Donn's Articles » Phonsie O’Brien on Vincent O’Brien

Phonsie O’Brien on Vincent O’Brien

Phonsie O’Brien, the youngest brother of the late Vincent O’Brien, relaxes in his chair in his home at Landscape Stud on the Tipperary banks of the River Suir, lucid as a teenager, as memories of his brother come tumbling from his lips and are lapped up by this wide-mouthed wonderer, transfixed.

On the early years …

Vincent was almost 14 years older than me, he was like a father figure to me. My first memory of him – I remember when he ran away from Mungret College, and him coming home and my father having a big row with him and saying he was going again, and I remember him running down a field and he crying out of him. He wasn’t going back there. So he didn’t go back there. He got a job with Fred Clarke, who trained horses in Leopardstown at the time, and he went to night school there at the same time. That’s where he educated himself.

He was a perfectionist. He didn’t have much, but what he had was perfect. His clothes were always immaculate. And he had an amazing brain for pedigrees. His knowledge of the stud book was second to none. That’s why he was totally responsible for getting those good horses in America.

My father was a good judge of a horse as well. I was sent off to school because he had me nearly ruined. I was his pet. ‘Lave the child alone!’ he would say. My mother decided that I was getting spoiled at home, that it wasn’t good for me, so she thought that it would be good for me to go to the nuns in Wicklow. I was sent down there, to take me away from horses and my father and everything else. My father actually died when I was down there. He went to The Curragh, it must have been the Lincoln meeting, the weather was very cold, he contracted pneumonia and died. That was April 1943.

Vincent was already really training the horses even before my father died. He had a bit of experience from Fred Clarke, he saw a bit of training methodology there, but that was the only experience that he had before he started training himself. He learned as he went.

When my father died, his first family got the property while the second family (us) got the horses and the debts, and horses at the time were worth absolutely nothing. The following autumn Vincent went over to England to buy what horses he could, and he met a man called Sydney McGregor, a nice man but a gruff man, and I believe he bred April The Fifth, who won the Derby in 1932. He decided to send Vincent this horse called Good Days. Vincent then bought a horse called Drybob at the Tattersalls Horses In Training Sale in Newmarket, and he was on his way.

The plan was to train those two horses for the two legs of the autumn double, the Irish Cambridgeshire and the Irish Cesarewitch. Vincent had a £2 double the pair of them, both at 20/1. Drybob dead-heated for the Cambridgeshire and Good Days won the Cesarewitch. It was incredible, and it won for him the first few quid he ever had. The betting end of it was the most important thing in the early days.

Whatever money there was left for us after my father died, I got it, it was left for my education. There was £1,100 left for me, which an astute solicitor put into a fund that would return 3½%, supposedly it was a very secure investment. By the time I got it, when I was 21, it had reduced to £600. That was the sum total of our inheritance.

Vincent always had an uncanny understanding of horses. In the very early days, they used to buy a lot of prospective hunters, they’d make and break them and school them. That was what kept the family going.

In 1946 or 1947, I remember being sent with another chap, Andy Daly from Cork city, and we went about 16 miles on a pony and trap to collect a horse. The horse was broken all right, we led him along behind the trap on the way home for about nine miles, until he couldn’t go any further. So we tied the rope around his neck and drove him along the road for the last four or five miles. That was Cottage Rake. Two years later he won the first of his three Gold Cups.

He went over on the boat to Cheltenham the first time, in 1948. I went over with him. We were up at six o’clock in the morning, loaded him up onto the trailer, took him down to Limerick City Station, where he got onto a horse wagon, which took him to the North Wall. The Munster and the Leinster were the two boats that used to go from the North Wall to Liverpool, and he was loaded up with the cattle. Cattle all round him. A few bob to the stevedores who minded the cattle, and we got a tarpaulin and hung it around him, straw on front of him, and we lay down on that. When the cattle got off in Birkenhead, we got off with them with the horse, and a horse box came down from Lambourn to collect us. In those days we’d always bring over provisions, rashers and sausages. For a rasher over there a fellow would cut another fellow’s throat. Rashers and nylon stockings were much sought-after.

There was this man there, an agent, and we’d go to his place and let the horse rest in his stable for an hour. His wife would give us tea and bred and butter, but we’d give her a pound of rashers. After an hour then we’d set off for Gerald Balding’s, Ian and Toby’s father, Ian and Toby were just young kids at the time. He was a great friend, Gerald Balding, and we’d go up to Cheltenham with Gerald four or five days before the race. We’d exercise Cottage Rake and even give him a school over hurdles.

These horses rarely jumped anything only hurdles at home. When the time came to go chasing, they were schooled for chasing, but once they were finished novice chasing, they wouldn’t school over a fence again. Grand National horses and everything, they only jumped hurdles. Vincent was a great believer in speed, and we’d jump hurdles at speed at home. Vincent never believed in working over long distances. Even the jumpers never worked beyond 10 furlongs. It was all about speed. A number of trainers employ his training methods now. Aidan O’Brien does, and I’m sure Jim Bolger does too. I have never been in his place, but what I read about Jim Bolger, he would remind me most of Vincent.

Danny O’Sullivan and I did all the schooling. We’d ride 18 horses each on Tuesday and Friday morning, every Tuesday and Friday morning, each of them over eight jumps. I got just one fall in the whole time there and Danny didn’t even get one. The horses were so good, so well practised at jumping.

There were no other Irish horses going to Cheltenham at the time. The second year, 1949, Vincent decided that he would fly Cottage Rake to Cheltenham, and send two other horses with him, Hatton’s Grace and Castledermot. Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup, Hatton’s Grace won the Champion Hurdle and Castledermot won the National Hunt Chase. The following year, Cottage Rake won his third Gold Cup and Hatton’s Grace won his second Champion Hurdle, and the year after that, 1951, Hatton’s Grace won his third Champion Hurdle. The following year he won the first of his 10 Gloucester Hurdles with Cockatoo, whom I rode. That was really the beginning of the whole Ireland versus England thing at Cheltenham.

Then there were the three Grand Nationals with Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times. I was second in the race for him on Royal Tan, and I fell at the last, also on Royal Tan, and he’d have won either year, I’m sure of it, only for the riding instructions that Vincent gave me. Vincent was a very meticulous man, he gave his riders instructions, and as long as you carried out those instructions, that was 100%. And he was usually 100% right. But in the National, I wasn’t allowed hit the front until the Elbow. Ever. Royal Tan didn’t make a mistake the whole way round, and I reckon, if I’d have been able to kick on, I’d have gone away from all of my rivals, and he wouldn’t have made the mistake at the last fence that he made.

Three Grand Nationals, four Gold Cups. Anything he took to Cheltenham. All those Gloucestershire Hurdles. He could hardly have achieved more as a National Hunt trainer.

On Ballydoyle …

I remember arriving at Ballydoyle in 1950 to have a look at the place. We were hardly able to drive up the avenue, it was so overgrown. I remember going out the back where you look down on the gallops, and walking around there, and the auctioneer showing us the boundaries, and coming away from it saying that it was probably the place that he should buy. We had seen a few places before that, but Vincent made up his mind fairly quickly that Ballydoyle was the place. I honestly don’t remember any of the other places that we saw. He had about 20 or 25 grand to spend on a place, and Ballydoyle was 17 or 17 and a half, so it was well within his budget.

I spent the time getting the place ready while he continued to train out of Churchtown. I had a team of about 17 fellows and our job was to take away the ditches so that horses could gallop. I would spend the week in Ballydoyle, but I’d be back in Churchtown every Tuesday and Friday to ride work.

Vincent was gradually changing from National Hunt to flat. He realised that there was more money to be made on the flat than over jumps. Ballymoss was his first really good flat horse, but he took his time. He got beaten in the Derby, but then he won the Leger on soft ground, and the following year he won the Eclipse and the Coronation Cup. I was gone out of it just before Ballymoss though. I bought a bungalow, the nearest house to Ballydoyle. I built 10 or 12 stables there, I had 10 National Hunt horses there of my own that I trained, and I bought a small bit of land. Vincent never allowed me to go up there with my horses to gallop them. There was no falling out or anything, no way in the world, that rule was just there and that was it.

Then, when the Chamour thing happened, when Vincent was disqualified from training for a year, I was the only one who could go in to Ballydoyle. Dermot, my other brother, had no licence, they wouldn’t give him one. There was no vote or anything, I was the only pebble on the beach. But the whole incident was really upsetting for Vincent. He just didn’t want to have anything to do with horses after that. He was threatening to give it up and go to France. He genuinely had never heard of stuff called methamphetamine. Never even heard of it, nor had any of us. There were some people in the Turf Club whom he never forgave. But there was an awful lot of jealousy in it too, a fellow coming up from the country and ruling Ireland. They didn’t want it. Jealousy. Vincent didn’t talk to me for about six weeks after I took the horses over. There was no way I could talk to him about a horse. He just didn’t want to know about horses. I was fortunate that we had very good staff there, so we just got on with it.

On Lester Piggott …

There is no doubt about it, Lester was a great cog in the wheel as long as he didn’t come to Ballydoyle. After a couple of trips to Ballydoyle, Vincent never wanted to see him there again. Lester would try to find out how good the horses were. Vincent was a total perfectionist, the work that he did with the horses was all meticulously planned, work riders were absolutely used to doing what they were meant to do. But when Lester came in, he did what Lester wanted, not what Vincent wanted.

If you went up to Heaven and you brought Vincent down a star, he’d say, why didn’t you bring down two or three? He was always striving for more. That was one of the reasons why he was such a brilliant trainer.

He also had a unique understanding of horses, of course, a love of horses, which came from my father’s time. From the time he ran away from Mungret and came home and started with horses, his love of horses came through. And he often said to me in latter years that he’d love to be back in the stable, grooming the horse. There were a lot of things that he couldn’t do at that stage because there weren’t enough hours in the day. He wanted to keep his string small. Only John Magnier and Robert Sangster wanted to keep on increasing numbers. John Magnier always believed that the more you had, the better chance you had of getting real one. Vincent wanted 50 at the outside. At the height in Churchtown, we had 42 horses.

On buying yearlings …

My job was to go to Keeneland with Tom Cooper. Tom Cooper would have been over there for a month beforehand, going to the farms, and he would have the horses picked out and marked out in the catalogue. Vincent would have the catalogue at home the moment it was out, and all he went through was pedigrees. Tom Cooper and I would go around the sales with this big long list, and knock out about half of them, the ones that were physically not 100%. So by the time each day came along, we’d have it down to 20 horses or so, mainly colts. I don’t ever remember buying a filly at Keeneland. The whole idea was to make stallions.

The whole objective of that was to shift the balance of power in the bloodstock industry from America to Europe or Ireland. Demi O’Byrne told me recently that the American thoroughbred today has gone back. The Bull Hancocks and all those have all gone. They came over here and bought the best, like Royal Charger and Nasrullah, and you look at the American pedigrees, you will see that all the top American horses are descended from those two Irish horses. But you can see that the balance is shifting back again to Ireland.

I’d be always gone in front of Vincent at the sales, and I’d have the horses ready and out so that he didn’t have to hang around. Then, when I had all that done, Robert Sangster had to be looked after. I was one of his best pals. When we were finished all that, we’d go to the bar and talk about other things. He was a great friend. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think of him. He was a good man, a very good man. He never interfered in any way with the training or the racing of the horses, he knew that they were being trained by the best. But the whole operation would not have been possible without Sangster.

They were wonderful years. I had nothing to do with Ballydoyle in those days, except for my work at the yearling sales. Vincent didn’t get very involved in the Coolmore side of it, he just trained the horses, although he did effectively buy Coolmore, he helped Tim Vigors out. I had shares in stallions with Tim Vigors for a long time. Then it came about that, the horses we bought in Keeneland, I had 1/40th of them.

I was racing at The Curragh one day with Robert, and one of his horses won the Beresford. I had no share in him. I turned to Robert. “I have no share in him Robert,” I said. “What will you charge me for a share.” “One hundred and twenty-five thousand,” he said. “Right,” I said, “I’ll take it.” One hundred and twenty-five thousand. Do you know what that horse was? Sadler’s Wells. Sadler’s Wells. That’s what kept Phonsie for the rest of his life.

On selling shoes …

It was some day when Royal Academy won the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park. I was there, Vincent wasn’t. The only time Vincent went racing in American was when Sir Ivor won the Washington International.

I’d say Vincent was happy enough to retire in 1994. He was 77 at the time. I’d say he had had enough. It was time for him.

He was a brilliant man. He was so single-minded. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. And I do believe that, if he had started life selling shoes, he would have been the most successful shoe-seller in the world.

© Irish Racing Yearbook 2010