Wednesday 22 January 2020

Sizing a perfect fit for Power and Harrington

Meath jockey and new 'Queen of Cheltenham' take Gold Cup glory as 'John' goes the distance on a historic day for raiders

Robbie Power shows his delight aboard Sizing John after their victory in yesterday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup with Djakadam and Ruby Walsh in the background. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth
Robbie Power shows his delight aboard Sizing John after their victory in yesterday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup with Djakadam and Ruby Walsh in the background. Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Jenny Pitman leaned across a plastic rail as Sizing John's connections came to the enclosure and reached out to touch Jessica Harrington's arm.

The winning trainer did not notice, but Pitman was unperturbed. "Women on top, just the way we like it," she cackled. There was a time when Harrington's late husband, John, sourced horses for Pitman, the first woman to train a Gold Cup winner.

Robbie Power celebrates as he enters the parade ring after winning the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Steeple Chase. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Robbie Power celebrates as he enters the parade ring after winning the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Steeple Chase. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

And, until Wednesday, the now 70-year-old held the record for most Cheltenham winners trained by a woman, being finally overtaken when Harrington saddled Supasundae to win the Coral Cup.

But Pitman, palpably, felt no loss now. She is the woman who broke down so many doors of prejudice, empowering women like Harrington and Henrietta Knight to trust themselves in one of the most pressured, unforgiving environments in sport.

The record books are impervious to gender in any event, Harrington being introduced in the media tent yesterday as "the Queen of Cheltenham" after her 7/1 shot got the distance under Robbie Power to secure the most coveted silverware in National Hunt.

"I'm sitting here wondering am I about to wake up and it hasn't happened," she smiled as the congratulations rained upon her from every direction.

Sitting next to her, Power - face red as a Mexican sunset - was itemising the kind of obstacles (apart from those made of birch) that jump jockeys routinely overcome for that tactile thrill of coaxing great horses to reach their potential. A fall at last year's Galway Festival fractured a cheekbone and an eye-socket, causing him to suffer double-vision.

"I got specially treated goggles to cure it and thanks be to God they worked," he told us. "Then I ruptured a disc in my back in Gowran Park on Thyestes Day. But thanks to Dr McGarry in the Beacon Hospital, he got that fixed. I mean that happened only two weeks before the Irish Gold Cup. I was mad keen to get back to ride this horse and now everyone knows why."

At least 71,600 diagnosticians here were now well qualified to vouch for the fullness of his recovery.

The worry about Sizing John had been that he might find the final Cheltenham incline beyond his scope. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is two-and-a-half furlongs longer than its Irish equivalent, which the gelding won in February. And Harrington had the humility to admit her own preference would have been to take a shot at Thursday's Ryanair, in which she would have considered him "a certainty".

But the owner, Alan Potts, wanted a Gold Cup runner. And Power saw nothing in the horse to disagree.


Every piece of work he has done with Sizing John since the horse came to Harrington from Henry de Bromhead's yard last autumn told Power that he was a stayer. And the uncommon speed of his jumping suggested he might prove an exceptional one. Yet, even Power arrived at the bottom of the hill with the odd doubt scratching for attention in his head.

"I know it's a long way up," he chuckled after. "But it never felt as long in my life anyway!"

With the more favoured Djakadam and Native River setting the pace, Harrington - who'd never previously had an entry in the great race, let alone a runner - wondered if her race was run.

"He got to the second-last and winged it and I knew there was only two furlongs to go... but sort of in the back of my mind was 'Will he get up the hill?' But he jumped that second-last so well and so big, he didn't jump it like a tired horse.." Nor was he.

Maybe the dominance of Douvan over two miles at home had simply obscured what lay within this seven-year-old. But right now, Harrington looks to have a potential superhorse on her hands.

With a touch of class, she expressed sympathy for De Bromhead who "did all the work" with Sizing John before arriving into her care. And, for Power, his second winner of the meeting bridged a ten-year gap to the last day he felt king of the steeplechase world.

"The nicest words I ever heard were 'Gold Cup winning jockey' when I came up to the podium," he beamed. "That sounded sweet. When I won the Grand National (on Silver Birch) I was 25. That was ten years ago and I thought I was going to win everything. Now that I'm 35, I kind of realise that I'm not going to win everything, so to win a Gold Cup at this stage is fantastic."

On St Patrick's Day, the events of the day seemed dusted endlessly in emerald green.

The Prestbury Cup was won outright by early afternoon when top-weight Arctic Fire came home a 20/1 winner for Mullins in the County Handicap.

And given the arithmetic would ultimately declare an unprecedented rout (19-9) for Irish horses over the week, it was hard to understand what had been behind much of the pre-Festival pessimism.

The Closutton maestro's two mounts in that race were both oddballs of a sort, Ruby Walsh having to humour the more fancied Renneti down at the start, taking him away from the others for a kind of private therapy session before eventually engaging somewhat reluctantly with the starter, as if being called in from a dentist's waiting room.

The winner?

He's an acknowledged hard chaw. Mullins described him rather colourfully to this writer last year as a gelding programmed for trouble. "Definitely, if you went down the town with Arctic Fire, you'd end up in fisticuffs somewhere. That's the way he is, the way he races."

And he proved true to that caricature yesterday, devouring the long-time front-runner Wakea up the hill with a finishing sprint that could have been rocket-fuelled.

For Mullins, the surprise didn't so much lie in victory as in the identify of the horse which delivered it.

"I thought Arctic could be a bit of a social runner here," he reflected after.

It isn't often Paul Townend wins a race that Ruby Walsh is riding in, but he did it twice in half-an-hour here, then piloting 16/1 shot Penhill to victory in a rough-and-tumble Albert Bartlett.

That win eased Mullins into a clear lead in the Irish Independent Leading Trainers' table, but he was eventually reined in by Gordon Elliott's saddling of Champagne Classic to victory in the Martin Pipe.

He will have endured bigger setbacks, but the idea that Mullins might never win a Gold Cup seems almost perverse today.

It certainly looks as if fourth-placed Djakadam's history with the race might be at an end, Mullins reflecting: "I imagine he could come back or we might think of something else to do with him. You'd wonder there did he really stay?"

The meeting ended with a perfectly poetic signature, Harrington and Power combining again to win the Grand Annual with Rock The World. Which is pretty much what they did.

Fantasy CH

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