Three of Irish horse racing's biggest boardroom controversies

As Gordon Elliott awaits his fate from an IHRB committee, Colm Greaves looks back at three major controversies that rocked racing in decades gone by
Three of Irish horse racing's biggest boardroom controversies

Legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien with Nijinsky in the background, circa 1970. Photo by Chris Smith/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Vincent O’Brien ‘warned off’ 

In May 1960, Vincent O’Brien received a letter from the Irish Turf Club informing him that a recent runner at the Curragh, his 3-year-old colt Chamour, had tested positive for a banned stimulant. O’Brien, already a national treasure, was both perplexed and horrified. 

Despite an absence of any credible evidence, he was found guilty at the subsequent hearing and his license to train horses was withdrawn for 18 months. This meant he was banned from entry to any racecourse or stable which effectively made him homeless and forced to rely on the kindness of others. 

Chamour subsequently won the Gladness Stakes and followed up in the Derby setting off jubilant chants of support from his fans at the racecourse. Meanwhile, heavy-hitting legal and scientific friends of his stable began to circle around the Turf Club’s porous conclusion. 

O’Brien was advised that he had no other option than to sue the disciplinary stewards for libel and they soon caved. The case was settled on the steps of the High Court in July 1961, costs were awarded to O’Brien who charitably waived his damages. 

Two years later, O’Brien trained his first Epsom Derby winner with Larkspur and the rest is history.

A two-fingered tribute

Twenty years after his vindication in the Chamour case, O’Brien and the Robert Sangster racing/breeding syndicate were dominant in European flat racing. But 1981 got off to a bad start when a disgruntled employee chopped the mane and tail from Storm Bird, unbeaten at two and winter favourite for the 2000 Guineas and Derby. 

Storm Bird was never mentally right after the attack and was substituted by Kings Lake in the Irish Guineas, where he met English raider To-Agori-Mou, impressive winner of the English equivalent at Newmarket. Kings Lake, ridden by Pat Eddery, prevailed by a neck after a barging match in the straight but the result was reversed after a stewards’ inquiry. 

O’Brien, untypically, appealed the verdict and a few weeks later his colt was reinstated as the winner. This went down very badly in the British press who put it down to home team bias and the issue attained national significance during the hunger strike summer. 

When the two colts met again in the James’ Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot the tension was off the scale. To-Agori-Mou won by a neck and Pat Eddery was never quite sure if the two fingers Greville Starkey raised at the finish line were directed at him or somewhere else. 

Storm Bird happily had a huge career at stud where he sired Storm Cat, one of the most influential stallions of the last century.

Not without my jockey

Few in the history of Irish horse racing are ever less likely to call a spade a shovel than Jim Bolger. Fearless and clinically incapable of fudge, he has battled racing institutions on points of principle and fact from the outset of his career. 

In 1992, two weeks before the Irish Derby in which his colt St Jovite was set for a highly anticipated rematch with his Epsom conqueror Dr Devious, his jockey Christy Roche was suspended for 15 days for an incident at Naas. 

Bolger indicated that “both he and the owner were reluctant to run St Jovite without Christy Roche in the saddle”. This was widely misconstrued as an attempt to influence the authorities but after some date machination over the appeal, Roche became available to ride and St Jovite duly demolished Dr Devious by twelve lengths in a course record. 

Speaking after the race Bolger again stated that he saw Roche “as part of the horse” which was again misinterpreted as an attempt to influence the rescheduled appeal hearing which was likely to force Roche from the saddle in his next target, the King George at Ascot. 

Roche lost his appeal at the Turf Club, took the case to the High Court, and then lost again after an expensive three-day hearing. Stephen Craine took the winning ride at Ascot.

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