Emotions set to run high again as Ellie Mac returns to Leopardstown
Niccolai Schuster Racing Club founded in honour of student who lost his life in Berkeley tragedy
Connections of Ellie Mac celebrate victory in the Horse & Jockey Hotel Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown last Christmas. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Horse racing was once described as a magnificent triviality. John Schuster calls it a great distraction. It’s a distraction that means there will be nothing trivial about the appearance of one horse in particular at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day.
In 2015 Schuster’s 21-year-old son Niccolai, a history and politics student in UCD, was killed in the Berkeley balcony tragedy in California.
Six students in all lost their lives after a fourth floor apartment balcony collapsed. The devastation caused to their families and friends touched the country and beyond.
Such sympathy is always sincere but its impact is by definition finite; inevitably the burden of coping with such appalling loss falls to those closest to the victims.
Faced with having to cope, and feeling a fundamental need to keep their son’s memory alive, John Schuster and his wife Graziella decided one option was to buy a racehorse.
That’s because the Terenure-based family have always followed the long Dublin tradition of going racing to Leopardstown’s Christmas festival.
John Schuster’s original fondness for the sport came as a small child sitting with his grandmother in Listowel listening to the action on radio.
His son, a grand-nephew of the playwright John B Keane, inherited that fondness and then some, adding racing to a long list of sporting passions that included St Mary’s College rugby and his favourite football team, Bayern Munich.
“He took a great interest in racing. He always went on December 26th with my other son Alexei and their friends,” their father says. “We purchased a racehorse because I thought it was a great way of keeping Niccolai’s name alive. That was the main thing behind it.”
Neither does it matter really if Ellie Mac wins, just so long as she returns safe and sound
The horse is Ellie Mac, a five year old mare, who is set to run in Leopardstown’s Grade One feature on St Stephen’s Day, the €100,000 Racing Post Novice Chase. She runs in the blue and red colours of the Niccolai Schuster Horse Racing Club. Blue is for St Mary’s: red for Bayern.
To win she will have to take on some of the best young steeplechasers in the country. The opposition includes Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud, JP McManus and champion trainer Willie Mullins. It’s powerful opposition that makes Ellie Mac an outsider.
Except such odds mean nothing when it comes to this horse; neither does it matter really if Ellie Mac wins, just so long as she returns safe and sound. She has already given her owners more than they could have dreamed of.
A year ago Ellie Mac confounded a 50-1 ‘SP’ for the first race of Leopardstown’s festive action and returned to the sort of memorable scenes usually reserved for champions.
The maelstrom of emotions in the winners’ enclosure afterwards became a vivid image, the resonance and symmetry of such an unlikely victory grabbing the public imagination far beyond racing.
“I think people were shell-shocked to see the emotional reaction. Obviously they didn’t realise at first the significance of it. The parade ring afterwards was packed to capacity and the shock of the win was wonderful,” Schuster recalls.
If Ellie Mac had done nothing else subsequently she would be guaranteed a place in the hearts of all the family members, friends and Niccolai’s closest pals who make up the club.
Since then however she has taken them to the Cheltenham festival and other famous festivals at Punchestown and Galway. The intriguing thought now is she might be getting even better.
Switched from hurdles to a novice career over fences however she has blossomed, winning her last two starts under star rider Rachael Blackmore.
On Christmas Day a year ago, less than24 hours before Ellie Mac’s race, Alexei Schuster asked his father ‘Dad, do we dare to dream?’ This time there’s no need to ask.
Whatever the outcome though, Schuster is in no doubt about the journey towards Wednesday’s race being as important as the destination. The horse has performed the vital function of keeping people together.
“It is a very sociable thing. It keeps us all in contact. We had our AGM a few weeks ago which was great. We go to the races. We go down to Henry De Bromhead [trainer] to see Ellie Mac.
“Henry is a very sociable, charismatic man, he gives us all tea and croissants, we walk around the yard, look at Ellie Mac and all the other horses he has. We can go out into the fields and watch them train, it’s lovely.
“You don’t see that many young people come together for races in syndicates like ours. But all Niccolai’s close friends are involved which is the great thing about it.
“A lot of them are rugby players who love their sport and love their competition which is why they were so emotional in the parade ring at Leopardstown last year, chanting the horses name and all the rest of it.
“It’s been one of the best things that has happened to us since the tragedy. The way I describe it all is that it’s a great distraction,” he says.
It being no more than that can nevertheless never lessen the consolation that this racehorse, and those connected with her, have provided already. And there may be more to come.
“We’re the only mare in the race and we can claim 7lbs for that. She has won her last two races and we know she likes Leopardstown. It’s very competitive. But we deserve to be there,” John Schuster concludes.
It provides the intriguing prospect of a second St Stephen’s Day victory at Leopardstown, one maybe even more magnificent than the first.