Having experienced an emotional year split between tragedy and triumph, Mouse Morris reflects on the dark days and then the poignant National wins. Declan Colley takes it all on board.
“Some guys are very good with bad horses, getting them handicapped, setting them up and getting a win or two with them. Mouse has no interest in training bad horses, but he is brilliant when you send him the right equipment. There is not a better trainer in these islands to train a jumps horse. His record speaks for itself.”
— Michael O’Leary
How does a racehorse trainer rationalise a year in which he’s saddled the winner of two of the biggest races on the calendar at a time when the quality of the material in his yard is not at its highest level?
“I must be a genius, that’s all,” Mouse Morris laughs, before his default modesty setting kicks in.
“No, it’s not genius — not at all. In fact, I’m just lucky, very lucky.”
But surely more than mere luck?
“You dream about these things, but the reality of actually winning these races is way different. And luck does play a big part in that.”
Mouse, craggy, long-haired and the smoker of industrial strength cigarettes on an monumental scale, had, prior to this year, won pretty much every big race on offer in this part of the world.
And then he won both the Irish and Aintree Grand Nationals within the space of a few weeks.
But a back-story of the terrible tragedy which took the life of his 30-year-old son Christopher (Tiffer to friends and family) as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in a friend’s apartment in Argentina catapulted the notoriously reticent Morris onto front pages and news bulletins and in demand for TV and radio talks shows.
He used the opportunity not to blow his own horn about his recent achievements, but to raise awareness about the growing numbers of people getting killed as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. He’s becoming the poster boy in the campaign against this silent killer and he’s happier about that than he is talking about winning big races.
But talk he must, as that is very much part of the racehorse trainer’s lot. Of course he’d rather talk about anything but himself. The thing is though that even if he was a postman rather than a trainer, he would probably have been the most famous postman we’ve seen.
The son of a Lord (who was also a film producer and head of the International Olympic Committee) and a nailed-on war hero who was awarded an MBE by the Queen for efforts in the secret Bletchley Park code-breaking centre which in WWII cracked the German Enigma coding machines, it seemed destined Mouse would always rise to prominence, whatever path he chose.
He chose horses and, having a career as a moderately successful jockey, he morphed into a hugely successful trainer. There were as many downs as ups — mainly of a financial nature as he had started with nothing other than goodwill — but even through dark days, the horses sustained him. No more so than during the past 12 months.
The night of May 30 last year will live with him forever.
He was at home in Everardsgrange when the phone rang — late. Nothing particularly strange in that, but the early- to-bed-early-to-rise working clock of a racing stable does not encourage late phone calls.
“I got the phone call from Argentina that night and my life changed — boy did it change. A friend of Tiffer’s, an American woman called Michelle LeAnn who lives down in Las Heras in the Mendoza province in Western Argentina was on the phone. She told me what had happened and that Tiffer and another friend had died in a tragic accident. I heard her telling me this, but I didn’t believe it. It didn’t sink in. She told me there had been a terrible accident and, however hard it was for me to hear that, it must have been very hard for her too.
“She was in a band with whom Tiffer had played that night and she was in as much shock as I was. Initially I couldn’t take it in and I rang her back just to make sure I had it right. Then I had to ring (ex-wife) Shanny and tell her. It was a complete nightmare.”
Having soaked in the initial shock, the focus turned to the practicalities of getting Tiffer home.
Mouse pays tribute to the Irish consular staff — two in particular, David Ormond and Bobby Smyth — who made light of all the obstacles that had to be overcome before Tiffer’s body could be repatriated.
The VHI played a big role in getting the remains (“I hate that word — remains”) home to Ireland and local TD Michael Lowry was also a huge help.
“The consular guys were great and to have got Tiffer home in just two weeks was remarkable. And then within another two weeks those same guys had to deal with the Berkeley balcony tragedy in which those Dublin kids died. That must have been horrible, but I can only sing their praises.”
Having buried his son, Mouse turned his attention to the cause of his death.
“The message is that this is something everyone should be aware of. I don’t have the exact figures, but in the last four years or so nearly 300 people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning and still nobody knows about it. Here in Ireland! It’s frightening. I know all about it now, but I wouldn’t want that visited on anyone. And the thing is that every home should have a carbon monoxide alarm.
“You can even get small travelling versions of them and if Tiffer had one of them, he might be still with us. But this is something the general public seems to know nothing about. If there were that many deaths on the roads there’d be a massive outcry and action would be taken.
“As it is, the government took away the grant for the old age pensioners to allow them put in these alarms. Just the other day three ambulance people up the North got sick attending a man who was killed the same way as Tiffer. They were very lucky. I believe the law on this only covers rented properties in Ireland, but every house should have one. It is a lot more common than anyone seems to think. I’m getting a bit evangelical about this, but I think you can see why.”
Mouse is not now nor ever was a very spiritual person, but he jokes that his recent run of form in big races is beginning to make him “a bit suspicious” about all that stuff.
“If Tiffer isn’t looking down on me, then someone is. I was never religious, but I’m starting to wonder,” he muses.
When Rogue Angel won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday, having looked beaten at the last before rallying to get up by a head at the line under a stirring Ger Fox ride, an emotional Mouse told RTÉ’s Robert Hall that Tiffer had been pulling the strings from above.
“Rogue Angel looked like he was running out of gas coming to the last at Fairyhouse, but somebody picked him up and I don’t know if it was (jockey) Ger Fox or Tiffer — but someone did, that’s for sure,” Mouse reflects.
But it was the happenings at Aintree a few weeks later that really put the tin hat on it.
Rule The World, a fantastically named nine-year-old, who was a maiden over fences and ridden by a jockey in David Mullins who’d never seen the place before, won the Grand National in sensational style. Once more Tiffer’s influence was credited. It could not have been genius, after all.
Mouse had two horses in the race — both owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud — and Gigginstown jockey, Kerryman Bryan Cooper had the pick of either First Lieutenant or Rule The World.
Unfortunately for him, he picked the wrong one.
“The two horses went to Aintree in good form and both of them had a chance,” Mouse recalls.
“If I was the jockey and you asked me a few minutes before the race which one I’d like to ride, I wouldn’t have known which one of them to pick.
“First Lieutenant just over-jumped at the second — for the second year in a row. When he went down it wasn’t a case that all was lost because I still had one left in it. When the Lieutenant went I was just hoping Rule The World would get around, to be honest. I would have been very happy if he finished in the frame.
“Of course he nearly fell at the fourth last — although in fairness it was the only mistake he made during the race — and David didn’t panic. But even at that stage if he’d finished third, I’d have been thrilled. When they came back across the Melling Road he was solid in third and I was thinking, well, he’s run a huge race and you can’t complain about that.”
When Rule The World got to the last a different narrative was emerging as Vic’s Canvas and The Last Samurai went after each other in search of glory.
As the two front-runners led Mouse’s horse over the last, it quickly became apparent that Rule the World had a lot left in him, provided Mullins didn’t get stuck into him too soon.
He kept his nerve and resisted the temptation to give his mount what Ted Walsh would call ‘a couple of backhanders.’
The 19-year-old realised the 452 metre run-in to the line from the last is the longest in National Hunt racing and that he had to bide his time.
Half-way along the run-in he felt he still had plenty of horse under him and, just as the three leaders hit the elbow — still with a couple of hundred metres to run — he started to sniff glory.
He asked the horse for a final rousing effort and Rule The World responded instantly, found another gear and cruised past his two beaten rivals to win going away. Watching the race on the big screen in front of the stands Mouse was in shock.
“I nearly killed the two lads beside me — Mousey Ryan, who’s an assistant with Gordon Elliott, and Gearóid Costelloe, Rebecca Curtis’ other half. I was thumping the crap out of the two of them. I was watching it happen in front of me, but I don’t remember actually thinking anything. Anything at all. I was kind of in a daze to be honest with you. I was in a state somewhere between shock and disbelief — more shock really. Yes, pure fucking shock, I think.”
Mouse laughs at the memory of the race unfolding and the state of suspended disbelief he was in at that moment.
“In big races like the Gold Cup, you can plan and make tactics and they pan out fine. But I don’t think you can do that in the Grand National. You can dream of winning it, sure, but you can’t plan it. It is a bit like doing the Lotto — either your numbers come in or they don’t.”
Mouse admits he had no specific advice for David Mullins before the race, thinking it pointless as the jockey had never been there before himself.
“Maybe he was better off never having seen the place before, I don’t know.”
But the story was all the more remarkable in that during his career, Rule The World was nursed back from two fractures of the pelvis and as Mouse tells it, “he was the best horse I’ve ever had before that happened to him.”
Because of the injuries and the recuperation time needed to get over them, he had never fulfilled his potential — and had never won over fences.
“Sure there was a touch of ‘seconditis’ with him, but he was finishing well in Grade One or Listed races. He was second in the Irish Grand National as a novice, so he was obviously a talented horse.”
Mouse has no time for crowing about such victories.
He didn’t do so when War Of Attrition won the Gold Cup in 2006, so he’s not going to start now. “This is just what I do; I train racehorses. Even after a win like that at Aintree, there is no sense of vindication or anything like that — pride maybe — and I’m not knocking it, because winning the Grand National is great. I suppose it is another box ticked, but I have a few more of them to go.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll find something. I wouldn’t complain about a second one. And I’d like another Gold Cup alright.”
The Gold Cup, he says, is special because everyone is in there at level weights and on merit and the best horse usually wins on the day.
“Winning it with War Of Attrition was fantastic because it’s just the top dog, isn’t it? Certainly winning two Grand Nationals in the one year is the dog’s bollocks alright, but the Gold Cup is something else again.”
After the Aintree win, Mouse was once more left in a state of emotional dysfunction and was almost incoherent when interviewed by Claire Balding on Channel 4.
“The young fella’s doing overtime for me upstairs,” he blubbed. “The emotion came out big time and I got played out fairly quickly because of that.”
In the normal course of events winning the Grand National — on top of an Irish National win — would be very emotional; but pulling off that double in the wake of appalling tragedy, ratcheted the sentiments up to another level altogether.
Several weeks on and full, normal, calm has been restored at Everardsgrange.
Mouse is once more looking ahead to next season. He’s passionate about the inmates there — “my babies” — and his enthusiasm for the game itself has never wavered, but there’s no looking back. There’s only one way to go — forward.
“That’s your opinion,” he says curtly when you mention that his roll of honour as a trainer is pretty impressive.
“I’m no genius, but I love my babies and they’ve paid me back, I suppose.”
Will this sort of stuff ever happen to you again?
“Shit, no. How do you repeat that. It is possible sure — and we will try — but I doubt it.”
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