Sheer weight of numbers would suggest Aidan O’Brien to be the greatest trainer of racehorses in Europe. He may even be the Christian Ronaldo of world racehorse training. Some would even claim that Ronaldo is the Aidan O’Brien of world football. Whether he is or isn’t top of the world rankings, and as Ronaldo recently said ‘numbers do not lie’, is a matter of conjecture. I doubt if the great man cares a fig either way. O’Brien, I mean. I suspect it matters a lot to Ronaldo to be regarded as the best in the world.
It can be argued that with the quality of thoroughbred at his disposal Aidan would have to be as dim-witted as Father Maguire of the priest’s house Craggy Island not to win a classic race or two every year. In fact the slow decline of Godolphin over the past few years has allowed Coolmore to dominate classic and Group 1 races and for other workaday trainers it has become like trying to win a stage of a rally with a Reliant Robin while your main competitor has the selection of every Ferrari, Maserati and Porsche ever made.
I think what sets the successful trainer apart from the less successful is the want to continue to learn about animal husbandry coupled with an ability to think outside of the box. Aidan certainly does not contain himself within the orthodoxy of tradition. To see him in turn saddle six Derby colts in the middle of the parade ring, relying on no one but himself to fit girths, stretch legs and brush flat the hairs of the hind quarters, is to watch an instinctive perfectionist at work.
There are other trainers of distinction, of course, but what about the trainers who do not benefit from a conveyor belt of blue-blooded thoroughbreds a trainer must have to compete with Coolmore. Could any of them be potentially in the same league as Aidan O’Brien? How about David Elsworth? Classics have never come his way, at least not on the flat. But he always, perhaps with barren years in between, comes up with a good one. In The Groove, Norse Dancer, Heighlin, to name but three top class flat horses. And of course Persian Punch.
How great an achievement was it to keep a big, heavy horse like Persian Punch sound and winning into his tenth year? Cup races are notoriously hard on a horse, and yet David Elsworth brought him back year after year, with two forays to the Melbourne Cup thrown in for good measure. And not two abortive missions, either. But two third places in the toughest, perhaps most prestigious race on the planet. It can be argued that Persian Punch was as good on the day he died as he was six years previously when he began to put down roots in the hearts of the racing public.
I remember that good 2-mile, 2 and a half mile chaser Barnbrook Again when against the wisdom of the racing media Elsworth tried him over 3-miles. He finished 2nd and when it was put to the trainer that Barnbrook didn’t win because he failed to stay, he replied. “He certainly stayed the 3-miles better than those he beat.”
It is the view that should have prevailed after this year’s Derby. If Cracksman and Eminent are thought be true 1-mile and a half horses then in finishing in front of them it cannot be argued that Cliffs of Moher didn’t see out the Derby trip as he certainly stayed better than those he beat.
And of course only David Elsworth thought Desert Orchid would stay 3-miles and only David Elsworth thought he would win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on a course he had never won at, on ground he loathed and over a trip he had never attempted. To this day I contend the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup to be one of the top three most memorable races ever seen on a British racecourse. I even had the audacity many years later to write two short stories about the day, one of which ‘Grey Day’ can be found on this website, the only piece of fiction amongst a plethora of idea, opinion and radical thought.
I suspect the reason Elsworth is overlooked by the top owners is because he is too much his own man, too old and wizened to kowtow to the whims and fancies of those used to getting their own way. Yet surely his talents deserve at least one more ‘superstar’ before he hangs up his boots. This is the man who trained not one of racing’s all-time greats but two. And the reason the racing public took both Desert Orchid and Persian Punch to their hearts was because neither of them knew how to lose without giving all they had to give. To be blessed with that mentality they had to be fit in mind and body, and that is David Elsworth’s greatest achievement. He knows his horses, knows when to shovel on the coal and when to back off. With the possible exception of Yeats, for all the domination Coolmore has achieved they have never had a horse the public have taken to their hearts. In fact Elsworth’s achievement can only be matched by Paul Nicholls courtesy of his good fortune of having trained Denman and Kauto Star.
Recently there was a memorial service at Westminster Abbey for Ronnie Corbett. Nice for his family, and though comforting for the rest of us to think that somehow Ronnie could acknowledge the honour, the recognition of esteem might have served him better in life. Let Elsworth not leave us before the racing world, the racing family, acknowledge in solid form his handling of two of the most popular horses ever to grace a racecourse. Perhaps a plaque. A race named in his honour. An Elsworth Esplanade. His name preserved from extinction. His achievements forever recalled.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.