Donn's Articles » Sir Peter O’Sullevan on Vincent O’Brien

Sir Peter O’Sullevan on Vincent O’Brien

I was fortunate enough to have known him for a long time. We were born within a short time of each other, I was March 1918, he was just a tiny bit older than me, I didn’t think anybody was older than me, but Vincent was. I remember arriving in Ballydoyle in 1953 when I was doing one of my stable tours for the Daily Express. Ballydoyle was like the maestro himself, there was just something about the place, just as there was something about Vincent. We had already met when I was on the PA, we had talked and I had interviewed him in the very early days of the BBC, but my visit to Ballydoyle helped to cement our relationship. This was a very happy coming together, we had a marvellous professional relationship, he would ring me, can you get a jockey for this, or can we get £100 on this, that sort of thing. It established a long-running relationship.

There were quite a few parallels in our lives. I was a very minor performer compared to Vincent, I am not for a second comparing myself to him, but we both married in 1951, which is obviously quite a while ago now. I always think that Vincent had several wonderful advantages, in that he had this gift that enabled him see into a horse so well, he had such a feel for them, he interacted with them so well, and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of pedigrees, which was no disadvantage to him. Also, he was amazingly fortunate to have the splendid younger brothers that he did, especially Phonsie, he was a bloody good rider, he plays himself down quite a bit, but he was a crack amateur.

Phonsie was a rock. It was brilliant that he was able to take over the stable when Vincent had those two dreadful unjust hiccups, when he was suspended for form discrepancies, a rationale for which was never explained at all, and of course the Chamour case, on the back of which the methods for testing horses were totally revised. It was Phonsie who stepped in, and Dermot of course was a great rock as well.

There has always been a lot of jealousy in our game. I always think of racing as a microcosm of the wider world. It’s easy to sympathise with a friend’s failure, but it’s much more difficult to condone his success. Vincent was absolutely remarkably successful. In those days, if Darkie Prendergast or Vincent won a race in Britain, the record book would simply say “Trained in Ireland”. It wouldn’t name the trainer. And this didn’t help the whole jealousy thing. “Who is this O’Brien fellow?”

It was Vincent and Darkie who put Ireland on the international racing map, and it’s something that should never be forgotten. They weren’t bosom pals or anything like that, because of course they were both operating in the same field, they were in competition, and they were different types. There wasn’t animosity between them, but there was no closeness either. But it was they who conferred international credibility on Irish racing, and it was through them that the Americans became involved in racing in Europe.

It was typical of the climate at the time, when Larkspur won that traumatic Derby in 1962, and a horse was killed and seven or eight horses fell, and Harry Carr was being carried off to hospital, all the stewards wanted to know was how this Irish horse had won the Derby. That was an outrage in my view, really unacceptable, and it was very natural that MV should be very circumspect in his communication with the media and the authorities after that.

Another piece of great fortune in Vincent’s life was marrying Jacqueline. She cannot be given enough credit for bringing up a lovely family and for sustaining her husband and looking after him absolutely brilliantly. The machine had started to run down a little while back, one has to say. It must have been nearly a decade ago when the four of us were dining at the Carlton Tower, they had imported chefs from various parts of the world, it was a Thai cooking evening, and I remember Vincent was about to put this tasty-looking morsel in his mouth, and Jacqueline grabbed his arm and said ‘You can’t eat that!’ and called the waiter to take it away. And then when he got a little ill, naturally, of course, she was most wonderful. She cannot possibly be given enough credit.

She’s very bright in every possible way. I remember the four of us were in Switzerland together, and MV wasn’t the most enthusiastic skier, he didn’t really like the cold, but Jacqueline took to it like that, she flew. And she’s a very good writer. She is a girl of many talents.

When I went down to Ballydoyle in 1953, Vincent was a National Hunt trainer. Okay, it was the Irish Cambridgeshire and Irish Cesarewitch that got him started in 1944, but he was really a National Hunt trainer. And he was an innovator in every respect. As far back as 1949, he flew these three horses to Cheltenham, and the three of them won. That was Cottage Rake’s second Gold Cup, and he went back the following year to win his third, ridden by Aubrey Brabazon all three times. Remarkably, Aubrey Brabazon only rode in three Gold Cups, all on Cottage Rake, and he won all three.

In 1957, I knew that Vincent thought a lot of Ballymoss and I backed him well for the Derby. I was only sorry that MV didn’t want to join in and we would have done something really serious. I had a total of £10,000 to £120 win and £2,500 to £120 place, which in those days was real money. He went about two lengths clear in the straight, and looked a likely winner, until Lester caught him on Crepello, which was a shame, but at least we collected on the place part of the bet.

Vincent did want to back Ballymoss for the St Leger though. He wanted £1,100 each-way. He really fancied him for the Leger, but it bloody rained like hell on the morning of the race. Vincent thought he had no chance on soft ground and wanted to get out of the bets. I didn’t have time to go into the ring to lay the bets off, I had to get up to my commentary position up on Rose Hill early, out in the country, so I told Vincent the bets we had, we were on at nearly 13/2, the horse was 5/1 at the time, so we would have had no difficulty in either cancelling them or just laying the bets back at 6/1. But he was too shy at the thought of going into the ring among people and doing anything like that, so he said let’s leave it.

The actual bets were not insubstantial, £7,900 to £1,244 to win, and £1,975 to £1,244 a place, so it was quite a lot of money for anybody to just say let’s leave it. I would have loved to have got £50 back out of it, I had £144 on him, which was ludicrous for me. I wouldn’t earn that money in a half a year with the Beeb. There were no mobile phones, no betting exchanges, no means whereby people could find out that Vincent didn’t fancy the horse, and yet the whiff of misgiving seemed to filter into the ring, so that by the time they jumped off he was an 8/1 shot. Anyway, he hacked up. Ballymoss didn’t know that Vincent didn’t fancy him, he wasn’t bothered by the ground at all, and he flew in.

You know, I’m not sure that Vincent fully appreciated the impact that he had on the bloodstock industry. I think he was too focussed on the horses, too worried about whether that little bit of a cough meant that he had a cough or whether he was clearing his throat, whether that little bit of heat in a leg was going to develop. They’re a nightmare, aren’t they, racehorses? They’re so fragile. I think Lester summed it up well. I remember asking Lester, not long after he had started training, ‘Well Lester, how’s it going for you, how are you enjoying training?’ ‘Well,’ he said, in his inimitable way, ‘they’re made of glass aren’t they?’

Vincent enjoyed life though. He was totally wrapped up in his horses, but he enjoyed life as well. And he was so thoughtful. He was always thinking of others, he never wanted to leave anyone out. I had a certain amount of sickness in my time, and he would always call just to say how’s it going, and maybe give you a horse to look out for. I miss him lots. He was a real kindred spirit.

© The Irish Field, 26th December 2009