Aidan O’Brien Sweeps Irish Derby Again, How Does He Do It?

Coolmore horses finished 1-2-3 in the latest running of the Irish Darby at the Curragh this weekend, marking the second consecutive year accomplishing the feat, giving Mr. O’Brien his sixth successive Darby triumph and ninth overall. Remarkable.

Contested over a mile and a half on turf for 3yo colts and fillies, the gem of the Irish racing calendar is surely a formidable test of stamina for a young racing prospect and can reasonably be compared to our Belmont Stakes – won 5 consecutive times by legend Woody Stephens in the mid 1980’s.

These 2 winning streaks call to mind the career of Australian conditioner TJ Smith, who won 33 consecutive Sydney training titles from 1953-1986.

Meanwhile, in the US Todd Pletcher gets the top racing stock and goes 0-24 in the Kentucky Derby before Calvin Borel gifts him a win on Super Saver in 2010. It’s not like he was simply unlucky, as he only had 3 in the money finishes since 2000. Please don’t take this fact as an indictment against Mr. Pletcher, rather take it as an indictment against the American ‘less is more’ style of training and racing. Neither the Irishman O’Brien, the American Hall of Famer Stephens, nor the Australian legend Smith followed this minimalist trend of physical conditioning, yet all of them reached inarguably greater levels of success than Pletcher, Zito, Romans, Motion, etc.

  1. Aidan O’Brien. As mentioned previously in this blog, every horse training at Ballydoyle goes out wearing a heart rate monitor and GPS device, and all data is analyzed regularly in order to influence training decisions dealing with how far, how fast, and how frequently to train. Ballydoyle also has a high speed treadmill in use at the farm. Nevertheless, he came up short with Australian transplant So You Think (NZ) at Royal Ascot earlier this month. Time for a long rest before another effort? Pletcher and the like say ‘yes’ but not this guy: “I will take responsibility for this personally. After he won his first two races so easily I had gone easy on him. I think it was trainer error, I didn’t have him fit enough for this kind of race.” Previous trainer Bart Cummings likely agrees as evidenced by the fact that at age 3 this colt was fit enough to capture both Cox Plate and Emirates Stakes victories in a 2 week window. Then at age 4, he again won the Cox Plate and followed ONE WEEK later with another Group One victory. No Pletcher trainee breezing 4F every 7 days will ever enter, much less win, 2 graded stakes races in a 14 day window.
  2. Woody Stephens. As luck would have it, 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford comes from the barn of Dale Romans, who also employs a gentleman by the name of Scott Everett, who worked as a groom and foreman for Mr. Stephens during his astounding Belmont run. From the DRF: “Swale was probably the most talented horse we had, but my favorite was probably Conquistador Cielo. He had a lot of physical problems, he had bad shins as a 2 year old.” Bad shins, time for a break, time to take it easy, time to breeze 4F at most and race every 35 days, right? That is the ‘less is more’ approach in a nutshell, especially with a fragile colt. Not for Mr. Whittingham as Cielo reeled off 6 consecutive victories in a 12 week stretch, including the Metropolitan Handicap FIVE DAYS BEFORE the Belmont, which he then won in a 14 length romp. He then ran 3 more times at age 3, ending with the Travers in the fall.
  3. TJ Smith. Mr. Smith employed what he calls his ‘muscle and bone’ method of conditioning equine athletes. In short, it entailed working them at speed 2-3x per week until they went off feed – then continuing on with the hard work, until they either got back to cleaning up the feed tub, or fell off further. Imagine that today on the backside at Churchill or Belmont, a horse going off feed and continuing to breeze, it never happens. Probably the first ‘rule’ in many barns is to stop training when appetite wanes – yet not so for the most successful racehorse trainer in Australian history. According to his veterinarian Percy Sykes, Smith was also a pioneer in the area of equine nutrition, being one of the first to include protein in the diet – which everyone now knows is a key component of maximizing recovery between exercise sessions.

Thus far Pletcher and the other American supertrainers have yet to convince me that ‘less’ is actually ‘more’, especially in light of the fact that the top trainers elsewhere in the world, and those in America before the advent of D. Wayne Lukas, often followed training and racing protocols that can be considered polar opposites of the prevailing mindset. Perhaps that is what 20+ years of bute and lasix have done to the breed?

Admittedly, all of these trainers have horses go down due to injury, whether trained lightly or aggressively worked, as that is part of sports, human or equine. However, I would much more see my 3yo colt chip an ankle after 14 starts (Comma to the Top), than merely 4 (Archarcharch) – at least an honest effort was made to improve bone density through exercise and racing by Peter Miller. With Archx3 already retired, will be interesting to see if/how Comma comes back this fall at a mile.

A recent post of mine compared fatal breakdown rates on turf in the US vs Australia, and it was found that American horses conditioned under the ‘less is more’ philosophy brokedown 3x as often as their Australian counterparts when controlling for surface. Can we finally state that ‘less’ is not ‘more’?

‘Less’ is indeed, ‘less’. Big surprise.

My next post will deal with the top 20 colts found on most early Derby watchlists in January of this year – 12 of which are currently injured and out of training. 60% wastage on the best of the best, surely in the future US horsemen can mimic the practices of Aidan O’Brien, Woody Stephens, and TJ Smith and cut this number down to 35% or so?



About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on June 27, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I just got back from Ireland where I watched the Ballydoyle horses go 1,2,3 again. It can be that one encounters the occasional horse who races at his best on minimal training but it would defy logic that the first three across the line two years in a row and all from the same stable, all fell into that category. It’s much more plausible that, like every other mammal a horses performance, especially in events which require stamina, is enhanced by training, not the lack of it.
    By the way while waiting by the parade ring, mistakenly thinking the presentation would be made there, I witnessed something that deserves mention. Aidan O’Brien ran in and personally thanked the strappers of the second and third placegetters before running to the area in front of the winning post, a considerable distance through the crowd, to collect his trophy. In the circumstances he could be forgiven for thanking them after the ceremony but it is a mark of the man that he felt compelled to do so as soon as possible, even at the risk of being late to collect his 10th Irish Derby trainers trophy.
    I also saw on my travels the amazing training complex that is the town of Newmarket, England. I would suggest a visit by anyone who thinks they are serious about training thoroughbreds.

    • Thanks for the comment Geoff. I am reminded after Velasquez won the Derby this year on Animal Kingdom that rival trainer Todd Pletcher was shown on TV congratulating him heartily. These trainers are the ultimate competitors, but the vast majority are true gentlemen as well – it’s nice to see guys of that character find success.

  1. Pingback: Animal Kingdom Leads the Kentucky Derby Trail of Tears | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

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