Donn's Articles » Mouse Morris

Mouse Morris

If you thought that the wind was strong down in the yard, try standing at the top of the gallop at Everardsgrange.  Even the cigarette in Mouse Morris’ hand can’t survive.  The trainer is non-plussed.  Have a look around you.  Best view in Ireland.

You are not sure if he is referring to the mountain that stands obediently to attention in the background or to the horse who canters easily around the gallop in the foreground, Slievenamon or War Of Attrition.  It doesn’t really matter.  Both are more than worthy of your attention.

“Whoa, whoa,” Mouse calls softly as War Of Attrition and Conor O’Dwyer start to slow.  They begin to ease up and have almost slowed to a trot by the time they pass.  They won’t go up to the very top.  Not today.  The ground is just a bit soft.  There was some amount of rain here yesterday.

“Have a look,” says Mouse quietly, as the horses slow to a walk and turn to make their way back towards you.  “If Conor has a little smirk on his face, you’ll know that he is happy.  You know that little smirk of his?  It’s great to be able to get Conor to come down to sit on him.  He’s got so much experience.  If he doesn’t have that smirk, though, we’re all in trouble.”

You watch the rider’s face closely as he approaches but, actually, you don’t need to watch that closely.  Not so much a subtle smirk as a boyish ear-to-ear grin.  This horse is well.  He’d hate that ground, but he felt great.  Happy out.  For today anyway.  That’s as much as you can hope for.  You have to take it day by day in this business.

“Of course you’re nervous,” says the trainer thoughtfully.  “You would hardly be human if you weren’t nervous at this time of year.  There are only 26 days to go you know.”

He doesn’t need to tell you to what he is referring. 

“But sure, if you didn’t have these horses at all, you’d probably be more nervous.”

It has always been horses for Mouse.  (He thinks that Timmy Jones, Paddy Sleator’s amateur rider, was responsible for giving him the name by which he is now universally known.  Michael Morris – Mickey Morris – Mickey Mouse.)  Born in Spiddal in Co Galway, Morris spent half his childhood days there and half in Lansdowne Road in Dublin, where he learned to ride. 

His father, also Michael Morris, was a member of one of the 14 families that make up the Tribes of Galway.  Actually, his father was probably better known by his title, the third Baron Killanin, Lord Killanin.  Writer, company director, film producer.  Lord Killanin was president of the International Olympic Committee from 1972 – directly after the Munich games – to 1980.  He also worked closely with his good friend, John Ford, on The Quiet Man and other movies.  And he wrote extensively.

When Mouse was six years old, he joined Iris Kellett’s school of riding on Mespil Road in Dublin.  Eddie Macken and the late Paul Darragh were his contemporaries there.  But while Mouse did a little bit of show jumping when he was young, racing was where his heart was.

“We used to go down onto Sandymount strand. When the boss wasn’t looking, we’d pull up our irons and gallop the hell out of them.  We just wanted to go as fast as we could.”

Mouse went to secondary school in Ampleforth College, near York in the north of England.  That was where you sent your son in those days if you were of the means to do so.  An English education was better than an Irish education, or so the hypothesis went.  And Ampleforth was the best English education that a Catholic boy could get. 

The Irish language that Morris had from his days in Spiddal all but lapsed.  They used to pray in Irish at home, he tells you.  When they prayed.  But there was no facility to encourage Irish in Ampleforth.  Nor was there a facility to deal with dyslexia.  Different days.

“Nobody knew that I was dyslexic,” recalls Morris, “until one day when my mother got me to read an article in a newspaper.  I just couldn’t read it.  They sent me off to be tested and it quickly became apparent that I was.”

Morris was in good company.  Albert Einstein, Thomas Eddison, Auguste Rodin, Woodrow Wilson.  All dyslexic. 

“One of my sons is dyslexic also, but it’s amazing what they can do these days.  He has a pair of glasses that have different coloured lenses, and he is perfect.  It’s great for him.  In my day, you just got a clip across the ear if you couldn’t read or write something.  It knocked your confidence.”

He inhales and blows out some smoke.

“That’s why I’m so shy.”

Ampleforth and Mouse Morris were never going to make it as a partnership.  Square peg, round hole.  It just doesn’t work.  There were no horses there and he simply wasn’t happy.  After three years he came back and began riding out for Brian Cooper in Portmarnock.  Ride out in the morning, do grinds in the afternoon, that was the deal. 

Shortly thereafter, John Hislop, breeder and owner of the peerless Brigadier Gerard and a great friend of Mouse’s father’s, suggested that the youngster go to Frenchie Nicholson.  There was no better academy for young riders at the time than Frenchie Nicholson’s and Mouse had a great time there.  Tony Murray was at Nicholson’s at the time, and Pat Eddery.  Great craic.  Then Frenchie sent Mouse back to Tipperary, to Willie O’Grady. 

“I had no great master plan at the time.  I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in England or come back to Ireland.  But Frenchie was great.  He got me a few rides.  I had my first ride over fences at Cheltenham then as a 17-year-old on a horse called Royal Cage.  I didn’t ride a winner during my spell there, but it was a great experience.  He was good friends with Willie O’Grady, and he thought that it would be good for me to go there.  I guess I just did what I was told.”

It was a great move for Mouse, and he had some fantastic times with Willie and with his son Edward afterwards.  Mouse won the four-mile National Hunt chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1974 on Mr Midland.  Any day that you ride a winner is a good day, he tells you, but you will always remember your first Cheltenham winner.  That was a special day.

He won two consecutive Champion Chases on Skymas in 1976 and 1977.  He won the Irish National on Billycan in 1977 for Adrian Maxwell.  But he missed out on Drumlargan in the 1980 Sun Alliance Hurdle through injury.  And he missed out Flame Gun in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1978, and on Mountrivers in the same race in 1980.  But those disappointments were also-rans behind the fact that he missed out on Golden Cygnet in the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

“He would have ridden all those horses for me if he hadn’t been out injured,” says Edward O’Grady.  “He was a good rider.  He delivered.  He was just unlucky with injuries.”

“I spent a lot of time on the sidelines,” concurs Morris.  “I just kept getting broken up.  I’m not sure why that was.  I wasn’t any braver than most or any more careless.  That’s just the luck.  But Golden Cygnet was special.  A real jet.  It was a very sad day when he got killed in the Scottish Champion Hurdle.” 

Ask Morris what bones he has broken, and he starts from the bottom.  Toes, ankle, leg, hip, a couple of ribs, vertebrae, shoulder, collarbone a couple of times, arm, both thumbs, nose.  It would genuinely be easier to name the bones that have remained intact.

“I broke my nose two days before my wedding!”

The marriage didn’t go the distance, and Mouse and his wife separated about 10 years ago now.  Or longer.  Twelve, maybe 13.  That’s just the way it goes sometimes.  Two sons, Jamie (23) and Christopher (21) are both in Ballyfermot College in Dublin studying music production.  Jamie does a bit of DJing.  Christopher reads the Racing Post.  They come down to Fethard sometimes, and they go to the big race meetings, but they are immersed in their music.  That’s what they do now.  Their dad wouldn’t want them getting into this racing game anyway, that’s for sure.  It’s a hard game.  No money in it. 

Mouse finally succumbed to the inevitable and hung up his riding boots for the last time in 1981.  He was just sick of the smell of ether.  A 28-year-old who had to retire from doing the only thing that he knew how to do.  Training was a possibility, but it was never something that he had a burning ambition to do.

“We had moved into this place a couple of years beforehand.  There was nothing here then, a shell of a house and a couple of cattle sheds.  A few people gave me a couple of horses who were recuperating to look after.  Then, in 1981, I decided that I would take out a trainer’s licence, and it just kicked on from there.”

It wasn’t long kicking on properly.  Buck House, whom he had bought at Goffs as a two-year-old, won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1983.  He also won the Champion Chase in 1986 – the same year that Attitude Adjuster won the Foxhunter at Cheltenham. 

“I spent all my time before the race trying to convince Ted Walsh, who was riding him, that he would win it,” smiles the trainer.  “I’m not sure that he believed me.  And his owner, John Magnier, definitely didn’t believe me.  That was the first race in which the horse wore blinkers.  He was a different horse in blinkers.”

John Magnier has been a friend since Mouse was a youngster.  Sue Magnier is godmother to Mouse’s youngest son Christopher, and the Magniers have been owners at Everardsgrange since the very beginning.  They are in good company.  A company that has included Seamus Purcell, Miles Valentine, David Lloyd, Tony O’Reilly, Eddie Jordan, JP McManus and Michael O’Leary.  In these pre-Cheltenham days, the focus is on two of the horses who are owned by the last-named pair, Fota Island and War Of Attrition respectively. 

There were four years between the Buck House/Attitude Adjuster Cheltenham Festival double and Trapper John’s win in the Stayers’ Hurdle.  That was in 1990.  Morris had to wait 15 years for the next Festival winner, Fota Island in the Grand Annual last year.  He had a few placed horses in the interim, but no winners.  Of course it was sweet, but you appreciate every Festival winner because you know that there are lads going there every year who have never had a real chance.  This year, Mouse has two.

“They are both well,” he says reluctantly.  “All my horses are well.  But they are well today.  Who’s to say they’ll be well tomorrow?  They would both have a squeak.”

What else would you expect from a Mouse?

© The Sunday Times, 19th February 2006