Donn's Articles » Vincent O'Brien and the Derby

Vincent O’Brien and the Derby

The flags flew at half-mast at Epsom last Tuesday and the Derby jockeys wore black armbands yesterday, in deference to the passing of a man whose synonymy with the great race was without equal. In one sense, you wondered, was it enough? But what would have been enough?

Somehow, it was appropriate that Dr Vincent O’Brien hung up the head collar on this mortal coil for the final time on the first day of Derby week. It was the Epsom Derby that fuelled O’Brien’s unrelenting ambition more than any other race. It was the race that he envisioned when he looked into a yearling’s eye, the quintessential test of a thoroughbred athlete, of his speed, his stamina, his temperament, his balance, his conformation, the ultimate stallion’s springboard. Federico Tesio, the Italian statesman of the early 1900s, breeder of Ribot and Nearco and one of the most important breeders in the history of racing, once famously stated: “The thoroughbred exists because its selection has not depended on experts, technicians or zoologists, but on a piece of wood – the winning post of the Epsom Derby. If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the thoroughbred.” Vincent O’Brien embraced this notion like no other.

It was a relationship of reciprocity. In as much as the Derby was the glittering stage upon which O’Brien’s talent for the conditioning of racehorses was showcased again and again, so the esteem in which the trainer held the race was an invaluable ally in a time when its traditional position as the Blue Riband of racing was being challenged. The unconditional Ballydoyle patronage – it was always a given that the best horses from Cashel would run in the Derby, no debate – propelled the race through the choppy waters of change that saw whipper-snapper contests of shallower root and shorter distance challenge the Derby as the archetypal thoroughbred trial. It is impossible to know how much the Derby owes the retention of its position today as the true thoroughbred test to Vincent O’Brien, but the probable answer is: a lot.

Strange, then, that O’Brien’s first victory in the race should be attributable as much to good fortune – or to others’ misfortune – as it was to true equine ability. Seven horses fell in the 1962 Derby on the descent to Tattenham Corner and seven more were hampered. To put the magnitude of the mis-hap into context, only nine horses fell in that year’s Grand National. Larkspur managed to avoid the carnage and go on to spring a surprise and land a first Derby victory for O’Brien’s.

O’Brien needed no such assistance in 1968. All he needed to do was to have his Guineas winner, Sir Ivor, at concert pitch on the day, and have Lester Piggott unleash the colt’s devastating turn of foot at the distance to catch and pass Connaught, and bring Derby number two back to Ballydoyle.

It was that year that the American platinum magnate Charles Engelhard Jr asked Vincent to go to Winfields Farm in Canada to have a look at a yearling there by Ribot. Vincent made the trip, but wasn’t that taken by the colt. He much preferred another yearling by new stallion Northern Dancer, and advised the owner that he should buy that colt instead, which he duly did. It was a decision that was to change the face of European racing and breeding. That colt turned out to by Nijinsky, who won the Dewhurst the following year and was crowned champion juvenile. In 1970, O’Brien trained him to land the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger. He was the first horse to complete the Triple Crown since Bahram had done it in 1935, and the feat has not been equaled since.

Roberto’s win in the Derby in 1972, O’Brien’s fourth, was not without its controversy, as Piggott replaced intended jockey Bill Willamson at the 11th hour. The switch may have made the difference between victory and defeat, however, as Roberto needed every sinew of assistance that the Long Fellow could muster in order to get up and beat Rheingold by a short head.

The Minstrel’s victory in 1977 was significant on a number of levels. Not only was he a first in the colours of Robert Sangster, with his white blaze and his flashy white socks, he was also the product of the inaugural O’Brien-Magnier-Sangster plundering of the Keeneland July Sales with the specific objective of buying embryo stallions, with particular emphasis – spurred on by Nijinsky’s heroics – on the progeny of Northern Dancer. The Minstrel was bought as a yearling for $200,000 and sold back to America after his Derby triumph for $18 million. That was the value of winning the Derby that year – £17.8 million.

O’Brien’s sixth and final Epsom Derby victory was achieved in 1982, courtesy of the highly talented but fragile Golden Fleece, who was in a lather of sweat beforehand but still had the ability to go clear of his field inside the final furlong. It might have been seven, many will argue that it should have been seven, that Vincent O’Brien should have equaled the record total held jointly by Robert Robson, John Porter and Fred Darling. Indeed, it would have been, El Gran Senor would have won the 1984 Derby had it not been for the doggedness of Secreto and Christy Roche, the bob of a head, and the manner in which this fragile beast was trained, expertly, to perfection to peak on the day by – irony of ironies – Vincent’s son David.

In no other race on the calendar is Vincent O’Brien’s legacy to racing more in evidence than in the Epsom Derby. It is appropriate, then, that, of the 12 horses that lined up in the latest renewal of the great race yesterday, 10 were by stallions who are direct descendants of Northern Dancer, the stallion whose bloodlines Vincent O’Brien and his partners effectively single-handedly introduced to Europe.

Is that enough?

(c) The Sunday Times, 7th June 2009