Friday, June 5, 2009

A Horseman Passed By

The passing this week of a remarkable man moves Head Down Eyes Open to pen its first obituary.

Growing up in the west of Ireland, especially in East Galway, in the seventies and eighties, was to live in a land enthralled by the power, beauty and majesty of the noble horse. In the home of the oldest horse fair in Europe there was (and is) a deep-rooted bond with our equine cousins. And there was no one more synonymous with the horse racing world than the recently deceased Vincent O'Brien.

Michael Vincent O'Brien, was born in the village of Churchtown in north county Cork. His passing this week, brings to an end an era of unparalelled success and achievement in horse racing circles. His career stretched across five decades from 1944 till his retirement in 1994 and his final parting on the 1st of June was at the very respectable age of 92.

O'Brien excelled in both Steeplechasing (or Jumps) and Flat racing. Steeplechasing itself has its origins in Ireland in the very north Cork parish where O'Brien was born. The records show that in 1752 two local horsey men, Cornelius O'Callaghan and Edmund Blake, laid a wager to race their horses cross-country, over ditches and streams, between the church steeples of the towns of Buttevant and Doneraile - hence the name, steeplechase.

The reverence for horses in Ireland runs back into the early ages and continues to this day. In my own county for instance we have the Galway Race Festival every July (and the Ballinasloe Horse Fair every October). It's a local affair attended by more than 200'000 people roaring on some 50 races brimming with beasts competing for more than twenty million euro in prize money. Out the road, in our parish, there is a little village called Laurencetown, where we have point-to-point racing. This is amatuer horse racing at its best (scores of such meetings happen all over Ireland) which has its origins in fox hunting and is a curtain raiser for the potential stars of the more lucrative jump racing in Ireland and the UK.

Steeplechasing, was our main passion growing up. There was a clear journey from the Laurencetown point-to-point through to the Galway Races and onto the Fairyhouse festival after Christmas. This was a logical path in the sweat and guts of the steeplechase.

My father and his friends were point-to-point afficianados and loyal subjects in the court of O'Brien. For them point-to-pointing was an equine nursery capable of producing the next Derby or Grand National winner. They kept blue-lined ledgers and recorded all their observations and all the information on blood lines and form that they could muster. Oftentimes, these ledgers were dusted off, and proved their worth years later in picking a high-odds high-stakes winner in Epsom or Aintry.

Such occassions fed the dreams of ordinary punters fleecing bookies and forming horse racing syndicates to challenge the best that the Curragh or Chepstow could offer and maybe for a moment walk in the footsteps of giants like Vincent. Flat racing, the glamorous cousin of jump racing, was a summer sport and best avoided by ordinary gamblers who were scared off by short odds and slim winning margins.

The Master of Ballydoyle

What O'Brien has not won in racing is not worth a mention. But more than that he hand-picked his own stable of horses, designed and developed his own unique training centre - Ballydoyle, raked in huge sums from gambling and racing syndicates, revolutionized horse breeding and elevated Ireland to the very top rung of bloodstock breeding.

It is unlikely any trainer will ever match his achievements. Among the honours O'Brien won three consecutive Grand Nationals with three different horses, four Cheltenham Gold Cups and three Champion Hurdles. O'Briens twenty thee festival winners include an incredible ten victories in what is now the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

O'Brien's three Grand Nationals in particular is an unprecedented achievement but it was just a taster of what was to come when he turned his attention to flat racing in the 1950s. Altogether he would go on to win the Derby six times, four of them were ridden by Lester Piggott during a hugely lucrative partnership for both men. Besides the victories of Ballymoss he also won another two King Georges and another two Prix de L'Arc de Triomphes and he won the Dewhurst, Europe's premier two-year-old race, no less than seven times.

When the authoritative Racing Post held a poll to decide the best jump trainer of all time O'Brien won it hands down and when they held another poll to decide the best Flat trainer he also raced first past the post. Finally, he topped the paper's poll for the greatest figure in the history of horse racing.

O’Brien’s success with yearlings bought in America resulted in the start of a syndicate with Robert Sangster and O'Brien’s son-in-law John Magnier, the present-day owner of the renowned Ballydoyle stables.

Magnier, also the son of a county Cork farmer, is today Ireland's leading thoroughbred stud owner and enjoys continuing success as an owner-investor in football clubs and luxury Caribbean resorts, to name but a few.

With Ballydoyle in particular O'Brien raised the bar of success so high that it will most likely have to be lowered by future generations of trainers. Ballydoyle set him apart and demonstrated, if needed, that his influence extended beyond just winning big races and turned it into the foremost training centre in the world.

This was also the time of huge stallion syndication values and it was O'Brien who had the wit to introduce Northern Dancer's bloodline into European racing. That same bloodline is now the foundation of breeding on the Irish side of the Atlantic. O'Brien's great eye for a potential champion meant he picked most of them himself including the best horse of his long and illustrious career, Nijinsky, a champion two-year-old and the last horse to win the British Triple Crown of Guineas, Derby and St Leger.

Ballydoyle (and Coolmore) brought unprecedented wealth and recognition to Irish horseracing, epitomized by larger than life characters and wonderful anecdotes such as the glorious final hurrah when Lester Piggott returned from retirement and a jail-term to team up with O'Brien for a memorable Breeders’ Cup success on Royal Academy in Belmont Park in 1990.

“It was Vincent that gave me my greatest thrill ever at Belmont,” the legendary Piggott said later. “He has been the outstanding trainer of my time. He was special.” In a sport where opinions are rarely alligned, that is a perspective on which there will be unchallenged unanimity.

The passing of Vincent O'Brien is truly the turning of a page in the Ireland that I know. I picture him in that great racecourse in the sky looking down with affection at my father and his friends, and the millions like them, who have dedicated their lives to the love of horses, to the odd flutter, and the deep-seated thrill of a country race meet. Rest easy Master O'Brien and heartfelt thanks for such great memories and such great stirrings of shared pride in your 50 odd years of homage to the horse.

Vincent O'Brien: Life of a Master (taken from the Irish Times)

Name: Michael Vincent O’Brien

Born: Good Friday, April 9th, 1917 in Churchtown, Co. Cork.

Married: December 29th, 1951 to Jacqueline.

Family: Five children – David, Charles, Elizabeth, Sue and Jane.

First Winner: Oversway at Limerick Junction on May 20th, 1943.

Final Winner: Mysterious Ways at the Curragh on September 17th, 1994.

Champion Trainer in Ireland (13 times): 1959, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1988 1989.

Champion Flat Trainer in Britain (twice): 1966 and 1977.

Champion Jumps Trainer in Britain (twice): 1952-53 and 1953-54.

Major National Hunt Victories: Cheltenham Gold Cup (4) – Cottage Rake (1948-49-50) and Knock Hard (1953). Champion Hurdle (3) – Hatton’s Grace (1949-50-51). Aintree Grand National (3) – Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954) and Quare Times (1955). Irish Grand National (1) – Alberoni (1952).

Irish Classics: 2,000 Guineas (5) – El Toro (1959), Jazzerio (1978), Kings Lake (1981), Sadler’s Wells (1984) and Prince Of Birds (1988). 1,000 Guineas (3) – Valoris (1966), Lady Capulet (1977) and Godetia (1979). Derby (6) – Chamier (1953), Ballymoss (1957), Nijinksy (1970), The Minstrel (1977), El Gran Senor (1984) and Law Society (1985). Oaks (4) – Ancasta (1964), Aurabella (1965), Gaia (1969) and Godetia (1979). St Leger (9) – Barclay (1959), White Gloves (1966), Reindeer (1969), Caucasus (1975), Meneval (1976), Transworld (1977), Gonzales (1980), Leading Counsel (1985) and Dark Lomond (1988).

British Classics: 2,000 Guineas (4) – Sir Ivor 91968), Nijinsky (1970), Lomond (1983) and El Gran Senor (1984). 1,000 Guineas (1) – Glad Rags (1966). Derby (6) – Larkspur (1962), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Roberto (1972), The Minstrel (1977) and Golden Fleece (1982). Oaks (2) – Long Look (1965) and Valoris (1966). St Leger (3) – Ballymoss (1957), Nijinsky (1970) and Boucher (1972).

French Classics: Prix Du Jockey Club (1) – Caerleon (1983).

Other Major International Races include: Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (3) – Ballymoss (1958) and Alleged (1977-78). Breeders’ Cup Mile (1) – Royal Academy (1990). Washington International (1) – Sir Ivor (1968). King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (3) – Ballymoss (1958), Nijinsky (1970) and The Minstrel (1977). Ascot Gold Cup (1) – Gladness (1958). Eclipse Stakes (5) – Ballymoss (1958), Pieces Of Eight (1966), Artaius (1977), Solford (1983) and Sadler’s Wells (1984). July Cup (5) – Thatch (1973), Saritamer (1974), Solinus (1978), Thatching (1979) and Royal Academy (1990). Sussex Stakes (4) – Thatch (1973), Artaius (1977), Jazzerio (1978) and Kings Lake (1981). Benson and Hedges Gold Cup (2) – Roberto (1972) and Caerleon (1983). Dewhurst Stakes (7) – Nijinksy (1969), Cellini (1973), The Minstrel (1976), Monteverdi (1979), Storm Bird (1980) and El Gran Senor (1983).

Career total winners in Ireland (Flat and NH) – 1,529.

Royal Ascot winner tally – 25 including including seven winners from eight runners in 1975.

Cheltenham Festival tally – 23 including 10 Gloucestershire Hurdles.

Honorary doctorates: from National University of Ireland and Ulster University.

/PC (posted as it happens on Epsom Derby day where all the jockeys are wearing black armbands as a mark of respect for Michael Vincent).

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