For every small trainer starting out in their new career, the hope of finding one good horse to make their name is the big dream. If they can send out a winner at the Cheltenham Festival or at Royal Ascot, more owners will come calling and the stable has a chance of reaching the numbers that make the business profitable. Well that’s the theory, but does it work like that in the real world?
This is the story of one such trainer, Matt McCormack, who learned his trade as head lad for Peter Walwyn during the 1970’s, a time when that stable had numerous top class horses. McCormack had set up on his own in a small yard at Sparsholt, a village in the Vale of the White Horse, a few miles west of Wantage and on the other side of the downs that stretch to the north of Lambourn. In his first two seasons, he managed just three winners on the flat each year, but as the yearling sales began in autumn 1981, he had a new owner with penty of funds wanting to buy half a dozen horses to run as 2-y-olds in 1982.
McCormack eventually bought eight yearlings, spending a total of £42,000, only to discover that the ‘owner’ had gone missing and the funds were an illusion. The next three months were spent desperately trying to find people to take on at least some of the horses, either wholly or in part shares. One he did manage to sell on was a colt by the US sire Tumble Wind that had cost 8,000 gns, and he would subsequently race in the pale green colours of Lebanese businessman Abed Rachid, who named his colt Horage – if you count the ‘H’ as silent, then orage is French for storm, so a neat reference to his sire.
McCormack soon established that Horage was much the best of his batch of 2-y-olds and by working him with the 3-y-old Shiny Hour, a winner for the stable the previous season, he became confident that the horse could win pretty much any early season 2-y-old maiden. With the chance to land a punt and get back on his feet financially, McCormack opted to send Horage to Ayr, avoiding any chance of running into another hot juvenile from one of the big southern yards. So it was that on Tuesday March 30th, 1982, Horage was one of six 2-y-olds lining up for the 5F Hillhouse Stakes.
Looking back at the race now, I wonder if McCormack was bothered by the presence of a colt called Pangulo, who’d already shown decent form by finishing second in a twelve runner field for the Brocklesby Stakes, held five days earlier at Doncaster on the opening day of the season. But at least his presence ensured opposition in the market and Horage was returned 6/1, a price that would look very silly indeed by the end of the season, especially as his rivals were all still maidens twelve months later! Horage won easily by three lengths, McCormack’s financial worries were eased, and the new owner was reportedly very happy.
Just over two weeks later, Horage was sent north again to Pontefract where he beat four newcomers in the Ropergate Stakes. On the same afternoon, the Brocklesby winner, a colt called Brondesbury, trained by Bill O’Gorman, contested the Granby Stakes at Newmarket, where he beat two other winners and confirmed his position as the best juvenile seen out so far. The two then met in the Garter Stakes at Ascot, where Brondesbury was sent off favourite but found Horage way too good, going down by five lengths. Predictably, excuses were offered for Brondesbury, who reportedly became unbalanced when jumping the road crossing at halfway, because after all, how could the cheaply purchased Horage, from the unfashionable stable, really be a better horse than the Newmarket star.
By the time Royal Ascot arrived, Horage had won two more races, small field events at Salisbury and Haydock, the latter his first try at 6 furlongs. In the same period, Brondesbury had won three times, covering the 5F in a remarkably quick time when winning the Great Surrey Stakes at Epsom. But the pair wouln’t meet again, as Brondesbury was saved for the 5F Norfolk Stakes, which he duly won taking his score to six win in seven starts. Horage ran on the opening day of the meeting over 6F in the Coventry Stakes and in a field of eight, he went off the 85/40 second favourite. He extended his unbeaten sequence to six, holding off his only serious challenger Kafu (Harwood, Starkey) by one and half lengths and now the eight grand colt from the Sparsholt yard was getting noticed.
Next stop was Newmarket for the July Stakes, where Kafu took him on again with a 6lb turn round thanks to the penalty carried by Horage. The pair were sent off 7/4 joint favourites, but Horage once again came out on top, leaving Kafu behind in the final furlong and gamely holding off the challenge of another O’Gorman colt called On Stage, who was also in receipt of 6lbs. In Timeform Racehorses of 1982, there’s a photo of this finish and in it you can see the shoe on Horage’s near fore hanging loose below his hoof. That was the first time I saw Horage in the flesh, having been tied down by a major project at work that had implemented on July 1st – the Newmarket July meeting was my first chance to go racing that summer. I backed Horage on the basis of what I’d seen at Ascot on TV and was very impressed by his attitude on this occasion.
His next target was the Gimcrack, but McCormack took the opportunity to get paid for his final piece of work by taking him down the road to Newbury for the Washington Singer Stakes on the Saturday before the York meeting, where he dotted up at 9/2 on. The Gimcrack wasn’t much more difficult, starting 13/8 on in a field of seven, he made all to win by four lengths. His record now stood at nine straight wins, with prize money totalling around £105,000 – not bad for the cheap yearling in a small stable.
Sadly his unbeaten run ended in the Mill Reef Stakes, when he ran well below his previous form in fourth, with those ahead of him including Kafu. He was found to be suffering from sore shins afterwards and thus his 2-y-old season came to an end. For all his success, few people thought he’d be a force as a 3-y-old, when his lack of physical scope would surely be an issue as better bred colts improved past him and the penalties for his Pattern wins would make life tough in all but the best races. But to the surprise of many, the best was yet to come.
After a poor start to his 3-y-old career, beaten at odds on in a small race at Thirsk, he lined up for the St James Palace Stakes as the rank outsider in a field of seven which included the two placed horses from the 2000 Guineas, Tolomeo and Muscatite. I was still a punter that played to sentiment as much as form and logic back then, and couldn’t resist a small bet at 20/1, espeially as Horage was riden that day by Steve Cauthen. I had liked everything I’d seen of the American jockey in his first season riding in the UK, most of all his wonderful skill with front runners and his judgement of pace. He gave a master class here, quickly away and controlling the pace, slowing it down before the turn, then bursting clear as they straightened to steal a lead he never lost. Tolomeo had been held up at the back by Starkey (does this sound familiar) and he made up a lot of ground in the final furlong, but failed by a head to catch Horage, the pair four lengths clear of the rest.
Horage ran three more times that season, but never reproduced his Ascot form and at the end of the year, he was sold to go to stud in Ireland. He never produced anything as good as he was, but his toughness did get passed on to his most prolific winner, Star Rage. From very modest beginnings, winning a 3-y-old 12F claiming handicap at Musselburgh off a mark of 39, Star Rage improved to become a consistent winner of staying handicaps on the flat and a very useful two mile hurdler, successful in the County Hurdle and the Fighting Fifth.
As for Matt McCormack, the higher profile obtained from Horage did have some effect. The day after Horage won at Ascot, he added the Queen Mary with a filly called Night Of Wind, another cheap yearling purchase sired by Tumble Wind – although her success was more of a shock as she returned at 50/1. After a failure in the Cherry Hinton, she was sold to go to the USA and that set a pattern for the stable. Another decent 2-y-old called Star Video won seven races in 1984 and also finished second in the Coventry, but after a poor start to his 3-y-old season, he was also exported Stateside after Royal Ascot.
Typecasting is as much the enemy of the racehorse trainer as it for an actor. McCormack’s role was training cheaply purchased two year olds, so nobdy was sending him middle distance or staying horses and nobdy ever thought of him as the man to train a Classic contender. He continued to train at Sparsholt for many years, but never had more than 20 winners in a season. The numbers in the yard dwindled in the mid 90’s and he gave up his licence at the end of 1996, when he was back to square one, with just three winners and less than ten grand in win prize money for the season.