and horses’ weights and bloods give us some hard evidence to base things on.       “We can have 200 horses through the yard over the year, but I see every horse canter every day and I talk to every rider about every horse every day. So I have a picture of each horse in my mind. Some take a lot of work, some take none. So a big part of it is actually knowing your own facilities as well as your horses. Whatever your facilities are, if you don’t know them well enough, you can’t get the best out of your horses.”       As we move towards the gallops, the full splendour of our surroundings is revealed, with rich farmland and snow-covered hills stretching to the horizon under dappled sunlight. Up ahead, the third of five lots circles calmly. A mix of Flat and National Hunt, the horses and their riders appear content in their routine as they await their daily instruction. “The real key to the operation is our great riders and staff on the ground. Once you get above a certain number of horses, you can’t do everything yourself and delegation becomes very important. Having people whom you can trust to do things as well as you would or better is absolutely vital, so we are very lucky in that respect.”       Like his father, Joseph interacts with all of his many staff by name and can recount the pedigree, form, and routine of any of the individual horses you might encounter at the yard. How is it possible to retain such a high volume of information? “I don’t really have anything else retained,” he quips. “You can ask my teachers at school and they’ll tell you that.”       INSIDE TRACK    While Joseph’s academic efforts might not have met with universal approval, his career as a horseman maintained the O’Brien-Crowley line’s record of high-achievement. First winning a bronze medal in eventing at the European Pony Championships in 2009, he went on to establish himself as a top-class jockey, winning two Irish Jockey Championships and 10 classics in seven years.       Asked what his greatest achievement in the saddle might have been, he offers a perhaps surprising answer. “Not many people tend to think of it, but I broke Mick Kinane’s record for the most winners ridden in a year in 2013, and that was a big one for me. Some people can ride a Group winner here or there and get on some good horses, but that record showed consistency. A lot of my winners came for Dad, but there were others had the Ballydoyle job before me, and a lot of my winners came for outside yards.”       For some jockeys, training is the only career they can envisage after riding, but not many have made it pay and even fewer have become established at elite level. One can speculate as to why this might be, but Joseph’s is a particular case and he tends to view his time in the saddle as an asset. “Especially in Ireland I would know all the tracks very well and I would know the different attributes that a horse would need for certain tracks. So it’s definitely an advantage.”       Does his riding experience affect how he interacts with jockeys? “I tend not to complicate things too much and like to think that I’m relatively easy to ride for. Most of the lads who ride for me know the horses and how I like them ridden, so I can generally leave it up to them to do the job. Some horses might need to be made use of or held up, but generally I’ll make it as uncomplicated as possible.”       Again, simplicity is the key. For this to be achieved, communication must run smoothly. In family life, this can tend to swing one of two ways. Thankfully for the O’Briens, it seems that they work well together, and Joseph’s siblings Sarah, Ana, and Donnacha all play some role in his operation. Will they continue to collaborate in years to come?       “Sarah is in her final year of veterinary at the minute. Donnacha and Ana were both riding for me, but Ana got a fall, unfortunately, and has been out for a while. They’re both based in Ballydoyle, but getting them to sit on a horse and give me some feedback is a great asset. Things change, of course, and you never know what might happen, but I’d like to think that we’d all continue to work together, as we all get on very well and we’re very close.”       In fact, the family connection goes deeper than some might realise. “JJ Slevin rides for us and he’s actually my cousin. He’s just a month older than me and we grew up together. I gave him his first win in a Grade 1 on Tower Bridge at Leopardstown during the Dublin Racing Festival. That was actually his first-ever ride in a Grade 1 so it was a great day for the family.”       Race riding is obviously a high-pressure job and made all the more difficult if one has to struggle with weight. Joseph may have had access to some of the finest horses in the world as a jockey and enjoyed some unforgettable moments, but graft, sweat, and stress were the day-to-day. “I don’t miss it,” he says emphatically. “Not one bit. I’ll ride out myself on a Sunday morning when we might be short a few staff. Or sometimes I’ll get on one that I want to get a feel for, but I don’t ride that much. I’ve done plenty.”       So how does a young trainer keep fit? “I don’t,” he answers with a smile. “Well, I play a bit of football with the lads and take the dogs for a walk. I’m on the go all day so the last thing I’m thinking about at the end of the day is going for a run. I’d rather just chill out and relax watching a good series on Netflix.”       FUTURE    Many would see Joseph as a logical successor to his father at Ballydoyle, even if Aidan is still well in his prime. This is far from Joseph’s mind, however, and he is focused on developing his own unique business. One of the attractions of his setup is that he trains for both Flat and National Hunt and has two schooling facilities on site. It could be thought that the more lucrative Flat game might come to hold sway over time, but Joseph has no plans to change his dual-purpose approach.        “I really love both codes and would always like to keep doing both. Of course, it means we don’t really have an off-season and it’s 365 days a year, but I enjoy the challenge of it and I am very lucky that we have good staff to keep us going year-round. Our two-year-olds are getting going now, the three-year-olds are preparing for spring campaigns, and we have horses running in the big National Hunt festivals. I love it and wouldn’t want it any other way.”       With owners such as JP McManus, Gigginstown, Lloyd Williams, and the China Horse Club already on the JP O’Brien roster, he is certainly well equipped for both codes. The door is always open to new clients however, both big and small, and a Joseph O’Brien website and ownership schemes will help increase outreach even further. “Our website is ready to be launched and we have a couple of syndicates for people to get involved in. We have great owners already, but we are always looking to improve and have room for more.”       Being just 24 years old, one might expect Joseph to be savvier than most when it comes to digital communication and social media, and he has indeed been making waves online in recent times. Photos and videos from his picturesque base regularly receive substantial interaction on Twitter, where a campaign to name a filly received more than 3,000 suggestions in just 24 hours. A Twitter poll with the top four of Joseph’s favourite suggestions received 9,224 votes, with Seldom Is Precious emerging as the winning name. “Digital communication is very important for clients and racing fans. For Twitter, I enjoy taking the pictures and videos of the horses when they’re working and schooling, and people seem to like it. The name campaign was very big and good fun.”       Really, Joseph doesn’t need to promote his operation. The reputation of his facility, his results, and simply his name are already massive draws, but he isn’t looking to cruise, he’s looking to hit the top. Does this mean he’ll be setting targets, something he always refused to do as a jockey? “No, I have the same approach and just do the best with every horse we have. Sometimes it’s a greater achievement to get a horse to win an ordinary handicap on the all-weather than it is to win a Group race with another.”       So with no targets, where does the motivation come from? “In this game you never feel like you’re flying. If you win a Group 1 today you may have had 10 losers the past week. So you can never let yourself feel like you have it cracked. For us, it’s always about improving our quality. No doubt about that. Not every horse can be a black-type horse, but our aim is to compete in the Group races and the Graded races, both at home or abroad.”        This ambitious international perspective paid off to spectacular effect in November when the Lloyd Williams-owned Rekindling won the Melbourne Cup at Flemington, notably denying Aidan O’Brien his first win in the race when Johannes Vermeer could only finish second to Joseph’s horse. “With the Melbourne Cup, we were lucky that Rekindling was the right type and everything fell into place. He travelled over nicely, settled in well, didn’t take much work to get fit down in Australia, and then got a good draw. Obviously we’d love to win more big international races like the Derby, the Arc, or the Grand National, but there’s no point pitching up if you don’t have the right animal.”       Winning races on the world’s biggest stages seems a good way of ensuring that the right animals will find their way to Joseph’s door with increasing regularity.       ONE DAY AT A TIME    Calm descends on the yard after a morning’s work well done. Horses munch on a generous carrot ration, dogs loll in the first warming rays of spring, and all seems settled and under control. Such has been the case for decades on Owning Hill. Yet behind the regular routine, something new is brewing.       Headline results have already proved that Joseph is more than his father’s son and, with both youth and experience in his favour, this could be the start of a career that will shape the sport for decades to come. Indeed, Joseph could potentially be sending out horses (and at the same time honing his craft) for 50 years or more. How does this make him feel? “It’s going to be a long 50 years,” he laughs. “I try to think about the rest of today and go from there.”       One day at a time, one winner at a time. Always building, always improving, and never complacent. This maturity and dedication cannot be bought or handed down. Beyond facilities and connections, it is these qualities that will seemingly ensure Joseph O’Brien’s success and entitle him to his position as King of the Hill.

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.

Last page image - possibly running text over the top half.jpg

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.

THE HILL

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.”

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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.”

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