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Paddy Corkery

Paddy Corkery is playing it down.  One stone bruise away from disaster, he tells you.  One poor gallop away from an abrupt end to the story.

There is no support act here, no understudy, no back-up plan.  This is all of it, Master McShee, a half a tonne of thoroughbred muscle and the family pet, standing in front of you in his box, ears pricked, loving the attention as his trainer removes the rug to reveal a shining coat.  You are all-in.  One horse, one man: trainer, owner, head lad, work rider.  You do it all and you love it.  And you dream.

It’s a good story.

It’s not easy for the small operator, taking on the best at the highest level, but it can be done.  There are fore-runners: Tom Foley, Michael Bowe, Pat Kelly, Paul Hennessy.  That’s National Hunt racing for you.  You trust your horse, and you believe in your ability to get him to the big stage at concert pitch.

Paddy Corkery took Master McShee to Limerick five weeks ago to run in the Grade 1 BoyleSports Faugheen Novice Chase.  That is the race in which Faugheen beat Samcro in 2019, the race that Colreevy won last season after Asterion Forlonge had fallen at the fifth last fence.  It’s high-octane stuff.  Four of the previous six winners of the race had been trained by Willie Mullins and the other two had been trained by Gordon Elliott.  

Master McShee had five opponents on the day, two of them trained by Joseph O’Brien, the other three trained, respectively, by Gordon Elliott, Noel Meade and Gavin Cromwell.  That is the lion’s den into which Corkery marched.  Those four trainers are four of the top six trainers in the country and, together, they had amassed almost €4 million in prize money for the season up to that point.  Paddy Corkery had won less than €4,000.  The €59,200 going for the winner of the race would dwarf his earnings up to that point.

“We were quite confident going into the race actually,” says Corkery.  “I know we had only finished third in our beginners’ chase, but Ian (Power, rider) was so impressed with the way he jumped that day.  The ground at Limerick suited him, the distance suited him, the race suited him, and that’s why we went straight to a Grade 1.  I went down to the local pub here on Christmas Eve, we were sitting out the back, and anyone who passed who asked me about the horse, I told them to have a few bob on him, that I was quite confident.  I believe they nearly lifted the roof off the pub when he won!” 

The plan was to settle Master McShee towards the rear of the field early on and get him travelling and jumping.  

“Because he burst a blood vessel in the Grade 1 hurdle at Leopardstown last year, we thought he would be under a lot of strain being up near the front, so we decided this year, we’d step him up in distance and run him off the pace, and that has worked a treat.”

Master McShee made his progress towards the end of the back straight, he jumped up well at the fourth last fence, and he travelled best of all around the home turn, moving into second place behind favourite Farouk D’Alene.  Ian Power didn’t ask him for his effort until they landed over the second last fence, and, when he did, Master McShee responded willingly.  Still a length down on landing over the final fence, the Malinas gelding dug deep on the run-in and got up to force a photo finish.

“I watched the race on the big screen just outside the parade ring and, when they flashed past the line, there was a man there came to me and said, ye have it.  The angle was quite deceiving though, so my gut feeling was that we weren’t up.  When I heard that we had won it then, it was surreal really, to realise we had won a Grade 1.” 

It used to be all about hurling.  Paddy Corkery won county titles with Donoughmore in Cork before moving to Waterford with his wife Deirdre 40 years ago and settling down, between Villierstown and Aglish.  A mechanic by trade, he combined his work, and sourcing tractors and machinery in Britain, with dairy farming, and found time too to coach under-age hurling at St Oliver’s, the under-age club of the Geraldines and Ballinameela, winning Under-16 and Under-18 county titles.  He was also chairman of the Geraldines for 12 years.

He started hunting when he was 40, and that opened up a whole new vista.

“The buzz that you get from hunting,” he says.  “It’s hard to match that.  Gathering in the village here and then heading off, over banks and ditches on horseback.  I’ve always loved horses, and it was brilliant to get the opportunity to do that.”

His son John now milks the cows.

Corkery’s best horse before Master McShee was Mrs Mac Veale, as evidenced by the photos on the kitchen wall.  She raced in Corkery’s red and white Cork colours – distinguished only by cap colour from Deirdre Corkery’s red and white colours in which Master McShee races – and she won seven times, six times when trained by Robert Murphy and once for Gavin Dower.  Shortly afterwards, Corkery decided that he would take out his own restricted trainer’s licence.  Then Master McShee came along.

“A friend of mine, Tom McCarthy, rang me one day and said that he and John Sheehan had a horse there that I might be interested in, if I wanted to go and have a look at him.  I said, if he’s passed John Sheehan, there’s no point in me having a look at him.  John Sheehan has a super eye for a foal, he’s picked out some outstanding horses, including Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition.  And John Sheehan was the first man who rang me after Master McShee won his maiden hurdle.”

Next up for Master McShee, all going well, is the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown next Sunday.  Among the entries at present are horses trained by Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Noel Meade, Joseph O’Brien, Mouse Morris, Jessica Harrington and Henry de Bromhead, but that doesn’t faze Paddy Corkery.  He is confident that his horse deserves his place in Grade 1 company.  The story continues.

©  The Sunday Times, 30th January 2022