How the First Lady of Irish racing did things ‘the Wittenoom Way’, writes Colm Greaves
The life arc of the small mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia lasted about 100 years or so. Lying a remote thousand kilometres north of Perth, there had long been pastoral farming in this bleak and lonely outpost on the edge of the back of beyond, but the discovery of blue asbestos in 1917 was the turning point in its history, and eventually a town formed to support this new mining opportunity.
The town had been named in honour of a prominent Western Australian family who were business and political leaders in the area. These Wittenooms were tough guys — full of character and courage, who built a strong legacy by working hard in a hostile part of the planet where few sensible human beings would ever choose to live. In 1900, one of them, Sir Edward Wittenoom was the last man ever knighted by Queen Victoria. Sir Edward survived until 1934, which meant he would have been around when his son Charles and his wife produced a granddaughter in 1927.
This same granddaughter, Jacqueline Wittenoom, passed away in March this year in Dublin in her 90th year. Her death came amid all the Cheltenham hysteria and celebrations of her quiet but crucial 60-year role in the development of the Irish horse-racing industry was somewhat drowned by the loud Cotswold hubbub.
For most of those six decades she was generally known as ‘Mrs Vincent O’Brien,’ widely acknowledged as the perfect foil for a man whose genius with horses transformed a run of the mill Tipperary farm into the enduring legend that is Ballydoyle, and whose business acumen helped drive the conception, design and realistion of the Coolmore breeding empire.
Jacqueline walked almost every yard of the journey by his shoulder. As Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of HRI put it: “She was much more than just the wife of Vincent O’Brien, in her own right she was a fantastic lady — a very talented photographer, very talented fundraiser, philanthropist, and a key member of the Ballydoyle team through the golden years.”
Jacqueline herself presented a typically modest perspective on her role: “I was no help to Vincent with the horses: I never knew about a horse’s conformation. I learnt a little about pedigrees but I was able to cope with the secretarial work and, being a politician’s daughter, I suppose I was able to help with people. Vincent used me as a sounding board for his planning.”
This self-deprecation greatly underplays her importance to the operation, as well as her calm strength and resolution during times of triumph and disaster.
Armed with an economics degree from the University of Western Australia, Jacqueline first visited Ireland in the late 1940s. She met Vincent through some mutual friends, married him in 1951 and set up home in Tipperary.
By this stage, O’Brien was already harvesting Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles, three Grand Nationals were soon to follow and by the end of the decade he was just completing his transformation from successful jumps trainer into Europe’s premier flat powerhouse when disaster struck.
All that outback Wittenoom grit and steel would need to be summoned into action.
Chamour, a promising three-year-old colt, part owned by Jacqueline, won an ordinary maiden at The Curragh in April 1960. Three weeks later a letter arrived at Ballydoyle from the Irish Turf Club informing the trainer that one 10,000th of a grain of a substance ‘resembling’ methamphetamine had been detected in a sample of the horse’s sweat. The darkest year in the professional lives of Jacqueline and Vincent O’Brien had begun. Suspecting that the horse may have been ‘got at’ while under the supervision of the Turf Club at the racecourse, O’Brien vigorously defended his hard- earned integrity but resistance initially proved futile and was he found guilty — a verdict that effectively concluded that the trainer had drugged the horse. Put another way: The fabled national treasure and sporting icon MV O’Brien had been publicly branded as a cheater.
Jacqueline was livid. “The most shattering blow was that he was convicted under rule 178. The Irish stewards had discretion and no evidence was ever heard that indicated that any blame attached to Vincent apart from his responsibility as a trainer.”
Forced by the verdict to live away from their stable and home, with four young children in tow, the O’Brien’s lived a nomadic life for a while until eventually allowed to return under the strict provision that Vincent went nowhere near his horses, temporarily under the care of his brother, Phonsie.
The fightback now started it earnest. Chamour won the Gallinule Stakes next time out, leading to almost riotous scenes at the Curragh when thousands of angry racegoers surrounded the weigh room chanting ‘we want Vincent.’ Galvanised by this show of public affection, the O’Briens pulled in all the scientific and legal contacts they could muster, eventually wore down the opposition and regained their training licence.
Vincent then sued for libel against the original verdict and the Turf Club settled on the steps of the High Court.
With her husband’s good name restored, and with three decades of flat racing triumphs to come, Jacqueline O’Brien gradually asserted her own intellectual identity that was very separate to the supportive role she had originally adopted on her marriage in Ireland.
A stumble into photography became a lifelong passion and she became and architectural and social historian of some note.
Married to an introvert who often preferred his own company at dinner to the chaos of post-race victory parties, Jacqueline became more and more important to her husband as the public front of Ballydoyle, especially as success grew to unimagined levels. His son David explained his father’s perfectionism and reluctance to praise others. “Simple. It’s because he never said well done to himself.”
While undoubtedly true, it is hard to believe he never looked warmly across the breakfast table a couple of times over six decades and thought, silently at least, how fortunate he was to have met and married such a wonderful woman.
The last book Jacqueline produced was a much acclaimed cultural history of her birth area called “On We Go: the Wittenoom Way.” It charts how mining asbestos gradually poisoned the town, which was eventually closed down three years before her death. Only six people officially live there now. Like the Ballydoyle/Coolmore story, it is a tale of vision and growth – with a strong sprinkling of Western Australian grit.
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