Chryss Goulandris, racing breeder whose horses won the Arc de Triomphe and the ‘French Derby’ – obituary

Her racing activities continued smoothly despite the financial downfall of her husband, Sir Tony O’Reilly

Chryss Goulandris in 2007
Chryss Goulandris in 2007 Credit: Trevor Jones/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Chryss Goulandris, Lady O’Reilly,who has died aged 73, was a prominent figure in the racing world in these islands and in France; in 2021 the French horse-racing newspaper Jour de Galop described her as “one of the great breeders of our time”. She was the wife of Sir Anthony O’Reilly, the Irish businessman and former proprietor of The Independent newspaper in Britain.

Among the top-level horses she bred were Helissio, the winner of the 1996 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Latice, winner of the Prix de Diane (the “French Oaks”) in 2004, and Lawman, which won the 2007 Prix du Jockey Club (the “French Derby”).

As chairwoman of Ireland’s National Stud, she hosted Queen Elizabeth on one of the most personally congenial engagements of her historic State visit to the Republic in 2011; most of the Queen’s previous contacts with the Republic had been with its racing fraternity, who had whetted her enthusiasm to visit their homeland.

“There was a touch of the garden party about the proceedings,” reported The Irish Times, “as Lady O’Reilly, dressed in a fetching silk linen taupe and cream skirt with matching hat and practical flat shoes, escorted the Queen.” It helped that the two ladies were long acquainted through the racing world.

Chryss Goulandris, with her husband, is presented with the winner's trophy by Sheikh Mohammed after victory with Bluemamba in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches at Longchamp in 2000 Credit: Trevor Jones/Popperfoto

Chryssanthie Jane Goulandris was born in New York on June 27 1950, the eldest of two children of a marriage between the scions of two of the major Greek ship-owning families; her mother was a Lemos. Although strong links were maintained with Greece, even after her father’s early death, her upbringing was essentially cosmopolitan. She was educated at schools in New York and Switzerland before studying fine arts at the Sorbonne.

An uncle left her Haras de la Louvière, a stud farm near Deauville in Normandy where she bred racing horses. It was in New York in 1989 that she met Tony O’Reilly, who had been a noted rugby union international in his youth and was then the high-performing chief executive of the Heinz Corporation in Pittsburgh; his first marriage had ended in divorce a few years before. He married Chryss Goulandris in the Bahamas in 1991.

Her understated, self-effacing charm and thoughtfulness contrasted with and complemented her husband’s flamboyance. A few years after their marriage, as a token of his affection, he bought her the engagement ring given to Jacqueline Kennedy by her second husband, Aristotle Onassis; it was knocked down for two and a half million dollars at an auction in New York.

Chryss Goulandris in 2007 with Chinese White and jockey Pat Smullen after victory in the EBF Maiden Stakes at Leopardstown Credit: Trevor Jones/Popperfoto

The new Mrs O’Reilly involved herself in Irish racing, establishing a stud farm at Castlemartin in Co Kildare, her husband’s main residence. She was appointed to the board of the Irish National Stud in 1993 and was its chairwoman from 1998 until 2012.

She cemented her position among the close-knit racing fraternity early on when she joined with trainers and racecourse owners in their campaign to curtail the control that the once exclusively patrician Turf Club exercised over Irish racing.

Her own horses competed on Irish courses with jockeys wearing black and white stripes akin to the rugby jerseys of Belvedere College in Dublin where Tony O’Reilly had been a pupil. “They look a bit like convicts,” she joked.

Her younger brother Peter became an investor in Tony O’Reilly’s commercial ventures in Ireland, including the Waterford Glass company acquired from its founding McGrath family. Waterford took over the old Wedgwood pottery business in Britain, whose products appealed to Chryss O’Reilly’s aesthetic sense.

Her American connections were valuable to the Ireland Fund, which had been founded by her husband to divert American beneficence for “the old country” to more constructive purposes than the promotion of republican violence. It was for this that O’Reilly was knighted in 2001.

Their home at Castlemartin was one of the most hospitable in Ireland, Chryss O’Reilly greeting guests with her winning smile. The O’Reillys were major patrons of the Wexford Opera Festival, and also assisted the actor Paul Newman in founding Barretstown, a camp for seriously ill children, in 1994.

In the new century, O’Reilly’s business empire came unstuck. Waterford Wedgwood fell victim to changing tastes and the business was forced into receivership in 2008, but not before it had absorbed much of O’Reilly’s capital and a substantial rescue investment made by Peter Goulandris.

Chryss Goulandris being presented with the winner's trophy for the EBF Maiden Stakes in 2007 Credit: Trevor Jones/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The crash of 2008 undermined O’Reilly’s Independent Newspaper Group, forcing the sale of the London Independent. After a costly battle, he was ousted as controlling shareholder and chief executive. He was heavily indebted and creditors forced the sale of Castlemartin and its stud farm, ultimately pursuing him into bankruptcy in 2015.

Chryss O’Reilly’s racing activities went on smoothly regardless of reverses in her husband’s fortunes. They lived quietly, moving between her houses in New York, the Bahamas, Deauville and a stud farm she had acquired in Kildare.

The victory of her horse Voleuse De Coeurs in the Irish St Leger of 2013 was one of many wins. Modest in victory, she remained gracious in adversity: “She was,” recalled one associate, “a fantastic person when you had to give her bad news.”

Smoking was a lifelong addiction. Chryss Goulandris had suffered from cancer in recent years but had responded well to treatment; she attended horse sales in Deauville on the day before her sudden death.

Lady O’Reilly is survived by her husband.

Chryss Goulandris, born June 27 1950, died August 23 2023