No man has dominated horseracing to the extent that Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien has done. Born in Clashgannif, Churchtown, County Cork on the 9 April 1917, he is one of the few people in sport who can truthfully be referred to as a legend, having dominated both the National Hunt and Flat, winning the Epsom Derby six times, as well as three Champion Hurdles, four Gold Cups and three consecutive Grand Nationals with different horses. That is really just the beginning of the list – he has produced winners of 44 Classics and 25 Royal Ascot races, and his successes also included nine Irish St Legers, five Irish 2,000 Guineas, four English 2,000 Guineas, two Oaks, one French Derby, three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes, the Breeders Cup Mile, the Washington International and the Triple Crown. Easy to see why he has remained unchallenged as the greatest trainer of all time, which has been recognised by Racing Post readers who voted him the supreme figure in the history of the Turf.
Following the death of his father, a farmer and small-time trainer, O’Brien took over a small stable and saddled his first winner in 1943 as a licensed trainer at Limerick Junction when he was just twenty-six years old. Within eight years he was the first trainer to have had three consecutive winners of both the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle, which was when he decided to turn his attention to the Grand National. His first attempts weren’t hugely successful and it wasn’t until he found himself an outstanding professional jockey in the form of Bryan Marshall, who took over from his capable but amateur rider brother Phonsie O’Brien that success hit with the National. In 1953, just three weeks after his fourth Gold Cup win with Knock Hard, he won the National with Early Mist, and the following year won again with Royal Tan, the horse that had let him down in previous Nationals due to an inadequate jockey. In 1955 he won for the third year in a row, with Quare Times, becoming the only trainer to saddle three consecutive winners of the National at Aintree.
In his time he won thirteen trainers championships in Ireland, plus four in Britain – over jumps in the 1952-1953 and 1953-1954 seasons and on the Flat in 1966 and 1977. So what was the secret of his boundless success? Firstly huge determination – he kept his career afloat in the early days, prior to his success, by meticulous planning and gambling. He would often pay for petrol or other commodities by placing bets for shopkeepers and the even the parish priest was in on the gambling in return for blessing O’Brien’s horses!
Secondly O’Brien had a keen eye for spotting potential, clearly demonstrated when he picked out Nijinsky, the 1970 Triple Crown winner when just a yearling. He also introduced the new pre-National tactic of getting chasers into a rhythm with prep races over hurdles – a tactic that has been utilised by Irish trainers of winners such as Bobbyjo, Papillon and Monty’s Pass. Not only did O’Brien appreciate and support his horses but he did the same with his jockeys which included Pat Taaffe, Aubrey Brabazon, Tim and Martin Maloney and of course Bryan Marshall.