Come on my son

Max Muinos tells Ian Carnaby how buying To-Agori-Mou led to a sensational summer’s racing and a bitter rivalry

When Max Muinos talks, the memories pour forth like old treasures suddenly released from a chest in the attic. Sometimes his adored wife Andry will correct him, not because of a factual error – his mind is as sharp as a tack – but because she remembers the sequence of events slightly differently. An eminently sensible man, Max knows when to debate the point and when to wander off and make a cup of tea. After half a century together, theirs remains a heart-warming relationship.

This is a story about the best horse they owned, To-Agori-Mou, and the sometimes bitter rivalry with Robert Sangster and the great Vincent O’Brien, owner and trainer of fellow Irish 2,000 Guineas contender Kings Lake. The two colts met on four occasions in 1981 with honours even in the end, though not before press, public and even the late Julian Wilson on BBC television had expressed strong views on certain controversial issues. More of that anon.

One could just as easily have written about Max and Andry’s extraordinary story: how the Spaniard from La Coruña in Galicia, having attended catering college in Switzerland, arrived in London and met the Greek Cypriot girl from Kato Zodia and went from waiting on tables to managing and owning clubs and restaurants. At one point they had four establishments on the go at the same time and their sheer hard graft eventually made owning racehorses possible.

London is key to the story. Max was always going to make his mark there and Andry was determined to follow the path taken by her father, a tailor, and sister. She seems to have been in love with the aura and vitality of the city before she had even seen it, going against her mother’s wishes and giving up a job in the treasury to follow her instincts in the 1960s. Whether the ‘aura and vitality’ extended to Harringey greyhound stadium is debatable, but the family lived close by and when she met Max, who lived with them before the marriage, a night at the dogs became a fairly regular treat.

Max’s first job was as a waiter at the Howard Hotel, near Temple underground station, on £7 6s a week. He stayed for three years, then had a spell at the Olympic casino in Bayswater, owned by Harry Demetriou, who had horses with Capt H Ryan Price. But the breakthrough, unlikely as it may seem, came when he and Andry saw an advertisement in the London Evening Standard for a couple to run a coffee shop in Harlesden. The deal included the profit from one of the fruit machines on the premises – a small but significant upturn in their fortunes. There followed a spell as catering manager at a swish golf and country club in Surrey, the money was good and they saved hard. Becoming a restaurateur was now rather more than a dream and it finally became reality when they bought the Taurus on Chiswick High Road, remaining there for several years. The comedian Tommy Cooper was a regular.

It still took a long time for racehorse ownership to become viable but Max and Andry were now in a position to buy more outlets. There was a steak house in Feltham and a very smart private members’ luncheon venue, the Punch Club in Eastcheap. However, the most important was Le Carrosse, a French restaurant in Chelsea where there was plenty of racing talk. A few years went by before a friend agreed to write to Guy Harwood on Max’s behalf. The trainer, sensing a significant opportunity, turned up at the restaurant and invited them down to Pulborough. “There was a bit of a false start because the first horse we had was pretty hopeless and came fifth in a seller!” laughed Max. “But Guy apologised for that and bought three more and I went to see them. Andry was too tired to go but I had strict instructions to report back on the colour because she only liked bays, not chestnuts. Anyway, I took all three! Ela-Mana-Mou was the cheapest of them at 6,000 guineas.”

For a virtual newcomer to racing, this turned out to be an astonishing purchase. Ela-Mana-Mou, named by Andry and Greek for ‘Come On My Darling’, not only beat Troy in the Royal Lodge Stakes as a two-year-old but actually started favourite to repeat the dose the following year in the Epsom Derby. He finished fourth behind his old rival but won the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and was sold to Simon Weinstock at the end of the campaign for 500,000 guineas, moving from Harwood to Dick Hern, for whom he won the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. If Max regretted the sale, he never said so. Indeed, throughout his career he remained calm and courteous, a true gentleman. (And, lest we forget, it looked a very shrewd deal at the time, netting a huge profit for someone so new to the game.)

All seemed to be going extremely well but appearances can be deceptive. Andry had suffered the desperate sadness of losing two babies and had more or less given up on producing an offspring. But then, while Ela-Mana-Mou was still racing, she conceived again. “I was so nervous I didn’t even go to the doctor’s for three months”, she said. “I just prayed that everything would be all right”. To their great joy, she produced their son Antonio.

And so to To-Agori-Mou, loosely translated as ‘Come On My Son’, who was bought for 20,000 guineas a couple of months before Ela-Mana-Mou was sold, in December 1979. By top-class sprinter Tudor Music out of a winning hurdler called Sarah Van Fleet, To-Agori-Mou won three times as a youngster before finding the Ballydoyle colt Storm Bird half a length too good in the Dewhurst at Newmarket. His path to the 2,000 Guineas became easier when injury ruled Storm Bird out for the whole of the following season. To-Agori-Mou was pipped in the Craven Stakes by Kind Of Hush but returned to Newmarket as 5/2 favourite for the Guineas and duly won under regular jockey Greville Starkey, though by only a hard-fought neck from outsider Mattaboy. Max and Andry had a Classic winner on their hands, only a couple of years after dipping a toe in racing’s very expensive waters. The logical target was the Irish 2,000 Guineas and To-Agori-Mou started 9/10 favourite. However, he was opposed by another Ballydoyle colt in Kings Lake, who made much of the running for Pat Eddery until Starkey came with his challenge inside the two-furlong pole. Kings Lake then edged left and bumped the favourite at least two or three times, as the head-on camera shows clearly enough, before holding on by a neck.

When examining what happened next (and indeed over the following weeks), the Curragh stewards clearly felt To-Agori-Mou had been inconvenienced, to say the least, and soon reversed the placings. There was no argument at the time and the whole affair might soon have been forgotten. But Robert Sangster – arguably the most powerful owner in European racing until the Maktoums hit their stride – was not about to give in easily. Whether the private and retiring Vincent O’Brien willingly went along with it is hard to say but an appeal was lodged with the stewards of the Turf Club, the regulatory body in Ireland and, after a six-hour hearing, Kings Lake was reinstated. The decision was roundly criticised in the British and Irish press. The ‘six-hour’ aspect is irrelevant. This was a highly sensitive matter, with everyone in racing awaiting the outcome. The Turf Club officials were hardly likely to go in and come out with a glib statement in half an hour. They had to appear dignified and thorough, but feelings were running even higher than they supposed. Major Victor McCalmont, officiating at the Curragh, promptly resigned as an Irish Turf Club steward when Kings Lake was reinstated.

“Our disqualification of Kings Lake had been an important although unpleasant decision to make”, he said. “It had also been one of the easiest during my 15 years as a steward. When my authority is undermined there is no point in making myself available ever again to act as a steward at an Irish meeting”. The consensus was that the Turf Club had bowed to ‘important’ connections. Sangster, certainly a very important figure in the racing and breeding industries in Ireland, remained amiable enough with the British press, many of whom had accepted his champagne in the past. Sangster was always a very good host. But when he went on television at Ascot he encountered presenter Julian Wilson in the kind of steely mood few had witnessed before. 

After Sangster had offered some flimsy reason for the appeal, Wilson looked at him and said: “Oh, come off it, Robert,” as if  the whole affair was much more about making Kings Lake an established Classic winner. Sangster remained genial but Wilson’s evident disgust hit home. It is hard to imagine any of today’s broadcasters nailing so important a figure quite so effectively. Wilson was appalled, as were many others.

Not quite the final act, though arguably the most dramatic, came in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, where Starkey rode To-Agori-Mou more positively and held Kings Lake by a neck. As Starkey turned in the saddle just after the line he appeared to give Eddery a ‘V’ sign – and this in front of royalty. Starkey’s Christian name just happens to have a ‘v’ in it, a point not lost on The Sun, which managed to incorporate two fingers in its headline the following day. “I had no hard feelings about it all,” Max recalls. “I don’t think Vincent did either, and I shook hands with him at Ascot, but Guy Harwood didn’t.”

There was precious little between the two colts, of course. Kings Lake just had the better of things when they were first and second in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood but To-Agori-Mou made it 2-2 (by a nose) when both were beaten by Northjet in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville. To-Agori-Mou raced more often than many top-class horses would today and held his form extremely well, winning the Waterford Crystal Mile at Goodwood, with Lester Piggott deputising for Starkey, who was suspended. He attempted 10 furlongs in the Champion Stakes but could manage only fifth, no disgrace after a long, hard season with many close finishes. A subsequent stint in America, where he was trained by John W Russell, was unsuccessful. “I have little time for regret because what’s past is past but I think that was possibly a mistake because the trainer didn’t know how to train him,” said Max. He and Andry have had horses with other trainers, including Ron Boss, but it would be nigh-on impossible to replicate their earlier success. They went with Guy Harwood at exactly the right time and it was good news for all concerned. 

Retired now and living in Marbella, Max and Andry Muinos are all things to all people – a lovely couple with a fund of stories, some amazingly successful days and the occasional setback, like the restaurant just along the coast they bought at the wrong time. Max ponders that decision but recovers quickly, telling racing stories, mixing in the odd Lester Piggott impression (“You should let me ride that horse, y’know”) and making sure the maitre d’ and the waiters where we dine are happy. They are. His restless energy when he was setting everything up must have been something to behold. It’s still pretty impressive now. 

Ian Carnaby is a sports writer, broadcaster and columnist for the Racing Post and Irish Field.

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