The Daragh Ó Conchúir interview: A horse whisperer says his goodbyes

The Daragh Ó Conchúir interview: A horse whisperer says his goodbyes
Corky Browne at Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn. ‘I am going to miss it a bit, yeah, of course I am,’ Browne says of the life he’s leaving behind. Picture: Edward Whitaker

Corky Browne left Carrigtwohill for a life in racing, working with legendary trainer Fred Winter, in England, before forging a glorious partnership with five-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson. Browne announced his retirement, at 77, last week, ending a 62-year association with the sport.

The reason horses were sent to Roger’s was because they were crocked, so they were sent swimming, with Corky repairing them, which is basically the whole story of his life.”

— Nicky Henderson

Albert ‘Corky’ Browne had a key hand in the preparation of numerous Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, and Champion Chase winners. But for Browne, Nicky Henderson’s head lad since the latter began training, in 1978, the solitude of examining horses in the morning was as fulfilling as big-race days.

Browne’s gift with horses’ tendons and limbs has been spoken of in near-mythical terms, since he announced his retirement, aged 77, last week. It isn’t something he can articulate, but no horse galloped at Seven Barrows, Henderson’s yard, until Browne checked the legs, and ran his hands down the back of the tendons and around the joints.

What marked him out as a genius was the ability to identify an issue by touch before there was heat or swelling.

Training injured is a bad idea for any athlete. When the athlete weighs a half-ton and must bear all that weight on one leg when moving at full pelt, it is invaluable to know when to ease off, before any obvious red flags.

That time with the horses, away from the madding crowd, that was bliss.

“Keeping See You Then sound, with help from the swimming pool and (vet) Frank (Mahon), was Corky’s masterpiece.”

— Nicky Henderson

‘Corky’ Browne has been as much associated with Seven Barrows as Nicky Henderson, answering the boss’s call to be head lad when Henderson struck out on his own, as a 28-year-old, in 1978, at Peter Walwyn’s old place, Windsor House.

Walwyn moved on to Seven Barrows, but when he scaled back, Henderson moved there, in 1992.

With Browne by his side, he had already been two-time champion trainer and had overseen the stunning three-in-a-row Champion Hurdle successes of See You Then.

Together, they flourished and enjoyed some of their greatest triumphs in the past 10 years.

Only Willie Mullins has saddled more Cheltenham Festival winners than Henderson (65-64). No-one has trained more winners of the Champion Hurdle (seven) or Champion Chase (six; a record shared with Tom Dreaper). He is also a dual victor in the Gold Cup. Sprinter Sacre, Altior, Remittance Man, Long Run, Buveur D’Air, and Bobs Worth were just some of the horses that reflected the brilliant Henderson-Browne combination.

The men did not make the most obvious of bedfellows. One is an Eton-educated son of a stockbroker, Major Johnny Henderson, who was a former aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Montgomery; the other is the son of a chippy, Timothy Browne, from the rural East Cork village of Carrigtwohill.

Browne was schooled largely by life and apprenticed in Meath to Kevin Kerr, brother of renowned bloodstock agent, Bert Kerr, on his 16th birthday.

Yet Henderson and Browne shared a common language and climbed the ladder together, their fusion of gifts yielding dividend after dividend.

Browne has lived in England for 56 years, but still, there is enough of a hint in the accent to suggest that when he returns home, as he does annually to visit his brother and sister, the pitch might raise a trifle.

The nickname, ‘Corky’, came from his Co Cork roots and many in the racing world do not know his Christian name.

Yet in Carrig, he is always Albert.

He has been a little surprised by the warmth of people’s reaction to his retirement.

“The day it broke out in the papers, I had 72 texts,” Browne says.

“That was one day. All the cards and letters and everything from people. They thought I would go longer. But 77 is a bit much, isn’t it? It was the right time for me, anyway. I have had a good run, haven’t I?”

That is putting it mildly. When you’re on text-slagging terms with the likes of knight of the realm and legendary former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, and annually playing host to the Queen of England, the chances are that you are doing something right. The Queen has had horses in training at Seven Barrows for many years and visits them once a year.

She liked that Corky didn’t mince his words about their abilities and though he confessed in an interview, 10 years ago, to being nervous initially with her, talking about horses quickly put him at ease.

That same pre-Cheltenham feature from The Telegraph detailed a text he sent to Ferguson, jokingly threatening to withdraw his tipping service while United were losing to Newcastle.

“One-nil down — no winners for you! Corky.”

He cared nothing of the Red Devils when he was a boy. That passion was only ignited by the George Best era at Old Trafford, around about the same time that Browne was attempting to make a name for himself at Fred Winter’s.

Timothy Browne had been an amateur jockey and horses were all that interested Albert. His uncle had a farm and that was where the groundwork to a lifetime in service to equine majesty was forged.

“I used to go up there and they had work horses on the road, and I used to get on them. I was always keen on the horse riding.”

So he chased the dream of being a jockey, but had a bad accident in Kerr’s yard. A horse reared and fell back on him. He was lucky to survive

“My back was bad for a long time. I had five-and-a-half years at Kerr’s. At that time, you served your time and you couldn’t finish early. They would blacklist you. I got a bit heavy then. So, I got rid of the fat and came over to Fred Winter’s. I thought I might get a few rides. But it didn’t work out somehow.”

Instead, he became a member of staff for the former four-time champion jockey, who went on to be champion trainer on eight occasions.

Winter, whom Browne describes as a “gentleman”, remains the only person to both ride and train winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, and Aintree Grand National. Crisp, Bula, Killiney, and Pendil were some of the equine heroes that Browne worked with in that time.

Then, along came Henderson, having quickly found himself ill-suited to a working life in the City. Following in his father’s footsteps was not for him. “He was champion amateur for two years. He wasn’t too bad. He came about twice a week to ride his three horses. Then, I left. The wife had two kids and money wasn’t good at the time. I thought I could get some more money somewhere. I did and I took over an equine yard for Roger Charlton. He had a swimming pool for injured horses. That was the idea of the yard. Injured horses would come there and they would get looked after. I was there for two years. I was always interested in the problems,” says Browne.

C o r k y B r o w n e , l e f t , h a s b e e n head lad for Nicky Henderson, right, since 1978. He is retiring, aged 77.
C o r k y B r o w n e , l e f t , h a s b e e n head lad for Nicky Henderson, right, since 1978. He is retiring, aged 77.

As Henderson noted last week, “Unfortunately, horses get injured and the most important thing is to mend them and that has been one of his {Browne’s} greatest assets.”

When Charlton closed the yard to become assistant trainer to Jeremy Tree, Browne was at a loose end. It just so happened that Henderson was looking to branch out and needed a right-hand man.

“I got a knock on the door on a Friday night. Nicky Henderson was at the door… He came in and sat down and said, ‘I am going to start training.’ I said, ‘Oh, right. What is that got to do with me?’ He said, ‘I am looking for a head lad.’ I said, ‘Bloody hell. You were at Fred Winter’s for five years. You knew all the good lads there.’ Fred never had bad lads; every one of them were very good. You had to be good, because Fred wouldn’t have you, otherwise. ‘Why did you come to me?’ Roger Charlton and a few more people had recommended me.

“I knew I could do my job. I wasn’t sure if he could do his. It is a big thing to take over a yard and start training. He had been at Fred’s, so he had the best experience you could get. We had a second meeting. We drank a few scotches and we decided, then, to do it.”

The rest is lore. Yet though they enjoyed immediate success at Windsor House, Browne knew his own value, and when Henderson bought Seven Barrows, it wasn’t automatic that he would agree to make the switch with him.

“Nicky said to me one day, ‘We have less room for horses and we need more room for stables. I have been looking at Seven Barrows.’ I said, ‘Bloody hell!’

‘That was a bigger job. So when he bought Seven Barrows, he said, ‘Will you come in with me?’ I said, ‘It all depends: bigger yard, bigger wages.’ And away we went.

“We just gradually built up together. It didn’t come as a big surprise. It wasn’t a big, sudden rush. We built up together. It went to 50, it went to 70, it went to 100, it went to 120. There’s 160 horses in the yard now; probably 200 on the books. While there are two or three pre-training yards up the road, as well. He is as hungry as ever. He really is. He means to keep going, too.”

Cheltenham was the focal point.

“I lived for Cheltenham,” is how he describes it. Yet one of the standout memories revolves around the ovation accorded to Sprinter Sacre by an appreciative Irish audience at Punchestown in 2013.

“The people loved it. It was incredible. I will always remember that day. They treated him like a king. It was a great day, especially when he won. Even the spectators, they were shouting ‘Corky’. It was incredible.”

Choosing a number one horse from such a catalogue of superstars is difficult, but Browne comes down on the side of See You Then. As Henderson noted, this was probably Browne’s Sistine Chapel.

“When you go back, it was so incredible, really, with so many Champions Hurdles, Champion Chases. Who do you make the best? It is very hard. Sprinter Sacre was special before Altior came along. Now, he is special. Winning the Champion Hurdle three times, though, is probably the best.

“See You Then had leg problems all his life. How he won three, it was a miracle to get him to three Champion Hurdles. Incredible.”

Technology has improved training and injury detection and rehabilitation. But Browne is satisfied that what has always produced results will be retained.

“Time has changed. Even with staff and everything else. A lot of the old ways work. I know the new methods are good, but some of the old ones still work in a big way,” Browne says.

He didn’t just help keep the horses sound. He was a tutor, too, to many future trainers who were assistants to Henderson, the likes of Ben Pauling, Charlie Longsdon, and Jamie Snowden, as well as fellow Cork man Conor Murphy, the groom whose famous £50 accumulator on four Henderson heroes at Cheltenham, in 2012, yielded £1.2m, which he used to fund a training career in Kentucky.

“They will still give me a ring if they have a problem,” Browne says of those trainers.

Perhaps that is his greatest legacy. Many people who are plugged into the elemental, to animals and nature, struggle with human interaction. That was never a problem for Browne. He never took a circuitous route in discussion, but he had a positive impact everywhere he turned.

“They are young lads and they are branching out. I told them I would be able to talk to them. Everything was on a plate for them at Seven Barrows. It was going to be harder and they could always ring me.”

Throughout it all, family has been the most important thing for him. Yeah, the knees were aching more, to the extent that one of the owners, Michael Buckley, bought him a golf buggy with the personalised number plate ‘Cork 1’. Browne has used it around Seven Barrows the last few years. But when Diane, the Swindon girl he fell in love with, married, and with whom he had daughters, Amanda and Fiona, beat cancer six years ago, he resolved to spend more time with her.

“She is in great form. She survived cancer. That was the biggest kick in my life. She was always there for me. I wouldn’t have survived the job without her. It was a serious job. So we will live a bit more. We wil try to travel around a bit. Plenty of holidays, things like that.”

He isn’t so naive as to thing that there won’t be a void, but he won’t be a stranger to anyone.

“I am going to miss it a bit, yeah, of course I am. (But Nicky) said, ‘Come out when you want to see the horses schooling. Come out to see the horses working. Come out any day you want. Don’t bother ringing, just come out, you can do what you want.’ So I will. When the season starts, I will come out every now and again to have a look.

“It has been a long time, 62 years racing. It has been great, but it’s time to relax a little now.”

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