Day At The Track

"Mad" Charlie brings the best out in Cooper

10:00 AM 07 Jul 2020 NZST
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Charlie Knew and Michelle,Harness racing
Charlie Knew and Michelle

We’re all looking for that special horse to transform our lives – but for Mildura harness racing administrator Michelle McGinty, that life-changer had very little to do with races and trophies.

When a cantankerous little pacer name Charlie Knew came into her life three years ago, the Mildura Harness Racing Club CEO admits he probably saved her and changed the life of her son Cooper.

“We’d moved to Mildura in 2016 to be closer to my family and had been through a really tough period.  My ex-partner Ian had been diagnosed with cancer and been through treatment three times in the space of six years and we’d lost three family members in a short space of time.  There was a lot of stress going on,” Michelle said.

“On top of that, I was working full time and we were raising two little boys under five with special needs.  The move was meant to be about winding down but I was still working 50+ hrs a week from home in a senior role and still having to do a lot of travel interstate and overseas,” she said.

“It all became too much, anxiety kicked in with little to no warning and one morning I woke up just completely unable to function.  I had literally cracked.”

Michelle said the episode was her turning point though, and she resigned the next day.  She said she was “completely lost” for a good six weeks until she visited the Irymple stables of good family friend and trainer Geoff Bottams and his wife Dorothy.

“My family had always been involved with racing.  My dad trained and drove in Mildura back in the 1960s and 70s, my uncle Brian trained horses and my cousin Jason still does. My Uncle Gary is an owner, as was my Uncle Bob and also my late Uncle Red, so I’d always been around horses,” Michelle said.

“But when I visited Geoff and Dorothy that morning, Geoff suggested I get involved again. He told me to get my stable hand licence and give him a hand as a bit of an outlet. I took up the offer and it was the best thing I could have ever done.”

Michelle said from the first days she had an affinity with one of the Bottoms’ pacers, Charlie Knew (Grinfromeartoear – Who Knew (Powerful Toy).

“Charlie was a rough nut, always at the top of the pecking order and giving every horse and human hell!  He’d drag Geoff around on the lead, he’d often kick and he was always rounding all the other horses up.  He was clearly the stable boss,” she said.

“But it was funny, Charlie was always my favourite.  We just clicked and he rarely gave me a hard time like he did to others.”

And while Michelle’s connection to Charlie was unique – it was his interactions with her sons that stunned her.

“Chase is six and Cooper is eight now, but they were quite young at the time.  Both the boys are high functioning on the autism spectrum. They’ve both been reading and writing since they were two and their maths and number skills are completely off the charts,” she said.

“But Cooper has selective mutism, which meant that he couldn’t speak in certain situations, no matter how hard he tried, and he was completely non-verbal outside of home.”

Michelle said the day Cooper met Charlie is a day she’ll never forget.

“Mad Charlie Knew went from absolute feral to an angel when he saw Coop – he started licking Cooper’s hands and playing with his hair and making him laugh.  And Cooper who had never spoken outside of the house before, turned around, looked at me and said: ‘Love Charlie Horse’.

“I’m not sure what shocked me most and it still gives me goosebumps to think about.  From that day on, Cooper started talking a little more to the point now where he regularly talks in public, especially at the racetrack.

“Charlie’s always been the third child and much-loved member of the family since.”

But while his stable antics were legendary, Charlie Knew’s on-track performances were less flattering. 

About six months later Geoff and Dorothy took the decision to retire the pacer, but with concerns about Charlie’s limited prospects for rehoming, given his attitudes and behavior.

“I was devastated and the next day I offered to lease him. I think they thought I was mad, but I couldn’t just let him go.”

Michelle said Charlie’s first race for her a week later was an absolute blur, but also a career highlight.

“I’d only had him for a week and even though there were no expectations, I remember being so nervous that I literally made myself sick,” she said.

“I was pacing the grandstand right through the race and when Charlie got up and won, I was completely dumbfounded! It wasn’t until everyone started congratulating me that it sunk in and the tears started. It was his first of his five wins for us. He also had nine seconds and eight thirds.”

Charlie finally reached the end of the racing road this week, and will spend his remaining days as a paddock pony.

“He’s one of many retirees at my partner’s property down south, but at nine, he’s still a bit of a baby because the other horses there are aged up into their mid-20s. It was absolutely devastating to have to let him go, though, and I cried pretty much the three hours all the way home,” Michelle said.

“Animals, especially horses have an amazing ability to relieve stress and they really do have a truly unique way to empathise with humans. They’re so non-judgemental and it’s easy to see why equine assisted therapy does help and inspire rehabilitation.

“Charlie has seen us through a lot of tough times and has lowered my stress levels – he’s probably saved my sanity during the last few months of COVID-19.

“He’ll never be replaced – he’s irreplaceable to us – but I do have a two-year-old A Rocknroll Dance Colt out of Lady Kardashian who’s currently being broken in, and I also have an untried four year old A RocknRoll Dance mare, Party Rocking, I’ve leased from Geoff and Dorothy.

“I can’t wait for both to be racing and if they give us a tenth of the enjoyment that Charlie has given us, we will be very happy.”


Terry Gange

NewsAlert PR Mildura

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