Racing royalty was in the Del Mar winner’s circle to crown the victors of the Pat O’Brien Stakes on Aug. 24.
Mavourneen “Baja” O’Brien - daughter of racetrack co-founder and actor Pat O’Brien — was on hand to present this year’s trophy to the connections of Catalina Cruiser. She was accompanied by her eldest son, Eric O’Brien Garten; godson Kris Alderton; Ivonne Klug; and her youngest son, Kurt A. Garten.
It’s an annual tradition for Mavourneen, 85, who was been congratulating race winners in the enclosure at Del Mar since 1941.
The O’Brien family has been involved with the racetrack from the beginning. Pat O’Brien - known for his roles in movies such as “Knute Rockne,” “The Fighting 69th” and “The Front Page” - was part of the founding board of directors, along with other well-known personalities such as Bing Crosby and William Quigley.
In 1937 - the year the track opened — the O’Briens took up residence in Del Mar. Mavourneen was the oldest of Pat and Eloise O’Brien’s children; there were also Sean, Terry and Brigid.
“If you can say ‘good morning,’ you can pronounce my name,” said Mavourneen, which means “my darling” in Gaelic.
They built a summer house on 28th Street, and their back patio faced the racetrack’s finish line.
“Jimmy Durante never missed a day at the races,” Mavourneen said, “but my father never missed a finish through his binoculars.”
The house guest list was a “who’s who” from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Crosby, James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, and Ronald and Jane Reagan. Activities included bonfires, weenie roasts, breakfasts on the beach, tidepooling and volleyball games. Evenings were often spent at the Turf Club or at the Del Mar Hotel (now L’Auberge).
As a teenager, Mavourneen was a ranked amateur tennis player, and often played in exhibition tournaments at the Del Mar Hotel. She said she played Maureen Connelly (“Little Mo”) several times, and “even beat her once.”
The O’Briens were also parishioners at St. James Church when it was in Del Mar. (It’s now in Solana Beach.) Mavourneen sang solo in the choir, and Pat was an altar boy.
The family’s summers in Del Mar ended in the mid-1950s, around the time Mavourneen went to college and the home was sold (and eventually torn down).
Mavourneen went on to graduate magna cum laude from Marymount College with a bachelor of science degree in music and a master of arts degree in education from Loyola University. She also holds a General Life Secondary Credential, Library Science Credential-CSLA.
Over the years, Mavourneen spent much of her time enriching people’s lives. She taught language arts and served as a volunteer English teacher; was a member of the Roger Wagner Chorale and sang in the Town Hall, Carnegie Hall (N.Y.); became a volunteer member of the Flying Samaritans; and was director of The Diamond Chorale of Rosarito Theatre Guild. Mavourneen also became a top fundraiser for the San Diego Area Chapter of the National MS Society, as she has been battling the disease since 1984; her son, Eric, has multiple sclerosis, as well. She participates in the three-day, 50-mile MS Challenge Walk, and this year’s event will be her 12th one.
Among the accolades Mavourneen has received is the Women’s International Center’s Living Legacy Award, presented to her in 2000.
These days, Mavourneen resides in Mexico, but she occasionally makes trips to Del Mar, and makes it a point to attend the day of the Pat O’Brien Stakes. This year, she met with family and friends in the Directors Lounge, where she was greeted by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Chief Executive Officer Joe Harper and a few “old timers.”
Just before the feature, she was escorted to the winner’s circle so she could watch the stakes race and then assist with the trophy presentation.
Among those who were with Mavourneen for most of the day was her friend Patty Fuller, who recalled their initial meeting.
“I first met Mavourneen in 1998 in the winner’s circle at the Pat O’Brien Handicap,” Fuller said. “I was covering the horse races for the Del Mar Times. I didn’t know who she was, but I walked up to this effervescent, smiling woman with blue eyes in the winner’s circle and said, ‘Why do I want to say my confession to you?’ She laughed and responded, ‘Well, Pat O’Brien was my father.’ ”