Wild horse chase; When Brough Scott travelled to the other side of the world to research a book on one of the great New Zealand chasers, he had little idea of the dead ends, false leads and red herrings that lay in his path. Here, he relates tales of his quest to discover the truths about 1904 Grand National winner Moifaa - and the nuggets of hope that lay at the end of his journey.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: to write a Seabiscuit-type book about Moifaa, the giant Kiwi horse who sailed up from Auckland to win the Grand National a hundred years ago this spring. Six months, a thousand failed leads and now a fascinating but fairly fruitless ten-day haul around New Zealand later, the doubts are crowding in.
Last Wednesday afternoon, I stood in Takapau, the little country town 50 miles south-west of Hawkes Bay on the east coast of the North Island, where Moifaa was born way back in 1895. There was one long, wide and empty street and it was raining. It was the Wild West without the dust or the bullets.
At the end of the street there was a sorry, saloon-like hotel, complete with one of those railed balconies off which heroes leap in Westerns. No soul stirred. There was so little knowledge of Moifaa that we ended up at the cemetery, looking at his breeder's gravestone, trying to summon up the dead.
It had all started so promisingly. The basic Moifaa story is so exciting that my publishers really did reach for their cheque book. This big, ugly duckling was bred by the Takapau blacksmith, and became a flying swan in the hands of his jockey-brother Alf Ellingham, winning 11 of 16 races in his first season, including the prestigious `Great Northern' at Ellerslie in Auckland.
Bought then by the legendary New Zealand punter/sportsman Spencer Gollan, Moifaa sailed for England, got shipwrecked and had to swim to safety on the way. On his eventual arrival, he had three warm-up runs from his training base at Epsom before the money was down at Aintree, where he won in a canter, kicking the specially built-up fences out of the way as if he were Jonah Lomu in that first, memorable, demolishing try against England in South Africa.
The tale gets better. Next year he is top-weight and hot favourite, but is beginning to go in the wind. Spencer Gollan, who is top-class at - wait for it - athletics, golf (scratch), race-riding, boxing, fives and most of all rowing, in which he won the Diamond Sculls, hatches a plan. King Edward VII's 1900 National winner Ambush II drops dead on the gallops in Ireland, where he's trained on The Curragh. Spencer flogs the horse to His Majesty and on the big day Moifaa heads the parade past the King Emperor, on whose arm hangs the decorous figure of Alice Keppel, great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles.
Patriotic punters lump on Moifaa, but insiders know he is the greatest `Bismarck' of all time. He duly departs at Becher's on the second circuit.
But the cigar-smoking monarch has been so impressed by the colonial quadruped that he takes him home to become his favourite charger and it is Moifaa, king's boot reversed in the empty saddle, who is led behind the coffin at Edward's funeral in 1910.
That is the opening scene in our book. The cousins George V and The Kaiser follow the Kiwi mourner. Four years hence, their two empires will collide for the bloodiest war in history. The images were so evocative that we began to talk of film rights. I called up my son Charlie, who had masterminded the research for last year's book Galloper Jack. All that was needed were a few relatives with diaries, letters and photos to flesh out these glittering bones, and off we were to Hollywood, to join Seabiscuit and Laura Hillenbrand.
It hasn't been quite as easy as that.
For a start, the swimming ashore story is nonsense. Moifaa's voyage was incident-free. Another New Zealand chaser had been washed ashore in Cape Town in 1899 and some hack conveniently switched the stories - plus a change.
Moifaa's jockey Arthur Birch got crippled at Gatwick in 1906, passed away in 1911 and no current descendants have any mementos of him. Ditto with trainer Jim Hickey, who ended up in a lunatic asylum. Worst of all, precious few private gems have emerged about Spencer Gollan, who must have been one of the great players of all time. The website of his birth place in Mangatarata talks of him "living life in the fast lane" with his sport, gambling and women. Surely he was bonking Lillie Langtry at the very least?
The more we looked, the emptier it got, and then one day, a real body blow. We found some shaky footage of the funeral. The royal archives had been helpfully quizzical about Edward, with his 52-inch waist, suddenly becoming the rider of the 17-hand, white-faced, former National winner, whose presence could not be found in their record books, yet the cuttings insisted it was Moifaa behind the coffin. On the screen the big horse with the empty saddle came into shot. There was no white blaze on his face. He could not be Moifaa.
But down in New Zealand, a human dynamo still turned. Doug Rawnsley is a polymathic racing nut, American-born, Irish-raised, New Zealand-domiciled, he is an owner, breeder, pre-trainer, bloodstock guru, journalist, share trader, devoted family man, and now the world's greatest enthusiast for the Moifaa project. He insisted there were people to see and places to go that could yet unearth the direct-witness treasures needed to transform this book from hope to reality.
For a week we criss-crossed the North Island. We interviewed Gollan relatives from the sulphur smells of Rotorua to the South Pacific vista of Hawkes Bay to the tall masts of Auckland Harbour. We visited the racecourses on which Moifaa galloped, the fields where he rested, even the railway line that took him north. We trawled newspaper offices and public libraries. Yet, while there was an unfailing welcome, little new emerged except an interminable home video of Gollan's late daughter-in-law moaning that the family were too mean to give her a decent Christmas present.
By Sunday morning, we'd given it our best shot, but it was surely over. Then the tireless Rawnsley unearthed another pile of faded cuttings and suddenly there were two diamonds in the dross: a first-hand account of Moifaa's victory from the crippled Arthur Birch, and a 1913 letter from a Lord Ranksborough (formerly General Brocklehurst) stating that it was he who was given the horse by the King, he who rode him at the funeral and he who found him the best hack imaginable, except for an aversion to Newmarket.
The byline on this last story was not your
common and garden journo, but someone with the splendid name of Sir Willoughby Maycock. It must be true.
There must be Ranksborough-Brocklehurst family mementos of the great horse they had in their midst. One of you out there must know someone who knows someone who knew some Moifaa connection. Give us one more comb through your memories or your attic. Maybe this ultimate in wild-horse chases is not over yet.
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Feb 29, 2004|
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|'When his owner said that Moifaa had 'a jumper's chance' in the 1904 National, he was understating things a bit. 25-1 was a steal"; Brough Scott who...|