The Coming Of Age?

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Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle on Monday | Emma Berry

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For Aidan O'Brien it had been a week of mostly ups, with one major down. On Friday morning, the winter favourite for the Derby, Luxembourg (Ire) (Camelot {GB}), was found to be lame behind after exercise, having been shortened in the betting for Epsom following his third-placed finish in the 2000 Guineas. By Sunday he had been ruled out of the Derby completely, just as another potential star emerged from the Ballydoyle battalions in the hugely impressive Stone Age (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}).

A maiden until the end of March on his 3-year-old debut, but with some pretty fancy juvenile placed form behind him, Stone Age performed the almost impossible task of lighting up a Leopardstown afternoon that was already blessed with spotless blue skies and blazing sunshine.

A week of domination of the English Classic trials at Chester and Lingfield gave way to a glorious afternoon on home turf, with O'Brien and Ryan Moore taking both the colts' and fillies' trials, the latter with History (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}).

Such a positive week in the build-up to the French and Irish Guineas, not to mention Epsom, had clearly provided the trainer with enough fortitude to withstand a Monday morning invasion of the Fourth Estate on his otherwise tranquil and immaculate training establishment deep in Tipperary. 

The Derby media morning had been a regular fixture until disrupted by a pandemic. Though it is easy to imagine that O'Brien might prefer to undergo a session of root canal treatment to answering endless questions as to which of his potential Derby candidates is favoured in his eyes, he faces the pack of pressmen and women with his customary politeness and an easy humour which he doesn't often permit himself to show in the more serious arena of the racecourse. 

Training at any level is of course a serious business, but each horse that passes by during the first few lots at Ballydoyle serves as a written reminder of just how much is at stake for this operation. The names and breeding of these bluebloods are printed on their saddle-cloths, providing a living, breathing roll call of racing's greats. The stallions' names are indicated solely by their initials and, for now, the one which appears most frequently is G. G for Galileo, G for great, G for gone.

As a breed-shaper he lives on, of course, in those crops of offspring still filtering through and, just as we have come to expect, in the current Classic countdown Galileo has been a dominant force. Last Wednesday at Chester, the so perfectly named Thoughts Of June (Ire) took his tally one past Danehill's record number of stakes winners. In the very next race, Changingoftheguard (Ire) lifted Galileo's tally to 350, and, with those floodgates open once more, on rushed Star Of India (Ire), United Nations (GB), History and Stone Age.

It won't last forever, of course, but O'Brien when questioned on his thoughts of what comes after his now finite supply of Galileo's stock muses simply, “It will be interesting anyway.”

Galileo may have been the headline act for so long, but he's not the only show in town. Ten years ago, O'Brien could have been forgiven if he'd wanted to come home and kick the stable cat after Camelot (GB) was so narrowly denied in his quest to become the first Triple Crown winner since another Ballydoyle resident of the previous century, the fabled Nijinsky. On the subject of Camelot's son Luxembourg now having his own Classic chances scuppered he demonstrates admirable equanimity.

“It's only stuff,” he says. “Stuff doesn't matter. Only a few things matter. I am disappointed for the lads. We've done our best, it happened, and yesterday morning the lads said he wants a month or six weeks in the box. It is only a waste of energy thinking about it. He is a very good horse. I don't think Ryan would have had a choice to make if he were fit.”

Moore has had his own personal anxiety to face over the last few weeks while his brother Josh has remained in intensive care following a fall at Haydock. O'Brien would doubtless agree that that's the stuff that does matter, but he would also have had no reason to doubt his stable jockey's focus through that time as, ever the professional, Moore has mined a rich seam of form on the track. 

Two of the major rivals Moore used to face in the weighing-room are now keeping their father on his toes in the training ranks, and O'Brien senior was quick to point to the Ballysax S. one-two for Piz Badile (Ire) (Ulysses {Ire}) and Buckaroo (Ire) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}), trained by Donnacha and Joseph O'Brien respectively. 

“I tell them everything but they don't tell me anything,” O'Brien said with a grin when asked what Donnacha thinks of the Derby chances of the Niarchos family's Piz Badile.

“Racing is so competitive all the way along. We always do our best to win no matter what, but I am always happy if they beat us,” he adds. “But believe me there's no inch given anywhere. That's our job.

“For us, even with our own lads it focuses your mind. We see how many times it's very competitive everywhere. We knew this would happen with our own lads coming on and everyone else. But you don't get complacent, believe me. You have to get beaten, you have to feel the hurt to experience the joy the next time. It has to hurt and it does. That is what drives you on.”

As if to underline his point, even while buried in a huddle amid questions left, right and centre, O'Brien's mind is never far removed from the horses being walked in hand just behind him as they warm down from their exercise. Without breaking stride in the interview, he says into his radio, linked to the earpieces on every rider, “We'll go for a pick with the lot when you're ready everyone. Thank you.”

In a heartbeat and with perfect synchronicity, every head is turned inwards to the large queen square, and seconds later those heads are down, quietly chomping at the grass. Six of their number may yet be Derby-bound, several more for the Oaks, but the hoopla of Epsom Downs on the first weekend of June could not be further removed from this bucolic scene.

Among the group of visitors to Ballydoyle is Andrew Cooper, the clerk of the course at Epsom since 1996, five years before O'Brien celebrated his first Derby victory with the horse who would go on to play such a dominant role in the great race through his offspring. 

“It's hugely special,” says Cooper of the Coolmore and Ballydoyle participation at Epsom. “My tenure as clerk has covered the resurgence and pre-eminence of horses coming from here. I remember when Galileo hit the bullseye to become Sadler's Wells's first Derby winner in 2001, followed by High Chaparral.

“That support over this period and the focus from the whole operation here to win the Derby has been absolutely invaluable. Some might even say it rescued the Derby in a sense from that mid-90s period. It has certainly taken it to a different level of competition for others to aspire to.”

Whether the 2022 Derby goes to an O'Brien, or to one of their counterparts from elsewhere, there is little doubt that trying to solve the annual conundrum of the pecking order of the Ballydoyle colts has become an intriguing aspect of the Derby fabric. 

On a sunny Sunday when Leopardstown racecourse was awash with families, did the children squashing their faces against the railings to get a better look at the action catch a fleeting glimpse of this year's winner? Those on that rail 21 years earlier had seen Galileo complete his own Classic trial with flying colours in the same race. Perhaps this is the coming of Age.

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