" target="_blank">Clickable Text Here “The love of an underdog is the reason Gordon Lord Byron had a massive fan base and why his death from a heart attack at the age of 12 while preparing for his 109th start in the Gladness Stakes at the Curragh this weekend was mourned around the racing world” – Mark Smith, Breednet.com.au (June 10, 2010)
FARMING has always been the necessity,” says Jessica Maguire, “but horses have always been the hobby and the dream.”
Equine fairytales often seem the most fanciful. Gordon Lord Byron was unfancied, withdrawn from sale. Then his numbers kept coming up. His absence lends a poignant note but also adds to the mystique. Such an incredible adventure could hardly end with lazy days out grazing.
“We would have loved to have got him home,” Maguire accepts. “He had a heart attack and was gone in an instant. In one way, it was a relief that it was quick. Always the worry, a horse that has been on the go so long, and then nothing. I don’t know how he would have fared because he was quite highly strung.”
Gordon’s demise, on the gallop last June, took all by surprise. Still keen, the 12-year-old was bridling for another season. The missed calls from trainer Tom Hogan early that morning alerted Maguire.
“You know something bad has happened. Poor Tom was so upset. He just said, ‘We lost him.’ It was a very sad day. I was devastated.”
Pragmatism, agriculture’s essential streak, tempers the senses. Morgan Cahalan toiled too long at South Park, the family farm in Ballingarry, to lose sight of nature.
“Unfortunately, these things happen,” he told his daughter. “You don’t get warnings.”
For Jessica, who bought the horse in partnership with her father, the investment was freighted with emotion.
“We loved Gordon beyond words. He was inside our door really.”
At her home near Terryglass, overlooking Lough Derg, she scans a framed memento. Husband Alan put together this collage. Pictures of Gordon and emblems of famous venues decorate the glass.
“Sydney, Dubai, Longchamp, York, York again, Royal Ascot, Paris again, the Curragh, Leopardstown, Qipco Champions Day. I think that’s Qatar.”
She still speaks about those days with a certain wonder.
“This house is part of Gordon’s legacy. He helped us out with a lot of things. We were able to bring Dad’s sisters to Hong Kong. I wouldn’t in a million years try to recreate it because you’d be broke trying. He’s looked after us all very well. Two of my best mates came to Hong Kong with me. I wouldn’t have been able to do that. The biggest part of it was being able to fly people to places like that.”
The windfall, in prize money alone, topped €2m. Yet his beginning was as unpromising as they come. For a modest bid, Jessica secured her first purchase at the sales. Not many considered their venture a bargain.
“I went to the sales with my brother Thomas,” she recalls. ‘It was really Thomas spotted him. It was my first time to pinhook. Everything that we had followed through was way out of our budget. We were hoping one might slip through the net.
“There was nobody bidding and I remember Thomas nudging me. And you know when you’re heart’s racing because you haven’t done anything like this before? I put my hand up and it was bid and it was sold at €2,000. We were committed after that.”
First impressions were so-so.
“He walked well. They say once they can walk, they can gallop. His pedigree wouldn’t excite you. To my very untrained eye, I thought he was lovely.”
Dad was typically cool.
“Sure, he’s grand.”
Recouping the fee was hardly a stretch. In Jessica’s words, “Gordon was to be gone after the year.”
2009, the year following, recession had taken hold. Morgan, a lifetime in the game, noted a worrisome sign.
“We tried to get the horse back into the sales but there was no bid,” his daughter recounts. “I remember Dad saying he never had a horse go to the sales with no bid written in the Racing Post.”
They scrambled a new plan. David, youngest of the three Cahalans, broke the horse at home in South Park.
“He was a brat,” Jessica insists. ‘He was really cross and really coltish and kind of hard to handle.”
Hogan, a longtime family friend, entered the fray. Convinced of the colt’s ability, he struck a deal to cover the training fees. Jessica remembers his enthusiasm.
“Tom loved him. He knew there was something and he said that from very early on. He made it work that we could afford to keep him. Only for Tom, we would have cut our losses a lot sooner.”
July 2010, all eyes turned to Roscommon for a two-year-old maiden.
“I remember watching him jump out from the stalls and just that sinking, ‘Oh my God’ feeling. It looked like he had broken his leg. It was just horrendous. It was only for Tom stopped them putting him down. Because it was borderline. He needed a year off to recuperate.”
MARY Baron grew up by the seaside on Dublin’s southside. Dalkey, stately and serene, was home. One weekend away with friends altered her path. Barbara Wilkinson’s brother had taken over Paddy’s Bar in Terryglass. So the girls were parachuted in to work a few shifts, get the place going.
Morgan Cahalan, the story goes, queried his change. So began a love affair.
“Being a typical farmer, he didn’t take kindly to being shortchanged,” Jessica relates. “I think it was just a weekend that ended up in a marriage proposal. It was quite cool.”
John Kenny, Morgan’s best mate, also found romance, another girl from Dublin. Mary’s great pal, Linda Anderson, joined her in the country. So two new couples formed following one chance weekend in 1972. Today, they live just two miles apart.
Life became more interesting still when the new Mrs Cahalan began teaching English as a foreign language. She came to Tipperary with a BA and a H.Dip (Ed) from Trinity College, and quickly put her academic talent to use, converting an old cellar into a school. Her children soon became accustomed to the sound of exotic accents: Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, even Japanese.
“These girls would come from a tiny apartment in Tokyo,” Jessica details. “Suddenly they’re on this vast farm and my dad’s delivering lambs left, right and centre. They absolutely loved it. At one stage, Mum taught Gianni Versace’s brother. He cut Mum and Dad’s hair.”
Farming, an increasingly hard way of life in 1980s Ireland, was part of the appeal for students. The language courses were short and intense, usually two weeks at a time. Visitors were immersed in the household, experiencing all that the hosts had to offer.
During the day, they might go herding, spend time surveying the latest arrivals. One student, enthralled by lambing season, vowed, “Oh Morgan, I’ll have you as my midwife.”
Horses were always the high point, even for family.
“A foal is a much bigger event. And we’d always be a bit more tense. You lamb 300 ewes, you foal eight to 10 mares. They’re a lot more expensive. The bedding, the iodine, everything is checked. They’re minded a bit more because they’re more valuable. There’s nothing like a foal when it stands up for the first time with the big gangly legs. It doesn’t get old for me. It’s fabulous.”
Late 2002, their lives took an unexpected turn. Morgan hurt his back in October and the pain persisted through New Year. Osteoporosis, his initial diagnosis, made less and less sense.
An appointment in the Mater Private finally uncovered the full extent of his problem: multiple myeloma cancer. Essentially, an excessive amount of paraprotein in the blood was causing his vertebrae to shrink. His hunched appearance gives him away.
Stem cell transplants were a new treatment at the time, though hindsight places him on the right side of fortune. Back then, nothing felt timely.
“Dad underwent very intense chemo. I had the lambing going on. Thomas had God knows how many horses at the time. David was away. Mum was teaching. Poor Dad was in and out of hospital. He was able to start with Thalidomide but his hands and feet started to go numb, which are the side effects. If that happens, you have to come off it.”
Every cancer patient has their own marker of the illness.
“The biggest thing for my dad was the hair loss because he has an amazing head of hair. I took him into the hairdresser and he got a tight cut. He hadn’t been made to cut his hair that short since he had been in school with the Cistercians in Roscrea. He resented that so much at the time he never let it happen again.”
Stark thoughts shaped his frame of reference.
“Cancer was a death sentence for my dad’s generation. When people found out, we started to hear about so many people who had survived.”
Prospects were still uncertain as he emerged from the treatment. Only now is it clear the scope of his recovery.
“He’s the longest surviving multiple myeloma stem cell transplant patient in Ireland. His doctors are astonished that it’s done what it’s done. He’s in pain all day, every day, with his back. He is in-credibly strong willed that he can just deal with it.”
2012, another swerve. This time, Mary was stricken.
“Mum had breast cancer. She had the hair loss, the bad nails, the nausea. She’s had the all-clear but it still takes years to really recover from that kind of treatment. Both of them have bounced back, which is wonderful.”
Amid all this upheaval, their lives were changing for the better. And in the most extraordinary way.
“Gordon couldn’t have come along at a better time. It was a decade of our lives of just pure fun. It was difficult to come back to reality sometimes after the trips. We were always looking forward to a trip.”
This colt, sired by Byron, took the poet’s full name at Mary’s prompting.
“Mum named him and it was a very grand name. But he well and truly earned his grandeur.”
Yet he tested their patience. His comeback run, at the Curragh in 2011, saw him finish 14th of 14. Or, as Morgan declared, “A bad last.”
Next time out, a three-year-old maiden in Bellewstown, came the first hint. He was second that day. Over the winter, he picked up two wins at Dundalk.
June 2012, they pitched up at Royal Ascot, vying for the Wokingham. But they had taken a gamble to get there. With four wins to his name, Gordon was gaining attention. Jessica sets the scene.
“Dad and I are paring sheep’s feet in a shed. A gross job. Thomas comes down. He said: ‘Somebody’s rang. It’s a serious offer.’ I think it was €125,000. We didn’t miss a beat. ‘No, we’re really enjoying it. We’re going to go to Royal Ascot.’ Thomas was really furious. He was like, ‘We sell horses. This was the whole point.’ We were totally caught up in the whole romance of it.”
Gordon came home middle of the pack.
“There were a couple of sleepless nights afterwards.”
They rerouted, landing at York two months later. Victory was one thing, rider’s verdict a different order.
“William Buick came off and said, ‘That horse should be in the Foret in France. That’s the race for him.’ Somehow we managed to supplement him.”
The trip to Longchamp yielded his first Group 1. For Jessica, York remains seminal.
“That’s the most memorable day for me. Weatherbys brought us for lunch. Everyone fed off our nervous energy. So everyone backed the horse. It was just the most surreal experience.
“We come from point-to-pointers and National Hunt horses. And the Yorkshire people, because there’s an association with Lord Byron, he got the most incredible reception for a listed race. He arrived that day.”
Three generations of the Cahalan family witnessed Gordon in action. Holly, Jessica Maguire’s daughter, joined the horde in 2016.
“She was about six weeks old when he won the Greenlands at the Curragh. She probably saw two or three wins. She went out to Tom’s and gave him carrots a few times. She loved him.”
For all his talent on the track, Gordon had kinks to match. He took notions his handlers were willing to humour.
“Everyone that ever looked after him had multiple bruises. If I was petting Gordon, I’d be fully aware of where his teeth were at all times. They say there’s a quirk in the good ones and never try to lose it. He was an absolute brat but a wonderful brat.”
They knew his tells when form was good.
“The way he walked, he was really aggressive and forward. It was all business with him. If he was going racing some days, he’d get halfway up the ramp and just stand. The 12 Apostles wouldn’t move him. He’d walk on when he was ready. He did it in Chantilly one time and held up the whole place.”
Other times, a rival might trigger him.
“One of the Queen’s horses in Hong Kong he disliked. His ears would go back and he would back his way towards the horse.”
Life without him will always seem strange but they know better than to chase the Grail.
“I don’t think I could try put myself through that. My grandfather, my father and myself have tried to get one horse like Gordon. So I wouldn’t ever think that it would happen again.”
One task remains.
“Mother’s working on a monument for him at home. She’s just getting the right Byron quote for him. And she will. She’ll come up with a good one.”
Mary’s search for a suitable epitaph led to the “noble steed” from Mazeppa, Byron’s narrative poem of 1819. Her chosen line captures Gordon in flight.
“Who looked as though the speed of thought/Were in his limbs.”
Only spoken words fly away.
This piece appears in the
Irish Racing Yearbook 2021.
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