The Leeside Legends series: Vincent O'Brien, the greatest trainer of all time

The Leeside Legends series: Vincent O'Brien, the greatest trainer of all time

Nijinsky ridden by Lester Piggott being led into the enclosure by trainer Vincent O’Brien at Ascot in July 1970. Picture: INPHO/Allsport

THE LATE Vincent O’Brien was one of the greatest racehorse trainers in the last century.

Vincent was a native son of Cork, born in April 1917 at Clashgannif, Churchtown, amidst the country made famous by the Duhallow Hunt.

Almost single-handedly, he put Ireland in the first division of world racing, and his achievements — including three Grand Nationals, four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion hurdles, six derbies, and three Arcs De Triomphe — is unprecedented.

The list of the champion flat horses O’Brien sent out from his Baldoyle stables in Cashel to conquer Europe includes Ballymoss and Gladness in the 1950s; Sir Ivor in the 1960s; Triple Crown hero Nijinsky, Roberto, Thatch, Apalachee, Saritomer, Cloonara, The Minstrel, dual Arc winner Alleged, Try My Best, Solinius, Thatching, and Monteverdi in the 1970s, and Storm Bird Golden Fleece and El Gran Senor in the 1980s.

1990 was also a memorable year for O’Brien when Royal Academy won the Breeders Cup in America.

Vincent at Ballydoyle in 1978.
Vincent at Ballydoyle in 1978.

Even if Vincent, who began training in 1943, had never trained a flat winner, he would still rank among the greatest of his profession.

His stable dominated the National Hunt scene in the late 1940s and throughout the ’50s.

Hat-trick:

Cottage Rake scored a hat-trick of victories for him in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Hatton’s Grace did the same in the Champion Hurdle, Knock Hard added a fourth Gold Cup, and Early Mist, Royal Tan, and Quane Times gave him a unique Grand National treble.

The week after Hatton’s Grace’s third champion hurdle in 1951, O’Brien moved from his late father’s yard at Churchtown Co Cork, to a yard of his own at Ballydoyle.

There he built up one of the finest training establishments in the world, a stable which has become synonymous with excellence in the thoroughbred world.

O’Brien won his first classic with Chamier in the 1953 Irish Derby but Ballymoss was his first flat champion. It was one of Vincent’s new breed of rich American owners, Raymond Guest, who provided him with his first Derby winner at Epsom in the form of Larkspur, though the colt was a very lucky winner under Australian Neville Sellwood in 1962.

The first O’Brien/Lester Piggott champion was another of Guest’s colts, Sir Ivor, who came off the pace to score a spectacular win in 1968.

In that same year, O’Brien bought a yearling who became perhaps the best and certainly the most famous he ever trained- Nijinsky.

Charles Engelhard, the platinum magnate, asked Vincent to go to Windfield’s farm in Canada to inspect a colt by Ribot.

The trainer advised against the purchase and recommended that the owner by instead a son of the untried stallion Northern Dancer.

This inspired choice of the yearling Nijinsky had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of both trainer and stallion and helped change the state of the international bloodstock market.

Nijinsky won the Epsom Derby in 1970 and sired great horses like Kingslake, Golden Fleece, Caerlon, Solford, and Royal Academy.

Picture: PA Wire.
Picture: PA Wire.

Having won the Derby again with Roberto in 1972, O’Brien achieved the remarkable feat of saddling six winners from seven runners at Royal Ascot in 1975.

One of his best fillies was Cloonara, who — like Thatch, Apalachee, Swingtime, and King Pellinore — ran in the colours of Irish-American tycoon Jack Mulcahy.

He was the gentleman who once told O’Brien to “get a piece of the action” — that is, to become a part-owner of the horses he trained and thus profit directly from his expertise at increasing their value.

Vincent later described this as “the best advice I ever got” as, to this end, he needed his own facilities and O’Brien, with son-in-law John Magnier, established the highly influential Coolmore Stud.

Vincent managed to win his final Epsom Derby in 1982 with Golden Fleece, and just failed narrowly with El Gran Senor in 1984.

At that time, the glory days were coming to an end as the O’Brien/Robert Sangster combination could no longer compete effectively with the Arab owners.

Vincent retired from training in 1994 at the age of 77.

His brother, Phonsie, summed him up: “He was a brilliant man, single-minded, and didn’t care what people thought of him.”

Sadly, Vincent O’Brien passed away on June 9, 2009, at the age of 92.

In this case, we can safely say that there will never be another like him.

Vincent O'Brien with Nijinsky in the background, circa 1970. Picture: Chris Smith/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Vincent O'Brien with Nijinsky in the background, circa 1970. Picture: Chris Smith/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

FACTFILE: 

  • Michael Vincent O’Brien was born in 1917 in Churchtown and was educated at Mungret College in Limerick.
  • O’Brien trained six English Derby winners, six Irish Derby winners, and three consecutive Grand National winners.
  • In 1944, O’Brien played a two pounds each way double on the Irish Cambridgeshire which netted him £1,000 following the success of his horses Drybob and Good Days.
  • He retired from racehorse training in 1994 at the age of 77.
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