Hand of the king who helped build an empire
BACK in the days when men were men and names were names, a seventh son was born to Dan O’Brien and his second wife Kathleen in rural North Cork.
Dan, a farmer with a permit to train racehorses, was a man of great vibrancy and he vibrantly named his latest arrival Alphonsus Septimus. The Septimus part had its origins in ancient Roman protocol for naming seventh sons and St Alphonsus was the name of the Limerick church where the lad was baptised.
Over time, young Alphonsus came to be known simply as “Phonsie” and with his older and less extravagantly named brother Vincent in the lead role, he became a strong candidate for an Oscar for best supporting actor in the epic that was Irish horseracing in the second half of the 20th century.
Phonsie died last month at the age of 86. Coming so soon after the death of his sister-in-law, Vincent’s wife Jacqueline, the fragile chain linking the industrialised modernisation of racing nowadays and the pioneering “horsy” genius of the likes of the O’Briens has been weakened a little more.
Phonsie was born and reared near the village of Churchtown — almost within sight of the birthplace of national hunt, where a wager between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake in 1752 to race their horses the four miles between the church steeples of Buttevant and Doneraile led ultimately to the sport of “steeple chasing”.
Although detailed records of his younger days are scant, it is not difficult to imagine it like a storyline in Alice Taylor’s To School Through the Fields. There is one tale recalling how on his second day in primary school Phonsie wept guiltily because he had shoes at a time when most of his classmates went barefoot. And although the daily Rosary and Mass were family rituals, Dan wisely gave his young sons an each-way chance in life by also teaching them to win at poker and to deal in horses.
As Vincent began to deepen his training operation at Churchtown from the mid-1940s, young Phonsie became an increasingly important cog in an ever-faster spinning wheel. His nephew, Charles O’Brien, (Vincent’s youngest son) recently recalled how his uncle was “a big part of my dad’s operation in the National Hunt years and rode many winners for him as an amateur. He was a very good trainer in his own right and specialised in the Galway Plate. He was a terrific man, a larger-than-life character and he’ll be missed by us all.”
This terrific man was at Vincent’s shoulder throughout all the early successes. His job description was loose, eclectic and diverse. Work rider, head lad, amateur jockey, mucker-out, vet, feeder and horse transporter. One of his more interesting assignments was to fetch a semi-crocked Cottage Rake from his vendor and tow him behind his pony and trap from Castletownroche to the stable in Churchtown.
Phonsie used the poteen he had “somehow come by” to massage The Rake’s rheumatoid shoulders and the treatment must have worked as the horse went on win three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups between 1948-50 and truly stamp the Cork O’Briens as a coming force in European racing.
Phonsie’s prominence as a leading amateur jockey grew proportionately to Vincent’s success. Working for a stable who famously used bookie’s satchels to fund its capital expenditure plans, he was a trusted ally in the saddle.
Vincent was originally reluctant to use him in point to points through fear of injury, but once he got going he began to add many elite victories to his provincial successes and even steered his brother’s Royal Tan to second behind Nickel Coin in the 1951 Aintree National.
He racked up several winners at the Cheltenham festival including four consecutive victories in the Gloucester (now Supreme Novice) Hurdle in the early 50s before eventually setting up to train horses in his own right in Carrick-on-Suir in 1956 and then later at Thomastown Stables in Cashel, now the home of the Tommy Stack operation.
By this time, his brother had long decamped across the Tipperary border to nourish his Ballydoyle empire and had switched almost totally from jumps to the flat. He had a two-year-old called Ballymoss in his stable that year who in time was to win the Irish Derby, St Leger, Coronation Cup, Eclipse, King George and Arc. After Ballymoss, everything was to change utterly. Nevertheless, while the days of poteen rubs and pony and trap transport were now firmly in the rearview mirror, Phonsie still had one more critical role to play before the Vincent O’Brien transformation was completed.
His days as a trainer are remembered mostly in their own right for Ballybritt successes and his four Galway Plates from 1962 to 1965. However, his most enduring and controversial impact came through his proxy preparation of the Irish Derby winner in 1960.
It is a story that has been often told. Chamour, a promising three-year-old colt trained by Vincent, wins a maiden at the Curragh. A miniscule grain of an amphetamine derivative called methyl amphetamine is detected in his sweat; the trainer is found guilty of doping and warned off. The horse, along with the rest of the Ballydoyle string, nominally transfers to Phonsie’s stewardship, wins the Derby, litigation follows, and Vincent is cleared to return to his job without a blemish on his character a year later.
So the record books still show the name AS O’Brien proudly stamped in history as both the champion and Derby winning trainer for 1960.
His nephew Charles’ affection for his uncle is readily shared by most who came across him, including some of those who knew him in the beginning. Chrissie O’Mahony, now a sprightly 87 years old and living as an emigrant in far-off Buttevant, was only a slip of a girl when she took a job as cook and housekeeper for the parish priest in Church town in 1950. “I remember the young Phonsie well,” she says. “He was a fine fella, gorgeous looking, always at the dances. Vincent would come around to eat at the priests’ house often and I used to cook for them. Father Savage was always complaining that he would never give him a tip. Totally different to Phonsie”.
In his later years, Phonsie O’Brien lived at Landscape Stud near Kilsheelan in Tipperary, immersed in thoroughbred racing to the end. His silent epitaph stands in his role as the ‘hand of the king’ to his brother while he created an empire in flat racing that still endures.
His visible memorials can be viewed all over his beloved North Cork. Like the statue of Cottage Rake on the N20 south of Charleville. Or the fine bronze statue of Nijinsky standing proudly at the crossroads at Churchtown.
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