One of Australasia's most popular pacers Courage Under Fire has passed away with a record that may never be matched.
The tiny pacing hero turned stallion died, aged 21, over the weekend at Yirribee Stud in New South Wales.
While he was a very commercial stallion who sired recently-retired Inter Dominion champion Smolda, it is as the Mighty Mouse of pacing that Courage Under Fire will be best remembered.
He won his first 24 starts, being unbeaten at two and three, the latter season including a record six Derby victories.
It is doubtful any galloper and very few harness horses would have contested six Derbys let alone win them all. This place in racing history would seem to be Courage Under Fire’s alone forever.
The Derbys were part of a 41-win career from 56 starts that saw him amass $1,551,941 in stakes after starting his career in New Zealand with Bruce Negus and then being transferred to champion NSW trainer Brian Hancock after a sensational failure in the 2000 Inter Dominion in Melbourne.
Courage Under Fire suffered his first defeat in a heat of that series, prompting Moonee Valley commentator Dan Milecki to yell “the world must be ending” as Kyema Kid surged past Courage Under Fire.
While the world survived, Courage Under Fire’s career plateaued by his earlier standards and he was never as dominant as an older horse, winning a series of good races but never one of the great ones.
He was narrowly beaten in both a Miracle Mile and Victoria Cup and fourth in an Inter Dominion final but picked up Grand Circuit races like the South Australia Cup, Queensland Pacing Champs and Australian Pacing Champs.
He came back to the pack because, while he was a pacing machine at three, he never got much stronger or faster, forever looking a fast teenager racing grown men.
But as a three-year-old he captured the racing - and some non-racing - public’s imagination in a golden era that also saw Christian Cullen and Lyell Creek draw huge fan bases.
The other two were better older horses, albeit all too briefly in Christian Cullen’s case, but Courage Under Fire’s size endeared him to race fans, his little legs whirling like a cartoon character when he was at full speed.
Off the track he was a little softy.
“He loved people and was the loveliest little horse to have around,” said original trainer Negus.
“He had so many fans and when little kids came up to him to pat him, which happened all the time, he would lower his head down so they could get to him.
“Once, when Brian Hancock was training him, they couldn’t find Brian’s six-year-old granddaughter and they were all panicking.
“They couldn’t believe it when they found her in Courage’s paddock and she was patting him as he nuzzled her. This was when he was a seven-year-old stallion, he was just such a gentleman.”
So did training a racing icon change Negus’s career or even life?
“It definitely helped my career because we had a lot of good horses, many for his owner Greg Brodie after Courage left the stable.
“But it also changed my life. I met so many people and was once asked to speak at a racing awards dinner because I was the guy who trained Courage Under Fire.
“I met my wife, Colleen, at that function, so I owe Courage more than he would ever have known.”