“Danny has been through so much and he’s never complained to me or anyone else once. He’s setting the record straight to what a good trainer he is and what a good person he is.”
O’Brien and fellow Flemington trainer Mark Kavanagh were disqualified by racing officials and then ultimately exonerated by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. They were front-page news in Melbourne. They pleaded their innocence from the start but the issue dragged on for years.
In 2018, O’Brien said the losses both he and Kavanagh had racked up could amount to more than $10m each. He’s still standing, as is Kavanagh. Black Caviar’s trainer Peter Moody is not. He was also banned over the cobalt affair and chose to close down his business.
You have to survive adversity if you’re going to be successful in racing.
O’Brien’s reward came on Australian horse racing’s most watched stage, standing next to his mother Helen in the mounting yard as Craig Williams dived along the inside to beat Frankie Dettori’s Master Of Reality and Il Paradiso. Prince Of Arran was ultimately promoted to second on protest.
His winning horse was perfectly named, Vow And Declare.
“It was hard,” O’Brien told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of the cobalt affair. “Racing is a rollercoaster and everyone has setbacks and that was a time when we had a setback.
“[But] I never lost faith in the sport. You have to survive adversity if you’re going to be successful in racing. We just kept working and I kept putting my head down. If you keep doing that you get a bit of luck.
“I don’t think anyone survives in racing without some down times, you get used to disappointments. I was ultimately very confident that once it got to outside of the racing jurisdiction that we would be found completely innocent of any nefarious intentions.”
Vow And Declare’s part-owner Geoff Corrigan stuck solid. In his own words, he read “every inch” of the transcripts after every trip O’Brien and Kavanagh made to a racing disciplinary hearing or an outside jurisdiction. He reckons he knows the outcomes back to front.
“I always treat people on how you find them – and you judge their character,” Corrigan said. “But I still think to this day he’s a good bloke – he’s an even better bloke now.”
O’Brien never went away, and neither has cobalt. There are dozens of thoroughbred and standardbred trainers throughout Australia still with outstanding positives to the substance, in which the science remains uncertain. He wants racing administrators to tackle the problem head on.
If he was destined to get through the cobalt drama, then maybe he was destined to win a Melbourne Cup, too. Another protege of Bart Cummings, O’Brien adopted a more European style of training with Vow And Declare this year rather than the master’s 10,000-metres-in-the-legs lead-up approach.
“He’s a silent learner,” Peter said. “He just watches and observes and processes it himself. He obviously was stressed and internalising everything [during the cobalt hearings]. He was too strong for his own good. His health was suffering because of what was going on.
“[But] he did it all by himself. He never complained or broke down in front of me. When I saw him after the race today he said, ‘Don’t worry about the past, just enjoy this moment’.”
Adam Pengilly is a Sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Racing writer for The Sydney Morning Herald