Eliogarty – the horse who made Cheltenham and Aintree history

  • Posted: Friday, 22nd May 2020
  • Author: Carl Evans
  • Photo: Healy Racing

When in 1980 Caroline Beasley and her father Jeremy viewed two unraced horses in an Irish field they were offered a future Champion Hurdle winner.

A three-year-old, they turned him down, yet it can never be said they lost out. Instead they opted for his paternal half-brother, a five-year-old who had been spun by vets for a wind problem when put through an auction 12 months earlier and had subsequently been hobdayed. By such quirks of fate history is made, for while the three-year-old became Gaye Brief, winner in 1983 of hurdling's greatest prize for Mercy Rimell's stable, the horse purchased by the Beasleys – and who had already been named Eliogarty after an area near Thurles – carried Miss Beasley to victory in that same year's Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase.

The success meant she became the first woman to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, and three years later she became the first of her sex to win a race over Liverpool's Grand National fences when steering Eliogarty to victory in Aintree's Foxhunters' Chase.

Each of those wins was gained in scintillating style, with precision jumping and a notable turn of foot which more or less ensured victory before the home turn. Yet Eliogarty was durable too, racing for eight seasons from the stables of four trainers, winning 23 races and finishing placed in eight – he deserves a place among the true greats of hunter chasing.

As a six-year-old he won two of Punchestown's famous banks races in consecutive days – his owner had broken her wrist the previous weekend but was not deterred from riding her horse – and yet as a 12-year-old he retained enough ability to finish fourth and second in the Cheltenham and Aintree Foxhunters' Chase and third in Stratford's Champion Hunters' Chase (Horse & Hound Cup).

Now living in Shropshire where life revolves around three adult children and a farm which contains a pig-rearing unit and a yard of point-to-pointers, Caroline – who trains under her married name of Robinson – says: "I started in point-to-points in 1978 and after riding a few winners and placed horses decided it was the route I wanted to follow. Before that I had been involved in showjumping and eventing.

"Through a family contact I was offered a place in a yard run by John Hassett in County Clare. John was a vet and it was the era when interval training was becoming popular so it was an interesting time. I went for a month to learn more and to buy a horse to bring back to England, but it didn't work out like that and I stayed for a number of years.

"The first horse I went to see was Eliogarty, who was turned out with the three-year-old who became Gaye Brief. They were being offered for sale by their breeder, Phil Sweeney. He said to Dad, 'You can have them both for 10,000 Punts [Irish pounds],' but Dad said 'No, we came for one,' and so we left with Eliogarty."

It is fair to assume that a young Englishwoman in rural Ireland was an easy target for the sort of humour prevalent in many workplaces, and not least racing stables. Go back 40 years and the workforce in stables was almost exclusively male, but since race riding is not for wimps there was no point in the new member of staff being soft about the challenges.

A horse good enough to get out of trouble

Robinson says: "I loved Ireland, partly because of the success I was to have. I was an English girl from a privileged background who found herself in the depths of County Clare, and I had to prove I was tough enough. A couple of times in races they tried it on with me, but in Eliogarty I had a horse good enough to get me out of trouble.

"He was really naughty to start off – he was a lovely horse, but he knew how to turn, lock his shoulder and buck you off, and he did that throughout his life. Initially he was trained by John Hassett, but after a couple of years I moved to Meath, which was a bit livelier, for a job with Barry Kelly. One day Eliogarty dropped me and the lads were taking the mickey saying 'She can't ride him at home', so I turned round and said to one of them, 'Okay, you ride him tomorrow'. Sure enough, my horse didn't let me down, and the next day he dropped the lad."

That is one of many entertaining anecdotes from Robinson's time in Ireland, a country which retains a sense of happy, well-organised confusion. She relates tales of being sent to the races after work with the next day's runners, expecting to find a stable and lodging but discovering the course had closed for the night. On another occasion while driving home in the dark in a Land Rover with a trailer and two horses on board she discovered a way of changing a wheel without a jack. By rummaging in a hedgerow a lump of wood was procured, and by backing the trailer onto it the wheel rose off the ground. That initiative and determination serves race riders well.

In March 1981 the six-year-old Eliogarty and his new owner/rider lined up in a maiden point-to-point at Clonmel and won, and a week later they were successful at the same course in a winner's of one race [restricted race]. They followed that up with a win at Athenry, and then went to Punchestown for what would be their first outing in a 'hunters' chase', albeit the contest was the Ladies' Cup run over the banks course. In an article published in 2008 the Irish Examiner referred to 'the Punchestown banks' as 'a truly mad challenge' requiring 'an element of madness among the jockeys'. In that regard the English challenger was becoming quite Irish.

Robinson says: "A week earlier I had broken my wrist in a fall at Galway, but I didn't want to miss the ride on Eliogarty so went home and cut the plaster off. John's wife was a doctor, so we had to hide it from her, and after taking half a sachet of horse bute I was fine. We won the Ladies' Cup [3m 1f] and the next day followed up with a win in the La Touche Cup [4m 2f]."

Missing out on a Cheltenham run

Eliogarty would have run in Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase as a seven-year-old, but after winning an open point-to-point at Carrigtwohill in February 1982 and a Wexford hunters' chase the following month he developed signs of laminitis which vets linked to the loading of carbohydrates in his diet. After a two-month break he was back with a point-to-point win before suffering his first defeat when second in a Limerick hunters' chase, but soon put that reverse behind him with wins at Killarney and Dundalk. At the latter venue (featured in main photo above) he won the Sweet Afton Hunters' Chase, a race he would land three years in a row.

Robinson moved to Meath with her horse and joined Kelly's yard, and as an eight-year-old Eliogarty made his first appearance in Britain, joining a field of 16 and starting favourite for Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase, yet Robinson was unfazed by the pressure.

She says: "We went to Cheltenham as the Irish banker of the meeting and it was my first ride at the Festival, but I owned the horse and didn't have to account to anybody, so felt I could just go out there and enjoy myself."

Held up in mid-division as the veteran Tied Cottage made the early running, Eliogarty had moved up into the leading group as they set out on the final circuit and was sitting in second as they headed down the final hill. As they turned the bend into the straight Eliogarty took the lead and skipped over the final two fences, and while Earls Brig (Jimmy Walton) and Compton Lad (Dermot Browne) looked threatening they had to settle for the places.

Robinson says: "Watching the race again always brings a lump to my throat. At one point I looked around and wondered where the other runners had gone he was doing it so easily. Out in the country it is so quiet when you are in a race like that, but after jumping the last the noise is crazy. As we pulled up hats and newspapers were flying in the air and it was wonderful to think so many people in the crowd were behind me.

You can view the race by clicking here

Back in Ireland Eliogarty's season continued with an unseat when looking set to win, a short-head defeat at the hands of Atha Cliath at Punchestown, but revenge on that horse in Dundalk's Sweet Afton. Atha Cliath, the mount of Willie Mullins, won that season's Aintree Foxhunters' Chase.

As a nine-year-old Eliogarty was aimed at the Irish and Aintree Grand Nationals, teeing up his bid with a Wexford hunters' chase victory. After plenty of debate about who should ride him at Aintree the job was given to professional jockey Donie Hassett (no relation of John) who rode him into 15th place. The race contained two other famous hunter chasers, namely Grittar (John Francome) who was tenth and Spartan Missile (John White) who finished 16th. Eliogarty was then tenth in the Irish National at Fairyhouse.

Returned to Hassett's stable and another season of hunter chasing as a ten-year-old, Eliogarty made two unsuccessful trips to Britain, finishing fifth behind Elmboy (Alan Hill) in Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase before unseating Robinson when breasting the seventh fence at Aintree in the race won by City Boy (Tim Thomson Jones). In his homeland he had better luck, winning a point at Westmeath, hunters' chases at Thurles and Punchestown and adding a third Sweet Afton at Dundalk.

After seven years in Ireland Robinson decided to move back to England, opting to experience life in Lambourn and placing her 11-year-old horse with licensed trainer David Murray-Smith. In contention when unseating at the 15th fence in Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase, Eliogarty was then a good second at Ludlow behind Border Burg, who would win the following year's Aintree Foxhunters' Chase under Alan Hill.

That run teed him up for another tilt at Aintree where he was equipped with a visor for the first time in the 1986 Foxhunters' Chase, although it was not Plan A, as Robinson recalls, saying: "I'd unseated from him the year before and we decided to run at Chepstow on the Monday beforehand, although David put in an entry at Aintree. Chepstow was called off, so we went to Aintree instead."

In a field of 20 Eliogarty jumped superbly, was sitting handy in fifth at the Canal Turn and took up the running three out. Favourite Venture To Cognac (Paul Webber) moved up to his tail in the home straight but Robinson was on a relatively fresh horse and after the last he pulled clear as his rider made racing history for a second time.

Robinson says: "He got into such a rhythm it was magical. At Becher's it was poetry in motion. We met every fence on the right stride and to travel round that course on a horse going that well was a dream. We jumped the last and went away."

Watch the race here

At the conclusion of that season Eliogarty moved to his fourth trainer, Michael Robinson, who had been an assistant trainer to Josh Gifford and Nicky Henderson and was ready to set up his own yard. Robinson and Caroline were in a relationship and subsequently married, and Eliogarty moved to a rented yard near West Lockinge. As a 12-year-old he held his form, winning on his first start for his new handler at Plumpton before following up at Kempton, and then taking fourth place behind Observe (Charlie Brooks) in Cheltenham's Foxhunter Chase.

That good effort suggested he would be a big player back at Aintree and he duly set off favourite for the 1987 Foxhunters' Chase, his nearest market rival being Border Burg. The rhythmical jumping of the previous year was not quite so evident, but Eliogarty's class kept him in touch and he was upsides Border Burg at the final fence. Alan Hill, on his first Aintree ride, drove Border Burg ahead as they touched down, and while Eliogarty stuck to the task he was a length and a half down at the line, with Fethard Friend (Philip Fenton) back in third.

It was another excellent effort by Robinson and her mount, and after a fall at Ascot and second spot at Folkestone they put up another good performance in a championship race when third to Three Counties in Stratford's Champion Hunters' Chase for the Horse & Hound Cup, albeit some way behind winner Three Counties (Katie Rimell) and Flying Ace (Doreen Calder).

Still winning in final season

Eliogarty's final season, when a 13-year-old, included wins at Towcester and Plumpton, a fall in Aintree's Foxhunters' Chase won by Newnham (Simon Andrews) and a farewell at Hereford in April 1987 when he finished fourth on firm ground.

Michael Robinson later trained another high-class horse in Slalom, who finished second to Rebel Song in the 1988 Gr.1 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, but after an economic downturn hit Britain he opted to try training abroad. Italy and the USA were considered before he moved with his wife to Ireland, but a few years later he retired from training and now lives in Oxfordshire.

He and Caroline separated and she moved home to Shropshire where she has made a success of training pointers. Her daughters Kitty and Immy have both ridden in points, and Immy's success on Pauline Harkin's Popaway at Cheltenham in 2016 was the first occasion a mother and daughter had ridden winners at Britain's leading Jump course. Immy's wins last season included three on her mother's best horse, The Dellercheckout, who is owned in a partnership which includes Michael Robinson.

Eliogarty lived until he was 22, when he contracted colic. Caroline says: "I did a bit of hunting with him after he retired, but he wasn't really interested in jumping at home – he seemed to say, 'I've been there and done that', and while he could be naughty he was clever too. When I was pregnant with Anthony, my first child, he knew he had to look after me. He'd done so much for me that when he retired I didn't feel the need to do any more with him.

"When he contracted colic I rang Sue Taylor, a local vet, who came round and put him down while I held him. He was wonderful for me and has left me with so many great memories."