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Mark Baker's appreciation of Vincent O'Brien

"He was a genius, an absolute genius" that was how Hallmark Stud's Mark Baker described Dr Vincent O'Brien when asked about his time working for the legendary trainer who passed away in Ireland earlier this week.

'The boss' as Baker respectfully refers to him was a genius and a master trainer, who made a big impact on the way Baker operates as a horseman.

"He was a very private person, a family man, and a very tough taskmaster, but once he got to know you, he would open up and share his knowledge and wisdom."

As a young lad in his 20's Mark worked at Ballydoyle in 1985-86. It was around the time when Sadler's Wells was at the end of his career and Law Society won the Irish Derby. He was just one of six horses that O'Brien trained to win that event.

Hallmark Stud's Mark Baker (right) pictured with legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien in 1986.

In a career that spanned over 50 years he won the Epsom Derby six times as well with Nijinsky, The Minstrel and Larkspur (1962), Sir Ivor (1968), Roberto (1972) and Golden Fleece in 1984. To that record you can add four wins in the 2000 Guineas, and another five winners in the Irish equivalent, Glad Rags won the 1000 Guineas in 1966 and he won the Irish 1000 Guineas three times. In all, O'Brien won 27 Irish Classics, 16 English Classics and three Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (twice with Alleged who beat our own Balmerino in 1977), and the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile with Royal Academy.

"He was a legend and it was an honour and a privilege to be there. "The Boss" had the uncanny ability of being able to get into a horse's head, his assessment of a horse physically and mentally was amazing. He could see things that no one else could see and he could read his horses so well. He was hands on and spent time with all his horses and that was why he only ever had about 45-50 in work at one time. He was constantly assessing them 24/7 physically and mentally.

"He would compile a worksheet for the team each night, and each morning he would walk each horse out for about twenty minutes and you could almost guarantee that the work sheet would be altered. For example if it were a Tuesday gallop morning and a filly was racing on the Saturday – instead of sending her for a final gallop as planned he may send her off for an afternoon walk and a pick with a lead horse. You would wonder what he was doing until the filly came out and won on the Saturday.

"He just knew by watching a horse whether they needed more or less work or a change of scene, or routine or diet. All the horses in the yard were totally individual and were treated that way. There was a plan and a programme for each horse in the stable.

"That would have to be the greatest lesson that I learnt from him, to individually assess horses and tailor make a programme to suit them. Too keep studying, and watching all the time.

"He was a pretty tough taskmaster – a typical old school trainer. He was a perfectionist and he expected every one else to be – after all in my day we were working with horses worth millions of dollars, I was there when the $10.3 million Seattle Dancer was in the stable. I think he still holds the record for being the highest priced yearling in the world. The boss left no stone unturned to get a horse right. He was tough but he was fair," Baker concluded.

O'Brien had started out his career as a National Hunt trainer and in that capacity won three consecutive Grand Nationals, four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles as well as most of the major jumping events in Ireland. At the time of his retirement he had won 1,529 races in Ireland and had been champion Irish trainer 13 times and champion British trainer twice on the flat and again as a jumps trainer.

During the late 1970's and early 1980's O'Brien was a major player in a racing industry that morphed from a sporting past time to a multi-million dollar industry. Along with Robert Sangster and his son-in-law John Magnier – he is married to O'Brien's daughter Susan – his knowledge of pedigrees and his horsemanship were the major components in Sangster and Magnier investing millions in buying colts to race as potential stallions, establishing the Coolmore dynasty that is still dominant in the racing world today.

However, life wasn't always like that for Vincent O'Brien. He was born in April 1917 in County Cork and was the eldest son of Dan O'Brien's four children from his second marriage. Dan O'Brien was a farmer and small time horse trainer, and young Vincent worked in his yard on leaving school at 15. He took over his father's stables after he died in 1943 and took out a National Hunt trainer's licence. As well as the horses O'Brien junior was a dab hand at training greyhounds and earned a tidy sum in the training and trading of dogs before concentrating solely on horses.

In 1951 he married Jacqueline Wittenoom the daughter of an Australian politician and they moved to a 117 acre property in County Tipperary which they developed into Ballydoyle.

"Jaqueline was the opposite of 'the boss' she was really vivacious and outgoing, she is an accomplished author in her own right", commended Baker, "I can recall her telling me tales of the punting coups that they had to pull off in the early days when they were establishing Ballydoyle and it was a pretty hand to mouth existence. She is a remarkable woman.

"On one occasion I had been running errands for her taking some urgent proofs into town for one of her books – she used to write about castles – although she did write a biography on 'the boss' later on. Anyway I was late getting back and she had saved me dinner – I can remember being totally awestruck sitting in the dining room on my own at the 20 foot long table sharing my dinner with Golden Fleece's Epsom Derby trophy along with other trophies, amongst walls adorned with dozens of paintings of champion horses.

"It's only when I look back now that I realise how privileged I was to work there and what a wonderful experience it was. I often had to pinch myself I was in awe of the lifestyle, the people, and the bloodstock it's almost surreal.

"I will never forget one day we were racing at The Curragh and we were heading towards the helicopter to fly back to Ballydoyle when this chap approached us and wanted his son – who would have been under 10 to meet the Boss, the Boss took the time to meet this boy and shake his hand and the father wept – that shows you the esteem in which he was held. It was at times like that that I really had to pinch myself and think wow is this really happening, am I really living this life?

"There was a wealth of knowledge amongst the staff at Ballydoyle, all willing to teach a young lad, some of the staff had been with the boss for 20 to 30 years, it was incredible to be able to wile away a winter's afternoon talking to the 'lad' who had been the strapper to Nijinksy. And you know when I went back to Ballydoyle last year, there are still staff working there now that were there in my day.

"It's been quite a reflective time for me since I learnt of his death and I have thought a lot about my time in Ireland and how it has shaped my life. Working for a living legend is an experience of a lifetime, and one that I was very lucky to have. I left here on a boat for South Africa with a consignment of yearlings that Chris Smith had bought at Trentham, hoping to work for Chris for a while and play a bit of rugby in South Africa, and through Chris and his friendship with Robert Sangster I ended up at Ballydoyle and had the honour and privilege of working for a genius."


VINCENT O'BRIEN'S MAJOR RACE WINS

Champion Hurdle: Hatton's Grace 1949, 1950, 1951.
Cheltenham Gold Cup: Cottage Rake 1948, 1949, 1950, Knock Hard 1953.
Grand National: Early Mist 1953, Royal Tan 1954, Quare Times 1955.
2,000 Guineas: Sir Ivor 1968, Nijinsky 1970, Lomond 1983, El Gran Senor 1984.
1,000 Guineas: Glad Rags 1966.
Oaks: Long Look 1965, Valoris 1966.
Derby: Larkspur 1962, Sir Ivor 1968, Nijinsky 1970, Roberto 1972, The Minstrel 1977, Golden Fleece 1982.
King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes: Ballymoss 1958, Nijinsky 1970, The Minstrel 1977.
St Leger: Ballymoss 1957, Nijinsky 1970, Boucher 1972.
Irish 2,000 Guineas: El Toro 1959, Jaazeiro 1978, King's Lake 1981, Sadler's Wells 1984, Prince Of Birds 1988.
Irish 1,000 Guineas: Valoris 1966, Lady Capulet 1977, Godetia 1979.
Irish Derby: Chamier 1953, Ballymoss 1957, Nijinsky 1970, The Minstrel 1977, El Gran Senor 1984, Law Society 1985.
Irish Oaks: Ancasta 1964, Aurabella 1965, Gaia 1969, Godetia 1979.
Irish St Leger: Barclay 1959, White Gloves 1966, Reindeer 1969, Caucasus 1975, Meneval 1976, Transworld 1977, Gonzales 1980, Leading Counsel 1985, Dark Lomond 1988.
Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe: Ballymoss 1958, Alleged 1977, 1978.
Breeders' Cup Mile: Royal Academy 1990.


- Michelle Saba