Remembering Maya Morriss and her Grand Passion

Maya Morriss | ©Juanona Voyage 2

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There is something about the seasons in racing, the cyclical nature of the business and the sport. From the covering season, to foaling, yearling and breeding stock sales, and the races themselves, we set both our business and social clocks by these certainties, while perhaps measuring our own mortality by their annual passing.

The last 20 years of my life have been spent in Newmarket, where this is felt particularly so. We count the days from the final November meeting on the Rowley Mile, blasted by the winds of the Heath until its reawakening for the Craven Meeting in April. And in many respects those autumn races set the tone for the following year, while igniting a few dreams through the winter.

Some people have a strong dislike of the Rowley Mile and I can understand why, but I love it. I love the pre-parade ring, I love the possibility of spotting the next clutch of Classic winners, I love the history of its vast expanse masquerading as a racecourse, and most of all I love the camaraderie of the people who go racing primarily in the hope of seeing some really good horses.

The Sun Chariot day of this year will live long in the memory, not just for the imperious win of Inspiral (GB) in the feature race but for the appearance of a promising two-year-old, Sons And Lovers (GB). The colt from the first crop of Study Of Man (Ire) won in the colours of Hugo and Maya Morriss, who race him with their friend and his breeder Kirsten Rausing.

Sons And Lovers perhaps had no business winning that day, and indeed the bookmakers didn't give him much chance when pricing him at 33/1. But, rousted along from the three-furlong marker by his jockey David Egan, who urged him into closer contention from his early spot in rear, Sons And Lovers responded as if on a mission. In many ways he was, for Maya Morriss, who had been battling illness for many years, had been brought to the races to see him make his debut. The colt's trainer Jane Chapple-Hyam and the owners' friend Wendy Milbank had sought special permission to bring Maya's mobility vehicle to the far side of the racecourse away from the stands so she and Hugo could watch the race without having to contend with the cold or the crowd. 

Once Sons And Lovers had fought his way to the front to win by a head, Egan brought him back along the racecourse to salute his owners on the far rail. 

It was a touching sight made even more poignant in the memory on hearing the news this Thursday morning that Maya had died.

Hugo, her husband of 56 years, paid tribute to the woman he had married on September 9, 1967, which also happened to be her birthday. He said, “She'd been very, very brave. She was a great person, very strong-minded and very straight. Sons And Lovers gave her so much pleasure in her final months, especially the day he won. We couldn't believe it when it happened.”

Born in Philadelphia as Maya Scull, she had arrived in Britain a few years before her marriage and met Hugo while working for the Wildfowl Trust. A keen equestrian in her younger years, the intelligent woman with a quick wit was a natural fit in Newmarket, where her husband's family owned Banstead Manor Stud, which was sold to Juddmonte in 1987. 

Their own racing and breeding interests continued, however, most notably through the homebred Grand Passion (Ire) (Grand Lodge), whose eight wins when trained by Geoff Wragg included three Listed victories in Britain and Ireland. 

Kirsten Rausing, a friend of the Morrisses since her arrival in Newmarket 43 years ago, said, “Their great hospitality was legendary, and Maya was the lynchpin in a wide and varied circle of friends. Newmarket will be all the poorer without her.

“Maya was so enthusiastically involved in the colt's success. We had all hoped that his further racing career would keep her going next year, but this was obviously not to be, very sadly.”

At the age of 80, Maya Morriss died on her native country's day of Thanksgiving. Those fortunate enough to have known her will certainly be thankful for her warm friendship. Her indomitable spirit and love of horseracing will be remembered especially when the colt who gave her one last great hurrah returns to the racecourse next season. 

 

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