Vincent O’Brien was my hero. In the post war decades, he showed that Irish people didn’t have to emigrate to succeed on the world stage. In an Ireland that seemed to lack ambition, Vincent always strived for perfection- and usually attained it. He was more than just an incredible trainer he was the ultimate pedigree analyst. It is said that as a toddler he used to sit on his father’s knee and recite the names and pedigrees of all the horses in his fathers yard. He probably still knew those pedigrees on the day he died. With respect to the likes of Aidan O’Brien or Michael Stoute or Henry Cecil who are all great trainers of racehorses -they are just trainers. For much of his career Vincent was overseeing a process that selected yearlings, trained them as well as they could be trained and then stood them or sold them on. In business jargon it was a vertically integrated production line and Vincent had to deal with all this additional responsibility. As the list below shows he made some great stallions.
A reminder of a dozen great stallions he trained (in order)
1. Sadler’s Wells (1981 Norther Dancer-Fairy Bridge by Bold Reason). The greatest European stallion of the past century. 73 Group one winners to date,14 times champion sire and his legacy now secure with his sons Montjeu and Galileo. In South Africa Fort Wood was champion sire and in the US El Prado and now his grandson Medaglio D’oro ensure his legacy throughout the globe. During Sadler’s Wells racing career in the early eighties many well bred horses were being wrapped in cotton wool, lest they lose some value. Not so Sadler’s Wells who was campaigned extensively at three and maintained his form throughout at distances from a mile to a mile and a half. He retired as winner of an Irish 2000 Guineas, Eclipse Stakes and Irish Champion Stakes. He was second in a memorable edition of the French Derby in which he separated Darshaan and Rainbow Quest. For all his talent he was overshadowed in Ballydoyle by his paternal half brother El Gran Senor. Nobody overshadowed him at stud. Vincent also trained his dam Fairy Bridge and almost all her offspring. Such knowledge of families developed over a lifetime was invaluable.
2. Nijinsky (1967 Northern Dancer-Flaming Page by Bull Page). The last triple crown winner and unbeaten in his first 11 starts. A superb sire with three Derby winners (Golden Fleece, Sharastani and Lammtarra) along with a Kentucky Derby winner in Ferdinand to his credit. He sired 155 stakes winners from 862 foals (18%). Vincent trained many of his best offspring including King’s Lake, Caerleon, Golden Fleece and Royal Academy. He also famously paid 13.1 million for Seattle Dancer, who although he could never realistically justify that price did win the Derrinstown and Gallinule Stakes. Nijinsky was reasonably successful as a sire of sires with Caerleon being his best sire son, followed by Royal Academy and Green Dancer.
3. Storm Bird (1978 Norther Dancer-South Ocean by New Providence). A champion two year old who defeated To-Agori Mou in the Dewhurst. He owes his elevated place on the list to the stud exploits of Storm Cat. Storm Bird sired many better racehorses than Storm Cat including Summer Squall and the fillies Balanchine and Indian Skimmer. His place in pedigrees is secure through Storm Cat and his sons. He also was an important broodmare sire counting Thunder Gulch and current hot sire Birdstone amongst the offspring of his daughters.
4. Caerleon (1980 Nijinsky-Forseer by Buckpasser). An exceptionally good looking colt Vincent reportedly regarded him as a perfect physical specimen. He wasn’t a bad racehorse either becoming Vincent’s only winner of the French Derby and winning a Benson and Hedges Gold Cup as well. He was twice champion sire and sired the outstanding dual derby winner Generous, Arc winner Marienbard, Oaks winner Lady Carla, 1000 Guineas winner Cape Verdi, St Leger winner Moonax amongst 128 (13%) stakes winners. His sons have been mostly unsuccessful to date as sires but he is doing well as a broodmare sire with the likes of Mutafaweq, Patavellian,Dimitrova and Avonbridge.
5. Roberto (1969 Hail to Reason-Bramalea by Nashua). It has taken breeders a long time to appreciate the worth of Roberto in a pedigree. As a racehorse he is often overlooked and often credited as merely the horse who produced a freak performance to defeat Brigadier Gerard. He was also a gutsy Derby winner and narrowly defeated in the 2000 Guineas. At four he won a Coronation Cup impressively and Michael Kauntze (who was assistant to Vincent O’Brien at the time), thought he had as much talent as Nijinsky, but just didn’t always display it. As a sire he got many decent performers including Sookera, Slightly Dangerous, Silver Hawk and Lear Fan but he is much more important as a sire of sires and as a broodmare sire. His best stallion sons include Kris S, Dynamformer, Red Ransom and the Japanese based Brian’s time who all sired horses better than themselves. As a broodmare sire he is responsible for Slightly Dangerous multitude of talented offspring (Warning, Commander in Chief,Deploy, Dushyantor) and Sookera has become ancestress of the Hasili tribe. There can be a nasty streak running through his offspring.
6. Alleged (1974- Hoist the Flag-Princess Pout by Prince John). A dual winner of the Prix de l’Arc his record would have been better had he been at stud in Europe. He sired a pair of Irish Derby winners in Sir Harry Lewis and Law Society, a dual classic winner in Midway Lady, a St Leger winner in Shantou, an Irish Leger winner in Leading Counsel and a Breeders Cup turf winner in Miss Alleged. He was also a top broodmare sire with classic winners Dr Devious, Dream Well, Go and Go, Sulamani, Suave Dancer, Brian Boru, Eswarah amongst a host of top flight winners. His legacy is also strong in National Hunt breeding where he has leading sire Fleminsfirth, following on from Montelimar and others. Like Roberto many of his offspring are known for their less than pleasant temperaments.
7. Sir Ivor (1965 Sir Gaylord-Attica by Mr.Trouble). A brilliant winner of a top class Guineas, he followed up by displaying an electrifying turn of foot in the Derby. He was campaigned relentlessly turning out 13 times over two seasons and like others he maintained his form throughout. However it was testament to Vincent’s skill that he maintained his form throughout. In Sir Ivor’s case he managed to follow on a second place behind Vaguely Noble in the Arc with wins in the Champion Stakes and Arc. He became primarily renowned as a sire of fillies leaving the likes of Arc winner Ivanjica,Lady Capulet (who Vincent trained to win a classic on her debut and is dam of El Prado) and Godetia and Cloonlara (both trained by VIncent). Of his colts the best was Bates Motel. He makes the list by virtue of the moderate runner Sir Tristram who has had a huge influence on Australian/New Zealand breeding and his daughters who have given us such stallions as El Prado, Green Desert, Alzao, and Bluebird.
8. Fairy King (1982 Norther Dancer-Fairy Bridge by Bold Reason). Sadler’s Wells brother was injured on his only run and gained a place at stud by virtue of his pedigree. He became a rags to riches success story and died aged 17 when he was starting to enjoy the best of patronage. In his time he manged to sire a Derby winner in Oath, classic winners in Turtle Island and Victory Note along with two exceptional horses in Helissio and Falbrav. His European runners have disappointed as sires of sires but in Australia he has left behind champion sire Encasto de Lago.
9. El Gran Senor (1981 Norther Dancer-Sex Appeal by Buckpasser. Probably the greatest miler that Vincent ever trained. He won the Guineas in devastating fashion. He was a full brother to Try My Best who similarly had been a champion two year old winning the Dewhurst. Try My Best was allegedly nobbled prior to finishing last in the Guineas. The 1984 Derby was meant to be a coronation and in the bloodstock bubble of the time he was being valued at upto $60 million dollars, or someone estimated it to be 12 times his weight in gold. In a race laced with ironies he was beaten by his paternal half brother Secreto trained by Vincents son David, after looking all over the winner for Pat Eddery. Lester Piggott allegedly whispered in Vincent’s ear after the race “do you miss me” and many criticised Eddery for his ride. El Gran senors value slumped to $40 million. You couldn’t make it up. He ran once more in the Irish Derby before being retired to stand alongside his sire at E.P Taylors stud in Maryland. Nobody mentioned his parrot mouth. He was a top class sire and could have been a great sire but for fertility problems. His first crop included Racing Post trophy winner Al Hareb and Saratogan who was a close third in the Dewhurst for Vincent. El Gran Senor’s best offspring included 5 time Group 1 winner Rodrigo de Triano, King George winner Belmez and Breeders Cup sprint winner Lit de Justice. He is also sire of Toussaud who apart from being a Grade 1 winner is the dam of 4 Grade 1 winners including Chester House and Empire Maker. His stud record showed a highly respectable 55 stakes winners (14%).
10.Be My Guest (1974 Northern Dancer-What A Treat by Tudor Minstrel). In 1977 Vincent had an embarrassment of three year old riches at his disposal with The Minstrel, Alleged, Artaius, Godswalk, Lady Capulet and others. Be My Guest was well behind the Minstrel in the Derby but won the Desmond Stakes and the Waterford Crystal mile. His pedigree was sufficient to ensure him a place at newly formed Coolmore. It was said that so ‘no mare could pass by Coolmore without being offered a deal to Be My Guest’ but it certainly paid off. In his first crop he sired Assert who won the Irish and French Derby’s for David O’Brien and On the House who won the 1000 Guineas. He ended up Champion sire in 1982 and predictably his fee soared. He never quite followed through on that initial promise although he was always capable of siring a top horse such as King George winner Pentire, Derby runner up Most Welcome and Dermot Weld’s Belmont winner Go and Go. However he has not produced a major sire son and his legacy might be as a broodmare sire as he is broodmare sire of Rock of Gibraltar and Manduro amongst others.
11. Woodman (1982 Mr Prospector- Playmate by Buckpasser). Vincent trained a few sons of Mr Prospector but he never seemed totally committed to that stallion. That said he paid $3 million for Woodman who was ranked champion Irish two year old in 1984 but who but who was affected by the virus that troubled the stable in 1985. He was retired to Ashford where he became one of those stallions that seemed to either sire superstars or duds with little in-between. He had an incredible first crop of 45 foals that included three champions in Mujtahid, Hector Protector and Hansel. He never consistently hit those heights afterwards but sired outstanding performers in Bosra Sham (a brother to Hector), Timber Country and Hawk Wing. His sons have been disappointing at stud but he is now compiling a very respectable record as a broodmare sire.
12. El Prado (1989 Sadler’s Wells-Lady Capulet by Sir Ivor). When he retired to stud if anyone had told me that El Prado would become champion sire in the US, I would have laughed at the idea. He was a Group 1 winner of the National Stakes but it was a very weak renewal of the race and he was subsequently well beaten in a sales race. He also won the Beresford stakes but failed to train on and was well beaten in his three runs at three. It must have been a pleasure for Vincent to train him as he knew the family so well, having trained his sire, his dam and his damsire to win classics and his half brother Entitled to be placed in two classics . He was retired to stud in the US and as we now know Sadler’s Wells couldn’t sire a claiming winner on dirt which makes El Prado’s success all the more surprising. And there has been plenty of success headed by Medaglia D’Oro, backed up by the likes of Borrego, Kitten’s Joy and Artie Schiller. The future of the line is also looking promising with many of his better sons at an early stage in their careers and Medaglia D’oro sire of Rachel Alexandra. He may have been an unlikely success but such surprises keep the world of breeding from getting too predictable.
Gems of wisdom in relation to breeding from Vincent.
1. Vincent once said in an interview that you can’t train a horse to stay. You can teach them to settle but pedigree dictates whether they stay or not.
2. Ignore the experts. There was a bias against chestnuts, a bias against having four white socks and a bias against small horses. Vincent still paid $200,000 for The Minstrel and ended up with a champion worth $9 million.
What did he ever get wrong? Very little but he did let Nureyev slip through his hands at the sales. There was also a time when Ballydoyle was host to a lot of Forli’s and although they enjoyed success on the track (especially with Thatch) no significant stallion emerged. Vincent also was very partial to the first crop of Golden Fleece, but like then stable jockey Cash Asmussen, they proved disappointing. However such things are mere trifles. Vincent O’Brien has utterly changed the history of the thoroughbred. His legacy is the Irish bloodstock industry and the thousands of jobs which it supports. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis