The Rogue Trader

by Pam Gowing


Horse sweat and tobacco smoke hang on the air as I drive my empty lorry into a parking space on the road above the Green in Ballinasloe. The 300-year-old horse fair is ‘world famous’ in Ireland. Thousands of people flock to it every year. It’s 8am and already its six acres are a heaving mass of horses and humanity. Sellers hoping to make the sale of a lifetime, dealers hoping to find a future star, and many a happy amateur hoping to find a reliable friend.


Glancing in my mirror, I see a long tailback of vehicles snaking behind me and I’m thankful to have found the convenient parking spot. Grinning, I salute two nearby magpies, hoping their luck will stay with me throughout the day, though I know that my sharp eyes and years of experience are what really matter for my job. I source horses for the Queen’s Household Cavalry. They want big, black geldings, untrained or just broken and riding. Preferably with no white markings, though some white socks are ok. They must be calm, healthy and straight moving. Fingers crossed, I will fill the lorry with black beauties today.


The first of my two helpers, Johnny, swings the passenger door open and hops down, eager to get going, whilst my other helper, Buttercup, hangs back by the lorry. He’s earned his colourful nickname because he insists on wearing yellow hi-vis jackets “so horses won’t bang in to me.” He refuses to admit that he is too lily-livered to face the milling throng of horseflesh on the green. But I’m glad he likes to stay put. All too often, before I had my helpers, a good horse could be switched for a lesser one, between the deal and its delivery to my vehicle, by a quick-thinking seller. But with Johnny to take them to the lorry and Buttercup there to mind them, I have no worries.


No worries apart from a bank loan that is maturing. As Johnny and I make our way through the horses on the green, ever alert to spot a good one, I feel the burning sensation of being watched. I glance round and see the beady little cross-eyes of Malachy Rogers, one eye watching me, and the other looking at the horses I stop to assess.



Up till lately, Malachy, nicknamed “The Rogue Rogers” by Johnny and Buttercup, had been one of my assistants. Surprisingly, he came from a non-horsey background. His father, my bank manager, asked me to take him on as a helper a year ago, “to keep him out of trouble.” I had just been introduced to the Queen’s horse agent and needed some money to purchase my first load of horses to sell to him. The banker gave me that loan the moment I agreed to take his son on.


I should have interviewed the lad first. Just like horses, people are better with a good broad countenance, an indicator of honesty. Unfortunately, Malachy’s eyes were so close he could give Cyclops a run for his money. Still, I knew better than to judge a book by the cover. At least I thought I did.


Malachy was a keen study and quick learner, but I had taken him under my wing only to find he was constantly under my elbow. When I viewed a horse being trotted up by a seller, Malachy stepped back and forward in sync with me. If I ran a hand down their coats to make sure any undesired whiteness hadn’t been coloured with black boot polish, he rubbed them, too. When the Queen’s agent came to view my purchases and I wanted to offer him a cup of tea, before I had time to tug a forelock, Malachy would have the kettle boiled and be right in the middle of everything brandishing a nice plate of biscuits. The scamp learned the type of horses I like and studied the tests I put them through. He weaseled himself into the company of my friends and contacts. The blighter was a pest. I itched to fire him, but I couldn’t tell him to go till I had paid off the bank loan.


One day, a couple of months ago, he preempted me and announced that he was resigning. I didn’t ask him to work a month’s notice as I tried to disguise my relief and wished him well for the future. It wasn’t long before I realized what future the smarmy little git had in mind.


Everywhere I went, he turned up. At Furzebridge Horse Sales he sat on the stands about ten feet from me, barely glanced at the catalogue, didn’t bother spending time at the practice arenas evaluating the horses, but waited till I had done all that sleuthing then proceeded to bid on every horse I bid on. Obviously cushioned by his banker daddy, because he outbid me every time. ‘Furious’ is too mild a word. I reckon there was smoke coming out my nostrils when I complained to the auctioneer about his behavior. But the man shrugged and said he had to accept all bids as long as the purchaser could pay for them.


Worse was to come. I found out that Malachy was selling the horses, my choices, to the Household Cavalry. He had stolen my horses and my contact! The Cavalry have an upper price limit, but not having to pay off a loan, Malachy was happy to pay more for the horses and make less of a profit on them than I could afford to. And darn it, every horse sale I went to, the little scourge turned up.


From then on, I couldn’t get rid of him. I had to source horses directly from their breeders on their farms so the “Rogue Trader” wouldn’t gazump me. This meant a lot of time and fuel spent driving up and down the country searching for them, relying on word of mouth to hear about where there might be a good one. It was difficult. Many times I pulled in to a yard to find that the handsome black gelding I had been promised was in actuality a mare, unsound, too old, or the wrong colour. There were more disappointments than successes. After a couple of months, I was getting desperate. The bank loan was screaming to be paid. I needed a lorry load for the Cavalry. Sooner than soon.




So today I have come to Ballinasloe, where hopefully I can lose the rogue in the crowd. I dodge through the seething horde till I come across a nice gelding. Maybe a little heavier in bone than ideal, but he is light feathered and calm. A useful type, that I know the Cavalry will like. The vendor puts him through his paces and I make a bid. The seller wants more. We haggle for a bit till we come to a deal, which we are just about to shake on, when Malachy appears from nowhere, and offers the man more. I object, but of course the seller has to get as much as he can, and he sells the horse to Malachy.


Fury surges through Johnny. His clenched jaw pulses. He steps to follow Malachy, who is leading the horse away, but when I touch his arm to calm him, with a begrudging wince, he shoves a fist into his jacket pocket and stays with me.


We fine-comb the fair and find another horse. Not as good as the first one, a little small at 16 hands, but a nice mover. The seller’s eyebrows rise when I pay what he asks for immediately without bargaining, but we’re under pressure and whisk our purchase away to the lorry before Malachy finds us and makes a higher bid.


When he catches up on us, Malachy’s smug smirk drops when Johnny tells him we have bought one. I have half an ear on them, but their terse conversation fades as I turn my attention to a smashing horse. Pitch black except for one white sock. Well proportioned, nicely muscled, and a huge eighteen hands high. Absolute perfection. Too late, I notice Malachy has followed my gaze. I don’t care. I make a beeline for the horse. Johnny and Malachy elbow each other as they scamper after me.


“How old?” I ask the seller.

“Four-year-old Sor.”

“What’s he done?”

“Broken and Riding Sor. Just done a cub hunt.”


I nod. I thought he might have been broken. He has a full set of shoes on. Unbroken horses tend not to be shod.


“Can you walk him away from me and trot him back?”


I stand back to see his paces as his owner leads him across the Green. Malachy edges in beside me. I resist the temptation to ‘accidentally’ thread on his toes.


The horse walks away fine, but as he trots back, I think I detect a slight unevenness in his pace.


“Can you trot him past me?” I position myself so I can judge the horse from the side. So does Malachy. Was the horse limping, or did his movement seem uneven because of the distracting flash of his one white sock? I wasn’t sure.


“Can you trot him on the road?” I ask the seller.


“Sure Sor.”


He leads the horse through the crowd, from the grass onto the tar road. Johnny, Malachy, (who ignores my frown and Johnny’s glare), and I follow behind.


The answer to the horse’s unevenness is revealed when he is trotted on the hard surface. We all hear the distinctive clang of a loose shoe. Not lame after all, just uncomfortable. I feel his legs and feet. No heat or swelling. I decide he is worth a chance.


I put a large bid on the horse, hoping it will be too much for Malachy. It isn’t. He bids against me. It’s not good form to interrupt my deal, but he doesn’t care. I bid again, but Malachy bids more. Johnny shoves both hands into his pockets. Hard.


Hairs are tingling on the back of my neck. Before I bid for the third time, I ask the dealer to trot him up once more. Switching focus from his feet, where I had been looking for lameness, I survey the overall picture. As he runs, the seller waves his arm so that he taps the horse’s head under its chin with his crop. To avoid him, the horse holds its head up high and off to one side. Something is not right. Is the man awkward or is he making the horse put his head in the air on purpose? Perhaps he is older than the four years the seller claims?


“Can I see his teeth?” I lean forward to open his mouth but the seller gets there first and, holding the horse’s head up, prizes his mouth open and I peer in to see that he is telling the truth. The teeth belong to a four year old. Hackles still up, my brows wrinkle.


It is only when the owner lets the mouth close and the horse lowers his head that I glimpse something. His far eye looks cloudy. Is he blind? Is that why the seller had us staring at his feet? Had he left the shoe loose on purpose? I am just about to examine the eye when something stops me, and instead I step back, smile and nod at the seller.


“You’re right, sir.” I say. “He is indeed four. And a right handsome specimen he is too. I haven’t seen a horse as good as him for years.”


Then I outbid Malachy again, but true to form, the rogue bids higher. Johnny steps forward, tight-lipped and red faced, but I catch his eye and stay still. He gets the message and doesn’t move either.


I turn back to the seller, humming and hawing. I fold and unfold my arms, scratch my chin and sigh, then, after much contemplation, make another bid. Malachy, my echo, scratches and sighs too, then makes an even stronger bid.


I’m about to bid again when Johnny speaks up.


“Maybe you should leave him, boss. He’s a fine horse and all that, but…”


“Johnny,” I interrupt him. “You know as well as I do. We have searched the length and breath of Ireland and this is the best horse we have ever seen. We can’t leave him behind, and,” I cast my eyes at Malachy, “I’m certainly not letting that rat have him.”


Johnny’s eyes widen as I turn to the seller and make a huge bid, right at the top of my budget. Then I pat my pockets and flap around to instruct Johnny to stay where he was.


“I’m going to the bank.”


I move off, all bluster like I am in a hurry, but take the time to hear Malachy make another enormous bid. One I can never out-do, and one that means he will never make a profit on the horse.


When I get back from ‘visiting’ the bank a short while later, Johnny is standing alone. Malachy has bought the horse and taken him away and the seller has disappeared.


“What was all that about?” asked Johnny. “You were too slow. Could you not get the money?”


“I wasn’t going for money. I just wanted Malachy to have time to buy him.”


“Why?” asked Johnny, You liked him. He’s a terrific horse.


“He is,” I reply, “but with Malachy’s money spent, he’s gone home and now we can shop around in peace.”


Johnny twists his lips glumly but cheers up as we spend the rest of the day sourcing five pleasing horses to fill our order.


Back in the lorry that evening as we drive home, Johnny tells Buttercup about the “one that got away”. And how, even though we have got some splendid horses, I had let Malachy outbid me for the “best one out there”.


“Ah,” I said,  “That smartass seller had us focusing on his feet because of the loose shoe and Malachy didn’t notice the horse is blind in his right eye.”


“And you let him buy the horse without pointing that out?”


“I did. I turned a blind eye.”



When the Cavalry agent came to collect my purchases, he thanked me for consistently finding excellent horses at a fair price. He told me he had just come from Malachy who had asked him an enormous price for a half blind horse. I tried not to smile as he declared he would “Never be buying from that unreliable trickster again.”