Thursday 21 February 2019

Equestrian: Show time

Eddie Macken is back in the spotlight at 58 but the formbook will outweigh the appeal of the fairytale - and he wouldn’t have it any other way

The veteran Eddie Macken
star is looking to the
future rather than
focusing on the
glories of the past
The veteran Eddie Macken star is looking to the future rather than focusing on the glories of the past

As old Abe Lincoln once mused, it's not the years in your life but rather the life in your years. As he prepares to make an emotional return to the RDS next month, Eddie Macken is aiming to strike another resounding note for the greying generation.

The return of the now 58-years-young Macken -- long since filed away in cobweb-covered cultural archives alongside Benjy from the Riordans, Boney M and 'Bring Back Jack' -- will jar memories for many of his evocative partnership with the famous bay gelding Boomerang, upon whom the Longford man strode to unequalled prominence in jumping arenas throughout the world.

Last evening, he fought manfully for a place in the five-man team to compete in the Super League at Hickstead -- where he once won four Derbies in successive years -- as he will for the Nations Cup at the Horse Show next month.

That he has also been invited to compete as an individual in Dublin may invoke thoughts of a typically lachrymose testimonial for a fading sporting legend.

"He'd be too proud to do something like that," warns an acquaintance.

Macken, having refused a return earlier this decade, admits that a return is emotionally fraught. "At one stage I had appeared for 30 consecutive years, 27 or 29 Nations Cups and I always wanted to come back for one last time," he said. Crucially, he won't confirm if indeed this is a final bow.

Indeed, Macken's sporting qualifications are more than adequate, a testament to a resurgence of form aboard the 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare Tedechine September on the professional circuit near his Vancouver residence; 'September' seems stirringly appropriate.

Just a few days before we spoke, man and horse had confirmed their well-being with another authoritative showing in his latest outing on the Spruce Meadows summer tour, the launching pad for this unlikeliest of comebacks.

"We finished fourth in the Grand Prix," said Macken, who has spent the last seven years at New Kells Farm in the township of Langley, Vancouver with Kathi Ballentine, building a business buying, selling and training horses and training students.

"She's a very nice horse and more than capable of jumping at the highest level. She's probably the best horse I've had in the last 10 years. Otherwise, I wouldn't be coming back," he said.

The Irish team manager, Robert Splaine, was also stressing the primacy of formbook over fairytale; hard-nosed professionalism, not sepia-tinted sympathy, will decide whether Macken can make the Irish team.

"It's up to the chef d'equipe as to whether I'm in the team for Dublin or not," said Macken.

"I'm only one member of the panel and that's as it should be. Past performances shouldn't count for anything."

Boy, what if they did? Three successive Aga Khans, those four Hickstead Derbies, two individual World silvers, innumerable Grands Prix. In the late 1970s, Eddie Macken and Boomerang were a partnership as familiar to Irish people as Maguire and Patterson or Foster and Allen.

Nostalgia

Even measured in terms of mere nostalgia, Macken's return as an individual performer will be enough to spark tingles down every spine and pipe jingles on every RDS cash register.

Yet the quietly determined horseman will demand more of himself than just testimonial approbation; if he didn't feel he had a horse with which to justify such an obviously high-profile return to competitive action, Macken simply wouldn't bother.

It has always been thus for a man determined to beat the odds.

As a child of the bleak 1950s in Longford, Macken filled his days with stints upon the farm ponies or, alternatively, horses belonging to his neighbours. Without the obvious luxury of saddles, Macken became painfully versed in the ways in which man mastered horse.

Unwittingly absorbing information at such an early age allowed Macken in future years to parade an innate riding style, encompassing limitless strength, as if it were second nature.

The young boy fell in love with horses. His family were determined to steer him a direction though.

"We had a family business, butchering and all that," he said. "I didn't fancy it though, it was a little too tough for me. But I remember my father being really determined. My only dream was to ride horses."

The twin ambitions of father and son charted an uneasily competitive route well into his teens -- although the young Macken was gifted a horse by his father -- until his growing prowess as a horseman prompted an alert neighbour to contact Iris Kellett in 1969.

It was to be as pivotal a meeting as Bob Bishop's introduction of George Best to Matt Busby. Six months turned into six years as Macken acquired an expert apprenticeship with Irish equestrian sport's answer to MV O'Brien.

Soon, he was dominating the domestic scene. Tentatively, he mixed with the international stars at the Horse Show or Hickstead, initially admiring of totemic figures such as Harvey Smith, then increasingly impatient to emulate them.

Irresistible

An invitation to join German superstar Paul Schockemohle was irresistible and would change the way Eddie Macken viewed the sport. Subsequently, a request to sit upon a horse called Boomerang would change the way the sport viewed Eddie Macken.

Ironically, the younger Macken and the then unnamed Boomerang had formed an inchoate relationship when the horse's Tipperary breeder, James Murphy, had sent him to Kellett's Kildare stables to be broken in for hunting and jumping. A 1970 appearance at the Horse Show passed unremarkably.

Five years later, the pair were reunited after Macken's then ride Easter Parade broke his neck. "Here," Schockemohle gestured, pointing out the now fully matured Boomerang. "Have my speed horse until something better turns up."

The rest is not merely showjumping history, not merely sporting history, but part of the fabric of late 1970s Ireland; the Irish team of Macken, James Kernan, Con Power and the late Paul Darragh confettied dour Ireland with much-needed colour.

"The first team I was on. We'd been a little bit starved for success in the Nations' Cup at the Dublin Horse Show, and then we got a team together and we won it three years in a row. That was a big feeling," said Macken.

He can still feel the sense of the crowd's electricity reverberating through his body.

If there were any fallibility in the partnership, Macken historically assumed the larger proportion of the blame as the pair were narrowly denied at two world championships and a European championship.

At the height of his career, Macken was denied an Olympics berth because he was a 'professional'. He smiled grudgingly as Alvin Schockemohle, Paul's similarly storied brother, scooped the gold.

Macken continued to appear on the circuit following Boomerang's retirement in 1980 but he and the sport soon slipped seamlessly into the background; only the re-emergence of the sport as a hotbed of controversy in the build-up to the last Olympics propelled him back into the public eye.

The facts of the matter are well-versed. After Gerry Mullins was appointed trainer to the Irish team, the riders revolted and Macken was invited to become trainer. After a string of poor results, he was sacked. Then he was reinstated. He sued and continued on, but one wondered why he bothered.

Derision

A parallel soap opera involving Cian O'Connor's Olympics triumph was then followed by a series of break-ins and subterfuges, which left whatever portion of the public that wasn't entirely indifferent to the sport howling with derision.

Naturally, Macken is reluctant to go over old ground, except to acknowledge that, in Ireland at least, his beloved sport needs any gee-up it can get.

"I really hope my coming back does act as a spur for the sport," he said.

"We need all the publicity we can get for show jumping. We've had some tough times but hopefully we can come out the other end."

Certainly, his proficiency at such an advanced stage is to be admired, although it is not unusual in his sport. Mark Todd is returning at 56, Canadian Ian Millar will appear in his ninth Olympic Games next month aged 61 and Japan have a 67-year-old dressage contestant, Hiroshi Hoketsu.

Philosopher Edward Said propagated a theory of "late style" in the arts, in which he outlined the proclivity towards continually strong achievement in later life; it is a thesis that could equally be applicable to sportspeople, especially when one examined the foreword to Said's work.

"What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist's mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile," he wrote.

Macken, the ageing exile returning to his homeland, is fully cognisant of his own fallibilities. His past glories brook no argument; his present demands no awkward apology.

"It's going to be fantastic," he said from his Vancouver base, before rushing off to pass on his skills to another class of enthusiastic amateurs.

"Like anybody who likes doing something, I still have that passion which drives me. I still love doing it."

And the man who once proffered the odd drop of Arthur's finest to his charges is looking forward to meeting up with some old faces for a drink.

"That's the one thing I miss," said the returning hero.

"The Guinness in this part of the world isn't the best. It will be nice to get home."

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