Raised on a farm in Southern Illinois, he was delivering newspapers on horseback at the age of 12. Born Oct. 25, 1920 in Taylorville, Illinois, George O’Bryan would go on to become an exercise boy, jockey and, by the 1950s, one of America’s top jockey agents, winning five Santa Anita Handicaps while representing legendary Hall of Fame riders such as Ralph Neves, Manual Ycaza, Donald Pierce and Laffit Pincay, Jr.
O’Bryan’s son, Craig, who won his first Big ’Cap as an agent in 2005 with Gary Stevens and Rock Hard Ten, currently represents Stevens, who will reunite with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man in the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 8.
“I was delivering newspapers for the Decatur Herald & Review,” recalled the man who came to be known on backstretches across America as “Black Heart,” in deference to his well documented ability to move competing riders off of horses in favor of his own. “I’d meet the Wabash train at 4 a.m. and they’d throw a couple bundles of papers out on their way through town. I had a good route, but in those days, we had to collect the money ourselves, on Fridays. Sometimes the people didn’t pay you, and I guess that kinda sharpened me up, because I had to pay for all the papers up front.”
O’Bryan would later apply those early capitalistic lessons when hustling mounts, including a very special one in advance of the 1957 Santa Anita Handicap.
“I met Ralph Neves when I was riding up at Longacres (near Seattle, Washington) in the mid-‘30s,” said O’Bryan. “Charlie Whittingham trained Corn Husker and he was assigned 105 pounds. He knew Ralph was real light. At the time he was doing 107. Anyway, we ended up on the horse and Ralph reduced and got down to 105 and we got the money.
“I had Ralph for five years and we won 200 races a year during that time. He had a fiery way about him, but he was very generous with me and my family. He staked us every Christmas.”
It would be the first of five Big ’Cap triumphs for O’Bryan as an agent, as he later won it in combination with Pierce, who rode Triple Bend to victory in 1972, and three times with Pincay, who won it in 1977 with Crystal Water, in ’79 with Affirmed and in 1981 with John Henry.
“It was the biggest race anywhere. A lot of people waited for the race and if they didn’t think their horse was good enough, they wouldn’t run. The first Big ’Cap that I remember being here for was when Stagehand beat Seabiscuit in 1938. Nick Wall rode Stagehand and he did 100 pounds. Seabiscuit had to carry 130.”
Does O’Bryan think racing would be better off if top horses were again required to carry such staggering imposts?
“I think it would be better for racing. A good horse oughta carry weight,” he said.
Although Seabiscuit was second in both 1937 and 1938, he came back to win the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap when again assigned 130 pounds.
“Seabiscuit was probably the best horse I ever saw. I saw him win five or six races in-a-row. Citation was probably the best young horse I ever saw.”
A nine-year stint with Ycaza produced many hundreds of winners, but the Big ’Cap eluded O’Bryan for 15 years, until Triple Bend in 1972 with Pierce.
“Don (Pierce) was a really good big-money rider and we got seven pounds that year from Cougar (II),” said O’Bryan. “Vance Longden trained Triple Bend and he got 119. He ran a terrific race that day and I remember Don said Vance was so nervous in the paddock he was shaking.”
Five years later, and teamed with Pincay, O’Bryan would win his third Big ’Cap – with California-bred Crystal Water.
“Mrs. (Connie) Ring bred him and she owned him. He was by Windy Sands, who stood at Mrs. Ring’s farm and he could really run. We also won the (Hollywood) Gold Cup with him that summer.”
In 1979, O’Bryan and Pincay scored with the great Affirmed, and it was O’Bryan and Pincay again in 1981, with the legendary gelding, John Henry.
“George was a great agent,” recalled Pincay. “I had my best year ever with him in 1979. I was the only jockey to ever be leading rider in one year at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. We won 420 races and I was the first jockey to win $8 million ($8,183,535) in one year.”
While summering at Del Mar, O’Bryan married his wife, Mercedes, on Sept. 5, 1948 in La Jolla and in addition to Craig, they have a daughter, Shannon.
“We moved around a lot. We were in New York, Chicago, Florida and up north. Craig’s a better agent than I was. I don’t know how much weight they’ll give Mucho Macho Man, but we’ll be rooting for him. We’ll be there for the Big ’Cap.”
And, 57 years after he won his first one, George O’Bryan, at 93, is hoping to be in the Santa Anita Winner’s Circle with Mucho Macho Man following the 77th running of the “Grand Daddy of Them All,” on March 8.
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