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Racing legend O'Brien has left the most illustrious legacy of all

AS 2009 fades into the distance and as sporting accolades are dispensed right, left and centre, let's go a considerable distance further and acclaim the greatest sporting individual of our times, our generation.

Magnificent as they have been, I hesitate to place the laurel on the head of Brian 0'Driscoll, Padraig Harrington, Ronnie Delany, Christy Ring, Bob Tisdall, Pat 0'Callaghan, Mick 0'Connell, Jack 0'Shea, Jack Kyle, Aidan 0'Brien et al. No, my nomination is in a stellar class of his own. Someone which the 'Daily Telegraph' described as "widely regarded as the greatest racehorse trainer of all time".

He is, of course, Vincent 0'Brien. He was voted both the greatest National Hunt and Flat trainer of the 20th century, a combination that would be unimaginable today.

The quite revolutionary contribution made during his 52 years as a trainer (42 of those at the famed Ballydoyle) was to take Irish racing out of the doldrums and make it what it is today -- the top racing nation in, at least, Europe.

You see, only one horse from Ireland -- Orby -- had won the Epsom Derby and this was way back in 1907. Orby was owned by a suspicious character who had made his riches through the works and pomps of New York's Tammany Hall. His owner lived in Glencairn, afterwards the British Embassy, but the reigning monarch at Epsom, George V, decided to dispense with the usual custom and didn't invite the winning owner to the royal box.

So, for decades Irish horse racing was the very poor relation of the sport across the Irish Sea. The prize money was poor and the horses weren't very good either. But then along comes Vincent 0'Brien, providing an oasis in the desert.

And the basis of his success? Lester Piggott sums it up. He says: "Vincent's attention to detail was to be seen everywhere at Ballydoyle. He wanted to operate at the level where he could get to know each individual animal as closely as was humanly possible. Everything he did was geared to keeping his horses happy and relaxed at home, so that they would perform to their full potential on the racecourse -- the results speak for themselves"

And they sure do. His Cottage Rake won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times and, in between, he saddled three Grand National winners at Aintree. Then, remarkably, he switched his attention to the Flat and trained an extraordinary six Epsom Derby winners with, perhaps, Nijinsky considered one of the very best horses ever.

Then there was Sir Ivor, Sadler's Wells, Golden Fleece, The Minstrel, El Gran Senor and Ballymoss -- a veritable roster of horse racing's aristocracy.

And an invaluable contribution was Vincent's part, along with son-in-law John Magnier, in establishing the Coolmore stud, which is the most influential breeding centre in the world. It was there that they bred Nijinsky, a son of famous sire Northern Dancer.

Orby's success has faded into the dim and distant past, but the memories and feats of Vincent 0'Brien, who departed this world last June, will always be with us and have left us with the most illustrious sporting legacy of all.

Irish Independent