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The stuff of Legend


Jockey Tony McCoy, aboard Synchronised celebrates with owner JP McManus in 2012.

Jockey Tony McCoy, aboard Synchronised celebrates with owner JP McManus in 2012.

Former Minister for Finance and EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevey, second from left, in conversation with trainer Edward O'Grady, left, JP McManus and Jonjo O'Neill, right, at the Cheltenham Festival.

Former Minister for Finance and EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevey, second from left, in conversation with trainer Edward O'Grady, left, JP McManus and Jonjo O'Neill, right, at the Cheltenham Festival.

J.P. McManus

J.P. McManus

Charlie Swan

Charlie Swan


Jockey Tony McCoy, aboard Synchronised celebrates with owner JP McManus in 2012.

WE USED to call him 'the Sundance Kid' and, with 39 winners at the Festival in those green and gold hoops, he has seen more Prestbury sunshine than any other owner.

But JP McManus also remembers the rain. "Listen," he says with that slow, warm voice, which chuckles when he recalls the early days, "we made some mistakes." It was way back in 1978 that John Patrick McManus first stood as an owner in the Cheltenham paddock.

He was just 27 years old, compact, composed and with a deceptively young face beneath a big head of hair. He had an open, friendly face but there was a quickness of thought as well as a twinkle behind the smile.

He came from Limerick and had taken the colours of his beloved South Liberties GAA club. He had worked on his father's farm and earth-shifting business. But it was as the most swift-shooting punter that he had won his nickname. It did him no harm to allow the legends to grow.

Grow they have. He now has not one horse but 300, not a single trainer but 60. He has Jonjo O'Neill installed in the magnificent Jackdaws Castle training base near Stow-on-the-Wold. He has the services of the incomparable AP McCoy.


He has gone from moving earth to moving millions, operating from a six-story office block in Geneva. With business partner John Magnier he has been a major player on the local and international financial scene. His Palladian mansion at Martinstown is the largest private house in Ireland.

His charity commitments are beyond compare but he is celebrated at Cheltenham as the greatest single patron jump racing has ever seen. He doesn't look like a man who has made a lot of mistakes. But mistakes there were and the first Festival shot was one of the biggest.

When Jack Of Trumps came over to the 1978 Festival it was just two years since McManus had bought his first horse, the Irish Cesarewitch winner Cill Dara. But he had been betting since a teenager, had taken out a bookmaker's licence at 21 and had won his 'Sundance Kid' reputation by his daring return to punting when he thought the value was there.

Mind you, there was no value about Jack Of Trumps when he ran at Cheltenham. The bookies saw him coming. The horse, good enough to be second in the King George VI Chase at Kempton nine months later, ran in the four-mile National Hunt Chase. He started at odds-on and fell at the 15th.

The following year he was ante-post second favourite for the Gold Cup itself. The young man, who in lean times had returned to shifting earth with his father's JCB, did not back Jack Of Trumps, but he thought his Deep Gale was a banker in the National Hunt Chase of 1979.

What's more, he added another £40,000 to his stake after having "a couple of grand" on the Sun Alliance winner Master Smudge at 20/1.

"In those days," McManus remembers ruefully, "you could buy a farm and land for forty grand."

Deep Gale was a class apart and was cruising until he and Niall 'Boots' Madden capsized with four to jump. "Afterwards," he recalls, "Boots told me that if he could have caught the horse and remounted he would still have won." Next year Deep Gale started favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

McManus uses his words carefully. You hear all four syllables when he talks of such reverses not as disasters but "disappointments". He laughs at the memory of it. "Yes, I certainly made mistakes," he says.

"But as you get older you get wiser and you know enthusiasm makes up for a lot of mistakes. Thankfully, we have got ahead of the game but looking back at my first Festival winner, Mister Donovan in 1982, I often wonder whether I would have been able to have any of the others had he been beaten.

"I don't remember quite how much we had on but it was important at the time anyway."

Edward O'Grady saddled Mister Donovan, just as he had Jack Of Trumps and Deep Gale.

"JP and I are about the same age," O'Grady says from the Tipperary yard which he took over as a 24-year-old veterinary student following his father's untimely death in 1973.

"People would tell me that JP used to punt a lot of my winners but I had never met him until the day he came to pay for Jack Of Trumps in 1978.

"He gave me £5,000 in cash and I had never seen so much money in my life."

O'Grady still vividly remembers Mister Donovan's triumph and the two earlier disasters. "Deep Gale was the real certainty," says O'Grady.

"I watched the race with a friend and a bottle of champagne and we were more confident than ever as Deep Gale went out on the final circuit. All he did was a splay-legged Bambi-type slip at the fence after the water. Boots landed off him running but the horse got up just that bit quicker, otherwise he would have got straight back on him and won anyway.

"The sad part about it is that his fall drew the biggest cheer of that day's racing. It was from the bookmakers. It was an enormous cheer I'll never forget."

Such reverses would furrow the face of the blankest sphinx but O'Grady and the many other trainers on the McManus roster all have the same report.

"He has total ice in his veins," says O'Grady. "He never alters and the first thing he would have asked about after Deep Gale's disaster would have been the horse and the jockey.

"That night he would have made sure we went out and had a really good dinner with the best of everything and would have brought his entourage."

This is stoicism of the finest order and when Mister Donovan came good in 1982 there soon became a longstanding joke about how the horse got there.

O'Grady had been unable to sell the future hero because his vet Demi O'Byrne diagnosed one of the worst heart murmurs in his distinguished experience. In fact Mister Donovan did not join the McManus team until after he had run second in a good hurdle race only a month before the Festival.

By then a series of creditable if unsuccessful efforts in bumpers and over hurdles had put any heart worries aside and the horse he held off up the rainsodden Cheltenham track was a Josh Gifford-trained runner called Spiders Well – owned by no less than the vet Demi O'Byrne.

"So JP's first Festival winner was a maiden with a heart murmur," laughs O'Grady. "Afterwards JP had a painting done of Mister Donovan jumping the last in front of Spiders Well and every time he invited Demi and me to dinner at Martinstown he would insist that Demi sit opposite the picture so he had to stomach it a bit more."


Since that first time there have been many more celebration dinners as the winners have stretched across four decades and they chime with all our Cheltenham memories.

In 1983 another hoodoo was broken when O'Grady saddled Bit Of A Skite to win the National Hunt Chase, the race which had floored Jack Of Trumps and Deep Gale.

There were two more for the Tipperary trainer in 1994 but three years earlier there had been a first winner in the green and gold hoops for a trainer then based up in the Lake District.

It was to be the first of 12, so far, for Jonjo O'Neill. Moving O'Neill into Jackdaws Castle in 2000 and signing McCoy in 2004 has only deepened a commitment that would not be in profit even if every race at The Festival went to his green and gold.


He does it because he is passionate about the sport and he loves to play a part in the happiness that owning a good horse can bring. "When you have a good horse," he says, "you get a lot of pleasure out of it, but the trainer, the lad or the lass get as much pleasure out of it as I do.

"Whether they are winning the best-turned-out prize or leading a winner back, they get a huge kick out of it. And one of the great things about a good horse is that all the family seem to turn up. It's great to have them together."

Down the years the family have gathered for some wondrous occasions. Three Champion Hurdles with Istabraq and Aidan O'Brien, two Stayers' (now World) Hurdles with the French legend Baracouda and Francois Doumen, four Cross Country Chases with the irrepressible Enda Bolger, and of course the Stan James Champion Hurdle again with the Nicky Henderson-trained Binocular in 2010 and the Betfred Gold Cup itself with Synchronised and Jonjo O'Neill in 2012.

McManus is at pains not to make comparisons and, while he admits that winning the Gold Cup and two other races on the same day was pretty special, he recalls the reality check of 2009.

"After Wichita Lineman had won (thanks to perhaps the greatest McCoy ride of them all) the crowd sang Happy Birthday," says the man who was born in Limerick on March 10, 1951, "and in the very next race Binocular went out as favourite in the Champion Hurdle and got beaten a head and a neck.

"While we were celebrating that night, we couldn't help of thinking about the might-have-beens."

That year McManus had a reality check of his own when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Some time later he was driving me through the timeless beauty of the Limerick countryside. It was exactly a year to the day that he had got his all-clear.

"You know a lot of good came out of the cancer," he says. "You see things in a different light. I got more out of it than I lost and there was never a day I thought I wouldn't make it."

He brings philosophy as well as fortune to the Festival. Not bad for a man who claims to have made those mistakes.

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