Qipco British Champions Day, at Ascot, is billed as being the finale of the British flat racing season. With almost £4.5 million of prize money across the day’s six races, four of which are Grade Ones, it’s Britain’s richest race day. Perhaps unsurprisingly on a day which claims to crown the ‘champion’ horses of the season, there are famous horses galore: this year’s meeting, which took place last month, saw the likes of Stradivarius, Cracksman and Roaring Lion take to the stalls.
Trainer John Gosden has had a fantastic season, and he started the meeting with four favourites – three of which went on to win. But take a close look at the race card and there is one surname which crops up over and over again: ‘O’Brien’. In four of the six races, Aidan O’Brien had runners. Not only that; in the long distance cup, Aidan trained three of the six runners. In the fillies and mares stakes, there were eleven runners; Aidan trained six of them, including the winner, Magical. His son, Donnacha, rode in five of the day’s six races, and one of those Donnacha rode was trained by another of Aidan’s sons, 25-year-old Joseph.
O’Briens galore, then – but that’s no surprise, really. Aidan O’Brien turned 49 last week, but since he joined John Magnier’s training team in 1996, he has managed to turn himself into a household name. Six Epsom Derby winners. Seven Ascot Gold Cups. Eight Coronation Cups, nine times winner of the 2000 Guineas and twelve times winner of the Irish Derby. It’s no wonder that O’Brien was recently honoured with the Longines and International Federation of Horseracing Authorities International Award of Merit.
Perhaps the only question is why it has taken so long for the team to receive the prize. It wasn’t just Aidan O’Brien who received the award, though. Officially, it was awarded to the Magnier family and Aidan O’Brien. John Magnier is the one who built the Coolmore thoroughbred stud and the Ballydoyle training yard into the enormous operations that they are today, and it’s hard to say where O’Brien would be without Magnier’s backing. Of course, that’s not to say he couldn’t have been equally as successful had things not happened the way that they did. But it’s the team of O’Brien and Magnier that has worked so well – and the team that were awarded the Award of Merit.
O’Brien as a trainer stands out in so many ways. Instantly recognisable in his trademark dark glasses, he has trained a Group One winner in nine different countries: Ireland, England, Australia, France, Italy, Canada, Hong Kong, USA and UAE. And as you can see from the Ascot race card at the weekend, it’s very much a family operation. All four of his children – Sarah, Ana, Donnacha and Joseph – have ridden a winner for him. In 2012, Joseph won the Epsom Derby on Camelot – the first time that a father and son jockey/trainer combination have won the Derby. His wife Annemarie has, in the past, also ridden winners for him.
‘Aidan O’Brien was 49 today. Still, all’s not lost – there’s plenty of time for him to hit his stride’, joked racing commentator Nick Luck on Twitter. Very funny – but he’s got a good point. O’Brien has achieved a huge amount as a trainer at a fairly young age; bear in mind that one of Newmarket’s stalwart, trainer Luca Cumani, announced his retirement this week at the age of 69. Sir Mark Prescott is 70, and Sir Michael Stoute is 73, and both are still training horses. As John Magnier’s son, MV Magnier, said of O’Brien on collecting the prize: ‘He’s revolutionised the whole industry. We’re lucky to have him and we’ve got a lot of his sons and daughters coming after him.’ What next for the O’Briens? What’s left, is the real question.