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Wednesday 22 March 2017

2016: no ordinary year for O'Brien

Stellar 12 months for Coolmore trainer as he comes close to breaking Frankel mark

Highland Reel finished off Aidan O’Brien’s year in big races Pic: Edward Whitaker
Highland Reel finished off Aidan O’Brien’s year in big races Pic: Edward Whitaker

"We have had a good year." For Aidan O'Brien, it started with Minding and ended with Highland Reel.

The 25 Grade One victories by legendary American trainer, the late Bobby Frankel, in 2003 seemed unattainable.

But O'Brien, 47, had twice reached 23 top-level winners in the past and for much of this year a new world best seemed almost certain, only to falter - if that is the word - at the very end.

The last 12 months have been stellar by any high standards, and close to unimaginable. It was a sign of things to come when he saddled the first three home in the Qipco 1000 Guineas with Minding, Ballydoyle and Alice Springs at Newmarket.

He then went into the record books with a similar feat in Europe's premier middle-distance race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, courtesy of Found, Highland Reel and Order Of St George.

Aidan O'Brien Pic: Getty
Aidan O'Brien Pic: Getty

If that was not enough, then he promptly mopped up the two major prizes for two-year-olds at Newmarket.

Only O'Brien could back up a one-two with Rhododendron and Hydrangea in the Dubai Fillies' Mile by repeating the trick with Churchill and Lancaster Bomber in the Dubai Dewhurst Stakes just 24 hours later. His top-level tally on the Flat at that stage stood at 20.

The magnificent Minding took it to 21 as she added to her 1000 Guineas, Oaks and Nassau wins when flooring the boys in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Champions Day.

And it was back to that horse Highland Reel for No.22 as Seamus Heffernan gave the King George hero a truly magnificent ride in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita, with Found third on her final run before retirement.

O'Brien has, of course, had a lot to live up to in scaling the heights of his predecessor and namesake, Vincent O'Brien, having moved into Ballydoyle in 1996.

The earlier incumbent had changed the face of both jumps and Flat racing on both sides of the Irish Sea as well as Europe. He won the crown jewels in both codes - the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National over jumps and the Classics many times over on the Flat in a splendid career spanning 50 years (1943- 1993).

The British Triple Crown is one omission from Aidan O'Brien's glittering CV. Vincent managed it with Nijinsky in 1970 and O'Brien went agonisingly close with Camelot in 2012. He was second in the St Leger after winning the 2000 Guineas and the Derby.

With major races captured in Europe and North America, there were very few other territories to be conquered, although the Melbourne Cup is certainly a realistic objective in the future.

Looking back on his achievements this year, O'Brien - who also saw Ivanovich Gorbatov win at Cheltenham in his name in March - was typically modest and quick to deflect the praise on to the people around him.

He said: "Yes, we have had a good year, it's true. It is down to a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

"We have been very lucky this season in that we have had some very good horses that have progressed throughout the year, and that has obviously been important in the year overall."

Yes, 2016 was quite the year for Aidan O'Brien.

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