1995 Vincent O'Brien: Encomium for Honorary Degree
University of Ulster
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
MICHAEL VINCENT O´BRIEN
Presentation Address by
Professor P G (Gerry) McKenna BSc PhD CBiol FIBiol FIBMS
4th July 1995
It has been said, and with some justification, that the development of the thoroughbred horse has been largely dependent upon a piece of wood - the winning post of the Epsom Derby. However, as we move towards the end of the 20th Century it is clear that one uniquely gifted Irishman has left an indelible and unparalleled imprint on the bloodstock industry which will influence its evolution for decades to come. That individual is Vincent 0´Brien, who in a career as a racehorse trainer spanning over 50 years, rewrote the record books in National Hunt and Flat racing and established Ireland as one of the major world centres for thoroughbred breeding.
Vincent O´Brien was born in Churchtown, Co. Cork in 1917 - the eldest of four children from the second marriage of Daniel O´Brien to Kathleen Toomey. Dan O´Brien, as he was known locally, was a farmer who also trained racehorses largely for fun as a sideline. The young Vincent had an affinity for horses from his earliest days, being able at the age of three to sit on his father´s knee and sing out the pedigrees of the horses on the farm. By his late teens Vincent was unofficially in charge of training the horses which continued until his father´s sudden death in 1943.
Due to a marriage settlement the farm was inherited by a member of his father´s first family. Vincent rented the yard and the training gallops from his eldest half-brother and, as a young relatively unknown trainer, began the difficult task of establishing a reputation during the war years when the likelihood of attracting new owners was largely non-existent. Nonetheless, within a year the young trainer had achieved a remarkable feat, training Drybob to dead heat for the Irish Cambridgeshire and Good Days to win the Irish Cesarewitch. He had £2 each way on the double and netted £1,000. He was on his way!
1948 was the year when the wider world of racing became fully aware of Vincent O´Brien. That was when he saddled the brilliant steeplechaser Cottage Rake for the first of three consecutive victories in the Cheltenham Gold Cup; he was to win a 4th Gold Cup with Knock Hard in 1953. In 1949 he trained Hatton´s Grace to win the first of three Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham. His record at the Cheltenham Festival during a period from 1948 to 1959 was outstanding. At this time the Gloucestershire Hurdle was run in two divisions. Vincent O´Brien trained ten winners out of twelve runners during the period 1952 to 1959 - his other two runners finished second! It was therefore fitting that in 1994 the Cheltenham Racecourse Executive decided to change the name of one of the oldest of the Festival races, the County Hurdle, to the Vincent O´Brien County Hurdle.
By 1950, Vincent O´Brien, following the successes of Cottage Rake and Hatton´s Grace, decided to find a training establishment of his own. The search took him to a farm called Ballydoyle outside Cashel in Co. Tipperary. It was to become the most famous training establishment in the world. The following year, 1951, was to bring much subsequent happiness to the blossoming trainer. By chance he met the young Jacqueline Wittenoom, an economics graduate from Western Australia, who was staying with a relative in Belfast. Jacqueline´s father was a Member of the Australian Parliament and Mayor of Albany. She and Vincent were married later that year in Dublin.
Jacqueline O´Brien is widely acknowledged as an outstanding photographer. She is co-author of three books ; one dealing with her husband´s great horses and the others with great houses and castles in Ireland. She is currently working on a book on Irish monuments. She has, by his own admission, been an enormous source of support and encouragement to Vincent and to their five children. If there is such a thing as an ideal role model for the individually successful wife of an exceptional husband - Jacqueline O´Brien is it.
Following their marriage, Vincent, having already conquered Cheltenham, turned his attention to the Aintree Grand National. He won the race in three successive years, 1953, 1954, and 1955 with three different horses - Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times. When one considers the severity of the Aintree obstacles at that time, this achievement is almost beyond belief.
If Vincent O´Brien had retired then his accomplishments would have placed him in the record books as probably the greatest trainer of all time. He didn´t retire, but he decided to switch his future activities to the more lucrative arena of flat racing where he could utilise more fully his exceptional insight into racing pedigrees. While many others have tried to follow suit he remains the only outstanding trainer to have successfully made the transition. Success on the flat came quickly. He trained Ballymoss to win the 1958 Prix de L´Arc de Triomphe and, in the same year, Gladness to win the Ascot Gold Cup. This prompted the London Times to state unequivocally that "Vincent O´Brien is the greatest racehorse trainer in the world". He won the first of his six Epsom Derbies with Larkspur in 1962. Over the next thirty years every major race in Europe fell to an O´Brien runner including each of the five English and Irish classics (43 wins in all), the French Derby, two more Prix de L´ Arc de Triomphe victories, the Washington International, seven Dewhurst Stakes, five Eclipse Stakes, three King George IV and Queen Elizabeth Gold Cups and over 20 winners at Royal Ascot. In 1975 he sent seven runners to the Royal meeting and six of them won!
Vincent O´Brien has trained some of the greatest flat racehorses of all time including Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Ballymoss, Alleged, Golden Fleece and El Gran Senor. In most cases he also selected these horses as yearlings, thus demonstrating his unique talents not only as a trainer but as a judge of the developing horse. Many of these successes were in association with the brilliant jockey Lester Piggott and it was a heart rending occasion in 1990 when the trainer invited Lester out of retirement to ride Royal Academy to a nail biting victory in the Breeders Cup mile at Belmont Park, New York.
I alluded earlier to Vincent O´Brien´s unique appreciation and understanding of thoroughbred pedigrees. It was therefore not surprising that he should become involved in the breeding of racehorses. In 1973 he bought a majority share of a stud farm near Ballydoyle called Coolmore. Later he was joined in this venture by Robert Sangster and his subsequent son in law John Magnier who owned Castlehyde Stud at Fermoy. The studs were merged and together they also formed a syndicate to purchase yearlings with the pedigree and conformation to become not only champion racehorses but successful sires. Today the Coolmore empire is unquestionably the most successful in Europe and also includes major stud farms in the United States and Australia. Most of its initial gallery of champions came via the Ballydoyle stables. Indeed a unique feature of Ballydoyle is the extent to which its graduates went on to become leading and influential sires including Nijinsky, Alleged, The Minstrel, Roberto, Sadlers Wells, Caerleon and El Gran Senor; thus reflecting the genius of its Master in selecting pedigrees. These horses and their progeny will be dominant forces in the development of the thoroughbred for decades to come.
Vincent 0´Brien decided to retire at the end of last season after a career spanning six decades at the pinnacle of racing. He has been honoured many times including:
- An honorary doctorate in laws from the National University of Ireland;
- Honorary Life Membership of the Royal Dublin Society;
- Honorary Membership of the Stephens Green Club;
- A Cartier Award for ´Outstanding Achievement in Racing´;
- The George Ennor Award for Outstanding Achievement from the UK Horserace Writers Guild.
It is fitting that this University, which has an internationally recognised reputation in science, should honour the man whose unique genius combined intuition and dedication with the application of science to raise the breeding, selection and training of racehorses onto an entirely new plane.
Chancellor, I present to you, Michael Vincent O´Brien, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.