Ballydoyle architect O'Brien dies

Trainer of six Derby winners whose vision reshaped breeding industry

Chris McGrath
Monday 21 September 2015 12:39

Some will doubtless suggest that the death yesterday of Vincent O'Brien, perhaps the most revered trainer in the history of the Turf, casts a shadow over its most venerable race, which is run for 230th time on Saturday. But, if anything, the respects paid to O'Brien this week, of all weeks, should instead be seen as reiterating the historic lustre of the Derby. Looking back over his 92 years, it again becomes obvious that here was one of the very few men whose success at Epsom could be said to have magnified the race itself more than his own reputation. For to find the names of six colts trained by Dr Michael Vincent O'Brien, among those 229 previous winners, is to trace golden links of genius between striving generations of horsemen, all the way back to the 18th century.

Nowhere is that heritage more cherished than at Ballydoyle, the training centre set up by O'Brien in the Golden Vale of Co Tipperary and nowadays the base of his namesake, Aidan O'Brien. The stable, owned by John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore Stud, duly accounts for six of the 13 colts left in the inaugural Investec Derby at the five-day stage.

For it was through the instincts of "MV" that the foundations of the Coolmore empire were first laid. Magnier, himself a remarkable horseman, had married O'Brien's daughter, Sue, and in the 1970s they created a dizzy revolution in breeding and racing. Backed by the pools tycoon Robert Sangster, they had identified an American stallion, Northern Dancer, as the source of genes that could make his own sons priceless prospects at stud. O'Brien won the Derby with two sons of Northern Dancer, Nijinsky and The Minstrel, as well as with a son of Nijinsky, Golden Fleece. But the true bedrock of Coolmore was another son of Northern Dancer, Sadler's Wells, whose sons, Galileo and Montjeu, have in turn become the most potent Derby sires in the world today.

Aidan O'Brien yesterday paid touching tribute to the founder of Ballydoyle. "As for so many people in racing, he was my hero growing up," he said. "To come to the training facility he established was an extraordinary privilege. Dr O'Brien was tireless in improving the yards and gallops, and we enjoy the benefits of his half-century of hard work and dedication today. We would never have been able to achieve our successes [otherwise]. I feel the sense of history every morning when I walk into the yard. It is humbling to follow in his footsteps."

"MV" had first disclosed his talent as a trainer of jumpers, being still only 30 when Cottage Rake won the first of three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups in 1948. The following year, O'Brien saddled Hatton's Grace to win the first of three consecutive Champion Hurdles, and in time he would also become the only trainer to win the Grand National three years running.

By that stage he had moved to Ballydoyle from his parents' farm near Churchtown, in Co Cork. The move was partly funded by the gambles that had sustained him in his early career, and there were times when the racing establishment betrayed, if not mistrust, then at least an unworthy resentment. In 1960, for instance, his licence was controversially withdrawn on a tenuous doping charge, prompting O'Brien to institute legal action. He ultimately won an apology from the Irish Turf Club, and received a hero's welcome from the public on his return.

O'Brien shared a mutual pomp with Lester Piggott, but it was towards the end of their sagas they conjured one of the sport's indelible moments, winning the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile with Royal Academy just days after Piggott, having served time in prison, had responded to his old ally's promptings and come out of retirement.

El Gran Senor, the last of O'Brien's 16 British Classic winners in the 1984 2,000 Guineas, was denied the Derby only in a photo with Secreto, trained by his own son, David (who would soon turn his back on their vocation to become a winemaker in France, but his brother, Charles, trains in Co Kildare.)

O'Brien had married an Australian photographer, Jacqueline Wittenoom, in 1951, and following his retirement in 1994 they spent much of their time in Perth. But they returned to Ireland for his final days, and Sue Magnier and her husband were among the family members able to pay final respects at his bedside. "Dad's racing career speaks for itself and needs no elaboration," she said yesterday. "There was nobody like him. Coolmore Stud and Ballydoyle are the results of his vision, and testament to his success."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Ja One (8.50 Folkestone)

NB: Hada Men (8.20 Folkestone)

Vincent O'Brien Life and times

*Born 9 April, 1917, Churchtown, Co Cork

*Married Jacqueline Wittenoom, 29 December 1951. Children David, Charles, Elizabeth, Susan and Jane

*First winner trained Oversway, Limerick Junction, 20 May 1943

*Final winner Mysterious Ways, The Curragh, 17 September 1994


*Champion trainer of Ireland 13 times

between 1959 and 1989; of Britain 1966, 77

*27 Irish Classic winners; 16 British Classic winners - including the Derby with Larkspur (1962), Sir Ivor (68), Nijinsky (70), Roberto (72), The Minstrel (77), Golden Fleece (82)

*King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes Ballymoss (1958), Nijinsky (1970),

The Minstrel (1977)

*Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Ballymoss (1958), Alleged (1977, 1978)

*Breeders' Cup Royal Academy (1990)

*25 Royal Ascot winners, including seven from eight runners in 1975


*Cheltenham Gold Cup Cottage Rake (1948, 1949, 1950), Knock Hard (1953)

*Champion Hurdle Hatton's Grace

(1949, 1950, 1951)

*Grand National Early Mist (1953),

Royal Tan (1954), Quare Times (1955)

*23 Cheltenham Festival winners

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