2015 Biography of Vincent O'Brien
O’Brien, Michael Vincent (1917-2009)
P. Gerry McKenna MRIA
Michael Vincent O’Brien, known by his middle name Vincent, or ´MV´, is generally regarded to have been the greatest racehorse trainer of the 20th century. He possessed the widest range of accomplishments, having excelled in flat racing, under National Hunt rules, and as a buyer and breeder of bloodstock. O’Brien was a visionary who anticipated and helped to create the immense international surge in the value of bloodstock which began in the 1970s and brought Ireland to the pinnacle of thoroughbred breeding by the beginning of the 21st century.
Vincent O´Brien was born on 9th April 1917 at Clashganniff House near Churchtown, County Cork. His father, Dan, a fox-hunting farmer who trained a few horses under a permit, lost his first wife, Helena, in childbirth while she was bearing their fifth child and, 18 months later, married his wife´s first cousin, Kathleen Toomey. This union yielded four children, of whom Vincent was the oldest. Vincent´s two younger brothers were Dermot and Phonsie, an accomplished amateur jockey, who were both to play a significant role in his career. He also had a sister, Pauline.
He was devoted to horses from his earliest days and by the age of four could recite the pedigrees of the horses kept on his father’s farm. He attended the National School in Churchtown before being sent at the age of 10 to stay with his godfather, Dan O’Leary, the local bank manager in Bruff. There he attended the De La Salle Brothers’ school. Three years later he transferred to the prestigious Jesuit College at Mungret. He was an intelligent pupil but his main interest was horses and he persuaded his father to allow him to leave school at 15 when he became apprenticed to the trainer Fred Clarke at Leopardstown, County Dublin. After a year he returned to assist his father with the care and training of the horses at Clashganiff; taking unofficial charge of the training regime until his father’s sudden death in the summer of 1943.The farm at Churchtown was left by a marriage settlement to the family of Dan O´Brien´s first marriage, and for a while Vincent even considered a career as a butcher. Eventually agreement was reached for him to rent the stables and for the younger family to continue to live at Clashganiff .
In December 1943, O’Brien visited England for the first time and, at Newmarket sales, paid just 130 guineas for Drybob, a three-year-old of little visible merit. At the same time Sidney McGregor, breeder of both a Derby and a Grand National winner, asked him to train a moderate four-year-old, Good Days. In 1944, his very first year as a trainer, O’Brien pulled off the Irish Autumn Double at the Curragh; Good Days won the Cesarewitch and Drybob dead-heated for the Cambridgeshire — O’Brien had £2 each way on the double at 800-1, yielding £1,000.
The horse that put O’Brien on the map was Cottage Rake. The young trainer overheard two vets discussing this fine horse, whose sale had twice fallen through because he suffered from a respiratory problem. “But at his age, I don’t think it will ever affect him,” O’Brien heard one vet say to the other. The trainer rushed to a telephone and called wool merchant Frank Vickerman, “the only man I knew with any money”, and told him to buy the horse. Cottage Rake duly arrived at Churchtown, and in the autumn of 1947 won the Irish Cesarewitch. The following year he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It was the first time O’Brien had set foot on an English racecourse.
In 1948 O’Brien bought for 18 guineas an insignificant-looking eight-year-old called Hatton’s Grace. On his second visit to Cheltenham’s National Hunt Festival, in 1949, O’Brien achieved a remarkable double: the Champion Hurdle with Hatton’s Grace, and a second consecutive Gold Cup with Cottage Rake. He completed a Gold Cup hat-trick with ‘The Rake’ in 1950, also taking three consecutive Champion Hurdles with Hatton’s Grace (1949-51). His fourth Gold Cup winner was Knock Hard, in 1953. At a time when Ireland was experiencing economic stagnation, O’Brien’s victories in major English races were a source of great pride and inspiration to the struggling Irish people.
His record at the Cheltenham Festival during a period from 1948 to 1959 was outstanding. At that time the Gloucestershire Hurdle (later the Supreme Novices Hurdle) was sometimes 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 1995 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’.
Betting was an all-important element of O´Brien´s early success, notably on his meticulously prepared annual visits to Cheltenham. The racecourse betting market was exceptionally strong in the post-war years, with many bookmakers, including the late William Hill, prepared to lay a substantial bet. O´Brien and his owners landed some legendary gambles. Some years later Hill, who had served in Ireland with the Black and Tans, remarked to O’Brien: “It would have paid me to have had you shot years ago!”
Following the successes of Cottage Rake and Hatton’s Grace, O’Brien decided to establish racing stables of his own. His success in betting, together with a loan from the bank, enabled him to buy Ballydoyle House, a 280-acre farm near Cashel in Co Tipperary, for £17,000, in 1950. Originally an ordinary working farm, it was converted over the years into the most up-to-date and sophisticated training establishment in Europe, increasing in size to over 600 acres.
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. She and Vincent were married on 29 December 1951 in University Church, Dublin. Jacqueline’s parents were the Hon. Charles and Constance Patricia Wittenoom (nee Hanrahan). Her father served as Mayor of Albany Municipal Council from 1923 to 1931 (with a brief break in 1926), and again from 1940 to 1952. He was an elected Member of the Western Australian Legislative Council (upper house) for the South-East Province from 1928 -1940. An outstanding photographer, Jacqueline O’Brien authored and co-authored a number of books including the official biography of her husband and others dealing with his greatest horses, great Irish houses and castles in Ireland, ancient Irish monuments and the Irish Derby.
Following their marriage, Vincent, having already conquered Cheltenham, turned his attention to the Aintree Grand National. He achieved the remarkable and unprecedented feat of winning the race in three successive years, 1953, 1954, and 1955, with three different horses - Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times.
Having mastered the jumping scene, O’Brien decided to concentrate on the Flat where the prize money was greater and he could also utilise more fully his immense knowledge of pedigrees and breeding. He had won the 1953 Irish Derby with Chamier then, in 1955 at Doncaster Sales, he met an American owner, John McShain, for whom he bought eight yearlings. Among them was Ballymoss who, in 1957, came second in the English Derby after an interrupted preparation, and won the Irish Derby and the St Leger. The following year Ballymoss won all the major middle distance European races; Coronation Cup, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. By this time, McShain also owned Vincent’s brilliant staying mare, Gladness who won the 1958 Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup and the Ebor Handicap carrying top weight.
But these early triumphs were short-lived. During the Spring of 1960, following the win of Chamier’s son Chamour in a maiden race at the Curragh, the Stewards of the Irish Turf Club informed O’Brien that the colt had proved positive for a minuscule amount (1/10,000th of a grain) of a substance ‘’resembling” an amphetamine derivative. This had followed the analyses of sweat and saliva samples by a laboratory in England. Although no proof was found of malpractice on the trainer’s part - it hardly made sense to dope a horse in a minor race with no betting involved - O’Brien’s licence was withdrawn for 18 months from 13th May. Many felt that O’Brien was targeted for harsh treatment due to his increasing and unprecedented success as a trainer from outside the echelons of the ‘racing establishment’ based around the Dublin and Kildare race tracks. His career was in ruins and he was "warned off" the turf and ordered to move away from his house and stables.
O´Brien´s brother Phonsie was permitted to take over the licence at Ballydoyle, assisted by his other brother Dermot. When Chamour won the Irish Derby three months later, angry racegoers surrounded the Curragh weighing room chanting: "We want Vincent". Vincent O’Brien was fishing on the River Blackwater at the time of Chamour’s triumph. Barred from his home O’Brien, who was deeply patriotic, felt like an exile in his own land.
During the months that followed, evidence was assembled from world authorities, including the racing authorities in England, New York, Germany, and France, showing that the tests on Chamour were without scientific foundation. They purported to measure a substance that could not be isolated or measured in saliva and sweat samples. As a result of overwhelming scientific evidence against the findings of the test laboratory, and growing exasperation by the racing public, O’Brien’s 18-month suspension was reduced to 12 months. Faced with a libel action which they were certain to lose, the Stewards of the Turf Club finally capitulated with an apology to O’Brien being read out on the steps of the Supreme Court. They paid all legal costs. The trainer, who had asserted his innocence throughout, was entirely vindicated though deeply scarred. He generously waived damages.
Just one year later, in 1962, O’Brien won the first of his six Epsom Derbies, with Larkspur. He won the Irish Oaks in 1964, and the following year the Oaks at Epsom with Long Look, and the Irish Oaks with Aurabella. In 1966 he took the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket with Glad Rags.
O’Brien who had first booked Lester Piggott as jockey for Gladness in 1958 was now using him as jockey whenever possible for his runners outside Ireland. This led to a split between Piggott and his retaining trainer, Noel Murless after Piggott chose to ride O’Brien’s Valoris rather than The Queen’s Varinia in the 1966 Epsom Oaks. Valoris won and Piggott became a freelance jockey, picking and choosing the best rides available but teaming up increasingly with O’Brien to form one of the most successful and enduring partnerships in turf history.
O’Brien had, since his association with John McShain in the 1950s, cultivated a new and rich seam of American owners. Partly through the associated exposure to American racing, he became increasingly convinced of the virtues of American-bred horses. Many of the best European bloodlines had been sold to America during previous generations and Vincent’s success with American-breds led ultimately to a redressing of the balance and a renewal of European thoroughbred breeding strengths. In 1968 O’Brien sent out the handsome bay Sir Ivor (by Sir Gaylord), owned like Larkspur by, the now US Ambassador to Ireland, Raymond Guest, to win both the English 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby. Bred at the famous Claiborne Stud in Kentucky, the horse went on to win the Champion Stakes at Newmarket and the Washington International. This was also the year in which O’Brien was asked by the platinum magnate, Charles Engelhard, to go to the Windfields Farm in Canada to inspect a yearling colt by Ribot. Having seen the horse, O’Brien advised against a purchase — but recommended that Engelhard instead buy another colt he had observed while at the stud, a son of the then untried stallion Northern Dancer.
This was the brilliant Nijinsky, regarded by many as the greatest racehorse of the 20th century. The colt won races of the highest calibre over distances spanning 6-14 furlongs during his 2- and 3-year old career, including the Dewhurst Stakes in 1969 and the English Triple Crown (2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger) in 1970, when he also won the Irish Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Nijinsky went on to become an outstanding sire.
Two years later O’Brien was back in the Derby winner’s enclosure at Epsom with the hugely talented but enigmatic Roberto (by Hail to Reason). He won by a short head from the subsequent Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe winner, Rheingold. Roberto had fragile knees and required a left-handed track to show his best form. His performance in winning the inaugural Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (later the Juddmonte International) at York in 1972, beating the hitherto, and subsequently, unbeaten Brigadier Gerard by 3 ½ lengths in course record time, was one of the greatest ever performances on a European racecourse.
Among O’Brien’s owners was the Irish-American Jack Mulcahy; and it was he who told the trainer to “get a piece of the action” — that is, to become a part-owner in the horses he trained, thereby profiting from their prize money and, more importantly, their value at stud. O’Brien was to call this “the best advice I ever got” and he subsequently owned shares in all of the horses under his care at Ballydoyle.
In 1973 O´Brien bought a majority share of a stud farm at Fethard 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. By the beginning of the 21st century Coolmore, under Magnier’s strategic direction, had become the most powerful thoroughbred breeding operation in the world and included major stud farms in the United States and Australia.
The O’Brien, Sangster, Magnier syndicate, which initially included a number of wealthy American and European owners and was joined later by the Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos, enjoyed over a decade of extraordinary success. They bought the finest yearling colts, mostly American bred and frequently by Northern Dancer. Trained at Ballydoyle to win Classic and other major races, the successful horses would then stand at Coolmore, syndicated as stallions for millions of pounds.
O’Brien’s role in this was crucial. There was no better judge of a yearling, and he had an unrivalled knowledge of pedigrees. He also had great business acumen, and invested in Northern Dancer’s progeny at a time when the stallion was unproved. His reputation was crucial in encouraging other wealthy owners to invest in the syndicate; in 1975, just before the partnership became operational, O’Brien had sent 7 horses to Royal Ascot and 6 of them had won. The syndicate’s first set of yearlings were bought in 1975 and included The Minstrel (by Northern Dancer), who won the Derby in 1977. In the same year another of their purchases, Alleged (by Hoist the Flag), won the first of two consecutive Prix de L’Arc de Triomphes.
As a trainer, O’Brien was meticulous in his attention to detail with nothing left to chance or spared in his single-minded determination to bring out the best mentally and physically in all the horses under his care. When he thought that the highly strung The Minstrel (winner of the 1977 Derby) would be upset by the noise of the Epsom crowd, he had cotton wool stuffed in the horse’s ears. He was the first trainer to weigh horses regularly and to install all-weather gallops. And while it became not unusual for a trainer to oversee more than 200 horses in his yard, O’Brien seldom had more than 60 at a time: “It would have been impossible to give my individual attention to a large number of horses,” he said.
The success of the Ballydoyle syndicate is exemplified by two of its earliest purchases; The Minstrel, bought for $200,000 and later syndicated for $9m, and Alleged, which cost $165,000 and was syndicated for $16m. Almost overnight, the thoroughbred became a valuable international commodity. Keeneland, Kentucky, hitherto almost unknown territory for Europeans, with the exception of O’Brien who had been a regular visitor from the 1960s, became an annual battleground for the wealthiest owners, with a growing interest from the Middle East.
The battles at Keeneland between the syndicate, leading American and European owners, and the Maktoum family of Dubai, raised the value of bloodstock to unimagined levels. This was climaxed by the sale of a Nijinsky yearling for $13.1m to the Ballydoyle syndicate in 1985.
The syndicate did not confine its purchases to colts, also buying a number of well bred yearling fillies with the pedigrees to become successful brood mares when crossed with future Coolmore stallions. Ironically it was one such filly that had the greatest impact on the early development of the Coolmore Stud brand. Fairy Bridge (by Bold Reason) was from a family that had yielded a number of champions for O’Brien including Thatch (by Forli), Lisadell (by Forli) and Marinsky (by Northern Dancer). She was also a half-sister to the brilliant French miler, Nureyev (by Northern Dancer). Purchased for just $40,000 at the Saratoga sales in 1976, she was trained by Vincent to win her only two races as a 2 year old. At stud she produced the outstanding European sire of the 20th Century, Sadler’s Wells (by Northern Dancer). Sadler’s Wells was an exceptional racehorse, winning the Irish 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse stakes and Irish Champion Stakes for O’Brien in 1984. He was champion sire in Britain 14 times, 3 times in France and once in the United States. His full brother, Fairy King was also a successful Coolmore sire. Sadler’s Wells sired a number of future champion sires including Galileo and Montjeu in Europe and El Prado (also trained by O’Brien) in the US. Sadler’s Wells’s dominance over nearly two decades was the ‘rock’ which helped Coolmore develop to its position of pre-eminence by the beginning of the 21st century.
O’Brien trained his sixth and final Epsom Derby winner, Golden Fleece (by Nijinsky), in 1982. He nearly attained a seventh two years later, when his brilliant Dewhurst Stakes and English 2,000 Guineas winner, El Gran Senor (by Northern Dancer), was narrowly beaten in a sensational finish by Secreto — trained by his son, David O’Brien. El Gran Senor went on to win the Irish Derby.
By the mid-1980s, Arab owners, and particularly the Maktoum family, were beginning to invest apparently unlimited funding into flat racing. In an attempt to rival the Arab purchasing power, O’Brien, Magnier, Sangster, Michael Smurfit and John Horgan launched Classic Thoroughbreds, a publically listed company, to buy yearlings to be trained at Ballydoyle. However, even the initial IR£12M raised by the company proved no match at the sales for the Arabs. Shortly thereafter, bloodstock prices began to tumble internationally leaving little opportunity to recoup initial outlay through stallion syndication.
Classic Thoroughbreds was wound up in 1991 but was not without its successes, most notably the victory of Royal Academy in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York. He was ridden by 54 year old Lester Piggott who O’Brien had persuaded to come out of retirement a few weeks earlier. Royal Academy (by Nijinsky) cost $3.5M and was O’Brien’s sole purchase at the 1998 Keeneland sales. Having earlier won the July Cup at Newmarket over 6 furlongs, O’Brien had the colt in peak condition for the New York race and, ridden to perfection by Piggott, Royal Academy came with a late run to secure a historic victory. He became a successful Coolmore sire in Kentucky and Australia and was the grandsire of Black Caviar, the unbeaten winner of 25 races in Australia.
After his Breeders’ Cup triumph, O´Brien gradually reduced his stable to just a few horses. His final winner at Royal Ascot was College Chapel, wearing his wife Jacqueline’s colours and ridden by Piggott, in the 1993 Cork & Orrery Stakes (later the Diamond Jubilee Stakes). O’Brien retired aged 77 after six decades at the top level of his profession following the victory of Mysterious Ways at the Curragh in September 1994. During his career, O’Brien had, in his native country, won 1,529 races to the value of £5,789,460, and been champion Irish trainer 13 times. He had twice been British champion trainer on the Flat, and twice over obstacles. Following his retirement, Ballydoyle was incorporated into the Coolmore Stud holdings under the ownership of John Magnier, where it continued as one of the world’s leading racehorse training centres.
Vincent and Jacqueline O’Brien had five children; daughters Elizabeth (married Kevin McClory), Susan (married John Magnier) and Jane (married Philip Myerscough); and sons David (married Catherine Rear) and Charles (married Anne Heffernan [marriage dissolved], and later Tammy Twomey). His wife and children all survived Vincent. His two sons followed in their father´s footsteps as trainers. David trained the winners of the English, Irish and French Derbies before the age of 26. After retiring from racing he became a successful winemaker at Vignelaure near Aix in Provence, France. Charles, who won a scholarship to Eton College, trained at Baronrath Stud near the Curragh; his father was one of his leading owners up to his death.
A naturally shy and private individual, Vincent O’Brien eschewed the social milieu surrounding racing. A devoted husband, parent and grandparent, he preferred to spend his free time with his family and close friends, to whom he was intensely loyal. He was a committed and practising Roman Catholic. Hugely intelligent, he had an engaging personality and an excellent sense of humour.
In his latter years O´Brien and his wife purchased a house in Jacqueline’s home town Perth, Western Australia and split their time between there and Ireland. Vincent died at his Irish home in Straffan, County Kildare on 1 June 2009, aged 92. Following a service at St Conleth’s Church, Newbridge, Co. Kildare on 4 June 2009, his remains were cremated and later interred in the Straffan churchyard.
After his death in 2009, the National Stakes at the Curragh, the leading Irish race for 2 year-olds and which Vincent had won a record 15 times, was renamed the ‘Vincent O’Brien National Stakes’ in his memory.
He was honoured many times including:
- An honorary doctorate in laws from the National University of Ireland;
- An honorary doctorate in science from the University of Ulster
- Honorary Life Membership of the Royal Dublin Society;
- Honorary Membership of the St. Stephens Green Club;
- A Cartier Award for ´Outstanding Achievement in Racing´;
- The ‘George Ennor Award for Outstanding Achievement’ from the UK Horserace Writers Guild;
- Admission to Irish Derby Hall of Fame
In separate polls conducted by the Racing Post newspaper, Vincent O´Brien was voted the greatest national hunt trainer of the 20th century, and was then voted the greatest flat trainer of the 20th century. In the vote for the greatest figure in the history of horseracing, carried out in 2003, he came first with 28% of the total vote out of a pool of 100 contenders who had been carefully selected by a panel of racing experts.
There is a life size bronze statue of Vincent O’Brien in the village of Rosegreen, County Tipperary and various memorabilia relating to his career are displayed in the Coolmore Stud museum. Bronze statues of his most famous racehorse, Nijinsky, stand at the gates of Ballydoyle and at the Curragh racecourse. His papers and other memorabilia are held by the O’Brien family.
Ivor Herbert and Jacqueline O’Brien (1984), Vincent O’Brien’s Great Horses, Pelham Books,256pp; Jacqueline O’Brien and Ivor Herbert (2005), Vincent O’Brien – The Official Biography, Bantam Press, 320 pp; Raymond Smith (1990), Vincent O’Brien – the Master of Ballydoyle, Virgin Books, 316pp.
(12 September 2009); http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/jun/02/obituary-vincent-obrien( 2 June, 2009); http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/5422320/Vincent-OBrien.html (2 June 2009); http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/vincent-obrien-horse-racing-trainer-who-enjoyed-outstanding-success-in-both-national-hunt-and-flat-racing-1694550.html (2 June 2009)
2 Apr. 2015
(Original version of entry published in Dictionary of Irish Biography. Royal Irish Academy and Cambridge University Press, June 2015)