Coming from a family involved in race horses in Waterford, Ireland, Fiona Dowley always knew she wanted to work in the horse industry, but little did she realize what a journey she’d be taken on when she went to work for Irish show jumper Eddie Macken at the age of 17.
Dowley was on hand for some of Macken’s biggest wins with the legendary Boomerang, and she was the gelding’s primary caretaker from 1977 until his death in 1983.
“As you can imagine, anyone at that age, going all around the world doing what we were doing, it was a dream come true,” she said. “I kind of fell into it. I knew I was never good enough to do it myself, but I loved being around the international shows and the horses and everything that entailed.”
Dowley rode in the pony and junior divisions in Ireland and spent time in Germany working with international show jumpers who were friends of her parents. She met Macken at a horse show in Vienna and received a job offer.
By the time she arrived at Macken’s barn, he and Boomerang were two years into their epic partnership and had been winning grand prix classes throughout Europe. The pair had begun their domination of the major jumping derbies, winning Hamburg (Germany) and Hickstead (England) in 1976 and boosting Macken to the top of the World Rider Rankings, a feat he repeated in ’77 and ’78.
“They were destined to be together, and Eddie was the perfect rider for him,” Dowley said. “He was super, super careful, and he needed that kind of confidence that Eddie could give him.”
Macken and Boomerang were superstars and were often mobbed at horse shows for autographs or a chance to touch the bay gelding.
“You’d go into Dublin or any of the towns in Ireland and England, and everyone knew who Boomerang was. People who weren’t even associated with the sport knew who Eddie and Boomerang were,” said Dowley. “At home there’d be letters addressed just, ‘Boomerang, Ireland.’ We got those all the time. They minted a stamp for him when he retired. He was just so famous.
“I remember one national show we went to, we couldn’t even take him off the truck because there were such crowds of people,” she continued. “I remember when we won the Nations Cup in Dublin for the third year in a row, having to wait in the pocket in Dublin for a decent hour after the prize-giving because I couldn’t get him back without people pulling hairs out of his tail—souvenirs. It was quite incredible.”
Boomerang was bred in a village called Grangemockler in County Tipperary, and Dowley recalls a poem that was addressed to the gelding:
“If you ever go to NineMileHouse, in fifty years or more,
“Ask for a village, known as the Grange, and a tree called the Big Sycamore,
“Ask them too, is there anything else, and they’ll say with a lilt and a twang,
“Surely ye know, of the horse we bred,
“The one they called, Boomerang”
Boomerang loved getting on the trailer and loved to show, but he preferred his fans to remain at a safe distance, and that was fine for Dowley, who liked to stay out of the spotlight.
“Most people thought because he was so photogenic, and he posed so much for pictures and that he looked adorable, that they thought he was something they all could go up and pet, and you just couldn’t,” said Dowley. “He was a little tricky like that. A person couldn’t just come and walk straight into his stall; that wouldn’t happen. He had his person, and that was it, which was a little difficult in ways because he was such a high profile [horse].
“He had a tremendous fan club,” she continued. “All these kids would want to come up and pet him at shows. You nearly had to put a barricade around the stall because he wasn’t very friendly, but once he had his tack on he was an absolute Christian. He was sensitive; he was opinionated. But as far as a groom goes, he was very rewarding because he loved you and no one else. If you get a horse that loves everyone then you’re not special!”
On the road, Dowley usually cared for around four horses for Macken, and at home there were 16 to 18. She was the only groom and spent hours walking Boomerang and hacking him. A true Irishman, Boomerang also enjoyed a Guinness in his feed every day.
He had navicular disease, so icing, which was a novelty in Europe at that time, was a big part of his routine. If there was a river near a horse show, Dowley would take him down to stand in it.
Dowley would get nervous before a big class.
“[Boomerang] was that good that you kind of expected him to win all the time,” she said. “I don’t think either of us appreciated it at the time how great he actually was, because it was nearly normal. It would have been unusual to go to a big show and come home without winning the grand prix or at least two classes with him. He was amazing like that. It became kind of commonplace. He was a horse who, no matter what, the bigger the audience the better he performed. He’d really pull it out. He’d grow two hands if there was a big audience. He absolutely loved it. He wanted to win the whole time.”
Boomerang chipped his coffin bone after taking a wrong step in the indoor arena in 1980 and was retired from competition. He stayed in light work in retirement until he was euthanized at age 17 from complications from his foot injury.
“I loved him to death, and it was one of the saddest days ever when we had to put him down,” said Dowley. “I wouldn’t travel because I wanted to stay home with him.”
“She turned him out looking like a million dollars every time,” said Macken. “She lived for the horse. He was her baby.”
With countless grand prix wins, three Aga Khan Nations Cup trophies, four Hickstead Derby wins, a team bronze and individual fourth at the 1979 European Show Jumping Championships (the Netherlands) and an individual silver at the 1978 World Show Jumping Championships (Germany), Macken and Boomerang were one of the greatest pairs of all time, and Dowley was thankful to be around for the ride.
She worked for Macken for 15 years before coming to the United States to work for Debbie Dolan-Sweeney at Sagamore Farms (New York), where she remains the farm manager today.
If you liked this story, consider subscribing! The April 8 & 15, 2019, Show Jumping Issue of the Chronicle featured “Horse Of A Lifetime: Boomerang,” looking back at the storied career of Eddie Macken and Boomerang.
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