‘MAY you live in interesting times,’ a Chinese expression, ironically, seeing the times that are in it. Besides printing the cards for Irish race meetings, The Times resorted to reprinting the contemporary account of Sheila’s Cottage winning the Grand National.
Sheila’s Cottage, a 1939 bay mare by leading National Hunt sire Cottage out of the 1931 La Touche Cup winner Sheila II, was bred in county Limerick by Mrs JH Daly, who, as Miss Pat Irwin, had ridden Sheila II to win the prestigious Barbour Cup three times. One PJ Boyce put Sheila’s Cottage up for sale at Goff’s, Ballsbridge in November 1945. He described her in the catalogue. ‘N B Dead-heated in a Point-to-Point race last March, and placed in another. Good jumper, up to a lot of weight and should make a good steeplechaser. Sold sound, subject to V.S. examination.’ He was content to accept the 190 guineas proffered. Henry Harty, the purchaser, was immediately cautioned by his friends and associates against exposing his horse-mad twin daughters, Delma and Eithne, to any mare by Cottage, such was their reputation for evil-doing. That advice proved all-too-accurate. Unresponsive to her riders’ commands, Sheila’s Cottage was entrusted to fearless Tim Molony to learn the rudiments of jumping across country. When ‘Ginger’ Wellesley came looking for a made hunter for Sir Hervey Bruce, Henry Harty took profit, passing her on for £400.
At the same time Henry Harty’s Patrickswell stable housed another ‘chasing prospect, First of the Dandies. Years later Eithne recalled that First of the Dandies was much the speedier of the pair, but Sheila’s Cottage would always beat him over a distance of ground. That was proven in dramatic fashion when the evil-tempered mare wore down First of the Dandies to become the first of her sex to win the Grand National since Shannon Lass in 1902.
As the property of Sir Hervey Bruce and trained in Middleham by Neville Crump, Sheila’s Cottage made her racecourse debut at Carlisle in October 1946, ridden by stable jockey AP ‘Arthur’ Thompson, the only man who could manage her. Tim Molony endorsed that view: “That’s the only horse that has pissed off with me at the trot!”
Third on that occasion, having demolished every fence in the process, this cantankerous creature went on to win over Haydock’s drop fences in November and January, only to be brought down in Caughoo’s Grand National. Continuing riderless, Sheila’s Cottage reportedly finished ahead of the shock 100-to-1 winner. Back to winning ways at Haydock in November, Sheila’s Cottage failed to justify favouritism when third at Cheltenham, prompting Sir Hervey Bruce to exclaim: “I’ve done my dough – I’ll have to sell the horse.”
Fortunately for Neville Crump, he had a client who wanted a National runner – John Proctor of Grimsby, as he recalled in his biography. “Proctor owned three trawlers, a pub in Lincolnshire, had a leg in iron and drank brandy!”
Bruce asked £3,500 for the mare, which John Proctor duly paid. Three more runs saw her line out for the 1948 Grand National; 50-to-1 in a field of 43. Tim Fitzgeorge-Parker, Neville Crump’s biographer, described the aftermath to the mare’s courageous win. ‘My personal memory of that race was Neville bursting through the crowd to the winner’s enclosure. As he smacked the winner on the rump with an endearing “Well done, you old bitch,” her lightning fast hind leg missed his head by three inches, but his splendidly happy grin never changed.’
The winning trainer continued that saga. “A couple of days later a press photographer turned up to take a picture with Arthur on top. And what did she do? Sheila’s Cottage bit the top off one of his fingers as he was trying to put on her bridle! I told him to go to the doctor, but he was a tough old sod. He just got up on the horse and they got their picture.”
Sheila’s Cottage never ran again, producing six foals, of which Cottager was the only decent winner. When John Proctor fell on hard times he proposed that the National heroine be put down. Instead, Neville Crump persuaded him to give her to Arthur Thompson, whose County Wexford garden provided Sheila’s Cottage with her final resting place in 1963. Neville Crump and Arthur Thompson had gone on to win another National with Teal in 1952. And in 1961 Bobby Beasley, then married to Arthur’s daughter Shirley Ann, rode Nicolaus Silver to Grand National success.