Thursday 18 October 2018

Harrington trio continue to break new boundaries

While Sizing John may have been ruled out of the Gold Cup, Jessica Harrington and her daughters Kate and Emma will still be a force to be reckoned with in the Cotswolds, writes Michael Verney

Trainer Jessica Harrington. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Trainer Jessica Harrington. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

There's a hesitancy to even mention the word retirement in Jessica Harrington's company.

While most 71-year-olds would sail away into the sunset at that stage of their life to admire their achievements - and she has a remarkable list of honours to reflect on - it's a measure of the woman that the thought has never been given any great debate. Her enthusiasm is more evident than ever.

"I love it, aren't I lucky? I have loads of good horses to get up to every morning, and I have a great team here. I just keep going because you're only as good as the last horse that won - half an hour later someone else will have won," she says matter-of-factly.

Rather than slow down in her 70s, Harrington has expanded her Commonstown Stables - which now houses 140 horses split between jumps and the Flat - with the Kildare trainer closing in on further history next week at Cheltenham.

Winning the Gold Cup with Sizing John 12 months ago - her first runner in the blue riband - saw her move into elite class with the Festival's three biggest prizes secured after the great Moscow Flyer claimed the Champion Chase in 2003 and '05 and Jezki tasted Champion Hurdle glory four years ago.

Harrington's hopes of defending the Gold Cup were dealt a huge blow on Thursday, with the news that Sizing John had been withdrawn from the Festival after suffering a hairline fracture to his pelvis.

Further ground could still be broken at the Cotswolds next week, however, as her four remaining Festival horses include last year's Irish Grand National hero Our Duke - which will contest the Gold Cup - while Supasundae is fancied to lift the Stayers' Hurdle.

Should the colours of the late Ann and Alan Potts be ridden to glory by brilliant stable jockey Robbie Power in the long-distance hurdle, Harrington would break new ground as the first Irish trainer to have won all of Cheltenham's Big Four. A feat that would surely give her a sense of satisfaction putting one over on the likes of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott?

"Not really," she says with her usual modesty. "It's great to do it and they go on about me being the winning-most female trainer at Cheltenham (with 11 winners). Fine, that's great, I'll accept that, I'll put that hat on. But actually I'd much rather if I was the winning-most trainer at Cheltenham.

"I've no chance of ever doing that because Nicky Henderson is so far ahead of me and everyone else (with 58 winners). I don't sort of look at that, it would be very nice to win the Stayers' Hurdle though, because it would mean the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother, the Gold Cup and that, and it would be great."

To be a world champion and a septuagenarian in any field is a rarity but the success of the former Olympian, who represented Ireland in three-day eventing at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, is underpinned by family.

The Carberry, Walsh, Hughes and O'Brien families are some of the many racing dynasties, but there's something particularly unique about the Harringtons, with mother Jessica and daughters Emma Galway and Kate steering the ship.

In Kate's words, Emma looks after the "hiring and firing" and all maintenance around the yard while her own role is "the logistics of the legs" to ensure that all horses are sound on a daily basis and draft the provisional work lists, but her mother has the final say, sometimes to her frustration.

"Some mornings I'll have all the workers done and she'll just rock into the office and change everything and you're just like, 'I'm going to f***ing kill you'" a grinning Kate says. "Or she'll rock in and say 'an owner is coming today, we're going to work this, this and this'."

As Kate fields questions in the kitchen of their Moone home, a lorry is readying 10 "exciting" two-year-olds for a spin to the Curragh in what will be their first "away day" as several owners dream of a future Derby winner while watching some potential stars at work.

While racing played second fiddle to eventing growing up, a ride aboard the legendary Moscow Flyer in the 2007 Punchestown Charity Race resulted in a winner from her first mount and she "just seemed to get the bug after that" despite some resistance.

"When I was doing the Leaving Cert my parents used a little bit of reverse psychology; I did very badly in my mocks and I had a bit of a breakdown and said 'I just can't do this' and my Dad turned around and said 'you just don't have to do your Leaving Cert then, you're going to work here anyway'," the 28-year-old says.

"I was just like 'No, I'm going to do my Leaving Cert' and they were both like, 'Sure you won't get enough points to do that course' and I was like 'I will, and I'm not going to do some equine course' and I completely did it to prove them wrong, which was great."

Studying politics and social policy in UCD - where she delayed final exams as they coincided with the Punchestown Festival - followed but on her mother's advice, she subsequently "spread her wings" at Ballydoyle, where she learned from Aidan O'Brien's "genius" and rode work on future stars like Highland Reel and Found.

As the health of her father John deteriorated, Kate returned home every afternoon before his untimely passing after a long struggle with cancer in April 2014. Coming home permanently to aid her mother through difficult times seemed like the natural thing to do and she has been totally immersed in the family's yard ever since.

"I thought it might be time to come home and give Mum a hand and get her back on track. At that time we had gotten a lot of nice young horses and we had some fabulous Bumper horses that year and I rode a lot of winners and it's been great since then," Kate says.

"You've got to make sacrifices; racing is your life. I knew five weeks ago that I wasn't having a day off until March 17, you just do it.

"If I'm not here and I suddenly take next Sunday off and go out for a friend's birthday or go out the night before, and something has happened, I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Older sister Emma, 12 years Kate's senior, returned to the family business from stockbroking 10 years ago as significant expansion was taking place and hasn't looked back. Although it's happy families on the outside, she admits they have their frosty moments.

"There are days when we're all screaming and shouting at each other, but we get over it. There's definitely a lot of bickering with my sister Kate; we did a lot of bickering when she first came back from college but then she went to Ballydoyle and I think we both grew up," Emma says.

"When she came back we decided which areas we were doing and to stop the fighting. There's still plenty of fighting going on, like in any family, but I suppose we're all trying to achieve success.

"Kate has massive responsibility and she's taken the pressure off Mum so that she can just go out and train the horses. We've expanded a lot so Mum can't do everything, even though she wants to."

Kate's move away from the family home and 20 minutes up the R448 to Kilcullen "definitely needed to happen" with Emma comparing her mother and younger sister to "an old married couple bickering" with "separation needed" in both of their lives.

And while Father Time catches up with everyone at some stage, it seems to have stood still for Harrington, something which mesmerises her daughter.

"She's incredible, she has a wonderful zest for life and amazing energy levels, she makes me tired thinking about what she does every day," Emma says.

"Every so often I have to stop myself because I think it's normal what she does but it's not really when I look at my other friends and what their parents are doing. She's very young at heart and she certainly doesn't act her age.

"Every so often she wonders why she's tired and I say 'because you did such a thing this week and were out every night of the week and you went racing seven times as well and that's why you're tired'.

"She's an incredible lady and is certainly one of a kind. She's very determined and can be stubborn at times but that has got her what she has achieved in life so far. Things go wrong, everyone only sees the happy days but she's good at getting herself together and getting on with life with a smile across her face in hard times."

Winning the Gold Cup was like "a dream come true" and with the Harrington trio being a superstitious bunch, all three will assume the same positions as 12 months ago when their horses do battle.

Kate will be far away from the rest of the family as normal and "if one of them could do it this year it would be great" but life will go on regardless of the result with all returning home on Friday evening to return to the gallops the following morning.

Having inherited head lad Eamonn Lee, who came to John Harrington on his pony hoping for a job as a teenager and is still an integral part of the operation nearly 45 years later, Harrington isn't the only senior citizen on the grounds but she remains sprightly despite breaking a bone in her neck in a riding accident while on a Kenyan safari 13 years ago.

A regular skier, she also has a travel bucket list, with Russia and Beijing ticked off in recent times, while New Zealand is on the cards for the near future. Switching off and relaxing comes a little easier than before but Emma insists there's no intention of her breaks extending beyond a few weeks at most.

"Oh no, touch wood, I hope not. I think she did consider retirement for a little bit when my father passed away.

"That was a very tough two years that Dad was ill for; I think she did contemplate things but we all made a decision once he passed away that we'd try enjoy the good days more," Emma says.

"When we have bad days we don't think that's the be all and end all. It's not the end of the world, it is horse racing and it is work."

From watching Kate at work, it's clear she's not afraid to crack the whip with staff when necessary and she looks capable of stepping up from her assistant trainer role when her evergreen mother decides to call it a day, although that's unlikely to be anytime soon.

"No, no, no - and I don't think that will be happening anytime soon either," Kate outlines. "She was 71 last month and she has more energy than I do. We'll see, that's a very big statement to make to say that I want to be a trainer but we'll see how it goes, we won't be pushing Mum aside for a while anyway."

For now, Harrington is busy pushing the boundaries and there's no end in sight as she continues to rewrite history, ably assisted by the next generation.

Irish Independent

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