INSTINCT has no mathematical formula and is not easy to explain, although it undoubtedly evolves with experience. Ultimately though, it is not about consulting notes or consciously harping back on the past but placing your faith in the gut.
The Honourable Michael Morris was not immersed in equestrian life from the outset, although his father, Michael Snr – the third Baron Killanin – was chairman of Galway Racecourse. But once Junior went with his three siblings to Iris Kellett’s riding school on Mespil Road, not far from their Lansdowne Road residence, he knew where his future lay.
Now, with never more than 40 tenants at his Everardsgrange yard just outside Fethard, the 68-year-old has seven Cheltenham Festival victories to go with his three as a rider, the Gold Cup (War Of Attrition), Champion Chase (Buck House) and Stayers’ Hurdle (Trapper John) all included in the CV.
Add to those the Grand National (Rule The World), the Irish Grand National (Hear The Echo, Rogue Angel). Think also of First Lieutenant, Fota Island, China Rock, What A Question, Baily Green, Alcapone, His Song, Cahervillahow and Lastofthebrownies.
It is evident that there was and is something innate in the man known throughout as Mouse where horses were and are concerned. But it isn’t his only gift.
The 68-year-old has a stunning portfolio of photographs taken over the years. They have never been exhibited. They should be. The camera is always in the car so that he can pull over whenever his eye is drawn.
He scrolls through some on his phone. The baby herons, looking directly down the lens with mouth agape. A landscape shot in Clifden, an awesome Portmarnock sky, his string on a frosty morning, or the pre-Cheltenham ritual of bringing his Festival runners to Tramore beach to freshen the minds prior to decamping for Prestbury Park.
He even created his own video depicting his 75-acre amenity in all its glory – the four-furlong sand gallop that surrounds a grass schooling strip, the mile-round grass gallop that is circled once or twice a couple of times a week before concluding with a steep uphill climb, and the uphill mile woodchip gallop. And of course, as befits the artist’s eye, some well-chosen early-morning sequences in frost and snow to provide the visual value.
All of it is instinctive, just as it is with nurturing the youngsters in his yard. What does he see before deciding to push on or hold off?
“I couldn’t tell you,” comes the honest answer. “I couldn’t explain but I just know. I could say, ‘We’re going to do this, that and the other.’ By the time we’re up in the gallop I could have changed my mind when I’ve seen them walking around.”
The results speak for themselves, which is why the likes of J.P. McManus, John and Sue Magnier, Michael and John O’Flynn, Dermot Desmond and Adam Scott are among the long-time popular supporters, and why Brian Acheson (Robcour) has joined the team with a quartet of bright prospects.
Michael O’Flynn got it right when describing Morris as “an artist, as distinct from a commercial horse trainer” and the cap certainly fits over the still hirsute but now grey mane.
The Galwegian suffered the blow of losing Alpha Des Obeaux and others when Gigginstown House Stud removed him from their roster of trainers last year, about 13 months after bagging the National double for the O’Learys and providing them with their maiden Gold Cup.
The Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition and Davy Russell jumping in style \ Mouse Morris
He doesn’t do recrimination though. Indeed, he praises Eddie for the calibre of horse he buys, referencing Fantasio D’alene, the best of the point-to-pointers he had for them last term, who won a bumper in Punchestown for Gordon Elliott 10 days ago.
“Nothing surprises me in this game. You move on. We haven’t fallen out or anything like that. As I said at the time, I started without them and I’ll finish without them. I lasted a lot longer than I thought I would!
“After the other horses went away we just said it was going to take a year or two to get going again and we’re starting with very young horses. I have seven or eight youngsters there that should be nice. At my age, you need something to get you up in the morning. There’s lots of times you’d say you’d sell up and shag off to Spain or something but jeez I’d be bored stiff.”
Mouse Morris' string in the early morning mist /Mouse Morris
Acheson owns two winning point-to-pointers, French Dynamite and Largyfix, who were bought at Cheltenham in May for £165,000 and £170,000 just days after winning in Tralee and Loughanmore for Donnchadh Doyle and Stuart Crawford.
The former, “a gorgeous horse” resides in Buck House’s stable, which may be a signal itself. Already an imposing figure, he is still “backward” but clearly possesses a sound temperament judging by his interaction with Major, the 10-week-old German Shepherd pup named after the owner’s favourite cigarette brand who is an energetic sidekick for Bowie, so named for a Ziggy Stardust style discoloured eye.
Both (horses, not dogs) are slated to appear around Christmas, while Acheson also owns a Getaway four-year-old that Morris bought last year named Flying Colum, as well as an own-sister to Synchronised.
“I’d buy the horse first. There are some stallions I’d like but it’s the horse first. I’ve two magnificent Leading Lights. There’s one of them now, if he’s not a racehorse I’ll give it up.”
The four-year-old certainly looks the part and has the 10-years-older First Lieutenant next door to teach him the tricks of the trade, in the unlikely event that Morris misses out on anything.
“You need numbers and hopefully they’ll come back. I was able to pick up a few at the sales. I’d have 30 or 32. I never had much more than 35 to be honest. It’s just the way it worked out. I can accommodate 40 but that’s max.”
That was why he was never one for ego entries cross-channel.
“Ah no. Sure they can make fools of you in Naas or Kilbeggan, so there’s no point!”
If they were travelling, they were doing so with a chance. And oh how they plundered the major prizes. Prize money was poor in those days though and when he suffered a lull in fortunes, tax inspectors and sheriffs came calling. But he kept the ship afloat.
“You’re always chasing the tail in this business, apart from the top few. If I was an accountant I’d have given it up years ago. It’s kind of survival. You need the numbers to make money and I don’t have them. Expenses are so high now. I’m lucky with my staff – I’ve very good staff. And a very good secretary, Marie Curtin to keep the bills paid, I’m no good at it!”
Then along came War Of Attrition and a solid bank of achievement right up to the National double in 2016. The Nationals arrived just 11 months after the tragic death by carbon monoxide poisoning of Morris’ son Tiffer (Christopher) and friend Munra Borghi while travelling in Argentina, but while Aintree especially had a huge sentimental value, the highlight came much earlier.
“The Gold Cup won’t be beaten. The two Nationals were great. I kind of lost the plot a bit after the English one. What you see is what you get with me. I’d take any of them of course and lots of fellas haven’t won either. I’m lucky enough to have won both. But the Gold Cup is the one.
“Rule The World was a classy horse except he had so many problems. It was very hard to keep him right. War Of Attrition had everything. He stayed, he had boot, he jumped. His only fall was in a point-to-point at Horse And Jockey before we bought him.”
A really positive legacy from what happened to Tiffer was that it raised awareness around carbon monoxide emissions. Morris and his family did interviews for that reason, despite the rawness of their torment.
“I know we’ve saved a couple of people’s lives by talking about it. I know of two cases where they went out and bought an alarm because they heard us talking on the radio and the alarm went off.”
Both his parents were awarded MBEs, his mother Sheila for her services as a cryptographer during World War II, his father, also Michael, for his role in planning in the D-Day landings.
Dad was also Lord Killanin, who co-produced The Quiet Man with legendary director John Ford, who was godfather to Mouse’s twin John. Mouse’s father was also president of the International Olympic Committee from 1972 to the conclusion of the Moscow Games in 1980.
“I remember CIA fellas coming to the house in Dublin. (American president) Jimmy Carter was trying to get them to boycott Russia.”
Mouse’s older brother Redmond is flourishing in the movie business now and boasts Michael Collins, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Interview With A Vampire, The Butcher Boy and The Reader among his credits now as a producer.
Actor Stephen Rea is a close friend and, along with Oscar-winning director Neil Jordan, owned Christys Picnic, who Morris trained to win the Midlands National in 1997.
The Morris clan split their time equally between their ancestral home in Spiddal House and Lansdowne Road. It is the west that holds Mouse’s heart though. Hence the maroon Galway reg car (complete with silver mouse on bonnet), maroon cap and maroon jacket.
The Galway flag flying high on a mast is another giveaway. Inside, he excitedly shows you a sliotar from the 2017 All-Ireland Hurling Final won by the Tribesmen, signed by referee Fergal Horgan.
“I’m very proud to be from Spiddal,” he tells you simply.
Dyslexia dogged his time in school. He boarded in Ampleforth College in England before finally having enough of being branded stupid and beaten for it. So at 15, he “ran away” and hid up a tree until it became too late to go.
His parents accepted his decision to turn his attention to racing, and he rode out for Brian Cooper in Portmarnock. After that he spent two years with Frenchie Nicholson, before moving to Tipperary with Willie O’Grady and then his son Edward.
“Frenchie was tough. If he thought you were cold, he’d keep you out longer at the top of Cleeve Hill. And by Jesus it was cold up there! It was up to you. If you wanted to, you learned. If you didn’t, you didn’t stay long.”
A crushing fall in the Colonial Cup in Carolina at the end of 1977, the same year he garnered a second consecutive Champion Chase on Skymas and got his name on the Irish Grand National roll of honour with Billycan, left him with a broken leg from which he never really recovered.
“The year I broke my leg I was leading the jockeys’ championship and I was out for 14 or 15 months. It just wouldn’t knit. I probably never rode as well after, if the truth be known. I got a lot of falls and breaks after, one after the other. Niggly breaks, shoulders and that. One right shoulder and everything else was down my left. It was extraordinary. Collarbones, hips, ankles. For a few years I got away with it but then they all came at the one time.”
Mouse Morris' horses heading to work / Mouse Morris
Morris took out the licence in 1981, while still riding, because he could see the writing on the wall. Although Buck House was winning the Supreme Novices’ two years later, he had seen enough of horses being gunned too early to resolve to play the long game.
His policy is always to tell trainers if their charge isn’t talented. As a result, they will give him time to work his magic, and replace stock that isn’t up to scratch.
“There’s nothing worse than looking at a slow horse. And the owners get pissed off paying for them. A horse will normally show – even as a baby – he’ll show you something. It does happen but very rarely will a horse show you nothing early and turn out to be a good one.”
Sams Profile is his most high-profile operator in the string, having been runner-up in two Grade 1s and finished fifth in the Ballymore at Cheltenham in between. It was presumed that the Cragmore maiden winner for Mick Goff he would be making the transition to larger obstacles. Certainly, the absolutely fabulous looking giant has the size.
Sams Profile - "He’s doing very little now but there’s plenty time for that from Christmas" / Healy Racing
“I would normally go chasing but to be honest with you, he’s just immature. He hasn’t taken the training the way I hoped he would. So we said we’d give him a bit of time until Christmas. As it turns out, it mightn’t be a bad thing because there are so many good novice chasers coming out. There’s bucket loads of them this year.
“We’re just taking a bit of a pull with him. If he’s not out ‘til Christmas, there’s no way he’d get the experience for Cheltenham. So we’ll probably pencil in the Stayers’ Hurdle for him. He’s doing very little now but there’s plenty time for that from Christmas.”
All going well on reappearance, the probable route will entail a mouth-watering clash with Tiger Roll in the Boyne Hurdle, a race Trapper John took in 1990 on his way to Cheltenham glory.
“He’s just a big baby. He’s a gorgeous horse but he’s like a tank. He’s a chest on him, it’s unbelievable.”
HRI Awards 2016 and Mouse wins the special achievement awards / Carolinenorris.ie
The excitement is palpable and is that of a man in thrall to these horses and his role in facilitating the realisation of all their possibilities.
“A Sun Alliance (Ballymore) or one of those would be nice with one of the young horses next March. There’s one or two that would be on the shortlist but the bubble often bursts. They’ll be stepping up to the mark now. There’s a few of them virtually ready to run from November onwards. The season doesn’t really get going ‘til then.
“It’s a funny sort of the programme to be honest with you. I think the first four-year-old only race is in Wexford. There are four-year-old bumpers but I’m not a great fan of them. I think you have to empty a horse too much to win a bumper now. It’s very competitive. I’d like to win one too but I wouldn’t want to have done as much as might be needed to be done with a young horse to win it.
“As long as I keep enjoying it and I have the support, I’ll keep doing it.”