Irish Olympic eventing rider and course designer Tommy Brennan has died at the age of 74 following a short illness.
Brennan was successful in both eventing and jumping, and went on to represent Ireland at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, finishing fourth in the eventing on Kilkenny, just outside the medals. The highlight of his career came in 1966 when he and Kilkenny were on the gold medal team alongside Virginia Freeman-Jackson (Sam Weller), Major Eddie Boylan (Durlas Eile), and Penny Moreton (Loughlin) at the FEI World Eventing Championships at Burghley (GBR).
Brennan was born in Kilkenny on January 29, 1940 and grew up on the family farm at Dunnamaggin, where his love of horses started at an early age. He hunted with the local Co Kilkenny Foxhounds every Saturday, learning the art of jumping big fences that would be so important in his later dual career in eventing and jumping.
After training in animal husbandry, he decided to further his equestrian and agricultural education by moving to Skiddoo Stud in Dublin. The youngster – “TB” as he was known to many – was given a key role in the operation and, not long afterwards, was running the stud and developing his famous partnership with Kilkenny.
After success at the 1966 World Championships, Kilkenny was sold to the USA where he was ridden to further success by Jimmy Wofford, including team gold at the 1967 Pan-American Games and team silver at both the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games.
Tommy Brennan was also instrumental in the early career of another great Irish-bred Olympic hero, the grey Ambassador, who went on to claim individual gold at the 1972 Games in Munich with the great Italian jumping rider Graziano Mancinelli.
In 1968, Brennan became the first Irishman to be selected to compete in two disciplines at one Olympic Games, when he was named for both the jumping and eventing teams travelling to Mexico. Sadly, one month before the Games, his jumping horse Tubber Mac broke a leg in a fall at the water at the Dublin Horse Show. Water played a major role in the cross-country at Mexico too, with torrential rain causing the river at the second last fence to burst its banks. Brennan and his horse March Hawk bravely jumped in but were swept downstream in the raging torrent. The horse could swim, but Brennan couldn’t and he only survived by clinging onto the saddle until he was hauled out of the water by the then FEI President, Prince Phillip.
Brennan notched up 67 international jumping wins, and also claimed nine Irish National Championships on nine different horses at the Royal Dublin Society, home of the Dublin Horse Show. But his talents were not just on horseback. He also used his creative and artistic talents to produce stunning cross-country courses around the world, drawing particular praise for his design of the European Championships course at Punchestown in Ireland in 1991 and 2003. He named the final fence on the 1991 course, “They will rise again”, a quote from the Book of Kells, the gloriously illuminated religious book widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure.
He helped countless riders over the years, particularly at junior and young rider level, and was also an inspirational chef d’equipe. Between 1981 and 1985, the Irish junior eventing team won a gold, two silver and a bronze with Brennan at the helm. He sometimes also took on chef d’équipe duties for the senior jumping squad, notably at the FEI Nations Cup in Linz, Austria, in 2007 when Ireland scored a hat-trick of wins that included Drammen, Norway, and Poznan in Poland.
In 1985 Tommy Brennan was awarded the FEI Gold Badge of Honour and in 1997 he was entered into the Irish Sports Council Hall of Fame for Services to Equestrian Sport.
“Tommy Brennan was a real character, a legendary producer of top horses and a very talented course designer,” FEI Eventing and Olympic Director Catrin Norinder said. “His designs for the European Championships in Punchestown were brilliant. He always had a story to tell, and his many talents will be sadly missed.”
He is survived by his sister Kathleen (O’Neill), brother Peter, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. A huge crowd attended his funeral mass on July 22, before his burial at Callan in his home county of Kilkenny.