'He was always cleverer than us' - rejoicing in the ups and downs of Mad Moose
Lewis Porteous speaks to the people closest to one of racing most-loved rogues
Published in the Racing Post on May 16, 2016
As the old adage goes, it is a thin line between genius and madness, and one equine eccentric of recent years who teetered closer to the edge than most was Mad Moose. Alan Turing would have struggled to work him out.
Racing's colourful history is littered with refuseniks, but what made Mad Moose's antics all the more fascinating was that if he consented to race he had the ability to mix it with the best.
From humble beginnings, Mad Moose achieved the rare feat of gaining black type over jumps and on the Flat.
However, like all geniuses, Mad Moose has his own ideas and, with experience, came a sporadic reluctance to race. His unpredictability was the basis of much frustration for connections and backers but, fuelled by fans and foes on social media, each time Mad Moose nonchalantly declined to participate, his legacy as a cult figure grew.
More than 17 months after his final racecourse misdemeanour, his popularity shows no sign of waning and his 'official' Twitter account still entertains 5,766 followers.
Whether it was madness or intelligence that ruled him is a debate that will rumble on, but there is no questioning the love for Mad Moose.
Mad Moose (serial refusenik)
Top RPR 156c
Rogue factor 9
At the time of his retirement from racing in 2014, Mad Moose was part of the furniture at Nigel Twiston-Davies's stable in Gloucestershire. Having joined the yard as a raw three-year-old in 2007, the son of renowned jumping stallion Presenting looked a sound investment and Twiston-Davies was confident he would be an easy sell to would-be owners down the line, although his early career suggested otherwise.
"It was amazing how bad he was to start with and he wasn't good enough to sell," remembers his now former trainer. "He didn't jump well enough early. He was very easy to deal with but just lacked talent."
The trainer's son Sam, who became Mad Moose's regular rider, remembers a similar beginning but while admitting it was impossible to envisage the tribulations that lay ahead, it was clear he was smarter than your average moose.
"He was very intelligent," says Sam. "We worked the horses on Tuesdays and Fridays and he soon worked that out. You had to mix it up with him and keep doing different things. He was always unique in that respect and you had to persuade him to do something rather than make him. He was a monkey and understood what was going on."
Beaten more than 100 lengths in his first five starts in bumpers and over hurdles, Mad Moose was officially rated just 103 by the time he made his handicap debut at Perth in 2009, when he finished a close second. However, it took another four runs before he shed his maiden tag at the tenth time of asking at Cartmel in the summer of 2010 from a lowly handicap mark of 102.
"There was plenty of ability there," recalls Sam of that first success. "It was summer jumps so there was no need to get carried away but, from there, the more he raced the more we saw what he could do, but at the same time the other side to him started to come out as well."
Nigel adds: "He started to show more with age and I remember him showing a sign of his brilliance when he won with Willy on him by 15 lengths at Newton Abbot one day."
In all, Mad Moose won three times over hurdles but it was over fences that he started to realise his potential.
Off the mark at just the second time of asking in that discipline at Worcester in August 2011, a second chase win at Uttoxeter the following month finally attracted new owners.
'What have we done here?'
Now racing in the sky blue and orange of Middleham Park Racing, Mad Moose was facing the likes of Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth over fences and although he proved no match, his new connections were entitled to be positive about the future.
"He was quite a high-class hurdler and he was available at the time so we got involved," recalls Tim Palin of Middleham Park. "He wasn't as enigmatic then – that came with his maturity – but he was a bit of a tearaway.
"On his first win for us he was tailed off with four to go and you'd have been forgiven for tearing up your betting ticket. We're watching it thinking, 'What have we done here? He's meant to be a good horse'. But then he starts to stay on and ends up winning. It was a blueprint for what we were going to experience in the next few years – the ups and the downs."
It was around the same period that both his trainer and jockey were becoming increasingly aware of Mad Moose's split personality.
"He worked out what the game was about pretty quick and had his own ideas about it," says Sam. "He'd go well at certain tracks and would prefer one gallop to the other one at home. He didn't miss much."
It was following that initial success for Middleham Park that Mad Moose refused to race for the first time when he made his seasonal debut in a handicap chase at Cheltenham in October 2012.
"It was him all over," says his jockey. "He'd won his last race staying on from a mile back and really battling, then he refuses. He was walking around at the start fine and walked in with the rest of them but the minute the tapes went up he just stopped. It was at the last second and that way there was no second chance."
Despite the mishap, his owners were keen to dismiss his antics as a one-off and were convinced the problem could be fixed. "The reason we're owners is because we're born optimists," says Palin. "So the day he stands still for the first time you think, 'We'll get that fixed and it can be sorted'. But sometimes you can never work out what they're thinking."
Fined for belt waving
All was forgiven as Mad Moose consented to participate on his next three starts before putting up what is rated his best performance over jumps, chasing home Sprinter Sacre in the rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase at Cheltenham in January 2013.
"That's my fondest memory," says Palin. "He nicked 30 lengths at the start, then he was headed before coming back to take second. It was fascinating to watch it unfold. He was a legend."
Mad Moose would never scale those heights again over jumps and he showed his dark side when taking to the biggest stages on his next two starts, planting himself at the Cheltenham and Aintree spring festivals.
"It was frustrating but it would wind Nigel up more than the rest of us, probably because he knew what he was capable of," says his rider. "But getting him to do it was a different story."
His trainer says: "It wasn't as if he didn't like racing as once he started he was hard to beat. He wasn't ungenuine as such, it was just getting him going. I got fined one day for waving my belt around behind him down at the start; perhaps they thought my trousers were going to fall down? I was just waving it about but it was against the rules. We did everything you could think of at home. We took him hunting, we'd jump out of the bushes behind him and shout at him but he was always cleverer than us."
With patience ebbing away, Twiston-Davies snr came up with the idea to switch Mad Moose to the Flat, hoping starting stalls, rather than a tape start, would inspire the horse to run. At the age of nine and making his Flat debut, Mad Moose sprung from the stalls like an exuberant juvenile, before racing enthusiastically to land a Doncaster maiden in April 2013.
"It was very much down to Nigel," says Palin of the switch. "He's one of racing's great thinkers and he certainly had to think outside the box to get the best from Mad Moose."
Twiston-Davies plunged the reformed refusenik into Group 3 company on his next start and the horse came up trumps again as he chased home classy stayer Mount Athos in the Ormonde Stakes.
Tail rotating like a propeller
The code appeared to have been cracked and a career on the Flat beckoned, but Mad Moose again had his own ideas and decided to stand like a statue as the gates opened on his next start at York, before walking out of the stalls with his tail rotating like a propeller on what proved to be his last try on the Flat at Royal Ascot.
All that was left for his beleaguered connections was to roll the dice back over jumps but when Mad Moose pulled himself up before the first fence in the 2013 Tingle Creek Chase, the authorities stepped in to "protect the betting public" and banned Mad Moose from being entered in any races under rules.
Palin says: "To be frank, heaven knows how the BHA tolerated his antics for so long. They'd have been well within their rights to refuse him entries long before they did. They were very tolerant with him."
Mad Moose had time away from the yard in his year-long sabbatical, with his trainer still reluctant to admit defeat. "He went back to Middleham for a bit and we changed his routine – no stone was left unturned," says Twiston-Davies. "When he came back we thought we'd cracked it again."
With Twiston-Davies successfully pleading to the authorities for another chance, Mad Moose was offered a reprieve. Rarely had a 33-1 shot been so intensely scrutinised by so many when he lined up for his comeback in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December 2014, but for once Mad Moose did not surprise anyone. Instead he planted himself as the tapes went up, bringing down the curtain on his racing career.
"It was frustrating," says Nigel. "He was one of the best in the yard under all three codes and he won't let us run, but you have to forgive him as he's so lovely. He was just cleverer than us."
'It came out of the blue – he didn't budge an inch'
Dave Arthur, a member of the Middleham Park syndicate which part-owned Mad Moose, with his personal recollections of an unpredictable career
He was a really exciting horse to be involved in. I led him into the Cheltenham winner's enclosure after his first win for us and from then on I had an affinity with him.
The following October he refused at Cheltenham. It came out of the blue and he didn't budge an inch, but he came out afterwards and ran well in the International Hurdle before his finest hour when he was second to Sprinter Sacre.
He was obviously temperamental and never ran a 'normal' race, but at that point we're thinking everything is great. We were full of confidence going to the festival but he didn't budge an inch again and it was the same at Aintree. I went into the stable yard afterwards and gave him a good talking to but he didn't look bothered – he never did. There was a group of four or five of us who went all the time and it was almost soul destroying and got to the stage where you didn't want to watch the start.
It was then decided to have a go on the Flat and we had two spectacular days. He was the oldest horse in 18 years to win his maiden as a nine-year-old and we had a fabulous day at Chester when he was second in a Group 3. He came out of the stalls like a dream both times, but then the rest of the season went from bad to worse.
Nigel was trying everything and even [stalls guru] Gary Witheford said he was probably one of the most difficult horses he'd worked with.
He built up a cult following and he has followers all over the world on Twitter.
He's taken me to more places and introduced me to more people in racing than any other horse I’ve owned. It was the full ownership experience.
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