Earlier this month, just as the light was fading, a lorry pulled into a stable-yard in Ireland’s County Wicklow, and when the ramp was lowered a lovely bay mare stepped back in time. It was 10 years since Paulank Brockagh, better known as Brocks, was packed into a trailer by her breeder Paula Cullen for a trip to Australian rider Sam Griffiths’ base in Dorset (GBR) from where a glorious story would begin to unfold.
Brocks “the banker” as Sam describes her, would become the rock on which the Australian Eventing team could rely over the following decade. Her pathfinding performances at both the FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Caen (FRA) where the team finished fourth, and at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games where she helped clinch team bronze and finished fourth individually, are the stuff of legend.
She conquered Badminton (GBR) in 2014 thanks to an epic cross-country run and had a total of 35 international outings, 12 at 5-Star level, and top-ten finishes at Badminton, Burghley (GBR), Pau (FRA) and Luhmühlen (GER). But just a few short weeks ago her owner, Dinah Posford, and Sam decided it was time for the mare to retire and that she should return to live out her days in Ireland.
So earlier this month, on a Tuesday night, after giving her a few minutes to relax and graze following her trip across the Irish Sea, Paula walked Paulank Brockagh back to the stable where she was born 17 years ago. It was an emotional reunion, bringing back a lot of memories, and Paula made that walk with pride.
“When we sold her in 2010 I said to Dinah that if she ever bred from her I’d love to have first refusal on the foal. So when I got the call to ask if I’d like to retire her here I couldn’t hold back the tears!”, Paula says.
It was particularly poignant because Brocks’ dam, Calendar Girl, only passed away three months ago at the age of 29. But Brocks will be surrounded by many of her siblings now that she’s home in the Wicklow hills.
Paula has bred all kinds of champions in her day. Initially known as a top producer of Welsh ponies, she enjoyed plenty of big moments at shows in the hallowed Royal Dublin Society arena but now finds herself at the venue more frequently to see her rugby-star son, Leo who had 32 caps for Ireland, in action as Head Coach for Leinster.
When she established Paulank (her own name combined with that of her husband, Frank) Sport Horses, then Brocks really put her on the map. The Irish Sport Horse mare got a great grounding with Joseph Murphy and Daryll Walker before finishing third in the CIC1* at Ballinacoola in Ireland in 2009 with Heidi Hamilton on board. The following spring Paula delivered her to Sam who steered her into eighth place in the 7-Year-Old category at the prestigious FEI World Breeding Federation Young Horse Championships at Le Lion d’Angers (FRA) in October, by which time she was in new ownership.
Dinah Posford had been on the lookout for a horse to share with her daughter Jules and husband Steve when she heard about Brocks from her friend Juliet Donald, with whom she already co-owned another of Sam’s top rides, Happy Times.
“Happy was full steam ahead at the time, but when Juliet told me about Brocks I went to see her and thought there was something about her and that it would be lovely to have a mare, so we bought her”. It turned out to be an excellent decision. “The fun we’ve had with her and the joy she has brought us – you couldn’t make it up!” says Dinah.
And the day she cherishes most from Brocks’ career? “When she won at Badminton, it was such an exceptional year, only 32 completed out of 78 starters, she was lying 25th after Dressage but went right up to fifth after cross-country and when she won I was in a daze! It was just wonderful!”
Sam says what made Brocks so special to ride is that she always gave her all. “I’ve never ridden a horse that would try so hard, she was a naturally good jumper, needed some training on the flat but an incredible cross-country horse.
“I really felt that I could point her at a house and she’d try to jump it!”Sam Griffiths (AUS) talking about Paulank Brockagh
“She would give you so much confidence, she wasn’t the quickest but where she came to the fore was at 5-Star level, she had such endurance, she could just keep going and keep trying, especially on the last day she’d still give it everything she had.
“In Rio (2016 Olympic Games) the cross-country was really tough and when I was the first to go for the team and so many of the other team’s first riders were struggling I was filled with trepidation. So to get such a brilliant ride and then to do two showjumping clears, that was a real thrill. In Rio the proper jumpers really came to the fore”, Sam says.
They missed individual bronze by less than two penalty points, pinning Australian compatriot Chris Burton into fifth by just 0.5. Earlier in Brock’s career Chris, who is a world-class trainer as a well as an athlete and a great friend of Sam’s, was unimpressed by her. “When he visited one time I told him you have to sit on this mare – I think she might be my next Badminton horse – but he didn’t think too much of her that day. He fell in love with her a few years later though!” Sam recalls with a giggle.
Much as she is adored however, Brocks can be a bit of a madam, especially with people on the ground. “She’s quite opinionated and when she doesn’t want to go somewhere she just bolts off in the walk. She used to make me laugh – you’d take her somewhere like Badminton where the horses are allowed to graze on the front lawn and she’d set her eye on where she wanted to go and just storm off, the groom would be water-skiing at the end of the lead-rope and Brocks wouldn’t give a damn!
“A 20-stone man wouldn’t stop her when she wants to go somewhere, and the better she got the more of a diva she became!”, Dinah agrees. “Yes she’s her own person alright”, says Paula. “I took her once to Boswell (Equestrian Centre in Wicklow) and she sent me flying while I was trying to hold her. She was always a bit impetuous, and I don’t think that’s changed!”
Decision To Retire
The decision to retire her wasn’t easily taken. Her last big outing was at Luhmühlen last summer and she was being targeted at Badminton again this year. “It would have been her seventh time there, and it would have been great to produce another good result and then retire her on the last day”, Sam says, but it wasn’t to be. With the pandemic bringing everything to a shuddering halt, even another run at Burghley was out of the question, so Sam and Dinah talked it through and decided enough was enough.
“Dinah’s had horses with me for 20 years now and she’s a proper owner. She does everything for the love of the horse and never wants to push them. The most important thing for her is that they come home safe. Brocks was starting to feel her age, she had a lot of miles on the clock and she didn’t owe anyone anything. She still looks a treat, so although I was upset to see her leaving I’m really pleased that a horse of her calibre finishes her career happy and sound”, says Sam.
“At the end of the day she’s retiring fit and healthy, and she deserves it. I think it would have been tempting fate to do any more – I couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to her”, Dinah points out. “She’s 100 percent sound and there’s not a blemish on her, that’s wonderful to see”, agrees Paula who is planning to get Brocks settled before turning her out for a summer of complete freedom so that she switches off from competition mode.
Because as one chapter of her life comes to an end, another may be about to begin. It won’t be anytime soon, but it’s just possible another star could be born in the stable where Brocks was foaled. They are only talking about it in whispers now, but for Dinah and Paula in particular, that would be the stuff of dreams…..