Legends of the sport: Irish showjumper Eddie Macken *H&H Plus*

  • Penny Richardson charts the career of the brilliant Irish showjumper and his partnership with quadruple Hickstead Derby winner Boomerang

    Ireland is a country full of equestrian myths and legends and among her modern-day tales is that of a man who in the 1970s bestrode the world of international showjumping like a colossus.

    Eddie Macken now lives in Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic from his beginnings in a small town in Co. Longford, but he has never been forgotten in his home country. In 2015, a project by 27 schoolchildren, which included his great niece, called for a statue in his honour to be erected in Granard, the place of his birth.

    It wasn’t only in Ireland that this unassuming man was a superstar. In 1982, the BBC made a documentary on his partnership with his great horse Boomerang and two years later, he was the subject of ITV’s This is Your Life.

    Surprisingly, Eddie doesn’t come from a family of horsemen and he often insists that much of his success was due to being in the right place at the right time.

    “We were farmers and butchers, but I always loved horses. Like many small children still do, I practised on the arms of chairs and then taught myself to ride on the pony that worked on the farm,” he remembers.

    Young Eddie’s interest in showjumping was sharpened after Irish rider Seamus Hayes won the first Derby at Hickstead in 1961, and every day after school Eddie would hone his skills at the local riding school run by vet Brian Gormley and his wife Ann.

    The Gormleys must have recognised the latent talent in their young pupil, as it was through them that Eddie got his first big break.

    “They were friends of Iris Kellett and in 1969 they arranged for me to go to her stables in Dublin as a working student,” he says.

    This was a huge opportunity, as Iris was herself a top international showjumper and renowned trainer. “For the first five or six months I never even sat on a horse,” says Eddie. “Instead, I worked on the yard and learnt the basics, mainly mucking out. I think that’s something every young rider should do.”

    It didn’t take long for Iris to recognise that she had found a diamond in 20-year-old Eddie and just six months after she allowed him to start riding her horses, he was on his first Irish team. It wasn’t just any team, either. Eddie had been selected for Dublin in 1970, the Mecca for every Irish showjumper.

    Eddie’s mount was Morning Light, the horse that had carried his boss to victory in the ladies’ European Championship at the same showground the previous year, so the pressure to perform well was intense.

    “It was a bit of an experience,” says Eddie, with typical understatement. “I didn’t really have time to be nervous. I was mostly hoping that I wouldn’t let everyone down by taking the wrong course!”

    He didn’t. The home team won the 1970 Aga Khan Trophy and Eddie was now Iris Kellett’s stable jockey.

    ‘The most beautiful rider’

    It was in that same year that Eddie met the horse who really made his name. After being started by his owner-breeder Jimmy Murphy, the thoroughbred/Irish Draught gelding Boomerang arrived for training at Iris’ finishing school.

    Eddie first rode him as a four- and five-year-old. “As a young horse, Boomerang was very, very difficult in the mouth, but really careful too. He jumped a lot of clear rounds, but he didn’t make the best shape. His front legs were a bit long and dangly and looking back on it, it’s hard to see how good he would become,” says Eddie.

    At the start of his six-year-old season, Boomerang moved to Britain after being sold to Ted Edgar, whose wife Liz took over the ride.

    “Liz was the most beautiful rider. She put in the time and the flatwork that laid the foundation for Boomerang to become the horse he did. I owe her everything,” says Eddie, who became a firm friend of the Edgars.

    “Ted was an amazing man who was ahead of his time. Whenever I was in England, I used to go to him for flatwork help and whenever I had a problem, he was the first person I’d ask for advice,” explains Eddie.

    One of Eddie’s first top rides for Iris Kellett was Pele. Later known as Kerrygold due to a sponsorship deal, Pele was shared by Eddie with another Kellett trainee, Paul Darragh, who rode him to victory in the 1975 Hickstead Derby.

    “Pele was a lovely horse and riding him would have been the highlight of most peoples’ careers,” says Eddie. “He was so kind and willing that anyone would have felt safe on him. He might not have had the fight and carefulness of Boomerang, but he was still a fantastic horse.”

    Pele was Eddie’s chosen mount when the World Championships were held at Hickstead in 1974. They went there more in hope than expectation, as neither horse nor rider had much experience at the level. Despite this, they came agonisingly close to glory, taking silver after a jump-off against Germany’s Hartwig Steenken.

    “Looking back on it, I was too innocent and didn’t know if I was coming or going by the jump-off,” admits Eddie.

    ‘A hard decision’

    However, this result was the catalyst for Eddie’s first move to Germany.

    “After Hickstead, I had job offers from all over the world. It was a hard decision to leave Ireland, but I needed to go somewhere different if I wanted to really succeed on the international stage. Paul Schockemöhle offered me the most attractive deal,” explains Eddie, whose new job was riding for German oil magnate Dr Herbert Schnapka, owner of many horses at the Schockemöhle yard.

    In early 1975, Eddie had taken his then top horse Easter Parade to Hickstead’s spring meeting and after the show was cancelled due to bad weather, it was thought that the gelding would enjoy some time in the field.

    “Something must have spooked him, he tried to jump out over post-and-rail fencing, misjudged it and broke his back,” says Eddie, who was then left with no top ride.

    But in the yard was Boomerang, then Paul Schockemöhle’s speed horse. Also owned by Dr Schnapka, the gelding had many riders in the Netherlands and Belgium after being sold on by Ted Edgar.

    “Paul suggested that I ride Boomerang until I found something better,” says Eddie. “He wasn’t a great prospect at the time because he’d been through the mill and was stopping. He’d been mucked around and was still as difficult to ride as he had been as a young horse.”

    The big breakthrough came when Eddie tried Boomerang in a bitless bridle. “He was a different horse straight away. He’d always been very brave, but he’d just become confused,” says Eddie.

    It truly was a match made in heaven. Boomerang is most remembered as the horse who won four consecutive Hickstead Derbies, but he was actually so much more. From 1975 to 1979, he and Eddie won 32 major grands prix and Derbies and record prize-money of £250,000 (around £1.5m today). Dr Schnapka gave the horse to Eddie in 1977 and Boomerang repaid his new owner by helping him to top the world rankings for three consecutive years.

    In 1978, Eddie travelled to Aachen for the World Championships, determined that Boomerang would erase the heartache of his narrow miss four years earlier at Hickstead.

    “I had lived with that defeat for four years and vowed that it would be different next time,” he said beforehand.

    It wasn’t to be. Boomerang never touched a pole throughout the competition, but in the final – when the best four riders overall used to partner each other’s horses to decide the champion – Eddie miscalculated the time on Dutchman Johan Heins’ Pandur Z. He collected a quarter of a fault and again had to be content with the silver medal.

    “It was a stupid mistake that I shouldn’t have made and I felt really bad for my horse, who deserved to be champion,” says Eddie. “I have to admit that missing out on individual gold for the second time was really disappointing, but that’s the way the sport goes. I didn’t have much luck in the European Championships either, but I did win four medals altogether, which is something to be really proud of.”

    A fractured pedal bone meant retirement for Boomerang at the early age of 13 to Rafeehan Stud in Kells, Co. Meath, then the base of Eddie and his first wife Susanne. Sadly, the son of Battle Burn, also the sire of Harvey Smith’s dual Hickstead Derby winner Mattie Brown, did not enjoy retirement and with his foot deteriorating, he was put down after three years.

    Not forgetting his roots

    After Boomerang and Pele retired, Eddie continued in international competition, but without the real star horse that would recapture those glory days. By 1996 he was back in Germany, riding for industrialist Michael Nixdorf and after meeting Kathi Ballentine, later to become his second wife, he moved to Canada in the early 2000s.

    He and Kathi now live at New Kells Farm in Langley, British Columbia, close to the Thunderbird international show centre. Named after Boomerang’s final resting place, Kells, Co. Meath, the property comprises 10 acres, with 20 stables and indoor and outdoor schools.

    However, Eddie didn’t forget his roots and continued riding for Ireland until his international career ended in 2010. Only two years before that, he was back at Hickstead for the first time in a decade and from there he went on to Dublin, where he was a member of the second-placed Nations Cup Irish team. In 2004 he had been appointed trainer to the Irish team in the lead-up to the Athens Olympics. A falling out with then team manager Tommy Wade over being given no input into selection meant that he was fired from the unsalaried position, then reinstated following a riders’ strike.

    “Despite what happened then, I would have loved the chance to be Irish chef d’équipe,” says Eddie, who then chose to concentrate on coaching and sourcing horses for his North American clients with the help of son Stevie.

    “Stevie and his family live in Florida and he commutes between there, Canada and Europe. He’s very good at what he does because he has a great eye for a horse,” says Eddie, whose other son, Jamie, worked in TV before starting his own sponsorship business.

    “Jamie rode as a kid and was very talented, but he chose another path. He has two children and a lovely life in Ireland,” says Eddie.

    At the age of 70, Eddie says that his riding days are now over. “The last time I sat on a horse was a year ago and to be honest, the younger generation of riders are now so much better than me,” he laughs. “I don’t work from home any more, but I travel to Florida to coach, which demands so much of my time.

    “I have two main pupils, Mexico’s Eugenio Garza Perez and American rider Eve Jobs. They were both 2019 Pan Am Games medallists and compete at top level, so although I’m no longer riding I’m still part of the international scene, which makes me happy and keeps me interested.”

    Eddie on Boomerang

    “Boomerang was a unique horse who was brilliant at everything he did. He was everything you wanted him to be and could jump anything you asked. I think he’s the best horse there’s ever been and I was very lucky to ride him. Our fourth Hickstead Derby win was the most precious.

    “The pressure was on to set a hopefully unbeatable record and the going was the worst I’d ever seen there. Other riders wanted the course modified but Dougie Bunn, God rest him, wouldn’t hear of it. Boomerang then gave his all.”

    Eddie on Iris Kellet

    “I feel very lucky to have been trained by Iris. She was the queen of Ireland at the time and although she could be a bit intimidating if you got things wrong, she was actually extremely kind.

    “As well as being a great rider, she was an unbelievable coach who made sure that I had all the basics right before I started my career.”

    Our sport’s future

    “I was selected for the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and then told I couldn’t go because I was a professional. I missed my chance because at that time Boomerang was probably the best horse in the world and although I had nice horses when I did make it in 1992 and 1996, they weren’t superstars.

    “I do think equestrian sports still have a place in the Olympics and although many people don’t like the change to three-man teams, it had to be done and was probably the right thing.

    “It’s easy to think of the good old days and I’m a traditionalist who loves the big grass arenas at Hickstead, Dublin and Aachen, but sport has to move with the times and at least ventures such as the Global Champions Tour [GCT] and League give talented riders the chance to earn a real living. Although the GCT is a good thing, I tell the riders I train that they should get grands prix and hopefully team appearances under their belt before doing those shows.

    “Another reservation is the cost of it all. Modern showjumping is a very demanding sport and horses cost so much these days. To be fair, it’s all relative. In my day, we thought it was great if a grand prix was worth £1,500 to the winner, but a good horse still costed us as much as a house would have done to buy!”

    The greatest feeling

    Only in Ireland would major roads in the capital be closed for a horse show and most of the country settle down to watch the Nations Cup on prime time TV.

    “When I made my final appearance in Dublin in 2008, I can’t remember whether I had been on the Irish team there 27 or 28 times, but the feeling of pride never went away. Every time you get the chance to try to win the Aga Khan Trophy for your nation, it’s like a dream come true. It’s the highlight of every Irish rider’s career and always should be.”

    Remembered forever

    After Boomerang’s death, he was buried at Rafeehan Stud in a grave surrounded by four evergreen trees. This symbolised this remarkable horse’s four consecutive Hickstead Derby triumphs, four clear rounds in the final of the 1978 World Championship, four double clears in a row in Nations Cups at Dublin and four Horse of the Year Show grand prix wins.

    It is the latter feat that Eddie considers their greatest. “At the time, the show at Wembley was the best in Europe and to win a class there was a huge achievement. When Boomerang won the grand prix three years in a row, it was amazing.

    “He should have made it four the next year, but we had the last fence down in the fastest time. Then we came back and won it again. Those four wins at Wembley were definitely the highlights of my career.”

    Eddie Macken in numbers

    4 consecutive Hickstead Derby triumphs

    £250,000 Boomerang’s record prize money

    3 consecutive Aga Khan Cup wins with the Irish team

    4 Horse of the Year Show grand prix wins

    2 individual silver world medals

    Ref Horse & Hound; 25 June 2020

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