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Sunday, 20 January, 2019

A man who lit up the sport with his Cheltenham raids and colourful personality

Mick O'Toole with trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Paul Townend after Al Boum Photo's win at last year's Fairyhouse Easter festival
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Mick O'Toole, who has died at the age of 86, was a leading dual-purpose trainer and one of the most colourful personalities in Irish racing in the second half of the 20th century.

Transferring early success as a handler of greyhounds to the training of racehorses, he rose from modest beginnings in the 1960s to achieve top-level success on the Flat and to become one of the central figures in Irish raids on the Cheltenham Festival in the 1970s.

In 1977 Davy Lad, ridden by his great ally Dessie Hughes, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Two years later O'Toole enjoyed his finest hour on the Flat when Dickens Hill won the Irish 2,000 Guineas under Tony Murray.

Davy Lad gave O'Toole the first of eight Cheltenham Festival wins in the 1975 Sun Alliance Hurdle, a tally that would have been nine but for the disqualification of Chinrullah, who tested positive as a consequence of feed contamination following his victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1980.

O'Toole also enjoyed Royal Ascot success with Balios in the 1972 Ascot Stakes and Faliraki in the Norfolk Stakes in 1975. He recorded his most important Flat win in Britain with Dickens Hill in the Eclipse in 1979.

O'Toole was champion trainer in Ireland by races won (56) in 1971 and compiled a formidable record of important wins on the Flat and over jumps. Yet no list of races won could do justice to an inimitable character who inspired a rare unanimity of affection on the Irish scene. He was respected too, as a shrewd and audacious trainer whose tilts at the betting ring were the stuff of legend.

He possessed an engaging personality rooted in a natural and unaffected charm. He had a terrific sense of fun and an immense appetite for living life to the full, all wrapped up in a basic decency and generosity of spirit. He was always the same gregarious 'Micko', whether ambling his way through the betting ring at an Irish racecourse or seated for a lavish dinner with the rich and famous. He enjoyed his triumphs and shrugged off his reverses with cheerful equanimity.

Born in Dublin in 1931, O'Toole developed a boyhood interest in greyhounds in the company of his maternal uncles, the Byrne brothers.

The young O'Toole first made the news in a report on the front page of the Irish Independent on Thursday, July 9, 1936. The headline read: “Boy Buys Greyhound”. The story told how the four-year-old Michael O'Toole had made a bid of "a pound" for a dog named Fleeting Joe at the Harold's Cross sales. There being no other bid the auctioneer paid for the animal on the youngster's behalf.

Almost 30 years later O'Toole made his mark on the British and Irish greyhound scene, sending over Marjone to capture the 1965 Oaks at Harringay.

Later that year, the proceeds of the Classic success allowed him to buy his first racehorse, embarking on the venture with the help of a similarly charismatic legend of Irish racing, bloodstock agent Jack Doyle.

The filly in question, Lintola, was not qualified for Irish handicaps and British bookmakers got an early taste of O'Toole's sense of adventure when she was a gambled-on winner at Edinburgh [now Musselburgh] in April 1966.

Prolific winner Lake Shore Drive helped to put O'Toole on the training map. In typically flamboyant fashion he described her winning streak as "a licence to print money".

Training initially on the open ground of Dublin's Phoenix Park, it was through his uncle Mick Byrne that O'Toole came in contact with Dessie Hughes, then a journeyman jockey who had struggled to make a living in Britain.

Hughes suffered serious injuries in a fall at Wolverhampton in March 1966. He spent three months in hospitals in Britain before returning to his native Dublin to complete his recovery.

Returning to fitness, he started working for Byrne before teaming up with O'Toole, who soon moved his burgeoning operation to Maddenstown on the Curragh. There Hughes effectively became assistant trainer and embarked on a magnificent late-blossoming riding career.

O'Toole's first major victory came in 1969 when St Sebastian landed the Irish Cesarewitch at 100-8 under lightweight jockey John Murtagh. In 1970 Murtagh was also aboard when Mighty Quin, another 100-8 chance and carrying only 7st 6lb, won the Irish Cambridgeshire for Joe Lewis, who would later become a leading figure in international currency trading and major backer of Tottenham Hotspur.

His effective targeting of major Irish Flat handicaps was underlined when Solo Venture, carrying the colours of his wife Una, won the Rockingham Handicap in 1975 and 1976.

Dickens Hill, a 1976 foal by Mount Hagen, brought O'Toole's career to a new level. Owned by Louise Binet, the 34,000gns Houghton sale purchase quickly developed into a smart two-year-old, winning the Anglesey Stakes before finishing a head second to Tap On Wood in the National Stakes. He then dead-heated for second behind comfortable winner Irish River in the Grand Criterium at Longchamp.

Second in the 7f Vauxhall Trial at Phoenix Park on his first outing at three, Dickens Hill moved up to 1m2f to win the Ballymoss Stakes at the Curragh before O'Toole dropped him back in trip to land the Irish 2,000 Guineas by four lengths from rank outsider Brother Philips despite demonstrating the awkward head-carriage that was a peculiar trait in such a tough and resolute performer.

No match for the brilliant Troy in the Derby, and again trounced by the Dick Hern-trained star in the Irish Derby, Dickens Hill gave O'Toole another of his greatest days when beating Crimson Beau in the Eclipse. He was due to run in the Arc but missed the race having been found to be suffering from a respiratory infection following a poor showing in the Joe McGrath Memorial Stakes at Leopardstown in September. He left Maddenstown and was sent to the United States where he failed to recapture form in two races at four.

Davy Lad, bought by O'Toole for 5,000gns at Goffs as a three-year-old, came to prominence at Cheltenham in 1975, vindicating O'Toole's massive confidence in winning the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle under Hughes in virtually unraceable conditions.

The growing influence of the O'Toole/Hughes alliance on the domestic scene was underlined by the victory of Our Albert in the 1975 Galway Plate. In 1976 O'Toole and Hughes combined to win the Sun Alliance Hurdle with Parkhill, in the Davy Lad colours of Anne-Marie McGowan, and doubled up when Bit Of A Jig landed a gamble in the Lloyds Bank Hurdle (Stayers' Hurdle).

O'Toole and his gambling associates suffered a major reverse on the opening day of the 1977 festival when the Ted Walsh-partnered Mount Prague, backed as if defeat was out of the question and later described by the trainer as "the biggest certainty I ever sent to Cheltenham", exited at the 16th fence in the National Hunt Chase.

On the following day O'Toole saddled the easy-to-back Mac's Chariot to win the Lloyds Bank Champion Novice Hurdle in comfortable fashion, and on the final day of the meeting Davy Lad won an eventful edition of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Irish punters had weighed in behind the relatively inexperienced Bannow Rambler, who was brought down when the home team's leading hope Lanzarote slipped up, incurring a fatal injury. Summerville then broke down when apparently going best, leaving Davy Lad to win by six lengths from fellow Irish raider Tied Cottage.

Davy Lad (right) and Dessie Hughes win the 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup from Tied Cottage and Summerville

Before Christmas 1976 O'Toole had £500 on Davy Lad at 50-1 for the Gold Cup. He also took a punt on the massive odds offered about a Gold Cup/Grand National double, a dream that ended with the gelding's exit at the third fence at Aintree.

In 1978 the victory of Gay Tie under John Fowler in the National Hunt Chase made some amends for Mount Prague's expensive exit in the race 12 months previously. On this occasion the four-mile contest was again the medium of a colossal Irish gamble, undone by the departure of the JP McManus-owned Jack Of Trumps at the 17th.

The 1979 Cheltenham Festival also saw Hughes combine with O'Toole to win the Arkle Trophy with Chinrullah, adding to his victory in the Irish equivalent. Twelve months later Chinrullah won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. When he was stripped of the race after testing positive for theobromine – for which the feed supplier admitted responsibility – he reacted with characteristic nonchalance.

Chinrullah's major wins also included the 1978 Sweeps Hurdle. Two years later O'Toole brought off a terrific coup with Carrig Willy in the big Leopardstown handicap, then one of the highlights of the winter season. He was returned at 33-1, with O'Toole having backed him over breakfast at Maddenstown at 40-1 with Mike Dillon of Ladbrokes. "Bacon and eggs don't come cheap on the Curragh," was the trainer's immortal post-race remark.

By the time of the 1981 Cheltenham Festival O'Toole's former ally Hughes was a rival trainer. The pair went head to head in the Waterford Crystal Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which produced a frenetic battle for favouritism between the O'Toole-trained Hartstown and the Hughes runner Another Story. The old maestro triumphed, with Hartstown winning under Niall Madden in the colours of Joe McGowan and Another Story finishing out of the money.

Madden also rode Bustineto to win the BMW Champion Novice Hurdle and the Champion Juvenile Hurdle at Punchestown in 1982.

O'Toole failed to add to his Cheltenham tally after 1981. Although the glory days were nearly at an end he brought off another fine training feat in Britain with the victory of Quilted, partnered by Billy Newnes, in the Princess of Wales's Stakes at Newmarket in 1983.

He continued to be a force in the big Irish Flat handicaps, winning the Irish Cesarewitch with Jean-Claude in 1984 and the Irish Cambridgeshire with Smoggy Spray, ridden by 16-year-old apprentice Richard Hughes, son of his old ally Dessie, in 1989.

O'Toole gradually scaled down his operation in the 1990s. Magic Million was his last major winner in the 1993 Fortria Chase and he saddled his final winner in 1996. However, he never lost his unbridled enthusiasm for the game, remaining a familiar face at the track in winter and summer.

In recent years his name resurfaced in the press in connection with the Willie Mullins-trained pair Melon and Al Boum Photo, horses owned by Marie Donnelly, wife of former bookmaker Joe Donnelly, for whom he acted as an informal racing manager, a role he embraced with a typical mix of wit, self-deprecation and jovial mischief.

O'Toole enjoyed a near 60-year marriage with his wife Una, whose unwavering support through the good times and leaner years was the bedrock of his remarkable life. He is survived by Una and their two children of whom he was immensely proud for the way in which they carved out independent careers within racing, Margaret (Mags) as an astute and much-respected bloodstock agent and Ciaran as a prominent jockeys' agent following a successful spell as an amateur rider.


Born Dublin, September 18, 1931

Biggest winner as greyhound trainer Marjone (1965 Oaks)

Stables as racehorse trainer Phoenix Park, Dublin 1966-68; Maddenstown, Curragh, Kildare 1968-96

First winner Lintola, Edinburgh, April 18, 1966

Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Davy Lad (1977)

Classic winner Dickens Hill (1979 Irish 2,000 Guineas)

Eclipse Stakes winner Dickens Hill (1979)

Other Cheltenham Festival winners Davy Lad (1975 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle), Parkhill (1976 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle), Bit Of A Jig (1976 Lloyds Bank (Stayers') Hurdle), Mac's Chariot (1977 Champion Novices' Hurdle), Gay Tie (1978 National Hunt Chase), Chinrullah (1979 Arkle Chase), Hartstown (1981 Supreme Novices' Hurdle). Also Chinrullah disqualified in 1980 Queen Mother Champion Chase

Sweeps Hurdle winners Chinrullah (1978), Carrig Willy (1980)

Champion Novice & Champion 4-Y-O Hurdle winner Bustineto (1982)

Galway Plate winner Our Albert (1975)

Other Group winners Faliraki (1975 Norfolk Stakes), Noiritza (1977 National Stakes, Sandown), Dickens Hill (1978 Anglesey Stakes, 1979 Ballymoss Stakes), Quilted (1983 Princess of Wales's Stakes), Hegemony (1984 2,000 Guineas Trial)

Other big winners over jumps Alaska Fort (1972 Guinness Chase), Grand Lachine (1973 & 1974 Irish Distillers/ Huzzar Hurdle), Our Albert (1975 Guinness Chase), Davy Lad (1975 Wetherby Pattern Chase, 1976 Free Handicap Chase), Chinrullah (1979 Irish Arkle Chase), Kilkilwell (1980 Leopardstown Chase), Carrig Willy (1980 Morgiana Hurdle), Passing Parade (1981 Panama Cigar Hurdle Final), Magic Million (1993 Fortria Chase)

Other big winners on Flat St Sebastian (1969 Irish Cesarewitch), Mighty Quin (1970 Irish Cambridgeshire), Balios (1972 Ascot Stakes), Miami Springs (1979 Matt Gallagher Sprint Stakes), Jean-Claude (1984 Irish Cesarewitch), Caparison (1985 Gladness Stakes), Smoggy Spray (1989 Irish Cambridgeshire)

Derby & Irish Derby runner-up Dickens Hill (1979)

Leading trainer in Ireland (races won) 1971 (56 wins)

Last winner Entertainment, Thurles, February 29, 1996

Compiled by John Randall

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No list of races won could do justice to an inimitable character who inspired a rare unanimity of affection on the Irish scene

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M A O'Toole
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