75 years ago, on a late March afternoon in 1947, an Irish horse emerged from a dense, swirling mist to win the most famous of all horse races, the Aintree Grand National. The horse, named Caughoo, galloped home at odds of 100-1. All of Ireland celebrated the victory. But Caughoo’s victory was controversial in every respect, with critics claiming the jockey hid the horse in the fog behind one of the ramps and only emerged to join the final lap and final home run. The doubts lingered for 50 years, until the discovery of an old roll of film finally confirmed that Caughoo had run the entire race.
Fast forward 40 years to a Friday evening, April 3, 1987, the eve of this year’s Grand National. I’m sitting at the news desk Irish Independent staring at a horse’s head. Only the head – there was no horse. I felt trapped in a bizarre time warp, past and present colliding more or less, well, head-on.
AAs anyone who’s worked on a newsroom will tell you, one of the calls you dread is front office security saying, “Someone here says he’s got a great story.” I must have handled hundreds of these calls only to learn the hard way that most of the time there is no “great story”. Instead, you had to grin and endure as oodles of scathing detail spat around
family disputes over wills, disputes over land; seedy neighbors from hell; vengeful, Scrooge-like landlords; sightings of UFOss and religious statues moving, grinning and crying. The catch was that you could never ignore them – every now and then a great story would literally walk through your front door.
Back in the 19th87, Tom, the security guard at the front door, had a quirky sense of humor. He was the man in Danger’s Gap, checking on those who wandered in and insisted they had a great story to tell.
On that memorable night, Tom called me with one of his most bizarre and confusing warnings: “There’s a man down here with a horse’s head and he says he’s got a great story.” Some reconnaissance was needed. “Tom,” I whispered into the phone, “does the man have a horse’s head somehow, or does he have a horse’s head with him?” Tom replied quietly and conspiratorially, “Oh, that’s real, I’m petting it while it stares at me.”
This was in the 1980s, and the stolen, Derby-winning Thoroughbred Shergar was still missing; Dublin’s most notorious criminal at the time, The General, Martin Cahill, was busy with all sorts of high-profile shenanigans and the grisly horsehead in bed The Godfather was still one of the most talked about and joked about movie scenes. So, dubious but intrigued, I decided what the heck, worth a gamble. Minutes later, a young man with a mop of hair burst into the office with a preserved horse’s head under his arm.
The head was sparsely haired, rather smooth, bare luster than healthy bristles, and marble-like eyes that gazed at you disconcertingly. The man bursting with enthusiasm was Frank Godfrey, then a young county councilor from Drogheda, Co. Louth. “Do you know who it is?” he said and threw his head on my desk. A quick glance at the shiny, bald head and glassy eyes told me I was grasping at straws, but I dared, embarrassed, “Isn’t that Shergar by chance?”
Frank ignored this and said, “That’s Caughoo, Ireland’s most famous horse. Forty years ago this mighty horse galloped out of the mist at Aintree to win the Grand National. He’s a national treasure. In the morning I and some friends from Drogheda are taking him back to Aintree to celebrate the anniversary of his victory.”
Frank’s story was that a few years ago, while walking down the quays in Dublin, he came across a shop that sold stuffed animals. Inside, a taxidermist who had worked for a Dublin company that had ceased trading told him that one of the items given to the company for stuffing and mounting but never picked up was a horse’s head. The taxidermist said it was dropped off by a member of the McDowell family, the owners of Caughoo. Frank bought it for £50 and the horseless head was back in the attention race.
Members of the McDowell family moved to Dublin from Co Cavan in the late 19th century. One of them established himself as a jeweller; Years later, one of Dublin’s most famous and enduring commercial landmarks – McDowell’s, The Happy Ring House – opened O’Connell Street. Another family member bought a two-year-old horse for 50 guineas and named it Caughoo to the townland near Ballinagh, Co Cavan, where the McDowell family came from. March 29, 1947 Caughoo lined up for the Grand National, seemingly hopeless. What then happened in the mist and confusion became part of the folklore of the most famous of all horse breeds.
Frank’s account of the trip to Aintree the day after I met him was almost as dramatic as what had happened four decades ago. He and his friends took the early boat to Liverpool and then hopped in a taxi to the racecourse. AAll sorts of games followed. As the taxi pulled towards Aintree, the boys stuck the horse’s head out the window to see the stunned reaction from onlookers. On the racecourse, a gang of Irishmen lugging a bag with a horse’s head in them back in the bad old days when the IRA was active in Britain created a wave of panic and the bomb squad was called. Once inside, BBC’s grandstand The program got wind of the horse’s head and wanted to show it ahead of the big race.
Frank relates: “Someone said they had millions and millions of viewers. Her white-mustached husband, Des Lynam, was the presenter. We thought we were going to be famous. At the last minute they told us to stay where we were, they just wanted the head. They did a kind of gimmick by moving their head across the screen. We were fierce
The McDowell family has always denied that the head is Caughoo’s, but Frank has no doubts. In 1986 he invited the original jockey, Eddie Dempsey, to come and see the head. Franks insists that Eddie, after looking at it from the back, front and side, explained that it was the head of the horse he had steered to the famous victory.
So the original or a different colored horse?
In any case, a great story nonetheless.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/horse-racing/did-you-hear-the-one-about-the-fella-with-the-grand-national-winners-head-41515087.html Did you hear the one about the guy with the Grand National winner’s head?