Story File: A Horse Called Ugly
A Horse Called Ugly is all jodhpurs and whips, mud and hay, gypsies’ snarls and toffs’ moustaches. It ran for two-and-a-half years in Tiger in the early 1970s, which was notable for a strip in a comic which seemed to favour stories about football, motor sports and wrestling. But equestrianism was enjoying much popular attention in Britain at this time. Princess Anne had won the 1971 Sports Personality of the Year award and other riders such as David Broome, Harvey Smith, Ann Moore and Mark Phillips were household names in the run-up to the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, so I can see sense behind the commissioning of this adventure-packed, characterful yarn.
The central character is Joe Larcombe – a free spirit, a rebel and a scruff in a world of aristocratic snobbery. When the story opens Joe is groom to the bullying event rider Clive Mannering, whom he floors with a left hook before the end of the first page. He doesn’t remain out of work for long, pitching in at the stables of one of Mannering’s rivals, where he encounters the untamed stallion Ugly. Ugly had been bought from gypsies and has a wild, unconventional streak which attracts Joe: ‘I’d never seen a horse that I really wanted to ride! Well, I’m looking at one, right now!’ Joe realises that Ugly likes to ride roughly and can’t be tamed by the usual methods – he responds instead to a mix of Joe’s loyal friendship and fruity insults such as ‘Hay-bag’ and ‘You ugly, scatter-brained excuse for a coalman’s carthorse’.
The first eighteen months of A Horse Called Ugly’s run are concerned with Joe and Ugly’s attempts to win a challenge set to them by the furious Clive: to win the Gaylord Grand Slam – six of the most difficult events in British horse sports. If he triumphs in all six, Joe will win £5000; if he loses, Clive wins Ugly. Joe is helped and supported throughout by Clive’s younger sister, Angela Mannering, but otherwise is virtually friendless. Clive has the backing of the stuck-up horse-eventing community, various rural ne’er-do-wells and several other brothers and sisters who are equally outraged by the antics of the unrefined Larcombe and his nag.
Before and during almost all of the six events, Clive – like a posh-spoken Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races – makes innumerable and ever-more desperate attempts to scupper Joe and Ugly’s chances. Before the Westvale Cross-country Trials, he arranges for Ugly to be kidnapped by gypsies. Before the Faversham Plate, he tries to ruin Joe’s attempts to raise money for his event entry fee. Before the Glengarry Stakes, he conspires to give Joe a faulty saddle, designed to break during the race. He brings forward the date of the Modbury Steeplechase, so that Joe and Ugly must race the length of the country in one day in order to compete. And, for the final event, the Empire Plate, he arranges for Joe to lose all confidence because of a fake gypsy’s curse. Needless to say, Joe and Ugly – on a diet of campfire baked beans and apples – win every single contest and good triumphs over evil.
With their challenge accomplished, the final year of the series lacks the same focus. Joe and Ugly have a number of different adventures – much of them travelling across the wilds of South America, before returning to Blighty for a final showdown with Clive , then an art-smuggling kidnap caper. A Horse Called Ugly was finally reined in to help make way for the likes of Nipper and Billy’s Boots that joined the comic when Tiger merged with Scorcher in the autumn of 1974.
I’m afraid I don’t know the identities of the writer and artists on this series (I think there were two main artists as the style alters a little across its run). If anyone can identify them for me that would be brilliant.