Ascot Legends: Vincent O'Brien

Rory Delargy profiles the original master of Ballydoyle, a visionary trainer that dominated the sport for over five decades.

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Who was the greatest racehorse trainer of all time? 

Like most racing debates, the question is likely to throw up some unusual answers and some impassioned arguments, but ask a bookmaker to price it up, and he’d be no offers about Vincent O’Brien, the original Master of Ballydoyle and a man who managed to combine an almost other-worldly understanding of the horse with a painstaking attention to detail in every aspect of their breeding, feeding, husbandry and work.

Born in Churchtown, Co. Cork in 1917, Vincent first took out a licence to train in 1944, when landing the Irish version of the Autumn Double with Drybob and Good Days, and underlined his ability to land a well-orchestrated betting coup in the process. 

In the early days, his jumps-orientated yard was in the village where he grew up, but with increasing success, he moved to Ballydoyle in Cashel, Co. Tipperary in 1951, and with his eye for both excellence and innovation, turned it into the finest training centre in Ireland, if not the world. 

From Ballydoyle he utterly dominated the big jumps races of the early 1950s, completing a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle wins with Hatton’s Grace in 1951, sending out the winners of no fewer that ten divisions of the Gloucestershire Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival between 1952 and 1959, as well as the 1953 Gold Cup with Knock Hard (to add to three won by the great Cottage Rake from 1948-50) and three consecutive runnings of the Grand National from 1953-55.

With one world conquered, he concentrated solely on Flat racing from 1960, having already tasted top-level success with horses like Ballymoss, winner of a string of top races, including the 1958 King George at Ascot, on his way to setting a new record for stakes earnings, and Gladness, heroine of the Gold Cup the same year. Both were owned by Philadelphia-born construction magnate John McShain, O’Brien’s first major owner of the new era.

In the modern age, we are used to the top trainers often having 200 or more horse in training, and those leviathans also tend to have an unrecorded number of horses in pre-training elsewhere in order to maintain stable strength and keep the wheels of industry constantly spinning. This was never the case with Vincent O'Brien, who rarely had more than 40 horses in full training at any time, and he certainly didn’t have a conveyor belt of talent to choose from if any of his current crop fell by the wayside or failed to meet expectations. 

 

O'Brien and Piggott
O'Brien pictured with Lester Piggott; together they forged a partnership that dominated the sport in the 1960s and 70s.

O’Brien played the role of bloodstock agent as well as trainer, and while his switch from National Hunt racing to focus on the Flat required him to find wealthy patrons as well as blue-blooded yearlings, neither horse nor owner got a pass to Ballydoyle without satisfying the trainer that they were worth persevering with.

The list of top-class winners to emanate from Ballydoyle between 1958 and the great man's retirement in 1994 reads like a litany of the great racehorses of the modern era, and many of those performers have made their mark on the modern breed through their exploits at stud. Their achievements are well documented, with Vincent training the winners of 44 European Classics (including six winners of the Derby between 1962 and 1982) among a lengthy list of top-level achievement.

More than that, he had an uncanny eye for a prospective stallion, and his vision is what allowed John Magnier to turn Coolmore into the world leader it is today, largely through O’Brien’s belief in the influence of Northern Dancer, whose stock he sought like gold in the early days. 

That vision has ensured a steady flow of outstanding performers to be trained at Ballydoyle, and that in turn feeds the demand for new blood in the breeding sheds, with sons of Northern Dancer including Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, Derby hero The Minstrel, brilliant 2000 Guineas winner El Gran Senor and Irish 2000 Guineas and Eclipse winner Sadler’s Wells, who took on his sire’s mantle as the the world’s foremost stallion and was champion sire in Britain and Ireland on 14 occasions, beating the record of Highflyer set in the 18th Century.  

Vincent didn’t believe in second best, with every aspect of his training regime mapped out to the letter, and his betting accounts just as regimented. In order for him to operate effectively, he needed to know his horses intimately, and that meant that numbers had to be manageable. In order to be on top of feeding, work-schedules, race entries and every other intricacy of the job, the number of three-year-olds and older horses in training was kept to an optimum, and in 1975, for example, that number was 15.

The year 1975 is significant, as it was in that year that Vincent O’Brien sent nine horses over to Ascot in June and returned having made history. None of them were juveniles, as it wasn’t part of his plan to target two-year-old races at the meeting, and he wasn’t a man to bend his plans for the sake of fashion. Of those nine horses, one, Hail The Pirates, who would have started favourite for the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, got cast in his box and didn’t run, and another was heading home to his owner’s stud, but the other seven all won. Given the animals in question represented over half of the stable’s available talent, it must go down as the finest training performance in the history of the fabled meeting. That feat deserves retelling in a little more detail.

Lester Piggott, who rode Gladness to that famous 1958 Gold Cup win, was stable jockey to the O’Brien yard, but couldn’t do the weight on Walter Mullady’s Imperial March in the Queen Anne Stakes, then a mere Group 3 and open to three-year-olds. Piggott recommended Gianfranco Dettori for the mount, and must have had mixed emotions when Imperial March got up in the final stride to beat his mount Deerslayer (Henry Cecil) by a short head. The winner was getting 20lb from the second!

Piggott wasn’t long finding consolation on an O’Brien runner, with the Simon Fraser-owned Gallina winning the Ribblesdale – then worth well over double the value of the Queen Anne – by a four-length margin to give him a double on the card after Ian Balding’s Galway Bay had won the Coventry.

Wednesday brought another double for both jockey and trainer, as Gay Fandango landed the Jersey Stakes in the colours of Alan Clore, and Blood Royal just lasted out from Jeremy Hindley’s Coed Cochion, himself the subject of Royal Ascot folklore, in the two-mile Queen’s Vase for Jacqueline Riordan, widow of the tragic Oil executive George F. Getty II.

Thursday saw Willie Carson come in for the ride on the lightly-weighted Swingtime in the Cork And Orrery Stakes (now the Diamond Jubilee), and it was again Jeremy Hindley who had to play second fiddle, with Swingtime driven out in typical Carson fashion to beat Streetlight and Tony Kimberley. Piggott may have missed out on another winner due to an inability to make the weight, but had the not-inconsiderable consolation of winning the Norfolk Stakes and Gold Cup on Faliraki and Sagaro.

The final day of the Royal Meeting was on Friday, and O’Brien had his sole reverse, when Sir Penfro. Owned by Jim Philipps, was beaten in the Hardwicke Stakes. He only ran in the race at the request of his owner as the 1974 Gallinule Stakes winner and Irish Derby third was being sent home to Philipps’s Dalham Hall Stud, and spent the rest of his campaign with a young Michael Stoute in Newmarket.

That disappointment preceded the victory of Boone’s Cabin, sporting the already familiar Robert Sangster colours, in the Wokingham Stakes, the five-year-old entire setting a weight-carrying record of 10st in the big handicap. It’s fair to say that Lester had no trouble passing the scales this time! That made it six winners from seven runners at Royal Ascot for Vincent, and the Heath meeting on the Saturday - then a separate event – saw Guillaume Tell land the Churchill Stakes for the O’Brien/Piggott team to crown a most remarkable week.

 

El Gran Senor
Dual Classic winner El Gran Senor was one of O'Brien's last great champions.

Vincent’s final tally at Royal Ascot over the years came to 25, with College Chapel an emotional final winner for the trainer when winning the Cork & Orrery Stakes in 1993 at a time when the O’Brien empire was clearly winding down. Despite such signs, College Chapel turned the clock back, showing his trainer’s unerring eye for talent by winning the big sprint on what was only his third lifetime start, and without racing at all as a juvenile. 

More than that, he was ridden by Lester Piggott, who had his very first ride for the stable when Gladness won the 1958 Gold Cup, and was coaxed out of retirement by his old friend and retainer for a famous victory aboard Royal Academy at the Breeders Cup in 1990. 

If anyone doubted the significance of the moment, it was underlined in no uncertain terms when Vincent broke with tradition, and led the colt, who was carrying the colours of wife Jacqueline, back into the hallowed winners’ enclosure. 

Horse, jockey and trainer received the rapturous welcome they fully deserved, and to have Lester on board for his swansong winner at the Royal Meeting provided a fitting note on which to end the trainer’s relationship with Ascot. Other handlers will beat his score at the meeting, but none can match his sublime and elegant touch.

Ascot Legends: Vincent O'Brien