HORSE RACING:The first running of the Vincent O'Brien National Stakes takes place today at the Curragh. With his widow, the photographer Jacqueline O'Brien, MIRIAM MULCAHY looks back on the remarkable achievements of the great Irish trainer
IN THE OLD days, before success defined him, and he was a little-known country trainer from Cork, Vincent O’Brien used to bet on his own horses. Had to, it was the only way he could make the money he needed. The odds were long, and the rewards were great. He knew so much about horses that he could take a jumper and run him on the Flat a couple of weeks later, sweeping all before him. But that was before anyone knew, before he became a hero to the Irish, with his Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles, his Grand Nationals, Derbys, Oaks and St Legers, the Ascots and Epsoms, the Arcs. Before he became Vincent O’Brien of Ballydoyle, watching the horses was like breathing, and just as essential to his survival.
Judged by many in the racing world to be the greatest horseman of the 20th century, Vincent O’Brien died last June at the age of 92, at the height of the racing season. An unassuming, humble man, he would have been “absolutely staggered” at the accolades poured upon him after his death, says his wife Jacqueline.
At his side for nearly 60 years, she witnessed the greatest of triumphs, and terrifying setbacks that at times, seemed to threaten his career. And what a career. He won all the big races in England and Ireland – repeatedly. In his seventies, he won the biggest race in the US, the Breeders’ Cup, with Royal Academy ridden by Lester Piggot, in what must stand as one of racing’s epic tales.
There was a litany of firsts: to use air travel; to make an all-weather gallops; to win three Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, three Grand Nationals, all in consecutive years; to bring wealthy Americans into Irish racing; and the first to revolutionise the bloodstock industry by establishing Coolmore Stud and finding brilliant American horses to strengthen European lines.
Jacqueline Wittenoom, a young graduate from Perth in Australia, was on holiday when she met him in Dublin. He took her racing the very next day, and they were engaged before she returned home.
She then had the difficult task of telling her father, an Australian MP, about her intended: “My father bought a horse to get himself more votes, but it went around the course very fast and died of dope! He didn’t like trainers and he thought they were all a bunch of crooks, so when I told him about Vincent at first, I said he was a farmer.”
Her married life began at Ballydoyle, and she was quickly drawn into a completely unknown world, where she found a unique place for herself. “It was just an ordinary farm, horses had never been trained there before. He had to start by breaking the fences, so that the fields could run into one another. He created everything from scratch. And we had two daughters, quite quickly, Elizabeth and Susan. We had a lot to do, we didn’t have that much money, and we worked hard, all of us.”
As well as helping Vincent with correspondence – all owners received a letter a week – they had to entertain many visitors to Ballydoyle, as the owners used to stay with them. The niche Jacqueline carved for herself was photography, and she got her start more through necessity than choice. “When Vincent would want to sell a horse, he would get a photographer down from Dublin, but then the photographer would arrive and there would be clouds, or rain, and in those days there was no way of making things better than they were, so we would have to make another appointment.
“I decided to get myself a Roloflex camera and at least I was on the spot when the sun came out. So I started photographing the horses. I’d go to trainers’ yards, and I loved doing that. I would meet the trainers, and their wives and sometimes I would photograph the children. I really loved that, I got to know everybody.
“My own children were very young. I always combined motherhood and working.” The O’Briens had five children – Elizabeth, Susan, Jane, David and Charles.
Four of her books were number-one bestsellers. Two of them, Great Irish Houses and Castles, and Dublin, a Grand Tourwere co-authored with Desmond Guinness, and she photographed Ancient Ireland,by Dr Peter Harbison. As well as writing and photographing her husband's official biography, she did another on his horses.
Her most recently published book, On We Go: the Wittenoom Way, has been hailed in Australia as a comprehensive social and cultural history. The book took years to research, illustrate and write, and in 2005 she uncovered a startling fact. A Tipperary man, William Burgess, left Fethard in the 19th century and emigrated to Australia, where he made his fortune in sheep, and also married one of her ancestors. He returned to Tipperary, bought a farm, lived and died there. A century later her husband bought the farm and turned it into the top bloodstock facility in Ireland; the farm was Coolmore.
What amazed Jacqueline about her husband was the confidence he had, to bring a horse to England and run it in the greatest races, when Vincent came from a modest farming background. “He’d never even been to Cheltenham, he didn’t even know where to stand to watch the race. It was quite extraordinary – Ireland at that time was a place where the English bought the horses; but the thought of a horse actually being trained here and brought over to England, to win their best races, was absolutely unheard of. And then to do it three times in a row!”
She recalls how much the Irish were buoyed by her husband’s triumphs. “For the first time, Ireland was the best at something – I think that every Irish parish priest followed him to Cheltenham. He had an immense following there, it was a great boost for Ireland, Irish people were able to put their shoulders back, beating the English, it was an astonishing state of affairs. He won three Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles and three Grand Nationals – all in succession. So it seemed as though he was invincible, and Ireland too.”
The move into Flat racing was a natural progression and with it, the breeding and bloodstock side opened up. “It just came as night follows day,” she says. O’ Brien trained Flat and jumping horses and used this combination to his advantage. “He had to gamble, there was no other way of making money, what he did was to make his jumpers run in Flat races. Some of his big gambles were when he took a jumper, Knock Hard was one, ran him in a steeplechase, and two weeks later, ran him in the biggest Flat handicap race. It wasn’t the prize money, because there was none in those days to speak of. He bet on his own horses.”
Thus O’Brien made enough money to buy Ballydoyle, but it also, Jacqueline thinks, added to his incredible horse sense. “It was that early experience betting, when it desperately mattered, that you really watched work. You didn’t have many chances, maybe a horse would only run seven times a year, you couldn’t throw away a race, every race mattered, desperately.”
He had an unbelievable, uncanny relationship with horses. The ability to read the horse immediately was something that marked him apart from others. He would know within seconds whether the horse was any good, or had potential. “I think he was born with it, he didn’t learn it. Obviously, with experience, he got better at it, but I think it was an intuitive thing.” His ability to watch the horses working, and to draw a conclusion from what he saw, is what marked him apart.
The driving force of his ambition, which never waned, was not wealth or fame, but perfection. It was the unachievable demon that never let him go. In his father’s official biography, David O’Brien says he knows why his father so rarely said well done to anyone: “Simple,” David declares. “It’s because he never said well done to himself.”
O’Brien never overworked or overtrained a horse, he always put the needs of the horse before the wishes of the owner and was known to be very adept at deflecting the owner’s desire for triumph in favour of the horse’s wellbeing.
The alliance he formed with son-in-law John Magnier and Robert Sangster was a profitable one. They adopted a new approach to racing; they sought out yearlings that would win Classics under O’Brien and then stand as world-class sires. America proved a fertile hunting ground; by the 1970s, an estimated 75 per cent of the Ballydoyle horses were American-bred. On a trip to Canada to look at a horse for an owner, he found Nijinsky, and recognised the potential greatness of the Northern Dancer line. From there came Sadler’s Wells, Galileo and an utter transformation of the Irish bloodstock industry.
A humble, unassuming man, he hated publicity and the press, and would always push Jacqueline forward. On the night of one of his greatest triumphs, when Alleged won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, he excused himself from the official party, and said he was going back to his hotel. He went into Paris and ate alone in Fouquets, on the Champs Elysées.
He was absolutely and completely consumed by his work, and apart from those he worked closely with, his assistant trainers and head men, did not have many friends. He was devoted to his children, grandchildren, and latterly, his great-grandchildren.
After his death, Jacqueline received hundreds of letters, many of them relating how her Vincent had inspired them. The other great surprise was the extent of praise showered upon him by the experts.
“He seems to have emerged from all the newspapers as the horseman of the 20th century, which he would be staggered by. He would never have seen himself like that. I thought he would be considered great in Ireland, but no, all over the world, they said no-one will ever pass him. People will win more Derbys, and races, but it seems he’s got an indelible place there. I only wish he knew about it all. Perhaps he does. I like to think he does.”
. . . From the Curragh stands, he watches the crowds come through the gates, among them many old friends. With him are Dermot and Phonsie, his brothers; Jack Mulcahy, John McShaine, Raymond Guest, the owners; Maurice, Danny, his assistants; Bob Griffin, the vet. The stable lads throw the riders up on the great throng of horses in the parade ring. They leave the stands and wander down, Vincent, quiet, thinking, always thinking, and there they are, waiting for him, whinnying and nickering as he approaches them, a hand here, a word there; and they line up, Cottage Rake, Hatton's Grace, Sir Ivor, Alleged, Gladness, Ballymoss, Larkspur, Nijinsky, Sadler's Wells, The Minstrel, Golden Fleece, El Gran Senor – and who, from this roll call of champions, will the Boss put his money on? As they thunder down the turf, a silent streak of invisible ghosts, filling his eye with beauty and power, he knows who will lead the field, his star, his find, his colt: it will always be, can only be, Nijinsky, a true master's horse . . .
The Ladbrokes.com Vincent O’Brien National Stakes will be run at the Curragh today at 3.05pm. A celebration of his life will take place throughout the day
Cheltenham Gold Cup: Cottage Rake (1948, ’49, ’50), Knock Hard, (1953)
Grand National: Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954), Quare Times (1955)
Champion Hurdle: Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951)
Irish 2000 Guineas: El Toro (1959), King’s Lake (1981), Sadler’s Wells (1984)
Irish Derby: Chamier (1953), Ballymoss (1957), Nijinsky (1970), The Minstrel (1977) El Gran Senor (1984)
Irish National Stakes: Sir Ivor ( 1967), Roberto (1971), Storm Bird (1980), El Prado (1991)
English 2,000 Guineas: Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), El Gran Senor (1984)
English Derby: Larkspur, 1962; Sir Ivor, 1968; Nijinsky, 1970; Roberto, 1972; The Minstrel, 1977; Golden Fleece, 1982
St Leger: Ballymoss, 1957; Nijinsky, 1970; Boucher, 1972
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes: Ballymoss, 1958; Nijinsky, 1970; The Minstrel, 1977
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe: Ballymoss, 1958; Alleged, 1977, 1978
Breeders’ Cup Mile: Royal Academy, 1990
Winnings: Won 1,529 Irish National Hunt and Flat races; named as Irish Champion trainer 13 times.