Saturday 19 October 2019

Cheltenham prospect Ellie Mac is more than just a horse - she's a young boy's dream

The connections of Ellie Mac celebrate winning on St Stephen's Day and (inset) Niccolai Schuster
The connections of Ellie Mac celebrate winning on St Stephen's Day and (inset) Niccolai Schuster
The connections of Ellie Mac celebrate winning on St Stephen's Day Photo: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Five years of training have gone in to the very getting of a horse to now, the eve of the Festival. Stock Image: Getty
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Ellie Mac is more than just a horse. She is a young boy's dream.

The optimism was there on the day Ellie was foaled five years ago. Anne McDonnell bred her and did pre-school. Aidan Fitzgerald from Carlow's Cobajay stables bought Ellie at the sales. Aidan broke the filly, trained her to jump and got Ellie to the point-to-point field in top order.

Bloodstock agent Tom McDonnell bought Ellie for my cousin John Schuster and a syndicate of friends, family and neighbours. Tom told John this was the biggest challenge of his career. His client, you see, lives in Heaven now.

Niccolai Schuster is my first cousin John's boy. His mom is Graziella. Lovely people and they were a very happy little family. Niccolai's death in the balcony tragedy at Berkley was the worst thing that ever happened to our clan.

Nicc was only 21. He was some man to party and he lived more in his 21 years than most do up to the time they get the free travel. He was plugged in to a constant source of cosmic energy. There was a decency about him too and he was sports-mad.

Niccolai said he would love to own a horse some day. So it was then that John, Graziella and their friends bought Ellie Mac from Aidan who is now a close friend. The syndicate is named after Niccolai.

Five years of training have gone in to the very getting of a horse to now, the eve of the Festival. Just to get to Cheltenham is a winner in it itself. We are hoping Ellie will line up at the bottom of the famed Cheltenham Hill.

On Thursday next at ten past four, the white flag will be raised. This is a white flag of no surrender. The white flag is not the end but the beginning. Twenty-two horses will go at a clippity-clop rhythm fast as windscreen wipers in a deluge. Onward with the 22, up the long pull, to the surround sound of 40,000. Only one in a thousand even get to run here.

The thoroughbred has matchstick ankles holding up the weight of a small car. There are a thousand things that can go wrong.

It was the custom of the Schusters to go to as a family to Leopardstown every St Stephen's Day since Niccolai was a small fella. Henry de Bromhead is Ellie Mac's trainer now and he felt for the Schusters.

They became fast friends. There was tea and scones at the house, long chats, full of fun and empathy. As my late and much-lamented friend Fr Pat Moore used to say, "We do death very well in Ireland."

Ellie won that first race on Stephen's Day at internet odds of 500/1. All the cousins and friends got on. Niccolai's younger brother Alexi, who played in the SCT for St Mary's, led the party. The St Mary's star appears on the racing colours along with those of Bayern Munich. Alexi was mad about his big brother. Best pals, forever and after forever.

The racing has helped all of us come to realise there is still fun to be had even after a tragedy. And in a way the fact Niccolai was such a fun-loving lad makes it out sacred duty to live it up for him. That's how I see it anyway and I hope this does not sound disrespectful. We owe it to those we love to live as best we can and as happily as we possibly can.

Henry de Bromhead has had many big wins but Ellie's win meant as much to him and more. We were all in tears even though my slow old laptop didn't boot up in time to get the bet on. What does a fiver multiplied by 500 come to? After the race I texted my cousin - "Nicc lives."

The jockey that day was only 20. It was Daniel Holden's first winner. The usual story of racings ruthless side is the kid is always jocked off in favour of an older, more experienced pilot. But The Niccolai Schuster Syndicate backed Daniel.

Says John: "Daniel is top class and Niccolai would have had it no other way." I was proud of my cousin.


So we have a 20-year-old riding a young mare, owned in trust for a 21-year-old in Heaven. Daniel has never even been to Cheltenham. I was talking to Mouse Morris, who himself lost a son in an accident abroad. He is convinced his boy Christopher helped his grieving dad win four Grand Nationals in the one year.

The handicapper rates all the horses and the highest rated gets to run. Ellie should be okay on the Leopardstown form. John will call me when the news comes through from Cheltenham. There are 30 horses for 22 places. It might be tight.

Ellie got bogged down in Cork before Christmas and she might not be suited to the soft. She's up against it if she gets in. Her odds are 33/1.

My grandmother Hannah would be thrilled with Ellie. My Nana is Niccolai's great grandmother. She loved the horses and had a small bet every day. I was her runner. It took me a while to get into the betting though. I waited until I was eight. Nana's bet was 1d each way. Which was two old pennies, the minimum bet. She never got rich but she never got poor either. And this is the best tip you will get anywhere on Cheltenham week.

Still no word of Ellie. I'm watching the phone now. A watched phone never rings. Then after three hours, John Schuster lights up the screen.

"She's in. She's in."

Nice one, Niccolai.

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