The X-Ray Files, Season 2: Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien | Sarah Andrew

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   The X-Ray Files series, now in its second year and presented in cooperation with the Consignors and Breeders' Association, uses conversations with buyers and sellers to contribute to the discussion on the sales and training process.

Joseph O'Brien, the son of legendary trainer Aidan O'Brien, has steadily built up an impressive reputation of his own, first as a jockey with 31 top-level wins worldwide and now as a trainer with Group 1 wins from Ireland to Australia, France, England and the U.S. O'Brien became the youngest jockey to win a Breeders' Cup race when he rode St Nicholas Abbey to victory in the 2011 GI Breeders' Cup Turf and eight years later became the youngest trainer to earn a championship weekend victory with Iridessa in the 2019 GI Breeders' Cup F/M Turf. His worldwide success as a trainer has also included a pair of G1 Melbourne Cup wins, as well as a victory in the G1 Cox Plate.

O'Brien said his Irish base is ideally located to foster international successes, both in terms of personnel and climate.

“I suppose there are a few advantages to training in Ireland,” O'Brien said. “First of all, we are very lucky we have a great team of staff and some great horsemen and women that work for us. Between the riders that exercise the horses every morning to the grooms that look after the horses, we have a highly skilled workforce, particularly a lot of people who have grown up with horses from the time they were kids.”

He continued, “And then the climate in Ireland is an advantage. Generally it doesn't get too cold at any stage and generally, it doesn't get too hot at any stage. It doesn't fluctuate hugely and I think that is conducive to horses being healthy and well.”

International racing is not for every horse, O'Brien agreed.

“When we are deciding what horses to ship and where to ship them, there are horses that we would say are maybe not as suitable for shipping internationally and obviously you have some horses who really thrive on it,” he said. “So it is very much taken on a case-by-case basis.”

A case-by-case basis is a common theme when discussing racing and training options with O'Brien. Another example? How frequently to run a horse back.

“There are some horses who really thrive on a quick back up and run their best races when they are being kept busy,” O'Brien said. “And there are some horses who really put a lot into a race and it takes them longer to recover. I guess different trainers have different styles and different methods and some trainers are happier to back up on 14 or 20 days and some guys prefer to give it 30 to 50 days. So it really is down to A) the horse and B) the trainer.”

The Royal Ascot meet, held just a few weeks ago, provides high-level targets for early-maturing 2-year-olds. Deciding which juveniles will do well at the marquee meet is another case-by-base decision.

“Obviously not every horse is mature enough to be ready to go to Ascot,” O'Brien said. “We get a feel for our horses and it becomes pretty obvious which ones are more forward and which ones are not quite as forward.”

Participation at the royal meeting as a 2-year-old is just a beginning for most horses and the early star turn shouldn't preclude longer term success, according to O'Brien.

“I don't think it affects their long-term success,” he said. “You can look at some of the winners over the last two years and the careers they've had. I suppose an obvious filly this year is Porta Fortuna (Ire) (Caravaggio).”

Trained by O'Brien's brother Donnacha–who followed his path from successful jockey to successful conditioner–Porta Fortuna was already a group winner in Ireland when she won the G3 Albany Stakes at the 2023 Royal Ascot meeting. She added a win in the G1 Juddmonte Cheveley Park Stakes and hit the board in three additional Group 1 events, including the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf S. during her 2-year-old campaign.

The filly came back as a 3-year-old this season to just miss in the G1 English Guineas and returned to Royal Ascot to win the G1 Coronation S.

“She won one of the first 2-year-old races of the year here in Ireland last year,” O'Brien said of Porta Fortuna. “She went on to win at Royal Ascot and she just ran a career best a year later as a 3-year-old back at Royal Ascot. So I believe that once you have the right horse who is ready for it, it doesn't affect their career in the long term.”

O'Brien said European trainers may have a head start on their American counterparts when placing their 2-year-old runners.

“I guess a lot of your [U.S.] 2-year-olds go to pre-training and they may not come to their trainer until a much later date,” O'Brien said. “Whereas in Europe, the vast majority of 2-year-olds go to the trainers right from the sales to get broken. So we obviously have a feel for the horse at a much earlier stage.”

O'Brien purchased 2018 G1 Irish Derby winner Latrobe (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) for 65,000gns at the 2016 Tattersalls October sale. State of Rest (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}) was purchased in partnership with his father for 60,000gns at that sale in 2019 and went on to win the 2021 G1 Cox Plate and GI Saratoga Derby Invitational, as well as the 2022 G1 Prince of Wales's Stakes and G1 Prix Ganay.

Now shopping auctions globally along with his brother Donnacha, O'Brien finds bargains with horses other buyers may have downgraded due to perceived vet issues.

“Donnacha and I are quite forgiving when it comes to X-rays and slight issues on the vetting,” O'Brien said. “It's an area where we feel we can get value. You can buy a lot more horse with a slight X-ray issue. Sometimes you might be able to find a horse for half price for a slight defect on an X-ray or a vetting issue. There is a lot of stuff we will be happy to take a chance on and train. Some of the best horses in the world over the last 10 years have been horses who have had slight imperfections on X-rays. And they have raced successfully and soundly for many years at the top level.”

Comparing the sales scene in Europe versus America, O'Brien says his focus remains the same no matter where he is shopping.

“I think the horses are presented very well in Europe and America,” he said. “Everybody has access to full vettings and Donnacha and I, we try to work the sales hard and we try to find value somewhere in the market and that's what it comes down to. We are just trying to find racehorses.”

Two years ago, O'Brien had a stable of horses based in the U.S. While not dismissing a return to the U.S. in the future, the Irishman did admit the experiment had provided its share of surprises.

“Everything was different really,” he said. “But I think there were things that we hadn't accounted for coming out there that we had to deal with. The horses struggled a little bit. They spend a week or 10 days in the quarantine barn, but then when they moved into the general population, the ventilation in the stables wasn't as good and it took them four to six weeks to acclimatize to the environment. It is very different living accommodations for a horse. The quarantine barn and the main barns in Saratoga, in particular, are quite different. So we learned a lot and it was a really worthwhile experience. We learned a lot for potential forays in the future.”

Despite the challenges, O'Brien's horses were able to land some blows at the lucrative Kentucky Downs meet where Reckoning Force (Air Force Blue) captured the $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile Stakes.

“It was nice to finish off the season strong with a couple of placings and a winner in Kentucky Downs,” O'Brien said. “We obviously love American racing. We love to be there and we love to compete with some of the American horses. Hopefully going forward, we can do more of that. And I would love to see some more American horses competing in Europe as well.”

For previous stories in the series, click here.

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