05/02/2012 4:50PM

2012 Kentucky Derby: O’Brien brings a classic passion

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The cell phone rang while walking the Churchill Downs backstretch and the quiet voice on the other end of the line, before politely asking if it were a good time to converse, identified itself: “This is Aidan O’Brien,” it said.

It was like being telephoned by a mythological figure.

It’s barely an exaggeration to call O’Brien a legend at age 42. He won the Epsom Derby at 31, and during that year, 2001, O’Brien won 22 of the 78 Group 1 races contested in Europe. In 2008, he won all five Classic races during the Irish flat season, and captured 23 European Group 1’s in all. We know these things in great part through his biography on the Breeders’ Cup website, which, at 1,423 words, is longer even than Todd Pletcher’s.

Bare-facts bios provide nearly all we know of O’Brien. He trains for the international powerhouse Coolmore (principals John Magnier and Michael Tabor) at famed Ballydoyle, a private training center in County Tipperary, Ireland. Tours of the facility periodically are granted. But Coolmore holds cards white-knuckled-close to the vest, information flowing out of Ballydoyle at a trickle. An overseas outsider could easily imagine vast imposing gates, stone-faced guards. This American reporter has requested interviews for years – none granted.

Yet the man at the center of the circle, O’Brien, cuts no grave figure. Baby-faced, he might still pass for 25. He speaks in a hushed tone, quickly, with a lilting cadence. He plays down his successes, seems uncomfortable talking about himself.

O’Brien was on the phone this week because he will remain overseas this weekend, saddling hot favorite Camelot in the prestigious 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in England. But, for the second year in a row and fourth time in his career, O’Brien has a horse for the Kentucky Derby. And for all O’Brien’s success, Daddy Long Legs probably will lose Saturday.

O’Brien had an excellent Breeders’ Cup last fall at Churchill. He won the BC Turf with St. Nicholas Abbey (ridden to victory by his son, Joseph, who is as quiet and cautious as his father) and the Juvenile Turf with Wrote, and with better luck, third-place Misty For Me might have won the Filly and Mare turf. But while O’Brien now has a respectable Breeders’ Cup record of 6-11-5 from 74 starters, he has had little luck in American dirt races. Forty-six O’Brien horses have started on U.S. dirt, and only two have won. Johannesburg won the 2001 BC Juvenile at Belmont Park, but could finish only eighth in the 2002 Derby. O’Brien’s best Derby finish came last year, when Master of Hounds was fifth.

Among the dirt flops is Daddy Long Legs himself. He raced in the 2011 Juvenile and brought up the rear, finishing 12th of 13. O’Brien’s other starter in the race, Crusade, did better, coming home sixth, but it is Daddy Long Legs who gets a shot at the Derby after giving O’Brien his first-ever Dubai winner March 31 in the UAE Derby. That race was contested on a synthetic surface, and based on Daddy Long Legs’s showing here last fall, dirt is his least-favorite surface.

“Last year we were disappointed in him,” O’Brien said. “He was slowly away, and he got back a little more than we would have liked. Being his first time on dirt, he was a little bit lost and that. He got dirt back in his face, and that was a shock. We’re hoping he takes it better.”

Ballydoyle has all sorts of places to train a horse, including a synthetic track, but there is no way to practice on dirt there. It remains a guessing game trying to figure out which horse might take to dirt and American-style racing.

“You’re obviously trying to improve and learn from your experience. The problem is, we’ve found every horse is different when it comes to dirt,” O’Brien said. “With this horse, we’re looking at the dirt in his pedigree and hoping.”

Daddy Long Legs is by Scat Daddy, one of 12 stallions standing at Ashford Stud near Versailles, Ky., and it is the Coolmore group that runs Ashford. Others on the Ashford roster are Uncle Mo and Giant’s Causeway, Lookin At Lucky, and Fusaichi Pegasus. Those horses all won or came close to winning (Giant’s Causeway was second to Tiznow in a memorable BC Classic) major American races. Should Daddy Long Legs totally reverse his dirt form, winning or, perhaps, even placing Saturday, he would have a chance to join the Ashford roster. If not, there are plenty of other good 3-year-olds back home, and plenty of international buyers who would like to have a horse like Daddy Long Legs. Master of Hounds was sold to Dubai interests last fall after finishing 10th in the Belmont Stakes.

All that said, no one outside Ballydoyle has any real idea of Daddy Long Legs is thriving or just getting along.

“It’s very hard to read him, and it’s very hard to read the horses,” said trainer David Carroll, who grew up in Ireland before emigrating to the United States. “In this country, trainers have a much closer relationship with the press. With Aidan O’Brien, you have to make a special appointment. Works are private. Access is very, very private. It’s not like Churchill Downs where you can walk right up to someone.”

But Irish horsepeople, Carroll said, have nothing but respect for O’Brien’s horsemanship.

“There’s no doubt he’s an excellent horsemen,” said Carroll. “He worked for [trainer] Jim Bolger and had a reputation for riding the most difficult horses, the ones that were basically impossible to get on.”

O’Brien rode horses from early youth and was a champion steeplechase jockey before turning to training. His wife, Anne-Marie, was a jockey and is the daughter of a trainer. The O’Briens’ four children often travel with them to races, and the entire family lives a life of horses.

“I don’t know Aidan O’Brien personally, but he lives, eats, and dreams horses, as far as I can tell,” said Irish-born American trainer Andrew McKeever. “I see his kids all following him around the sales I go to in Ireland.”

Said O’Brien, “I suppose we don’t get that much time to do things other than horses. It’s a 24-hour job, really. But we love what we’re doing.”

Despite the reserved and elusive qualities he evinces, O’Brien said he doesn’t try avoid contact with the press and public. He said he has grown used to the barrage of questions lobbed at him when he comes to this country to run horses, and that the attention does not bother him.

“I respect and appreciate that everybody has a job to do, and that’s the way it is,” he said. “Listen, I don’t expect anything different.”

But while the English, Irish, and even the French have come to expect O’Brien runners to find their mark, American racing fans have been trained differently, at least in terms of the Coolmore dirt runners. It appears doubtful that Daddy Long Legs will rewrite that part of the O’Brien legacy.