Wednesday 17 July 2019

Obituary: Jacqueline O'Brien

The wife of legendary horse trainer Vincent, she was also a talented author and photographer

RACY LADY: Mum-of-five Jacqueline was a source of great support for her famous husband, Vincent O’Brien
RACY LADY: Mum-of-five Jacqueline was a source of great support for her famous husband, Vincent O’Brien
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Although best known as the wife of legendary horse trainer, the late Vincent O'Brien, Jacqueline O'Brien was an accomplished photographer and writer in her own right.

Her lavishly-illustrated books include Ancient Ireland, Great Irish Houses and Castles, and Dublin: A Grand Tour (with Desmond Guinness). She also wrote the official autobiography of her husband, 'master' of world-famous Ballydoyle Stud in Co Tipperary and a partner, with their son-in-law John Magnier and businessman Robert Sangster, in the establishment of the even more famous Coolmore Stud.

At his side for nearly 60 years, she witnessed the disappointments and triumphs of his career, which included winning almost all the major horse races in Ireland and England, first as a national hunter trainer and later as the supreme practitioner of the 'sport of kings', flat racing.

Born Jacqueline Wittenoom in 1927 in Western Australia, she was the daughter of Charles Wittenoom, a well-known politician and MP and the grand-daughter of Edward Wittenoom, who's family had a town named after them.

Her last book, On We Go: the Wittenoom Way, has been hailed in Australia as a comprehensive social and cultural history of the area where she grew up.

After graduating from the University of Western Australia, Jacqueline went travelling in Europe and on a visit to Dublin was introduced to Michael Vincent O'Brien, then a young man with lofty ambition. He took her racing the following day and they were engaged to be married before she went home.

"My father bought a horse to get himself more votes, but it went around the course very fast and died of dope! He didn't like trainers and he thought they were all a bunch of crooks, so when I told him about Vincent at first, I said he was a farmer," she said later.

Ballydoyle, which would be her home for much of the rest of her life, was in fact little more than an ordinary farm when the newlywed O'Briens moved there after their wedding in 1951. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, quickly. They didn't have much money and worked hard on and off the farm. Jacqueline's job was sending a weekly letter to each of the stable's owners with a progress report on their horses, which made her proficient at writing.

She became an accidental photographer when she took over the job of photographing horses for the sales, something that had proved difficult as before that they had to send to Dublin for a professional. "I decided to get myself a Roloflex camera and at least I was on the spot when the sun came out," said Jacqueline. "So I started photographing the horses. I'd go to trainers' yards, and I loved doing that. I would meet the trainers and their wives and sometimes I would photograph the children. I really loved that; I got to know everybody."

Despite a growing family - the O'Briens had three more children, Jane, David and Charles - she always combined motherhood with working, both for her husband and pursuing her own passion for photography. Her husband's supreme confidence in his own ability never ceased to amaze her, especially in their early years. "He'd never even been to Cheltenham, he didn't even know where to stand to watch the race. It was quite extraordinary - Ireland at that time was a place where the English bought the horses; but the thought of a horse actually being trained here and brought over to England, to win their best races, was absolutely unheard of," she said in an interview.

"Another piece of great fortune in Vincent's life was marrying Jacqueline," said the great BBC racing commentator Sir Peter Sullevan. "She cannot be given enough credit for bringing up a lovely family and for sustaining her husband and looking after him absolutely brilliantly." She was particularly good at entertaining owners, allowing Vincent to concentrate fully on his horses. His final Group 1 winner, Fatherland in 1992, carried her colours to victory.

The O'Brien family were steeped in racing, with their eldest daughter Elizabeth marrying the film producer Kevin McClory, while Susan married John Magnier and Jane married Philip Myerscough.

Their two sons, Charles and David, followed in their father's footsteps as trainers. David famously won the Epsom Darby with Secreto in 1984, beating his father's horse El Gran Senor. He subsequently gave up training and retired to France to run a vineyard.

On Vincent's retirement the couple moved to a home in the K-Club and since his death, in 2009, at the age of 92, Jacqueline divided her time between homes in Ireland and Australia.

She died in Dublin last Tuesday, aged 89, and is survived by her children and her brothers, Bob and Richard. Her funeral mass took place in St Patrick's Church, Celbridge, Co Kildare yesterday.

Sunday Independent

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