By Colm Greaves
The three respectable looking couples arriving from Ireland for a Florida vacation would have glided unnoticed through immigration. Back then American border control agents approached their work with a lighter touch than they do these days and wouldn’t have realised that they were welcoming living legends to their shores.
The officials wouldn’t have known that the three gentlemen of the party were the gravitational centre of the wild west world of late 1970s Irish horseracing. Mayhem and mischief were on tour.
Barney Curley by then had ascended into punting folklore through his momentous Yellow Sam coup at Bellewstown a couple of years earlier and Sean Graham was already one of the nation’s most famed and fearless bookmakers.
The third wheel was Mick ‘MA’ O’Toole, who died recently at the age of 86.
Forty years ago, Mick was nearing the height of his success as a racehorse trainer, excelling both on the flat and over jumps. He’d travelled a long and winding road to get there, earning his living first as a butcher on the northside of Dublin before diversifying into buying and racing greyhounds.
However, an uncle of his, 'Rashers' Byrne, trained a few horses in the Phoenix Park and Mick, never a man to let a challenge remain uncontested, watched and learned and then decided he could do that too.
He and Barney had brought ten grand each with them to fund the entertainment on the Floridian holiday but by the end of day one both had blown their stash betting on horses that they’d never heard of at the local Hialeah racetrack.
Sean kindly advanced them another two thousand each to tide them over but when they quickly burned through the second tranche of cash his Northern prudency kicked in. He refused point blank to fund any more of their recklessness.
When the time came to check out from their hotel Mick and Barney agreed that it would be impolite to burden the busy folk at the front desk with tales of unlucky penury and instead exited quietly down the rear fire escape, deferring the bill payment until they had recovered some liquidity when they returned home.
O’Toole had enjoyed his trip so much that when he bought a Northfields yearling that year he called it Miami Springs after the hotel where they had stayed and ridden by Lester Piggott later broke the course record at the Phoenix Park and finished second in the historic Gimcrack Stakes at York.
This holiday episode is in microcosm how Mick O’Toole lived his life. On a broad spectrum of benign devilment and as a constantly warm presence at racecourses for six decades where he was universally embraced as horse racing’s most generous and avuncular uncle.
He thrived during the transitional years of the sport, before racing quietened many of its more interesting characters through endless digital scrutiny. He was around when there was still fun to be had, noise to be made, hell to be raised and audacious gambles to be landed.
By the mid-sixties he had healthily built his greyhound business at Ashtown near the Phoenix Part to 26 dogs and won an English Oaks at Harringay in 1965 with Marjone. A short time later he’d added a couple of horses to his growing empire and his first ever winner was illustrative of the random fearlessness that was to define his career for the next 30 years.
With his close friend, the bloodstock agent Jack Doyle, he’d bought a horse called Lintola without realising that the mare was not permitted to run in Irish handicap races under the rules that prevailed at that time. Undaunted, they found a race for her at Edinburgh (now Musselburgh) and busied themselves planning an off-course SP gamble. He later recalled that “she opened at 16-1 and if the start hadn't been delayed ten minutes that is what she'd have started at, but we weren't complaining with a starting price of 8-1. That Edinburgh win got plenty of publicity."
O’Toole had realised early in his horse training career that if he wanted to be the Emperor he had a better chance if he lived in Rome.
In 1968 he moved operations to a yard at Maddenstown on the Curragh and slept in an empty horse box for the next two years while amassing enough renovation money to make it a suitable home for his wife Una and young family.
One of his children later recalled proudly informing her teacher that her Dad, like Jesus, lived in a stable.
The litany of great racehorses trained by Mick O’Toole is long and varied. He was winning the Supreme Novices, Gold Cups, Arkle and Champion chases at Cheltenham around the same time he was winning classics and at Royal Ascot on the flat. At his height he trained over 100 horses and won a race at the Festival every year from 1975 to 81 during times when three Irish winners represented a successful week.
His greatest day in the Cotswolds came when Davy Lad outstayed Tied Cottage to win the 1977 Gold Cup, adding to his victory in the Sun Alliance Hurdle two years earlier.
Other highlights came when Chinrullah won his Arkle and Champion Chases (later disqualified for contaminated feed) and Hartstown landed a tasty gamble in the Supreme Novice Hurdle in 1981.
His best flat horse by far was Dickens Hill with whom he won the Irish 2000 Guineas and Eclipse stakes in 1979.
Unfortunately, he came up against the mighty Troy in the English and Irish Derbies in between these wins and this stalled a march to immortality.
O’Toole retired from training in 1997, long before he had to. He had enough self-awareness to recognise that there were other things in life than the perpetual early morning gallops slog. His final winner count stood at 800 including 56 in 1971, enough to be champion trainer that year.
Those ‘other things’ included lots of golf, family, racing and plotting the odd gamble.
A tale was told last week of how he was asked during a round of golf why he wasn’t attending the funeral of some old sparring partner who was being buried the same day. “Why should I?” he replied. “He won’t be coming to mine.”
But in the end, many, many people came to Mick O’Toole’s funeral. There were shaking heads and respectful chuckles as the eulogies recounted some hilarious tales from his life’s work.
And when the time came for his final check out this time he went proudly through the front door.