Thursday 13 December 2018

Harrington taking it all in her stride

Jessica Harrington. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Jessica Harrington. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

The Olympics of jump racing, when the sports world converges on Cheltenham, is less than three weeks away but Jessica Harrington is finding it hard to take her eyes off the Winter equivalent right now.

Be it luge, biathlon or speed skating, it's on every chance she gets, even when she can't sleep during the night.

Having represented Ireland at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as part of the three-day eventing team, it's no surprise that she should be captivated by elite sport. It's also only natural that her training career would see her soar to the top.

As the most successful female trainer in Cheltenham history with 11 Festival wins, Harrington has the opportunity to further cement her legacy among the pantheon of greats with Supasundae in next month's Stayers' Hurdle.

Should the eight-year-old, running in the colours of the late Ann and Alan Potts, prevail in the three-mile stamina test, Harrington would become the first Irish trainer to plunder the Festival's four major prizes (the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers' Hurdle and Gold Cup).

Last year's Gold Cup victor Sizing John was her first runner in the blue riband and took his place in history alongside Moscow Flyer (Champion Chase) and Jezki (Champion Hurdle) but it wasn't a major shock. If the evergreen 71-year-old sends a horse to the Cotswolds, it's there to win.

She doesn't subscribe to the notion of throwing many darts at the board in the hope that one will stick and next month's Festival will be no different with no more than seven candidates set to make the trip across the Irish Sea as quality always outweighs quantity.

"I wouldn't actually have battalions of horses to send, like I'm not sending Forge Meadow because Forge Meadow doesn't travel while Alletrix is too young to go this year. Of the others I'd rather wait and go to Punchestown," she says.

"It's like last year not taking Our Duke to Cheltenham, everyone just assumed that he was going and I never said a word. We made a plan at Christmas when he won the Grade One novice at Christmas that he was going to go to the Irish National.

"People get so focused on Cheltenham, I nearly ruined Forge Meadow there last year, very nearly. When I send a horse to Cheltenham, I hope it's going to win or be placed, unless an owner really wants to go and then I'd try persuade them not to just have a runner for the sake of having a runner."

Sitting back in the armchair of the living room in her Moone home as the countdown to Cheltenham gathers pace, Harrington outlines how her season is not defined by events in mid March.

Big-race performances are a bonus but targets closer to home take priority, like the Punchestown Festival and the BoyleSports Irish Grand National (won last year by Our Duke).

"I could've entered Woodland Opera over there but he likes really good ground and he loves Punchestown so why take him there when we can go and win a race at Punchestown? To me, Punchestown is where I want to win the most races," she says.

"You want to go to Cheltenham with horses who are really going to win whereas when I get to Punchestown, any horse that could possibly qualify for any race will be entered in the race. I love Punchestown and it's only down the road, they've got half an hour in the box to get there. The thing is, when you go to Cheltenham, a lot of the time you go there and the horse doesn't run again that season, especially the young horses. The travel, the excitement over there, they're stabled in the stable yard. For four- and five-year-olds it takes a lot out of them."

Sizing John will be joined by stable-mate Our Duke as Harrington bids to hold onto her Gold Cup crown but she hasn't allowed herself to dream of the pair jumping the last in tandem. "I've not really thought about it, and I don't want to either, as my stomach starts feeling sick," she jokes.

Having one Gold Cup contender is exciting enough, but two is a blessing. It does cause some headaches, however, with Robbie Power forced to make a decision between which of the talented duo he would take the mount on. For Harrington, it was a short conversation as honour comes before anything else.

"No. He's also contracted to ride the Potts' horses; it's as simple as that. There was absolutely no way I'd go back on that, not even with Ann or Alan no longer here," she says

"I wouldn't let him (Power) off to ride (Potts horse) unless there was something wrong, or a very good excuse. That was the agreement with Alan and Ann and I would honour that agreement."

Harrington may be a different vintage but her success knows no bounds as she continues to break new ground.

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