Racing: Living legend O'Brien retires: A uniquely talented trainer of champions is to bow out. Greg Wood reports

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OTHER trainers have amassed more victories and saddled more Classic winners, but there can be little doubt that Vincent O'Brien, who announced his retirement yesterday, had a talent for choosing and preparing racehorses to match any in the history of the Turf. Over fences or on the Flat, it all came the same to O'Brien, and when he hands in his licence at the end of this season, simply polishing the silverware on the mantlepiece will be a full-time job.

The procession of Flat champions which emerged from O'Brien's yard at Ballydoyle in Co Tipperary from the mid-1960s, including Sir Ivor, the Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, Roberto, The Minstrel and Alleged, would have been an almost unique achievement in itself, but O'Brien turned to training on the Flat after dominating National Hunt racing in the early Fifties.

He saddled three consecutive Grand National winners, 1953 to 1955, plus four winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and three of the Champion Hurdle. The breadth of his ability was unique.

'Racing has been very good to me,' O'Brien said yesterday. 'It has enabled me to pursue a career which combined work with pleasure.

'When I started training the bloodstock industry in Ireland was still developing. Now we are one of the major racing and breeding countries in the world. I have had the good fortune to have had many wonderful horses and owners, and have been ably assisted by dedicated staff down the years. To these and all my friends in racing I am most grateful.'

The modesty is typical, though O'Brien's quiet manner has always hidden great pride in his achievements. His staff also recall an almost obsessive attention to detail which set him apart from other trainers.

With many major achievements already to his credit, O'Brien was the obvious choice to train for Robert Sangster when the owner moved into the American bloodstock markets in a big way in mid-Seventies. The trainer's eye for a yearling brought immediate results when one of Sangster's first purchases at the big Kentucky sales, The Minstrel, took the 1977 Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. A fresh chapter of success had begun.

Alleged, another colt bought on O'Brien's recommendation and prepared brilliantly at Ballydoyle, took the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe the same year, and followed up 12 months later, the last horse to do so. Each year, it seemed, O'Brien would produce more valuable winners for Sangster and his fellow investors, and his domination of the Dewhurst Stakes, the season's top two-year-old event, became almost embarrassing. O'Brien saddled the winner five times between 1976 and 1983.

The last of those winners was El Gran Senor, who went on to take the 2,000 Guineas the following spring and started favourite, at odds-on, for the Derby. The race brought an ironic disappointment, however. El Gran Senor looked certain to win two furlongs from home but lost by a short-head to Secreto. The winner was trained by O'Brien's son, David.

After the entry into the bloodstock market of the major Arab owners, O'Brien's supply of the best young horses in America began to dry up. Golden Fleece, in 1982, was his last Derby winner, but despite advancing years, O'Brien proved that his talents were undiminished. Royal Academy's success in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile was the crowning achievement of an astonishing career.

Many tributes were paid to the Master of Ballydoyle last night. The most memorable was offered by Lester Piggott, whose talents were fully exploited by O'Brien on the likes of Nijinsky and Sir Ivor. 'I rode my first winner for Vincent nearly 40 years ago,' Piggott said. 'He has been part of my life ever since. In my opinion he's the greatest trainer of all time.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- VINCENT O'BRIEN ----------------------------------------------------------------- Born: 9 April, 1917 Riding career: Amateur (rode first winner October 1940) Trainer's licence: January 1943 Champion trainer (GB): Flat - 1966 & 1967; National Hunt - 1952- 53 & 1954-55 Big-race wins: Derby (6 times), Oaks (2), St Leger (3), 2,000 Guineas (4), 1,000 Guineas, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (3), King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes (3), Irish Derby (6), Irish Oaks (4), Irish St Leger (9), Irish 2,000 Guineas (5), Irish 1,000 Guineas (3), Washington DC International, Breeders' Cup Mile Best horses trained: Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Alleged, Sadler's Wells, Golden Fleece, El Gran Senor, Ballymoss, Roberto, Early Mist, Quare Times, Royal Tan, Hatton's Grace -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)