Vincent O’Brien, widely acknowledged as the greatest European trainer ever, died June 1 at the age of 92 at his home in Straffan, Co. Kildare, Ireland.
The Irishman started training in 1943 and first made his reputation with jump horses, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in England four times, landing a hat-trick in the Champion Hurdle, also staged at the Cheltenham Festival, and gaining an amazing Grand National three-timer at Aintree with Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954), and Quare Times (1955) before switching his focus to flat racing.
The first of his six Epsom Derby (Eng-I) triumphs from his Irish base of Ballydoyle came in 1962 when Larkspur kept his feet while seven rivals fell on the descent to Tattenham Corner. Larkspur was the first of two Derby winners trained by O’Brien for Raymond Guest, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.
The second was the brilliant Sir Ivor, who took the Epsom Classic in 1968 with a devastating burst of acceleration that carried him clear of the runner-up, Connaught.
O'Brien saddled the great Nijinsky II to win the British Classic two years later before becoming the first English Triple Crown winner since Bahram in 1935 and the latest colt to achieve this feat.
Lester Piggott, who partnered both Sir Ivor and Nijinsky II, was at his best when driving home Roberto for a thrilling short-head triumph over Rheingold to give O'Brien his fourth Derby success in 1972.
During the 1970s, O’Brien, owner Robert Sangster, and O'Brien’s son-in-law, John Magnier, worked hard to find and train top-class racehorses that would then become leading stallions, centered on Coolmore Stud in Co. Tipperary, Ireland.
O'Brien’s final two Derby winners carried the colors of Robert Sangster. The Minstrel prevailed in 1977, again with Piggott determinedly driving home the Ballydoyle colt to edge out Hot Grove, while the fragile but exceptional Golden Fleece could not have won with more ease under Pat Eddery in 1982.
The Sangster/O'Brien/Eddery combination almost won the Derby again two years later when El Gran Senor went down by a short-head to Secreto. However, this defeat was also a proud moment for O'Brien — his son David trained Secreto.
The trainer’s last Epsom Derby runner was Fatherland, who finished ninth under Lester Piggott in 1993. He retired the following year with a phenomenal record of 16 English classic victories, 27 Irish classic wins, three Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) successes and 25 Royal Ascot triumphs.
A statement issued on behalf of his family said: "He and his wife Jacqueline have been spending their winters in Perth, Australia, where their son David is now living with his family.
"Due to failing health he returned to his home in Ireland last week. At the end he was surrounded by his wife, his five children, grandchildren, and sons and daughters-in-law. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends."
A statement from O’Brien’s daughter, Sue Magnier, and her husband John and their family said, "Dad’s racing career speaks for itself and needs no elaboration. There was nobody like him. Coolmore Stud and Ballydoyle are the results of his vision and testament to his success.
"More importantly, he was a loving father, grandfather, and great-grandfather and an extraordinary mentor. His passing is a great loss to me and my family and we will all miss him greatly."
Ballymoss won the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in 1958 and was the first of O’Brien’s three victories in the top French race which Alleged won in consecutive years - 1977 and 1978.
O’Brien was champion trainer in Ireland 13 times, was champion flat trainer in Britain in 1966 and 1967, and champion jump trainer in Britain in 1952-53 and 1953-54.
His first winner came with Good Days at Limerick Junction, Ireland, on May 20, 1943, while his final success as a trainer was Sept. 17, 1994, with Mysterious Ways at the Curragh, Ireland.
O’Brien, invited by Epsom Downs Racecourse, was guest of honor at the 2008 Derby and said then: "There is no doubt that winning the six Derbys gave me the six greatest thrills of my life.
"The 3-year -old colt has just one chance at this race, one day only in his life and I have been so fortunate to have trained the six great horses who won the race for me.
"It is over 65 years since I took out my first trainer’s license and so much has changed at Epsom during that time — starting stalls, supplementary entries, even greater prize money, patrol cameras, watering, elaborate grandstands, improvements to the track and even a Saturday Derby.
"But some things have never changed — the pounding heartbeat one feels as the horses come round Tattenham Corner and the thrill of the uphill finish, whether the victory is easy like Nijinsky’s or by an inch like Roberto’s.
"For me an Epsom Derby win is the greatest prize of all — the ultimate goal for a trainer — and it has been thus for over 200 years."
The Racing Post newspaper in Britain held a poll to find the top 100 racing greats in 2001. O’Brien was voted number one with 28% of the vote.
He sent out Royal Academy, given a brilliant ride by Piggott, to win the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
Ireland’s current multiple champion trainer Aidan O’Brien, no relation to Vincent O’Brien, who took over at Ballydoyle,
"It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Vincent O’Brien today,” Aidan O’Brien said. "As for so many people in racing, he was my hero growing up. For Anne Marie and me to come to Ballydoyle, to the training facility he established, was an extraordinary privilege.
"We would never have been able to achieve our successes without the facility and gallops he built. There is nothing that compares to it anywhere in the world.
"I feel the sense of history every morning when I walk into the yard that had horses such as Nijinsky II, Sir Ivor, and Sadler’s Wells. His dedication to the sport of racing and to the highest standards knew no bounds. It is humbling to follow in his footsteps."
Peter O’Sullevan, the top British race caller and journalist of his era, also paid tribute: "He had a great innings and his achievements were absolutely unparalleled in my view, not just for a 20th century training career but of all-time.
"When you just look at the bare statistics it was a great achievement. To win three successive Grand Nationals and four Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, and to monopolize the Gloucestershire Hurdle so much. Then he translated that on the Flat, amazing.
"I used to place bets for him in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. He just transformed an ordinary farm (Ballydoyle) in a part of Ireland in which no classic horse had ever been trained.
"In 1953 I wrote in a stable tour for the Daily Express, ‘It is not in accord with tradition for a classic winner to be trained in County Tipperary, but in the case of one of Ireland’s youngest trainers Vincent O’Brien I consider all things are possible.’
"He was very unusual. The great thing about him was that he was so meticulous and so dedicated. He was a real stickler for detail and for the right details. He was a master of his craft."
John Gosden, who started training in the U.S. and now is based in England, worked for O’Brien from 1976 to 1977.
"We don’t use the word lightly when we say he is one of the legends of racing. Grand Nationals, Cheltenham Gold Cups, Champion Hurdles, the Derby, the Guineas, he did it all,” Gosden said. "I was lucky enough to be his assistant during a golden era. He opened up the world of international racing as well as bloodstock, through the 35 years of the Northern Dancer line. We will see the fruits of his labor in the Derby on Saturday."
Ben Sangster, son of the late Robert Sangster, said, "It’s very sad news and our condolences go out to his wife Jacqueline and the rest of his family. "My late dad had such a fortunate time with him through all of the wonderful horses he had over the years. He was so forward in his thinking, especially in his ability to scout out all those brilliant yearlings, and we were so lucky to be associated with him."
One of the leading Irish trainers John Oxx said, "Vincent was a remarkable man, a great perfectionist. I remember him saying he liked to listen to people, he was a great listener and that’s how he accumulated so much knowledge.
"He was ahead of his time in so many ways. He started designing the first all-weather gallops and was the first to think of so many things. He was a great pioneer and just had remarkable success, Vincent was the man really who made the dreams come true."
Another top trainer, Dermot Weld, declared, "He was a legend in his own lifetime, and will be very much missed."
O’Brien is survived by his wife Jacqueline and five children, Elizabeth, Susan, Jane, David, and Charles.
His funeral will take place at noon June 4 at St Conleth’s Church, Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland.