Courtesy Becky Johnston
Vincent O’Brien was to horse racing what Adolph Rupp was to basketball and what Bear Bryant was to football. Bryant was asked “How do you want to be remembered?” He replied, “I want the people to remember me as a winner, ‘cause I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.”
The same could be said for “The Boss” Vincent O’Brien. It seemed that was all he did was win, but there was so much more behind the wins.
The master of the Irish Turf was a horse-first kind of trainer. He didn’t overtrain horses and believed in leaving their peak performances on race day, not on the gallops. That is as long as Lester Piggott didn’t come over to work on the gallops and infuriate the trainer, who didn’t believe in pushing horses with whips through works.
O’Brien gave horses what they needed whether that was Alleged who needed time or Roberto who needed a left-handed course. The jumbo-sized Golden Fleece needed to gain confidence after a claustrophobic fit that left him scarred.
O’Brien had that rare quality that the greatest of leaders possess, people and animals alike seemed to want to please him. It was said of O’Brien’s staff they would jump off a cliff for him and then hit the bottom running. He valued their opinions and input but always knew that decisions and consequences lay with only one man.
Rarely was a photograph taken with any number of smiling people that O’Brien wasn’t gazing with admiration at a horse instead of the camera. Whether it was the tender way he held The Minstral’s chin and gazed at him after his Derby win or the family Christmas card with Sir Ivor, it was apparent that training race horses was one long love affair for Vincent O’Brien.
I wanted to take you on a trip down an Irish memory lane and remember some of the horses that Mr. O’Brien guided through their careers that made them legends and a part of the breed we know today.
The Irish trainer started his career with great success as a jumps trainer. While many hope to keep their charges upright in races like the Grand National, O’Brien not only did that, but they won three consecutive runnings with three different horses, Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954), Quare Times (1955). He won the Chelthenham Gold Cup four times with three of those wins coming in succession with Cottage Rake (1948, 1949, 1950). He was the champion National Hunt trainer between 1952-1954.
Another kind of racing
O’Brien purchased Ballydoyle in County Tipperary around 1950 and by 1953, he could add Irish Derby winning trainer to his list of laurels when Chamier won the race. For the man that had won the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same year, his win in the Irish Derby came in an unusual fashion, a disqualification.
The champion trainer won 13 titles as the top conditioner in Ireland between 1959 and 1989. Six years consecutively from 1977 to 1982.
O’Brien and his results appealed to many American sportsmen/women. While Ireland had shipped out a lot of their talented breeding prospects, O’Brien simply turned to America and found the kind of horses he wanted and needed.
O’Brien trained for such well-heeled men and women as John McShain, James Cox Brady, C. Mahlon Kline, Ogden Phipps, Hope Hanes, John Galbreath, Charles Engelhard, Jacqueline Getty and Raymond Guest.
It was for Guest that O’Brien trained Sir Ivor, a $42,000 bay yearling (1965) bred by Alice Chandler. The son of Sir Gaylord was purchased on their behalf by A.B. “Bull” Hancock in 1966. Guest and O’Brien had already won the 1962 English Derby with Larkspur. The conditioner trained Ballymoss for John McShain to victories in the Prix de L’Arc de triomphe, Irish Derby, English St. Leger, Coronation Cup, Eclipse Stakes, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The colt won eight of his 15 starts and became the European Champion of 1958.
O’Brien was not overwhelmed by Sir Ivor when he first arrived, but as the colt matured and grew into himself, Hancock was proved right in his selection. By the end of June in 1967, he ran his first race as a two-year-old on Irish Derby day at the Curragh and disappointed O’Brien with a fourth place effort. The first and last time Sir Ivor would ever miss hitting the board.
The colt broke his maiden in his next start over the same course and then won the Irish National Stakes before taking the French Grand Criterium.
After an eventful Italian winter vacation, Sir Ivor came back to win the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. When it came time for the Derby, Guest, the United States Ambassador to Ireland, was committed to be at a ceremony honoring President John F. Kennedy in Wexford. There he watched the colt named after his English relation, Sir Ivor Guest, win the English classic with the Shriver family, future first lady of California Maria and mother Eunice cheering all the way.
Sir Ivor only managed second in the 12-furlong Irish Derby at the Curragh and didn’t find the winner’s circle in France for the Arc, but the colt won the Champion Stakes at Newmarket before flying to the United States to contest the D.C. International.
1968 D.C. International
Sir Ivor retired to Claiborne Farm at the end of his three-year-old season. Maybe the best representation of Sir Ivor today is through his grandson El Prado, who is out of the Sir Ivor mare Lady Capulet. He is the grandsire of Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra.
If O’Brien described Sir Ivor as the most determined of his runners, he described Nijinsky as the most brilliant. O’Brien travelled to Canada at the behest of the mining executive Charles Engelhard to look at a colt. O’Brien did not care for the colt Engelhard sent him to inspect, but he saw a son of the young stallion Northern Dancer that he was determined to have. Engelhard’s representative bid on and got the son of the 1962 Kentucky Oaks runner-up, Flaming Page.
Nijinsky was a temperamental colt, not mean, but edgy. He stood for very little that he felt was unnecessary. He found the right hands with Vincent O’Brien. As impatient as the animal was, the human had little of the same quality and Nijinsky rewarded that patience with his breathtaking performances on the racecourse.
The two-year-old breezed through a three-month campaign with five victories (Erne Stakes, Railway Stakes, Anglesey Stakes, Beresford Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes), never at odds greater than even money.
1969 Dewhurst Stakes
The champion two-year-old in both England and Ireland, Nijinsky opened the 1970 season with a victory at the Curragh in the Gladness Stakes. The Gladness Stakes was named for a colt that O’Brien trained to stakes victories in 1958.
Nijinsky was ready for a classic run at Newmarket.
1970 Two-Thousand Guineas
The undefeated colt had become so valuable he required his own security detail, but that could not protect him from all the ills that can befall a racehorse. Nijinsky suffered from a case of colic the day before the Epsom Derby and no medication could be administered. Fortunately, Nijinsky’s attack did not last more than a couple of hours and he was under the watchful eye of O’Brien and Ballydoyle’s veterinarian, Demi O’Byrne. The colt’s run at history was not jeopardized by colic.
1970 Epsom Derby
Nijinsky had won his ninth race when he took the Irish Derby. The colt would face his elders in the important King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
1970 King George VI Stakes
The regal colt suffered a cruel fate after the Ascot race when he came down with a case of ringworm that caused him to lose his hair and have great skin irritation. Engelhard pressed O’Brien to try for the English Triple Crown, the first since 1935, with a start in the St. Leger at a mile and three-quarters at Doncaster. Because the field to be assembled did not seem much of a challenge for Nijinsky it was agreed he would run as a prep for the 12-furlong Arc, his ultimate goal. O’Brien wasn’t thrilled to be running his three-year-old at a distance longer that the race he was prepping for.
1970 St. Leger
After that easy win, the jockey that handled him so masterfully, Lester Piggott, probably got a little over confident and left the colt a lot to do late in the Arc. O’Brien had not won the race since Ballymoss took it in 1958 and urged Piggott to be closer to the pace.
1970 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
After the disappointment, it was decided in an attempt to send Nijinsky to stud a winner, he would be entered in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, but the colt O’Brien worked with so diligently to overcome his nervous ways came undone on the way to post and ran second to Lorenzaccio.
Nijinsky went off to stud at the end of his three-year-old season, syndicated for $5,440,000, to Claiborne Farm. The colt sired such varied champions as American sprinter Dancing Spree and Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year Ferdinand. In fact, Nijinsky sired both the Kentucky and English Derby winners in 1986 with Ferdinand and Sharastani.
While O’Brien dealt with a nervous temperamental Derby winner in Nijinsky in 1970, he dealt with a nasty tempered two-year-old Roberto in 1971. The colt out of the Nashua mare and Coaching Club American Oaks’ winner Bramalea seems to come by his disposition through his paternal genetics, Hail to Reason. Halo, another son of the great sire, was known to wear a muzzle. The future sire of two Derby winners went through the ring at Keeneland and received one bid. (The ring handler was glad to hand him back to his caretaker with some accompanying expletives.) Halo happened to be purchased by Charles Engelhard and trained by Mack Miller in the United States. Roberto’s son Dynaformer seems to have inherited the same temperament.
Roberto was bred by John Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farms. Galbreath, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates named the colt after the baseball great Roberto Clemente. Galbreath approached O’Brien at the Keeneland sale about looking over his yearlings at his farm. Although not greatly impressed by some conformational issues, Roberto was a good mover. He was sent to terrorize the stable hands in Ireland.
The colt won the National Stakes and the Anglesey Stakes as a two-year-old in Ireland. He went on to a fourth place effort in the Grand Criterium at Longchamp and was named Ireland’s top-rated two-year-old of 1971.
In his three-year-old debut, Roberto ran a closing second in the one-mile 2000 Guineas to the favorite High Top. His next start would be the English Derby at 12 furlongs.
1972 Epsom Derby
Roberto went back to Ireland for a try in the Irish Derby, but ran poorly. O’Brien was convinced that the colt did not handle right-handed tracks.
Piggott opted to ride Rheingold in the next start, the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup, now known as the Juddmonte International. The race was run at 10 furlongs at York. John Galbreath brought American rider Braulio Baeza over to ride his colt.
Not only was Piggott on Rheingold but the brilliant four-year-old Brigadier Gerard, who had never tasted defeat in his 15 starts and the darling of England, was expected to win the race.
1972 Benson and Hedges Gold Cup
Baeza took the race to them and they could never catch up to O’Brien’s well prepared Roberto who set a track record in the race 2:07 for the 10 ½ furlongs.
Roberto ran in a prep at Longchamp, the Prix Niel, but was defeated by a horse with a fitting name, Hard to Beat. Baeza took the colt back rather than going to the lead like the last race. In the Arc, Baeza would be facing someone from home, Laffit Pincay, so you can probably imagine where this story is headed.
The two American jockeys hooked up out of the gate with Pincay riding Ogden Phipps’ Boucher, also an O’Brien trainee. Needless to say, they didn’t make 12 furlongs and Roberto finished seventh. The Angel Penna trained three-year-old filly San San was the winner with Freddie Head aboard.
Roberto was voted champion three-year-old in both England and Ireland.
The sporting Galbreath decided to race Roberto for another year and he won the prestigious Coronation Cup at Epsom. After that race came some scratches due to track condition, but he ran in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Failing badly in the race, the colt suffered a ligament tear later at the farm and he never raced again.
Roberto sired the outstanding Japanese sire Brian’s Time, the American Turf Champion Sunshine Forever, Grade 1 winners such as Plenty of Grace, and Touching Wood. Major sires Silver Hawk, Lear Fan and Dynaformer. Roberto’s most famous descendent is Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and his brothers, by Dynaformer.
In 1973, O’Brien purchased a majority interest in Coolmore Farms near Ballydole. He installed his soon to be son-in-law, John Magnier to manage it.
It was Magnier that brought Robert Sangster and Vincent O’Brien together. The three men formed what could be termed a dream team. O’Brien, the unassuming but exceptional trainer, Magnier the reserved but brilliant businessman and Sangster, the master of ceremonies, public relations front man and the one whose silks “the syndicate’s” horses would run, for the most part.
In 1975, the trio and their courtiers set forth for America and the Keeneland sales. They had a three million dollar budget and they would set the American bloodstock industry on it’s ear. The spending in the years to come was like no one had ever seen. They changed the entire complexion of thoroughbred sales and the valuation of stallions went through the roof.
There wasn’t a horse that they wanted they could not or would not buy. At least for now. That would become increasingly more difficult in years to follow when other players entered the market on the same premise, but not yet, the bloodstock world was their oyster.
Their goal was simple in theory. Buy well-bred colts that fit the physical aspects required by O’Brien, get them to win a classic race and then syndicate them for vast profits to begin their stud career. They started out of the gate with a bang.
The 1975 trip to the Keeneland sale had netted a group 12 yearlings costing just under $1,800,000. Among them, Lady Capulet, who went on to be lightly raced. She broke her maiden in the Irish 1000 Guineas and later produced champions El Prado and Entitled. Also purchased were Grade 1 winners Artaius and Transworld sire of five-time American champion steeplechaser Lonesome Glory, also a member of racing’s Hall of Fame.
The team showed no interest in a yearling colt by Hoist the Flag of the Prince John mare Princess Pout who failed to make his reserve. They would meet him again.
The yearling that had the most pull for O’Brien was a little chestnut colt standing just over 14 hands with four white stockings. A son of Northern Dancer out of a half-sister to Nijinsky named Fleur. Someone in the assembled group commented that they had a bigger dog at home, but O’Brien and Magnier who also favored him, would not be deterred. They paid $200,000 for the colt, The Minstrel.
Be my Guest, also a member of the 1974 foal crop was purchased privately and he won the Desmond Stakes and the Waterford Crystal mile in 1977. He went on to sire Belmont Stakes winner Go and Go and Irish Derby winner Assert.
The Minstrel broke his maiden easily at first asking and set the course record for six furlongs at the Curragh in 1976. Another win in stakes company at Leopardstown and his last victory as a two-year-old in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. The colt, just as sound as he had been before he ever started, took a winter break to prepare for the classics.
The colt started his three-year-old year campaign at Ascot in the 2000 Guineas Trial. The race was run on boggy ground and although he won the race, the trainer knew that his easy victories in 1976 had been a product of firmer ground. This race convinced O’Brien that he was not quite the same on heavy ground and he still worried about what his maximum distance might be. It dimmed their optimism for the classics somewhat.
The colt, just as feared, failed in his next two races, the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket (3rd) and the 2000 Guineas at the Curragh (2nd). The syndicate needed to turn a profit in order to continue with their plans. They felt that a classic win was a necessity for their most promising colt to be a highly valued stallion prospect. With the two failed classic attempts, they knew they must have a go at the 12-furlong Epsom Derby, which is an easier trip than that of the Irish Derby. The race would make a multi-million dollar difference in the colt’s stud value with a win, but there was little to lose at this point.
1977 Epsom Derby (with a short bio)
The gutsy effort against the Aga Khan’s favorite, Blushing Groom, and the dogged stretch drive against Hot Grove had left everyone a little spent and there was concern for how the colt might come out of the race. One thing became clear after the Epsom run and that was that The Minstrel’s breeder, Windfields Farm, wanted him back home in the United States at the end of his career.
The Minstrel came out of the Epsom Derby better than his connections could have hoped. He took the Irish Derby and then went on to face his elders in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The field included the ill-fated Exceller.
1977 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes
The colt never raced again and was rushed back to Maryland to stud just before a September quarantine would have cut off his re-entry into the United States causing a problem with his $9,000,000 syndication deal.
The Minstrel was named Horse of the Year in both Ireland and England. He went on to sire Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Opening Verse, but his greatest claim to fame in the breeding shed is through his grandson, American Horse of the Year Cigar by Palace Music.
The Hoist the Flag colt that was not sold in the Keeneland sales ring in 1975 found his way to California and Monty Roberts by 1976. Roberts was prepping him for the two-year-olds in training sale. Robert Sangster, urged by friend Billy McDonald, purchased the colt privately for $120,000 before the sale. The duo were offered a profit to sell him before they made it out of the state, but McDonald wanted a larger sum and the buyer luckily turned them down.
The colt, with questionable knees, was off to Ireland for a racing career that would be kinder to his conformational issues. His new instructor, Vincent O’Brien, was not terribly impressed with the new purchase, but the colt blossomed during the summer of 1976. He didn’t make his first start until November at the Curragh and he provided a rousing victory for the team, leaving O’Brien to feel he certainly had the two best two-year-olds with The Minstrel and Alleged.
The troubled knees kept O’Brien from racing the colt due to firm ground and missing the Irish Derby had irked one of the American syndicate members. Further aggravating the situation, Alleged faced HM Queen Elizabeth’s filly Dunfermline and she blew by him in the St. Leger at Doncaster.
The investor felt there was favoritism being played towards The Minstrel, which he did not own a part in and he voiced his concerns to O’Brien. The trainer was uncomfortable about what to do. He knew the colt had limitations on firm ground and feared what racing on it might do to his precarious knees. Sangster lightened the trainer’s mind by buying the partner out except for 5% for a sum near $250,000.
It must have been a stunning reversal of fortunes for the man holding the quarter million dollars to see Alleged’s accomplishments value him at $13,000,000 at the end of his career.
Alleged had won his first two starts of 1977 before the loss in the St. Leger. The main goal remained unchanged, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe,
1977 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
Alleged won his second Royal Whip Stakes in 1978 but had some nagging issues, including a virus that bothered him in the next few months and by the end of summer, the colt was looking for a prep race to set him up for a repeat appearance in the Arc. O’Brien found that prep at Longchamp in the Prix du Prince d’Orange. He won the mile and a quarter race impressively.
1978 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (stretch run rated #8)
Alleged retired to Walmac with nine wins and a second from ten starts and two championships seasons at three and four. He sired Grade 1 winner Fiesta Gal and Irish Derby winners Sir Harry Lewis and Law Society. He also sired a Breeders’ Cup Turf winner in Miss Alleged in 1991. Amazingly, the two classmates, The Minstrel and Alleged, sired winners of both grass races on America’s most important racing day in the same year.
While on a tour of Claiborne Farm in 1976, Billy McDonald put a $100 bill in a groom’s hand and asked him which yearling he liked. The groom didn’t hesitate and pointed out Fairy Bridge, the tiny daughter of Bold Reason. He said she was the fastest in the fields. The group barely had to consider the purchase at a bargain price of $40,000 in the ring. She would race only twice, but still be named champion in Ireland. Her greatest gift to “the syndicate” was her first foal by Northern Dancer, Sadler’s Wells.
1984 Phoenix Stakes
Sadler’s Wells won the Irish 2000 Guineas and the Eclipse Stakes among his six wins from 11 starts with four seconds.
The budget had drastically expanded by 1979 and the syndicate went to $1,000,000 to purchase this son of Northern Dancer out of New Providence mare South Ocean. He was undefeated at two (five for five) and named champion in both England and Ireland. The colt, that would become so important in American breeding today, was syndicated for $28,000,000 with $7,000,000 retained. Ashford Stud in Kentucky and oilman Robert Hefner II were the $21,000,000 purchasers.
Hefner’s wealth was damaged in the collapse of the fuel market and therefore Ashford Stud and Hefner found themselves on the hook for the Storm Bird purchase that was to be paid in installments. This is how Sangster, Magnier and O’Brien came to possess and own Ashford Stud in Kentucky.
Storm Bird ran an abysmal race in his only three-year-old start and was retired to stud.
To put Storm Bird’s syndicated price into perspective, the 1981 Epsom Derby winner, the Aga Kahn’s Shergar, who won both the Irish and English Derby was syndicated for $10,000,000. Although the colt stayed in Ireland rather than going to the rich Kentucky bluegrass where Storm Bird was to stand, the difference between the proven three-year-old’s value and the flashy two-year-old was staggering.
Storm Bird went on to sire Preakness winner Summer Squall, European champion Indian Skimmer, English Oaks winner Balanchine, but his greatest impact on the breed would be through his son, Storm Cat, out of the Secretariat mare Terlingua.
The syndicate’s $775,000 Keeneland yearling purchase, a son of Nijinsky from the Vaguely Noble mare Exotic Treat, was picked up in 1980. Golden Fleece was a horse of great size with a melancholy look to his face. He won his two-year-old maiden race at Leopardstown.
A trip back from Thomastown following a work would cause great havoc for the colt and the team. He was put back in his traveling box and the big colt became claustrophobic, kicking and causing injuries to his legs in his panic.
The ever-patient O’Brien had not only to heal the colt physically but he had to work on the psyche of Golden Fleece after this unfortunate incident. Horses certainly remember bad experiences and O’Brien’s job was to undo the damage. His staff would take the colt for short box rides, taking Golden Fleece out along the way to alleviate his fear of the tight quarters. Entering the starting gate was another part of his routine that O’Brien worked on.
It’s a long way from Tipperary to the tracks that host classics and their biggest fear was that the horse would not be able to fly and complete in races in England and France or worse yet injure himself or his handlers severely.
The first race of his three-year-old season was a win at the Curragh in the Ballymoss Stakes and his second victory was in the Derby Trial at Leopardstown.
The plane O’Brien normally used in commuting horses from Ireland to England was not going to work for Golden Fleece. A larger plane was chartered and the colt and his companion, General Custer, were shipped over with great care and little delay four days before the Epsom Derby.
Just as Nijinsky had done 13 years earlier, Golden Fleece put great fear in his connections when he began to cough while coming back from a gallop. However, after a vet’s visit and reassurance that the colt was not sick, Golden Fleece was able to compete in the Epsom Derby.
1982 Epsom Derby
Less than two weeks after the race, the colt’s cough proved more sinister when he came down with a virus that stayed with him for weeks. The colt then suffered from swelling in a rear leg. After months of setbacks, it was decided that the undefeated Golden Fleece would be retired to stud.
Coolmore retained Golden Fleece and valued him at $25,000,000. However, the health problems that had robbed the fans of such a great horse would threaten his life at the end of 1983. Golden Fleece had cancer. He was operated on by a team of American surgeons in December. All was thought to be a success. Unfortunately, the disease returned in February, his second breeding season, and Golden Fleece lost his battle. The emotional loss was doubly difficult because his offspring proved quiet capable on the track.
O’Brien was loyal to the stallion Northern Dancer and that devotion paid off. Every stallion standing for Coolmore or Ashford today has Northern Dancer coursing through his veins. That connection may be from non-owned stallions such as Danzig or Nureyev, but much more often it was through his trainees Sadler’s Wells, El Gran Senor, Storm Bird, Nijinsky or Be My Guest.
In this video Robert Sangster talks about Northern Dancer and how much they valued the sire and his prodigy. You will also see two sons of the stallion battle it out for the Epsom Derby in 1984, Secreto trained by the elder O’Brien’s son David and The Syndicate’s El Gran Senor.
Northern Dancer, El Gran Senor and Robert Sangster
El Gran Senor finished his career with seven wins and a second from eight starts including the Irish Derby. He was named two-year-old and three-year-old champion in both England and Ireland. Although the beautifully bred son of Northern Dancer out of the Buckpasser mare Sex Appeal, suffered from fertility problems at stud, he produced daughters that will forever influence the breed: Toussaud (dam of Empire Maker, Chiselling, Chester House, Empire Maker, Decarchy, and Honest Lady) and Bright Candles the dam of Grand Slam.
Vincent O’Brien went on to train many other stakes winners such as Moscow Ballet, Caerleon, Woodman, Law Society, the $13 million Seattle Dancer, El Prado, and Royal Academy
1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile
The fabric of the racing world seems a little threadbare with the loss this week of 92-year-old Vincent O’Brien, but when it comes to memories, he left us with an embarrassment of riches.