A STRAIGHT-TALKER for whom everything was black or white. That was Michael O’Brien.
The Naas-based trainer finally succumbed after a long fight with cancer on December 23rd in Tallaght Hospital, having fought many other health battles over the years. He was 68.
Born in Newcastle, Co Dublin, Michael followed his brother Leo into the Rathcoole stables of Tom Taaffe, father of successful riders Pat, Toss and Bill. Both men then decided to pursue their careers in America, and both were successful there.
During his time riding in the USA Michael was crowned champion steeplechase jockey, but this career was cut short during the 1974 Caroline Cup when he partnered the champion chaser, Athenian Idol, trained by Jonathan Sheppard. Following a fall during the race Michael was left paralyzed from the chest down, and confined to a wheelchair.
Though catastrophic, in many ways this life-changing accident made Michael more determined to succeed, and he returned to Ireland to pursue a career training, a sphere in which he was to make his mark. He was crowned champion trainer in 1982.
He returned to the USA in 1985 for a short spell, but came back to Ireland again and to more big-race success. Originally based at Rathbride Manor on the Curragh, he moved in the mid-eighties to Beechcourt Stables outside Naas.
One of the best horses trained by Michael was Bright Highway, one of just three horses to ever land the coveted Mackeson Gold Cup-Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup double in 1980. He was partnered to these successes as a mere six-year-old by Gerry Newman, and joined Bachelor’s Hall (1977) and Celestial Gold (2004) in having achieved that honour. Bright Highway was the ante-post favourite for the Gold Cup, but a tendon injury put paid to that hope.
Michael trained the winners of three Irish Grand Nationals, starting in 1982 with Russell ‘Rusty’ Carrier’s King Spruce, again ridden by Gerry Newman. That was a memorable weekend as the following day Aidan Comerford’s Sean Ogue, with Peter Walsh in the saddle, added the Power Gold Cup to the trainer’s roll of honour.
A decade later Vanton added another Irish Grand National to the CV when Jason Titley guided Noel McCabe’s son of Orchestra to victory, and the treble was brought up in 1999 when Glebe Lad, owned and bred by Tim Conroy, denied Feathered Leader to credit Tom Rudd with another big race success.
Shawiya, owned by Gervaise Maher and ridden by Charlie Swan, and J.P. McManus’ Kadoun, partnered by Tom Ryan, gave Michael his two Cheltenham Festival victories, in the 1993 Triumph Hurdle and the 2006 Pertemps Hurdle Final respectively.
Other big race wins included the 2000 Galway Plate with Dovaly, who beat Montys Pass. Michael also trained two winners of the Grade 1 Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle at Punchestown (Shawiya in 1993 and her half-brother Shaihar two years later), and the Grade 1 Fort Leney Novice Chase winner Forget The Past (later placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup).
More big-race wins came with the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase winner In Compliance, the Grade 1 Kerry Gold Medal Novice Chase winner Knife Edge, and the hugely versatile Pierse Hurdle and Irish Cesarewitch winner Essex. Other notable horses he trained included Chorelli and Tacroy.
Michael was the younger brother of Leo, himself a former steeplechase jockey in the USA and trainer of Group and Grade 1 performers, including the Irish 2000 Guineas winner Fourstars Allstar.
Michael was affectionately known as Ironside after the American television series of the same name that ran from 1967 to 1975. The show starred Raymond Burr as the wheelchair-bound chief detective, Robert T Ironside. Michael O’Brien handed over the reins at Beechcourt Stables in November 2009 to his son-in-law Denis Cullen, though he retained an active interest in the yard until his death.
He is survived by his devoted wife Ann (always called Annie), daughters Ann-Marie and Joann, sons-in-law Denis and Steve, grandchildren Annalise, Michael, Christopher and Leah, brothers, sisters and extended family and friends.
Happy anniversary for Nickname
IT was a race with no hiding place, and the latest renewal of the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase saw Martin Brassil’s hugely-talented Nickname register his biggest success since arriving in Ireland.
The seven-year-old burst on to the domestic scene when making a winning debut over fences here last year, and had since gone on to establish himself as a chaser of some substance. A two-time winner at the highest level in France, Nickname was making only his second foray into Grade 1 company in this country, and proved more than equal to the task.
Nickname and Central House jumped the last together, but the latter’s valiant effort took its toll and Niall Madden’s mount cleared away in fine style to run out a 14-length winner. “Niall did the right thing by sitting in and taking his time,’ Brassil reflected.
He added: “Nickname is a better and stronger horse this season. Niall said that he was always going well, and Nickname loves following horses. He said the more he took the horse back the more he wanted to pick the other up.”
The prospect of a tilt at the Queen Mother Champion Chase was not ruled out by Brassil, but he underlined the importance of suitable conditions for the son of Lost World. “He will be entered for the Queen Mother, but there would need to be a good cut in the ground if we were to consider Cheltenham.
“He’s shown here and in the Fortria at Navan that he can beat some of the best two-milers in this country, but how he would fit in with some of the English chasers is another matter.”
[Nickname went on to win five of his seven subsequent starts, and did not make it to Cheltenham for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He won the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase at Fairyhouse by 15 lengths from Justified, had seven lengths to spare over Central House in the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown, slammed Gemini Lucy by a dozen lengths in the Grade 2 Newlands Chase at Naas, and ended the 2006-07 season with a 13-length win over Central House again in the Grade 3 An Uaimh Chase at Navan.
Beaten a length by Mansony as he attempted to retain his Grade 1 Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase crown on his seasonal reappearance, he beat the Gold Cup winner Kicking King in the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase, run at Gowran Park.
Nickname, unusually for a chaser these days in Ireland and Britain, was a full horse and he went to stud at Haras de Victot in 2009 at a fee of €2,500 and managed three seasons before his untimely death. We have many reasons now to regret his short stud career, which in those three seasons resulted in 185 foals.
His first crop included the French Grade 1 winning four-year-old chaser Royale Flag, dual Grade 2 winning chaser Le Mercurey, the French Grade 2 winning chaser As D’Estruval, the good hurdler and Grade 3 winning chaser at the Cheltenham Festival Yala Enki, the hugely-talented Aurore D’Estruval who was runner-up in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, and listed winners Mon Nickson and Red Name.
Members of his second crop did not quite scale the same heights, but still produced the Alan Fleming-trained Grade 2 winning juvenile hurdler Gwencily Berbas, French Grade 3 winning hurdler and chaser Corscia, and the listed winners Fyrmyin, Bebel, Nicknos and Vintage.
All that was missing from the first two crops was a Grade 1 winner. Well, incredibly, Nickname sired just two blacktype winners in his third and final crop, and both won at Grade 1 level.
Cyrname did so when he won the Ascot Chase, but his exploits have been completely overshadowed by those of Frodon, winner of the Grade 1 King George VI Chase, the Grade 1 Kauto Star Champion Chase at Down Royal, and the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham]