Racing has been extraordinarily kind to Cheryl and me and in many respects, to the broader Summerhill family. It has taken us to some extraordinary places and we have met some extraordinary people. Later this month, Professor Ian Sanne, Cheryl and I are on our way to address the Asian Racing Conference in Mumbai on, among the issues, South Africa's case for the easier facilitation of our export protocols. It's the biggest gathering of its kind in the world, better organised, as you might expect from Andrew Harding's Hong Kong-based team of executives, than any other; more riveting in its subject matter and more fascinating in its attendees than you can imagine.
The return to Mumbai reminds me of my debut presentation at the same conference the year after Nelson Mandela ascended to the South African "throne", when, among the lunch-time diners at the fabled Poonawalla Stud Farm in the neighbourhood of the former headquarters of the British Raj, I first met the man whom racing has anointed as the genius jockey of all generations. Lester Piggott rode his first winner three years after the end of World War II, aged 12, a feat which these days would result in the social services taking him into care. And the best of luck to them!
His career spans generations of racing fans; those aged 21, the year Lester opened his account on The Chase, would now be touching 90, while the 21 year olds around for his final British win are a mere 43. While his feats as a rider long ago passed into legend, and we'll be touching on some of them in future editions, there's little of moment that's happened in the world of European racing since his birth in 1936, that he doesn't know about, or more specifically, that he hasn't been associated with. Over the years, including his epic visit to Summerhill, I've gotten to know this enigmatic character as much as you can ever get to know him (he doesn't mind the description, by the way), most recently, at last year's Investec Derby where I was seated by "mine host", Anthony Cane, between him and Vincent O'Brien's charming widow, Jacqueline. Unsurprisingly we reminisced, as aging people do, and our reminiscences were devoted largely to the man who'd been central to the pinnacle at which Irish racing and breeding basks today.
The Bible tells us that "your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions," but neither, in their most fertile imaginings, could conceive of heights comparable to those scaled by Vincent O'Brien, the man for all seasons and the benchmark for every age. For more than 50 years, initially over the jumps and then on the Flat, he redefined forever the limits of possibility the racehorse could reach at the highest level. When he landed the Cheltenham Gold Cup with his very first runner in Britain, it was not the end, it wasn't even the beginning of the end. It was merely the end of the beginning. Cottage Rake was not a summit but a springboard, the pivot around which the sport of racing swung from the ancient to the modern.
O'Brien began his training career in wartime Ireland, little removed then from a third world country which, while free, was saddled with the economic legacy of a savage, centuries-long occupation. He retired as a trainer 25 years beyond the first moon landing, and through his championing of the Northern Dancer line, he reconstructed the building blocks of the modern thoroughbred. The harvest reaped these days by John Magnier and Aidan O'Brien is quite extraordinary, but the seed corn was drilled by the man who came to be known as Doctor O'Brien. What's more, he was the talismanic scaffold around which the restoration of Irish national pride and self-belief was erected. Being Irish, here was a man who was simply the best the world had ever known at what he did, and you wonder how many ponds of private Irish endeavour have had that pebble ripple through them. The extraordinary statistics of his career have been chewed over in columns beyond counting, but what was astounding about him, was that he never rested in his quest to raise his game, not only on the racecourse, but in modifying the make and shape of the thoroughbred breed through fresh infusions from across the Atlantic.
His three consecutive Grand Nationals with Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times in the mid "fifties", remain a more outstanding testament to his ability than the triple Gold Cup victories of Cottage Rake or the Champion Hurdle treble of Hatton's Grace. Great though both those latter feats were, they relied first and foremost on the brilliance of the individual horses themselves. But winning the Grand National with three different animals was of the "water-into-wine" variety, more so because the Aintree of those days was a fearsome circuit of huge, unyielding, upright fences with drops only lemmings would coach you on. If you televised a 1950s Grand National now, it wouldn't have an audience of 700million; truth is, it wouldn't have an audience at all, because no-one would dare show it for all its casualties and sadly, its fatalities. Yet three times on the bounce, O'Brien not only won it, he did it with different horses of different talents and different personalities.
But geldings being "geldings" (and all of these were), it was on the Flat that "VO'B's" gift to the game has proven imperishable, an influence even more profound than Tesio's piece of wood at the business end of the Epsom Derby, which O'Brien made his own six times. At the end of a different classic, the matchless film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman "but we'll always have Paris"; for those of us who've already entered the downhill slope, we'll always have Nijinsky, the last winner of England's Triple Crown, that template of equine excellence which, on the evidence since, looks unlikely to be worn again.
But if you want a vignette of Ballydoyle in full cry, look no further than the Derby victory of The Minstrel, the son of Northern Dancer who looked like he'd come out of a primary school drawing book, but who had the wherewithal to respond to a ride of unanswerable ferocity from Piggott, the supremely uncompromising sportsman on whom you could count to deliver the coup de grace with whatever bullet the trainer had loaded. No other racing double act, no alliance of different talents, has ever struck deeper fear among the hearts of their opponents, and folk were right to be afraid, very afraid, as they had about them in the pomp of their partnership, an aura that was a full-brother to the invincible. I'm reminded here of the days of Horse Chestnut, who for the first time in 30 years, destroyed a J&B Met field as a three year old; when his connections made their appearance in the oaken shadows of Kenilworth's parade ring, there was a swagger to the Mike de Kock-team that remains a hallmark of the way they go about their business to this day.
When Vincent O'Brien returned, as heroes should, to die in the spiritual home of his native land, his life had presided over unprecedented change. Today's Ireland is barely recognisable from the years "BC", Before Coolmore. A quiet man to the public eye, the diminutive giant had one of those faces, characteristically cocked to one side under his trademark fedora, that knew a thousand things, and might, just might, tell you about one of them. It was the vision of this man that was the nascent flame behind the Northern Dancer dynasty, his intuition that spawned the perpetual excellence of the strains of Sadler's Wells, Nijinsky and The Minstrel, Galileo, Montjeu and High Chaparral. And it was to his wisdom that we owe the magnificence of El Gran Senor and Try My Best, and the southern hemisphere's most influential son of Northern Dancer, Northern Guest.
Stop for a moment, and ask yourself as we so often have, what Summerhill and South African breeding would have been without Northern Guest, the world's winning-most broodmare sire of all time? And then ask yourself how appropriate it was that the good Doctor's final winner was a horse called Mysterious Ways: isn't that the way in which the good Lord moves, his wonders to perform?