SWEET and glorious it is to take on the opposition, whether an individual player, a team, the whole competition, and beat them in their own back yard. Sweeter and more glorious if it was your back yard to begin with.
The pleasure in Leo O’Brien’s voice attests to that. The boy from Co Dublin grew up 20 miles from the Curragh, and although he is listed in the record books as a US trainer, this was definitely one for the home team. He turned 80 this week but the years fall from him when he talks about the days of Fourstars Allstar.
No one did it before. No one has done it since. Perhaps no one ever will. O’Brien became the only US-based trainer to win a European classic when Fourstars Allstar won the 1991 Irish 2000 Guineas, a pioneer who blazed a trail that bears only one set of footprints. It is the high point of a life spent around horses, but even the most generous assessor could not claim that Fourstars Allstar was the best with which O’Brien has been acquainted.
“You’ve heard of a horse called Mill House?” he says, and three, four generations grow misty eyed. The Big Horse. The Goliath to Arkle’s David. O’Brien was there at the start.
“I rode him for his first bit of work when Tom Taaffe (senior) trained him in Newcastle, Co Dublin. Tos, Pat Taaffe’s younger brother, told me to set off in front, and when they joined me just to sit quiet and let him finish up on his own. Well, I set off.
“After going a mile I started to wonder where they were. I looked around and saw they were about half a furlong behind. When he eventually pulled up, Tos was livid. ‘Leo, what the hell did I tell you?’
“I answered ‘Tos, I never moved, just sat quiet like you told me’. ‘You sure?’ ‘Yes, of course I’m sure’. And the next time he worked, Tos rode him!
“I remember when Dave Dick came over to ride him in a big race over hurdles at Punchestown one April (1961) and I was just a lad leading him around the parade ring.
“He said to me ‘what’s he like, son?’ and I told him ‘you’ve never thrown your leg over a better horse!’ I can still see the look on his face. He fell that day but Dave had seen enough and he was soon sold to go to England.”
As a brush with greatness it will do very well. Thirty years later, though, a little way over the fields from the Punchestown parade ring, O’Brien returned to make his own indelible mark on the sport in what was for him a familiar setting.
“It was always a dream of mine to maybe one day return to the Curragh, where I rode and won my first race on a horse called Similar,” he says. “The whole idea was to bring a US-based horse with an American jockey. That was the sport and challenge of it.
“I began to think about the Irish 2000 Guineas at the end of October, after Allstar was a very good second in the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity, which had been run on the turf that year.
“Luckily his owner Richard Bomze loved a challenge. When I mentioned the race to him he was all for it. Most American owners would have thought the idea a bit mad but luckily Richie was a great owner and a great sporting man.”
Fourstars Allstar was certainly bred for the big time, being by Compliance, a brother to El Gran Senor and Try My Best. Compliance was nothing like his siblings, but blood will out, after all.
“He was a beautiful mover on the grass, a true daisy-cutter, very much a firm ground type with great natural speed. He was easy to settle and really, in terms of tactics, could be ridden from anywhere. We trained him all winter with the Guineas in mind and I was very confident.”
Fourstars Allstar had run 10 times as a two-year-old, winning four races, and would not be found wanting for match practice at three. He was runner-up in an allowance race at Aqueduct on his reappearance but O’Brien wanted to whet a finer edge on the colt. Perhaps the most unconventional move in an enormously unconventional operation was a prep run at Belmont a week before the Guineas, which Fourstars Allstar won by a length and a quarter. That done, the plan working nicely, O’Brien’s confidence was given another boost.
“We had Irish Linnet going for the Irish 1000 Guineas the following week and I asked Cash Asmussen to ride her. He declined, but made a point of asking to ride Fourstars Allstar. That really solidified my faith.”
That faith was not matched by his younger brother Michael, whose yard full of steeplechasers outside Naas played host to the transatlantic team. “He said he thought I was mad, and even told me, in so many words, that I’d better not embarrass him! I thought I was the one taking all the chances.”
It was a good Guineas that year. The even money favourite was the French-trained Lycius, runner-up in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket two weeks earlier. His compatriot Ganges, third on the Rowley Mile, was second in the betting and, in hindsight a surprise in what is so often a parochial betting market, Fourstars Allstar was next in the list at 9/1. He was ridden by Mike Smith – “A brilliant jockey, such a cool customer, I knew he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it all” – who had yet to realise the earnings potential that would earn him the nickname of ‘Big Money’ Mike, but there was still big money floating around that afternoon.
“Richie and Mike’s agent Steve Adika were in among the bookies. I think the bookies were smiling before the race but they certainly weren’t smiling afterwards.” O’Brien was.
“I remember the race very clearly,” he says, and his recitation is replay sharp down the phone line from his home in West Hempstead (not far from the clubhouse turn at Belmont Park), his voice full of quiet satisfaction. “He broke from the inside gate like a rocket and was a length in front at the first call. Mike put his hands on his neck and just let him settle in front. Christy Roche, on Star Of Gdansk, was sitting right behind him.
“Roche was cute because he knew the rail opened up (there was a cutaway) around the three-furlong marker and when it did he punched his horse up the inside. This is where Mike was so brilliant, though. He never panicked because he knew when he reached up to grab a hold of Allstar that he would produce a great kick.
“Well, Mike waited until the furlong marker and went for him. He just kept changing his hands, maybe tapped him twice or so, kept pushing and they went past Star Of Gdansk in the last 50 yards.”
At the line there was just a head in it, but it was Fourstars Allstar’s blue-blinkered head. Lycius was six lengths back in third. Smith punched the air in delight. The grand plan had worked perfectly and O’Brien was back where it had all started, local boy made very, very good indeed.
Sonia Rogers and Sue Magnier presenting the trophy to owner Richard Bomze and his wife Diane with jockey Mike Smith and trainer Leo O'Brien (front right) after the 1991 Irish 2000 Guineas \ Healy Racing
“The first person to congratulate me that day was Vincent O’Brien. That was quite special. He commended me for what he called a tremendous sporting gesture and achievement. That meant a lot.
“Later there was a fantastic celebration at Lawlor’s pub in Naas town. When Mike and I walked through the door we were picked up by the crowd and body-surfed across the whole bloody pub. It was incredible. It was a moment I will never forget.”
O’Brien never has, but to his surprise no one on the other side of the Atlantic seemed eager to remember what he’d done. The seismic nature of his feat was hardly felt at all, its impact dwindling into the minor tremors of polite congratulation.
“When we got back there was no real understanding of what we had done. I was disappointed, in some respects. Winning a classic in Europe with a US-based horse was a substantial achievement that I was very proud of. I never thought the horse was given his due, and I was somewhat disappointed I wasn’t given the opportunity to train more high-class horses. Perhaps I wasn’t glib enough!
“American racing at that time was completely centred on the dirt and it didn’t really give a ton of credence to European races, or even understand the rich tradition and history of the classics.”
Back on the east coast they would instead give him great credit for the achievements of Allstar’s elder brother Fourstardave, the hero of Saratoga, a winner at the spa track eight years running (1987-94) and now buried there on the backstretch, and also for the four Grade 1s and Eclipse Award of champion three-year-old filly Yanks Music in 1996.
The filly was the last good horse of O’Brien’s long career in racing, which falls neatly into the two complementary halves of jockey and trainer. He left Ireland for the US in the early 1960s and enjoyed plenty of success as a jump jockey, although not as much as younger brother Michael, who was champion over there until he was paralysed in a fall in 1974. Later the brothers returned to Ireland and set up the yard at Naas together before Leo went back to Belmont to train in 1981.
Michael, who died in 2011, trained the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup winner Bright Highway and three Irish Grand National winners, but Leo thrived on the flat. The ancient topic of sibling rivalry elicits laughter.
“Well, naturally I’d have to say I was the better jockey! No, we had very different styles. Michael was very strong and determined. He could read a race exceptionally well.
“As trainers, I think we were very equal. Michael had a tremendous eye for a horse. He was brilliant at producing a horse for a specific race and landing a gamble. I think my strength lay in my relationship with my horses. I really did see them as individuals, and could relate to them. I could settle tearaways and relax the nervous ones.
“The two brothers were quite different. Allstar was a better horse than Dave. He had the temperament of a classic horse, he was relaxed, but when asked to run had a tremendous burst of speed. I should have taken him to Royal Ascot as a four-year-old.
“Dave was nervous, a worrier, he needed a lot of attention. He was hard on himself, so you had to find the balance to keep him happy and fit. He loved to look out of the window and watch other horses and people.
“He may not have been as good or had as long a career with another type of trainer. He’d run his heart out every time, he ran as much on guts as talent, and without Dave I might never have had the confidence to take Allstar to Ireland.”
The past tense drifts seamlessly into the present. O’Brien’s son Keith now sustains the family name with half a dozen horses at Belmont, competing in an environment that his father recognises but does not relish. Old timers always reckon the old days were the best, but in O’Brien’s case there is a genuine sense of regret in the way that the nature of the sport has changed, with horsemen giving way to businessmen.
“When I came to the States the biggest outfits had no more than 35 horses: Greentree Stable, Main Chance Farm, Wheatley Stable, etc. The competition was fierce, with tremendous horsemen.
“Trainers were very hands-on, in the stall with a pitchfork, riding out. I don’t see that as much today, if at all. There are still some wonderful horsemen and riders but for me there is a certain pride in the animal that is missing. They are regarded as commodities and earners.
“I truly believe a key component of my success was in giving the horses time off. We let them be horses. I would send them to Ocala in Florida and turn them out for two months, then bring them back. They were sweeter and ready to return to training and racing.
“There was a time when you did the job because you loved it, loved the sport of horse racing. You were patient with horses because that is the right thing to do, to give them time. The expense of training now has pretty much eliminated a great deal of horsemen from the game and I don’t know if they will ever come back.
“Unless there are some significant changes within the structure of the game I worry about its future. I’ve spent my life in racing and I would love to see it return to a vibrant and viable way for everyone, big and small, to earn a living.”
The cloud hanging ominously over the future lingers for a moment before slowly dispersing in the enduring warmth of the sunshine of the past, of the unimprovable day 29 years ago when O’Brien’s pioneer spirit carved his name into the record books, where it still stands alone.
The answer to the final question comes swiftly, surely.
“Oh yes, it ranks as my favourite victory as a trainer. Look, Fourstardave’s victories at Saratoga are a cherished memory and Yanks Music was a wonderful filly, but come on, now. Fourstars Allstar is the one. It’s not often you can make history, is it?”