7th February 2006
How Irish Wizard O’Brien got them Dancing to his tune.
by Max Presnell
‘A good horse should move like a ballet dancer,’ – a yardstick of Vincent O’Brien. The four-legged Nijinsky, O’Brien’s great champion, presumably moved like the two-legged variety.
Nobody could achieve more in the equine field than O’Brien. Not only did he win Grand Nationals at Aintree (3), English Derbies (6) and just every other important race in England, Ireland and France, but majors in the US – the Washington International and Breeders’ Cup Mile. O’Brien was the horse sense behind what is now the mighty Coolmore empire with the other founding partners – John Magnier and the late Robert Sangster – adding expertise in other areas. He also had an uncanny knack with the Northern Dancer bloodline.
In 2003, the Daily Racing Post asked readers and a panel of 45 experts to select the top 100 racing greats, and M. V. O’Brien came out on top.
O’Brien was as meticulous training thoroughbreds as he was with his personal appearance.
“The boss is a neat man. Every morning his row of gleaming boots and shoes is drawn up correct as a guardsman inside the side door opening onto the stable yard. They are polished with zeal….the boss dresses nattily as well as neatly. His tweed jacket, twill trousers and trilby hat (though sometimes he wears a cap) look newly brushed and pressed as if from a fashion shoot in a gentleman’s magazine.”
“I suppose I was one of the first to weigh horses,” O’Brien related. On one occasion, a horse was down three kilos on his best weight and the trainer was puzzled. “He did a tremendous dropping before he came to be weighed b, Boss,” one of his staff said. “Did you weigh it?” O’Brien asked.
These excerpts come from Vincent O’Brien – the official Biography (Random House Australia), co-written by his wife Jacqueline, from Perth, West Australia, and the eminent Ivor Herbert. O’Brien is a private man and the authors have produced in some detail an insight into this uncanny Irish horse whisperer.
Being a punter honed his skills. Forget all the bunkum about strike rates; the point about getting the result when the money is on comes through the biography.
Early in his career, O’Brien was a “powerful gambler”.
”It was a matter of survival,” he wrote. “Owners like to have abet and I had to come up with the goods to stay in business.”
He needed capital. Without rich and generous patrons, successful betting was the only way a young trainer could set himself up. Hatton’s Grace was an early success, winning the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham for three ;years in a row from 1949.
Graduating to flat racing, O’Brien had a strong affinity with Australian jockeys, including Scobie Breasley, Bill Williamson, Pat Glennon, Garnet Bougoure and the late Neville Sellwood, who rode the trainer’s first English Derby winner, Larkspur, in 1962.
“Pat Glennon, the retained jockey, preferred Sebring, the other stable runner,” the biography points out. Larkspur was hit with a swelling on the outside of his near hind leg and O’Brien announced the horse was doubtful. After the race, stewards summoned O’Brien and asked him to explain the money bet on the winner in the light of the injury announcement.
Back in 1954, O’Brien struck trouble with stewards over the inconsistent running of some of his team. Later in 1960 he had a positive drug finding and was disqualified from May 13 to November 1961. Ireland regarded it as a national calamity. Changes were later made in the efficiency of methods of detecting drugs in racehorses and rule changes cam in as early as July 1960. O’Brien took out a libel case against the stewards and at their request a settlement was agreed to on the court steps. They apologised and paid all costs.
Of course, the right jockey for the occasion is necessary for success, a point highlighted by O’Brien.
He sought a rider for Royal Academy in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, a fast, tight track in New York. After watching Lester Piggott, who had retired, in a veterans’ race at The Curragh, he asked him to make a comeback. Piggott did and again O’Brien’s judgement paid off. Piggott was later visibly moved when paying warm tributes to O’Brien on television.
Mind you, relations weren’t always that sweet between O’Brien and the champion jockey. Piggott had a habit of testing O’Brien horses during gallops, which upset the trainer. At one stage he barred Piggott from the Ballydoyle, the powerful training centre he developed in 1951, and when allowed to return, on a deplorable day, made him ride six two-year-olds.
Obviously , too, O’Brien used his expertise as a trout fisherman to land American owners, a major ploy in his success and a great boost to the Irish economy. Probably the most difficult was John McShain, who had two outstanding horses with him, Ballymoss and Gladness. McShain had boasted that he got his early financial kick by saving his pocket money and lending it to his brothers at considerable interest. After winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, McShain bucked at giving the stable staff presents. O’Brien wrote to him: “You said at the time that you considered the horses were not trained here [Ireland] and therefore the staff were not entitled to anything out of the win. Whatever you views, the horse was never managed, fed or ridden by anyone outside this stable.”
Remembering him in the biography, the trainer related with a wry smile: “Dear Mr McShain. But he took his horses away from me and sent them to John Oxx (senior). He was delighted to find John’s training fees were half mine.”
The master of Ballydoyle had better luck with other Americans, particularly Raymond Guest, who was the US Ambassador to Ireland and the owner of Larkspur and the might Sir Ivor.
Guest struck an enormous Derby wager on Sir Ivor of ₤500 each way at 100-1 with the bookmaker William Hill. Hill later made a vain approach to Guest to have the bet broken down, according to the biography, threatening to publish details of the bet. Guest was undeterred and Hill allegedly executed his threat by leaking news about the bet to the Sporting Life.
Charles Engelhard, the owner of Nijinsky, had no complaints about the Irish genius.
“Engelhard, an enormously rich American, was a racehorse owner on the grandest scale. After his English Derby triumph with Nijinsky, Engelhard was presented to the Queen, but his braces had broken. ‘You do seem to be having some difficulty. Can I hold something?’ the Queen Mother asked. Mr Engelhard shook hands with Her Majesty with his elbows holding his trousers up. He said afterwards, ‘If I’d moved my arms my trousers would have fallen down.’”
On the subject of his horse, O’Brien wrote: “Nijinsky, I would have to rate him first or second. Him or Sir Ivor. For brilliance, Nijinsky. For toughness Sir Ivor.”
Every turf enthusiast, particularly racehorse trainers, young and old, should read Vincent O’Brien.
So how does a horse walk like a ballet dancer: Obviously I should have spent more time watching Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn than Clive Churchill and Jack Rayner.
With Thanks to Max Presnell