While just about everyone who loves racing would wish it weren’t so, it looks like the great Coolmore/Aidan O’Brien love affair is on the rocks.
So often racecourse rumours prove well wide of the mark, but this one seems to hit the bullseye.
That David O’Meara had to come out publicly and deny that he received any approach from Coolmore shows just how far the speculation of imminent change had gone.
And the wishy washy response from the Tipperary bigwigs – no comment basically – only added further petrol to the flames.
This “not commenting on speculation” type of stuff probably goes back to the Kieren Fallon days but is no longer fit for purpose.
Either way it was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the status quo, and the feeling grows that we are fast approaching end game.
True, we’re not quite at the Divorce Courts and the “we’ll remain close friends” stage just yet.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the most magnificent racing gravy train of all time is about to hit the buffers.
There are seemingly complaints and issues on both sides.
When John Magnier and friends installed Aidan O’Brien in this latter day Camelot, they knew Istabraq came as part of the deal.
No problems there, but they then expected the quietly spoken gifted genius to bid farewell to the jumping scene.
And this he did too, quickly and cleanly, and with scarce a backward glance it seemed.
Yet here we are now, almost 20 years later, and O’Brien is sending out – admittedly from a different yard – a platoon of bumper horses, maiden hurdlers and average handicap chasers.
And four of his children are on the jockeys roster.
Plus some of the better flat horses have been racing at unlikely and unfashionable venues – Bantry Bay was due to run at Bellewstown this week for example.
All of this is hardly what the Coolmore chiefs had in mind back in those early heady days when love was in the air and neither side could really believe that they had found the other.
The whole Joseph O’Brien role as a key jockey has caused bad feelings and friction on both sides for some considerable time.
It certainly led to the swift departure of Johnny Murtagh who saw his role as number one jockey being eroded.
Coolmore – and O’Brien – were shocked by that development, but are finally happy now with Ryan Moore installed as the main act.
Whether the O’Brien family are quite as enthusiastic about that arrangement is debatable.
Yet, as with everything else to do with this saga, nothing is ever quite what it seems and there are many, many shades of grey.
For while Moore often has an abrupt and even abrasive style with both press and public, the O’Brien crew are charmed by him.
Right from the first time he started riding for them he warmed to Aidan and the Ballydoyle staff, and the affection was mutual.
And the fact that he gets on so well with Joseph in particular helps smooth out many potential difficulties.
Joseph is an excellent rider and horseman, yet as that thoroughly likable young man himself says “Ryan Moore is the best jockey in the world.”
Much – too much perhaps – has been made of Joseph’s ride on Australia in the Irish Champion Stakes almost a year ago.
Perhaps his own refreshing honesty actually told against him.
For, when you think of it, even if he did take the scenic route, he still had the dual Derby winner in front half a furlong out.
It was the horse and not the rider who buckled at the business end in a race that curiously both his sire and dam got beaten in too back in the day.
And while he came wide on the stands side so too did Ryan Moore on the winner The Grey Gatsby.
Leopardstown is my local course and like many regulars I much prefer horses coming late on the stands side rather than trying to charge up the inner.
Anyway, it’s swings and roundabouts.
Moore gave Kingfisher a truly awful ride in the Ascot Gold Cup this year during a Royal week where he otherwise excelled. It happens.
Returning to the broader picture the Coolmore chiefs were not exactly doing cartwheels of joy when Aidan sent out Qualify for outside owners to beat their Legatissimo in the Oaks at Epsom last June.
Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
But O’Brien too has his frustrations, big time, and indeed it would now appear that the split, should it happen, has been mainly engineered on his side.
He could do with a little less pressure in his life now – though wading into the jumps scene again, even at the lower end of the scale, might seem to contradict that.
How he must envy at times his former boss Jim Bolger who runs a formidable rival yard.
Bolger trains for Godolphin and quite a few other high profile outfits yet he is always very much the boss.
It’s a remarkable breeding and training operation at Coolcullen and of course so many top flat and jump jockeys learnt their trade there.
Never for one moment though is anyone in the slightest doubt about who the ringmaster is.
One of the more interesting whispers doing the rounds is that Arab interests might buy out Coolcullen and that 73 year old Bolger will step aside to let his former assistant O’Brien take over.
Bolger and O’Brien have remained very close friends down the years and even Bolger – never one to doubt his own ability – must realise that even he can’t go on forever.
There is further speculation that jockey Kevin Manning – who is Bolger’s son in law – will become Aidan’s number two when he finally hangs up his saddle. Stranger things…
Yet for all the turmoil and speculation, O’Brien’s famous professionalism and attention to detail shines through as brightly as ever this season.
But he made some startling revelations after Gleneagles won the St James’s Palace at Royal Ascot:
With his wife Anne Marie close at hand he said “We have done this for 20 years, hard graft day in and day out.”
“Maybe next year at Ascot we might be able to stay here an odd night.”
“That’s the reality, we’re over and back every day, we never stay anywhere.”
“Maybe shortly we might be able to start doing stuff like that, living normal lives.”
“I’ve never seen any of the cities that we go to, I go racing and go back home” he added.
He was smiling as he said it – and hopefully he is well aware that most trainers in the world would give their eye teeth to be in his situation – but it was an astonishing statement in ways.
All the more so of course as it came in the immediate afterglow of one of his greatest triumphs of the season.
It is expected that Joseph will train the jumpers from their old Pilltown base if his weight shoots up to an extent where realistically he could no longer ride on the flat on a regular basis.
That would certainly ease many of the current tensions.
Next year Aidan could focus totally on the flat once more with Ryan Moore back in action and Seamie Heffernan and Colm O’Donoghue as ever leading a strong supporting cast.
But suppose Joseph somehow keeps winning his battle with the scales?
And for inspiration there he need look no further than the remarkable and evergreen Manning.
One way or another it’s hard to escape the feeling that something has to give.
Could O’Brien keep training for Coolmore while his jumping team continues to expand?
Possibly, but for someone supposedly looking for a quieter life and a little less pressure it’s hardly ideal.
Would Aidan switch full time back to the jumps? J P McManus would certainly be interested in bank rolling that.
Unlikely, but possible. And imagine the O’Brien team arriving at Cheltenham locked and loaded and ready to take on the formidable forces of Willie Mullins?
Wow, there’s a thought! As if that spell binding Festival on the Cotswolds isn’t exciting enough as it is!
But that would all mean Aidan giving up a hell of a lot – no more superstars like Galileo or Gleneagles, or glory days at Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood or The Curragh.
And where would Joseph keep getting rides on the flat of the kind of quality that he now enjoys?
There is much more to ponder too. The O’Brien children have all grown up at Ballydoyle, it is very much their home.
It would surely be a major wrench if they had to vacate it.
Much then for both the O’Briens and Coolmore to think about as the lengthening shadows of Autumn close in.
O’Brien would seem a near impossible act to follow, but if he goes someone’s got to do it.
The names Wesley Ward, David O’Meara and David Wachman have all been in the mix in social media speculation about a likely successor.
Little doubt that Wachman – who is Magnier’s son in law and trains quite close by in Goolds Cross – will certainly have a bigger role to play one way or another.
Nor will it have gone unnoticed by Magnier & co. that John Oxx, the quiet genius who trained Sea The Stars, has plenty of vacant boxes now after his parting of the ways with the Aga Khan.
There could be a temptation to send a few of their high profile horses up to Oxx to Curraghbeg should O’Brien quit the scene.
Oxx has mixed it superbly at the highest level of the game for many decades, and will certainly not lack motivation.
Ward already has an expanding role in their American operation so it would make little sense to uproot him even if he were willing to cross the Atlantic on a permanent basis which seems unlikely.
O’Meara has ruled out any return to his native Tipperary, though of course he hasn’t been formally asked yet.
Money would be no object to the Coolmore boys and O’Meara would have to give it serious consideration.
Some opportunities only come once in a lifetime.
My information though is that it is not O’Meara but another UK based Irish trainer they have their eyes on and that is Brian Meehan.
Could the popular 48 year old Cork man switch from Manton to Ballydoyle? It would certainly be a hard gig to refuse.
Meehan has apparently been on their radar for quite some time and there is even talk that some tentative sounding out has already taken place – though the same kind of racecourse gossip about O’Meara being approached proved to be unfounded.
After a relatively quiet spell Meehan is back in the big time now with Blue Bayou – who ironically is due to appear next in the Moyglare at The Curragh – leading the charge.
And could a permanent return to his native country be on the cards for Meehan?
Perhaps as he arrives at The Curragh he’ll be humming a few lines from the song Blue Bayou.
“I’m going back one day, come what may, to Blue Bayou, “where the folks are fine, and the world is mine..”
Make no mistake, the hope still around Coolmore and Ballydoyle is that O’Brien will stay and despite all the tensions and loosening of bonds. they will make every effort to keep him.
Should he hit the road though then Meehan is very much in the frame to replace him.
From a settled life in Manton it is indeed a Long Way to Tipperary – but realistically, how could any ambitious trainer turn down an opportunity like it?
Hope you took the 14/1 Order Of St George advised for the St Leger here last week, though I must say the current 3/1 looks mighty skinny.
The Curragh resembled a Brazilian Rain Forest last Sunday and all form from that meeting should be treated with considerable caution.
Back next Saturday.
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