Charles Haughey's Balidaress: The horse that could have changed Ireland’s political history

In 1974, Charles J Haughey decided to sell a home-bred yearling filly against solid professional advice he should keep her. He should have listened. Over time, Balidaress was to develop into one of the most lucrative and influential broodmares of the 20th century. What if Haughey had changed his mind and kept her? Colm Greaves investigates.
Charles Haughey's Balidaress: The horse that could have changed Ireland’s political history
Charles Haughey.

On October 23, 1970 Charles J Haughey stood jubilantly among an excited cluster of his supporters at the Four Courts in Dublin. The atmosphere was an uncertain combination of relief, celebration and anger.

A year earlier tribal violence had erupted in Northern Ireland and a plot to ship arms to beleaguered nationalist communities was uncovered. The criminal justice system decided Mr Haughey had a case to answer and so began the most combustible political crisis in the then 50-year history of the State.

Now the Arms Trial was over, Haughey had been acquitted and stood untainted in the eyes of the law. There he was, bathing in the lush vindication innocence brings, a lushness he was to cling to devotedly for the rest of his days. But there was another, much less public kind of ‘Innocence’ in his life at this time too.

This second ‘Innocence’ was in fact a racehorse, a two-year-old filly Haughey had bought to race and then ultimately breed from. She was destined to produce a foal, another filly, which Haughey subsequently sold against the informed counsel of more experienced and wiser heads than his.

Had he cherished this daughter of Innocence — even half as preciously as he did the innocence of acquittal — it could have radically altered the context of his personal historical legacy and possibly even the political direction of the nation. Looking back now it was a decision that could be viewed as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

This story has an exotic cast: Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten, as are the great trainer Atty Persse and his peerless jockey, Steve Donoghue. It includes some of the heaviest ever players in global bloodstock such as Sheikh Muhammed and Robert Sangster. Then, of course, there are the horses, including The Tetrarch, arguably the greatest two-year-old ever born.

And, like many a good story, this one originates in Co Meath when an Irish teenager from the village of Summerhill sailed to England with dreams of a career in racing. The lad’s name was Dick McCormick. It all began with Dick.

Richard McCormick in the 1970s.
Richard McCormick in the 1970s.

Dick McCormick

By the time 16-year-old McCormick took the boat in 1910, he had already carved a reputation as a skilful and fearless horseman with the Ward Union Hunt. There were few banks too tall, nor hedges too wide to scare him. His destination was Stockbridge, Hampshire and the stable of the legendary HS ‘Atty’ Persse, known to all as a masterful trainer of two-year-olds and to some as a “mean and cruel man”.

Young Dick had emigrated into a bleak and harsh reality. Stable lads back then were locked into cold damp dormitories at night and whipped awake at first light in the morning. Smoking, drinking along with romancing were dismissible offences, they washed from barrels of freezing water and food was scarce and basic.

At Atty’s yard, they were entitled to just one day off a year because Persse believed that ‘boys are the very devil, grind “em down and keep ‘em there”. He constructed his own little corner of hell in which to house them. Dick’s most memorable year with Persse was his third one, 1913, a year etched in racing history for a suffragette suicide at the Epsom Derby and as the summer of The Tetrarch.

Nicknamed ‘The Spotted Wonder,’ The Tetrarch was a brilliant juvenile and was to subsequently become an incredibly influential stallion. Bold Ruler, Nasrullah, Secretariat and Spectacular Bid being among the many eminent sires who descend directly from his bloodline. Young Dick McCormick was crucial to the creation of this lineage.

When the colt first came into Persse’s yard he was almost uncontrollable. Dick’s son Richard, now 70, and still energetically multi-tasking as a vet, horse nutrition scientist and as a passionate campaigner for the health of Irish racing, is adamant the trust the trainer placed in his young Irish stable lad saved the breeding career of the colt.

“My father was one of only two people to ever to ride The Tetrarch” he says. “The other one was his racecourse jockey Steve Donoghue who later wrote Dick was the only man able sit on him long enough to stay there. If he hadn’t been around the horse may well have been cut (gelded) and that would have changed things a lot.”

A young Charlie Haughey with his first trainer, Dick McCormick, after his first horse, Miss Cossie, won at Naas in October 1962.
A young Charlie Haughey with his first trainer, Dick McCormick, after his first horse, Miss Cossie, won at Naas in October 1962.

Despite the harshness of the Persse environment, Dick stayed until the late 1930’s and then fulfilled a long-made promise to Steve Donoghue he would work for him if he ever set up as his trainer. Donoghue had never hidden his affection and admiration for the “quiet, self-effacing, skilful” McCormick and recruited him nominally as his head lad, but effectively to run the stable.

When the outbreak of war curtailed racing in Britain, Dick returned to Ireland, initially to train privately for the wealthy businessman AP Reynolds, chairman of Great Southern Railways. He eventually opened a public stable on The Curragh and, in 1958, he bought four yearlings on behalf of a long-time owner, Major Laurie Gardner, brother-in-law to Lord Mountbatten and a close friend of the young political dynamo, Charles Haughey.

Of these four Sabot d’Or took the Breeders Produce Stakes at Leopardstown and Gigi won Ireland’s most prestigious two-year-old sprint, ‘The 1500’ at the Phoenix Park. Le Voleur was a little less talented but still good enough to win a race on the Laytown sands ridden by his son Richard, a victory Dick later described as “the biggest thrill he ever got from racing”.

The fourth of these yearlings, Miss Cossie, developed into a very consistent race mare. In 1962, aged five, her ownership transferred from Gardner to Haughey, who by now was Minister for Justice, and became the first current Irish cabinet member to own a racehorse since PJ Rutledge in the 1930s.

The brother-in-law of the great British war hero, Louis Mountbatten, uncle of the Queen and the shiny buckle on the British establishment’s trouser belt, had just sold a horse to the man who first earned his political stripes when he burned a Union Jack in the Trinity College courtyard on the day that Nazi Germany surrendered.

The Tetrarch and Steve Donoghue. The Tetrarch was a brilliant juvenile who went on to become an incredibly influential stallion.
The Tetrarch and Steve Donoghue. The Tetrarch was a brilliant juvenile who went on to become an incredibly influential stallion.

Miss Cossie

Charlie Haughey had once declared in a speech the future of rural Ireland’s prosperity depended on the “bullock and the horse”. Now he was walking that talk and his swagger into ownership attracted waves of complimentary press coverage. Brand Haughey was soaring in the newly prosperous Ireland of the early 60’s and owning a race-horse stitched another patch into in his exotic quilt.

Then, sadly and suddenly, Dick McCormick, who had continued to train Miss Cossie for her new owner, died in the summer of 1963. The young emigrant from Summerhill had built such a respected reputation that the leaders of all the main political paid their respects at his funeral.

The Turf Club granted his 16-year-old son Richard a temporary license to handle the stable transition, making him Ireland’s youngest ever trainer. Despite his youth, Richard had been at his father’s side for years, but had just finished his Leaving Certificate and was preparing to head off to college. He still vividly remembers the emotional textures of that turbulent time.

“I like to think I was my father’s right hand man and I did ride a winner for him, which gave me a lot of kudos around the stable,” he recalls. “I never had that much interaction with Mr Haughey up until then, but we decided to run Miss Cossie in the Irish Cambridgeshire at the Curragh, one of the big field autumn handicaps.”

The lad nearly pulled off the sort of minor miracle that would have made his father proud.

“It was a very close run thing,” he says. “She had never run over a mile and we wanted to deliver her late in the race as a last throw of dice. Phil Canty rode her, held her up brilliantly and 150 yards out he set sail for home. I thought she was the winner but she was caught on line and beaten by Red Slipper, a Group 1 horse in disguise and probably the best miler in Europe because he was to later win the Group One Prix du Moulin at Longchamp.”

Back in the winner’s enclosure the young Minister for Justice was thrilled with his even younger trainer and backs were gleefully slapped.

Le Voleur winning Neptune Plate at Laytown in 1963, a victory Dick McCormick later described as ’the biggest thrill he ever got from racing’.
Le Voleur winning Neptune Plate at Laytown in 1963, a victory Dick McCormick later described as ’the biggest thrill he ever got from racing’.

“To be honest I felt a bit of a fraud on the inside,” remembers McCormick. “The man who trained this filly and done all the work was no longer with us. I tried to deflect it, I had just continued the brilliant work he had established. But in truth I might have been fortunate. If she had won I probably wouldn’t have gone to vet school — I’d have thought this is too easy!”

But go to vet school he did and his father’s string was soon dispersed. He took his degree from UCD, and then spent a year on an internship in North America. On his return home in 1969 he decided to reapply for his trainer’s license. The stable was still in the family – the problem was that owners had all now gone away.

“I had no clients whatsoever so I decided to try resurrect some from my past. I made an appointment to go and see Mr Haughey, who by now was the Minister for Finance, and then in the process of introducing very favorable tax regime for bloodstock breeders. He agreed to meet me at his office in Government Buildings and we spent 15 minutes talking across a table, me making my pitch, him listening.

“He must have liked what he heard because at the end of the conversation he said to me ‘Okay. I will be your first owner, go buy me a horse.” McCormick was given a working budget of £3,000 (€3,460) by his new patron and used £2,400 (€2,750) of it on a grey yearling consigned by the Airlie Stud. It was a filly by Sea Hawk II out of a mare called Novitiate who had once been owned by another distinguished Prime Minister — Winston Churchill.

The relatively low price he paid for the horse immediately became a source of anxiety for Richard. “I had her home for a week and as I’d got her so cheap I began to think there might be something wrong with her,” he explains. “I would never sell a horse with something wrong with it to anybody, but I particularly didn’t want to sell one to him!”

He asked the leading vet Ned Gowing if he could find anything out of place. “He examined her and then told me to call Haughey up and tell him he owns a horse. So that’s what I did.” Haughey named his new horse Innocence, in what now seems to have been a flourish of his prophetic flair. The VE day flag burner had just bought a horse whose mother was owned by VE’s day mightiest conqueror.

Stable lad Alan Beale, jockey Jamie Osborne and owner Charles Haughey after Flashing Steel won the 1995 Irish Grand National.
Stable lad Alan Beale, jockey Jamie Osborne and owner Charles Haughey after Flashing Steel won the 1995 Irish Grand National.

It was soon clear Mr Haughey had bought himself a decent animal. As a three-year-old she gave McCormick the first winner of his renewed training career when winning at Mallow and was a very unlucky loser when badly hampered in the valuable and prestigious Birdcatcher Stakes at Naas.

At the conclusion of her racing career, Mr Haughey sent Innocence to visit the stallion Balidar and she duly produced a handsome female

foal at Rath Stud, an establishment he had recently acquired. When the filly was a yearling her owner made the momentous commercial decision that may well have altered the course of Irish political history.

He decided to sell her and organised a showing at the stud for her along with some other yearlings he had bred. Richard McCormick was surprised by the decision and tried to persuade him from letting the Innocence filly go. The conversation went something like this:

RMC: “You’re not going to sell that filly, are you?”

CJH: “Why wouldn’t I?

RMC: “Don’t sell her. You always keep the first filly from a well-bred mare in case the mare goes and dies.”

CJH: “No. I am going to sell her, I am going to sell them all.”

Haughey was not for turning so McCormick went to the sales where he bought her for £2,400 (€2,750) . He really believed in the pedigree and was happy to put his money where his mouth was.

The following spring Innocence was being driven to the National Stud in order to deliver that year’s foal when she was involved in a road accident and her trailer overturned. The mare was killed instantly.

Innocence had only ever produced one foal and against professional advice and the accepted tribal wisdom established over centuries of horse breeding, that filly had been sold.

Treasure truly began to flow from here and that treasure proved to be spectacular. Not one penny of it accrued directly to her breeder, Charles J. Haughey.

Charles Haughey receiving his trophy after Flashing Steel won the 1995 Irish Grand National.
Charles Haughey receiving his trophy after Flashing Steel won the 1995 Irish Grand National.


It’s now 1976, Charles Haughey is tirelessly rebuilding the momentum of the political career stalled by the Arms Crisis and Richard McCormick is continuing to grow his career as a racehorse trainer.

Innocence’s daughter had never raced at two and before her three-year-old career began she’d been sold on again by her trainer to the businessman Bill Brannigan, who had made money in the haulage business and was now pouring some of it back into a racing hobby.

McCormick had earlier sold Brannigan, a hugely promising filly tragically killed in a training accident, and her slightly disillusioned owner was tempted to exit the sport. He was assured by his trainer he had an equally promising one at home and he should buy her. He duly did so and named his new horse Balidaress.

“I was certain the filly was going to be a valuable broodmare,” McCormick recalls.

“I loved the pedigree, her mother had beenunderrated in her racing career, the moral winner of the Birdcatcher and was a much better racing filly than she looked on paper. After I sold her to Bill she won three times for us, the first in an apprentice handicap at Leopardstown, where she was ridden by a then little-known 16-year-old claimer called Michael Kinane.”

The race was worth only about £3,000 (€3,460) but it was Brannigan’s first ever winner and he told his trainer afterwards the thrill made him feel the race was worth £50,000 (€57,700) . Balidaress had already begun to spread her fairy dust. By the time the mare was retired to stud in 1979, Charlie Haughey was well on way to fulfilling his manifest destiny — the leadership of Fianna Fáil and the office of An Taoiseach.

Park Appeal wins the Moyglare Stakes at The Curragh in 1984.
Park Appeal wins the Moyglare Stakes at The Curragh in 1984.

A few years later Richard McCormick was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and moved to America to run the stud farms of the wealthy German industrialist, Herbert Schnapka, the man who had gifted the great showjumper Boomerang to Eddie Macken.

During a return home for a holiday in 1983 his mother casually mentioned in passing: “Richard, remember that filly you trained for Mr Brannigan? Well her offspring won the Cheveley Park at Newmarket last Thursday.”

Balidaress, was now the mother of Desirable, the winner of Britain’s premier Group One contest for juvenile fillies.

“So, I phoned Bill up on the Sunday to congratulate him,” recounts McCormick, outlining a story that now becomes heavy with happenstance. “He told me he wanted to sell the mare to take a profit and that he would give me first crack at it because I had put him into the business. She was now a very valuable commodity.

“I knew a guy from New York at the time who I thought would buy her called Tom Martin and I called him only to be told he was travelling in Europe. Then I was in town later that day and dropped into the Berkley Court Hotel for a cup of tea and who is standing there in the lobby only the very same Tom Martin! You couldn’t make it up.”

The next morning they drove out to view the mare. “I knew he was going to buy her and we quickly did a deal, he paid a deposit, the price nearer seven figures than six,” recounts McCormick. “That very afternoon the Robert Sangster team drove up to try buy her — but we had already paid a deposit and Bill was an honorable man. The foal Tom gets out of her is then sold for a million and then he immediately sells the mare on again for $1.6m (€1.5m) at the Keeneland Sales to Mrs Moran, later to own Papillon who won the National for Ted and Ruby (Walsh).”

Before Balidaress had been sold to Tom Martin, she’d produced another foal, a filly, who Brannigan had sold on for 62,000 guineas and was sent into training with Jim Bolger.

Her name was Park Appeal and she won the Group One Moyglare Stakes at the Curragh before repeating her sister, Desirable’s, feat by winning the Cheveley Park. Her performance was described by Timeform as “comfortably the best by any two-year-old of her sex in a race in Britain or Ireland in the season.”

Park Appeal was now a very, very valuable commodity and was immediately bought by Sheikh Mohammed, who by then was beginning to construct the racing and breeding empire that evolved into Godolphin. The sum paid was undisclosed but informed estimates place it conservatively at around £4m (€4.6m) . She was eventually to produce nine winners from 12 foals, most notably, Cape Cross, now one of the most sought after sires on the planet, father to Ouija Board, Golden Horn and the peerless champion Sea the Stars.

Desirable produced eight foals, six of them winners, the best of them being the classic winner, Shadyid. Another Balidaress daughter, Balistroika, produced Russian Rhythm a six-time Group One winner and European Champion 3YO filly in 2003 and yet another, Alydaress won both the Irish Oaks and Ribblesdale Stakes in 1989. Haughey’s filly had developed into a true dam burst of genetic equine affluence.

Charles Haughey.
Charles Haughey.


December 2006

The Moriarty Tribunal of Inquiry into ‘Certain Payments to Politicians and Related Matters’ had just published its initial findings. It concluded that Charles Haughey, who had died the previous June, had accepted payments from Ben Dunne, had owned and used Ansbacher accounts illegally, had evaded tax, obstructed the tribunal, stole from Brian Lenihan Snr’s medical fund and had accepted cash for favours throughout his political career.

The Tribunal estimated about €8m of inappropriate funding had found its way to Haughey. His earlier settlements with the Revenue authorities and his huge legal costs had absorbed most of his remaining wealth and ultimately his prized family estate at Kinsealy in North Dublin. His political reputation, carefully nurtured for decades, was in public ruins.

During the years he amassed his compromised fortune, the daughter of his prophetically named mare, Innocence — which he’d sold for relative pittance — was generating riches far greater than ever come to Haughey.

The prize-money and sales generated by the direct offspring of Balidaress comfortably exceeded €10m and when the next couple of generations are included, the revenue stream could be conservatively estimated to be many multiples of that sum.

Of course there are many questions to consider before estimating how much of this would have accrued to Haughey had he taken Richard McCormick’s sage advice and kept Balidaress as a broodmare back in 1974. Would he have chosen the same stallions? Trainers? Races? The variables are too great to be certain, but there is another equally profound, but similarly unanswerable question.

‘What if?’

What if Haughey had found a way to finance his opulent lifestyle without diving into the financial shadows? What if he hadn’t needed to spend so much of his dynamism and energy in greasing donors? What if persistent questions surrounding his personal probity had not repeatedly torn his party asunder? What if he’d been able to dedicate his undoubted brilliance solely to resolving the political and economic turbulence of Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s?

What if he hadn’t sold Balidaress.

What if?

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.244 s