Grand National build-up: The Mouse who roared

For a leading trainer, Grand National week is a test of nerve like no other – especially when you have to pull one of your two horses from the race. Mouse Morris tells Chris McGrath how life taught him to enjoy the lows, as well as the highs

The creases in his face are like the folds on a map, opened wearily every morning by a general at some deadlocked front line. Certainly, Mouse Morris can see something apt in the fact that the best horse he has trained should be named War Of Attrition. He gives a wry grimace, lights another cigarette. "Jesus, you could sing it." The voice is marinated in tobacco. "Jesus it's a nightmare. I often wonder why we do it."

Does he sometimes wonder, also, how things might have ended up, had he never been seduced by racehorses? If, say, he had instead spent his working life in some insurance office, nine-to-five, with none of these melodramatic highs and lows? He fixes you with a look. "Well, I might still be married," he says. "I'd probably have a bit of money. But I'd probably be dead." The face dissolves behind a haze of smoke, but its expression is evinced by a gravelly chuckle. "Because I'd probably have shot myself by now. What a boring life, huh? So boring, I'd probably have ended up the same way."

Which is to say, not exactly a paragon of domestic security, but very much alive. For here is a man who could never have been shoehorned into an unremarkable life. He sits at the kitchen table, surrounded by the cherished Galway landscapes he has preserved through his own gifts as a photographer. There is nothing monochrome about Mouse Morris, and if the colours have sometimes run red, they have also been laced with gold. Just outside the window, after all, is stabled the horse who brought the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself back to Co Tipperary in 2006.

As it happens, these cheery complaints about his vocation soon find the blackest vindication. When Morris pulls the blanket from War Of Attrition, his skin walnut dark in the shadows, the horse is not merely glowing with health, but downright effulgent. Morris cannot help himself. This horse, he makes clear, has one hell of a chance at Aintree. Then, on Monday morning, something is suddenly not quite right. In the afternoon, he telephones Michael O'Leary, his owner, and tells him that War Of Attrition will miss the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.

At least they have another entry. Hear The Echo, moreover, has already won a National – the Irish version, at Fairyhouse last April. And it would be typical of Aintree, of course, were he now to go ahead and win the bloody thing. For the time being, however, Morris could do worse than remember the last time he had to make such a call to O'Leary, two winters ago. War Of Attrition had broken down, and would be off the track for 22 months. The previous day, Morris had lost his mother. Her immediate bequest was half reproof, half comfort. Even a Gold Cup winner is only a horse. "It put it in perspective, absolutely," he admits. "It was head-wrecking morning. But Michael was great. He knew I was under pressure with the old lady. He took it like a man."

In a walk of life where pedigree is prized, Morris knew his debt to his parents. Never mind their patrician status, as Lord and Lady Killanin. Their true distinction ran deeper. The baron was a Renaissance man, who started off as president of the Footlights and ended up holding the same post on the International Olympic Committee; in between he helped in the planning of the D-Day landings, and collaborated with his friend, John Ford, in making The Quiet Man. His wife, meanwhile, had distinguished herself as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park. "She was in Hut 6," Morris says. "But she wouldn't ever talk about it. Neither of them would talk about the war. She was bound by the Secrets Act, but whatever she did, she got an MBE for it."

To Mouse, however, their finest hour came when he was 15, and about to be sent back to school at Ampleforth. "I went and hid up a tree, where we were living in Dublin, until I knew the plane was gone," he says. "I suppose I was up there a couple of hours. I remember looking at the top of the old man's head as he was calling out my name. The school was probably all right, but I hated it. I was dyslexic, something that was only just getting noticed at that time. And when you can't even write in English, it's very hard to write in French or Latin."

Eventually Mouse scrambled down the tree and presented himself. "I imagine I expected a bit of a bollocking, but no. I don't think they were very happy, but once they got over the initial shock, they let me start riding out at a small stable outside Dublin, and gave me a tutor in the afternoons. It turned out he was mad keen on racing himself, and we'd always end up just talking horses. Back then, you know, going off riding wouldn't have been the thing. But they were very liberal. Same with my elder brother. He gave up Trinity, and they said: 'Go and do what you want to do.' He hasn't looked back."

Indeed Redmond, the fourth baron, now has a flourishing career a film producer, his latest credit being The Reader. Mouse quickly won plaudits in his chosen walk of life, too. Big wins as a rider included successive Champion Chases on Skymas, and when he turned his hand to training, 28 years ago, he soon stumbled across the outstanding Buck House. "I've been very lucky," he emphasises. "For a small yard I've had some great horses. But then any eejit could train a good horse. It's the middle-of-the-road bastards..."

His real problems, however, came in trying to run a business. Never one to waste his patrons' money, he was hopeless with his own. If he had any, he spent it. And if not, he spent it anyway. "Jesus, I wouldn't run a sweet shop now," he says. "Luckily I have someone good in the office. There's no profit in it, it's such a labour-intensive game."

In time, the marriage toppled over the edge. With the children, it was desperate business. Morris is a private man, but getting out of the abyss has plainly been a precarious process. War Of Attrition was his rock. Before the tapes went up on Gold Cup day, Morris jittered his way through 80 cigarettes. "Not a thing to be proud of, I know," he says. "Eddie O'Leary [the owner's brother] asked me in the ring if I won the Gold Cup would I give up the fags. I said no. I watched the race on a telly in a chalet, there was only a barman and a bargirl and myself. And when he jumped the last the poor girl, she must have thought I was a maniac, I was jumping up and down like a yo-yo, I hugged her and kissed her. I was totally out of breath by the time I got back to the winner's enclosure."

The release matched the tension of the previous days. He gets so wired before a big race that when he gets to the track he can walk past friends and look straight through them. "People think I'm rude. But it's just me, cuckoo-land, you know. So yeah, there would be [a release]. But sure, by that stage you're bollocksed."

He came home to Fethard that night. McCarthy's bar was crammed. "And I couldn't get drunk," he says. "I tried. But I couldn't. I slipped off home and that night I did sleep – like a log."

Saturday also happens to be his 58th birthday. He still has the rebellious mane of hair that once served to stifle suspicions about his privileged background when he emerged as a young, adrenalin-hungry amateur. He had a fair record over the National fences. "I did ride some shit horses in it," he says. "Some bad leppers, you know. But they just came alive round there."

They had his total sympathy. When he first got into the game, he could never abide the daily routine, the riding out, the exercise canters. It was the pulsations of race- riding and hunting that hooked him. "It's addictive," he says. "It's worse than the fags. I suppose at the end of the day, I like to win. I don't like to finish second. If I do, I just go back and try harder. Horses can't tell you what's wrong. But they do teach you. You learn something every day. But like I'm around a long time now, and I still don't know anything."

He laughs at himself again. "I'm just left with the dog here. But I still like to get up in the morning. There's always some excitement. When I say excitement, some disaster that has to be fixed, you know. They do take over. They'll do your head in. Oh Jesus, they'd wreck your head. And you do let them. There's no control. But it's bad days that make the good days."

Beauty of the beasts

Mouse Morris brings a strong aesthetic sense to his calling. One of Mouse's main patrons, Michael O'Flynn, describes him as "an artist, as distinct from a commercial horse trainer", saying that he treats each horse primarily as a creative project, and costs and fees as a nuisance to be dealt with.

These tableaux of his horses at work, captured on film by the man himself, testify to another facet of his artistry; Morris is skilled with a camera. It is a talent that runs through the family. His twin brother is a professional photographer, while their elder brother, Redmond, emulated their father, Lord Killanin (former president of the International Olympic Committee), by becoming a film producer. Redmond's credits include The Reader, The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Michael Collins.

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