“A Tuesday twilight race at Horsham; I really can’t believe that’s the highlight of my career.”
Those were the words of an emotional Anthony Azzopardi after his one-time boom sprinter McCooly’s Lad made a sensational return to the track almost nine months after his promising career looked to be in tatters.
“This is my greatest achievement ever,” said 2019 Melbourne Cup winner Azzopardi after McCooly’s Lad lit up what in normal circumstances would’ve been a low key evening at Horsham.
“Winning this race tonight means more to me than winning a Group 1.
“The work that went into getting this dog back to the track was endless. Just to be able to nominate him and take him to the track after everything he’s been through was unbelievable.
“As soon as the box draw came out I couldn’t stop thinking about the race. It was Race 11 and I thought ‘Kill me slowly!’ If I’d had a bottle of whiskey, I would’ve drunk it while I was waiting.
“I have so much pride in this dog. I love all my dogs but we’ve been on a journey together and it’s a very different journey to winning Group races but it means so much to me. It’s not what I did, it’s what the dog did.”
A regally related son of Fernando Bale and Tatty Fields, bred and raced by successful father/son partnership Michael and Darren Puleio, McCooly’s Lad appeared to have the greyhound racing world at his feet after winning five of his first nine starts.
He created headlines with airborne 29.09sec and 29.14sec victories at Sandown Park but then his burgeoning career came to an abrupt – and potentially permanent – halt when he sustained a severe trialling injury.
“He broke a hock and it was pretty serious,” Azzopardi said.
“He had two screws put in it and when the first X-rays were taken Dr Des Fegan (veterinary surgeon) told me that he didn’t like the look of it at all. Des did the surgery and while he was happy with how it went, he told me not to get too carried away.
“Des was the person that got him going and I’ll be forever grateful to him.
“Losing a dog like him was very hard to take. To be honest, it was hard to get motivated about my other dogs for a while there.
“In his recovery I used some of my own little ideas, some old remedies that my father (Charlie) showed me.
“One big lesson I learned from my dad before he passed away was that no matter how hard it gets, how tough it gets or how dirty it gets, you never give up.
WATCH: McCooly’s Lad (4) records a spine-tingling BON victory at Horsham on Tuesday at his first start since Melbourne Cup night 2020.
“The other thing that made a huge difference was Tvati, which is an oil treatment that generates bone growth. I used it on McCooly’s Lad every day. I had his hock X-rayed every three weeks and it just kept getting better and better.
“We did a lot of walking and swimming and then I gave him a 100m run, which I gradually increased as he got more confident and I got more confident. It took a long time but it all paid off tonight.”
The moment of truth arrived on Tuesday, with Azzopardi choosing an otherwise obscure Grade 5 heat (485m) at Horsham for the much-anticipated return, where McCooly’s Lad was sent out $1.40 favourite.
It was an emotion-charged cocktail of elation and relief for Azzopardi as McCooly’s Lad finished strongly, defeating classy stayer Aston Ulysses, which was also resuming from a spell, by half a length in a BON 27.35sec, his sixth win from 10 starts.
“The thrill he gave me tonight was enough for a lifetime,” Azzopardi said.
“He’d trialled a lot quicker than he went tonight but he hadn’t been in a field because nobody would go against him.
“He was rusty and made a mistake but I could see him looking for a gap and when he found one he took it and said ‘See you later’! He showed he’s still got that competitive mentality.
“He’s never lost the urge to race. Even when he was in a cast he was driving me mad so I took him to the races a few times just to keep him happy!
“We’re not expecting him to go on and be competitive in the big G1s now but you never know!
“His welfare was the most important thing all the way through. If he ever pulled up limping or sore he would’ve been retired straight away.
“Darren (Puleio) and I agreed on that from the start. Darren and I are very close friends and he supported me through the whole process. I’ve spoken to Darren tonight and he told me it was the proudest moment in the sport for him too.”
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