McManus team crave elusive Aintree prize
JP McManus, Tony McCoy and Jonjo O'Neill have endured rotten luck at Aintree, writes John O'Brien
A FTER Binocular's victory in last month's Champion Hurdle, a picture emerged of JP McManus that shed new light on the wealthy racehorse owner. As the stories flowed of the pivotal role the owner had played in the horse's disrupted preparation, it became clear that McManus was some distance from the dutiful, hands-off patron of popular portrayal. Not simply an enthusiastic benefactor with deep pockets, he even knew a thing or two about the game.
A month earlier, Tony McCoy had slipped off Binocular's back after winning unimpressively at Sandown and declared himself stumped by the horse's poor form. It was McManus who suggested a 10-day restorative break at his farm in Co Limerick. And when Nicky Henderson was of a mind to scratch the horse from the Champion Hurdle, again it was McManus who suggested he hold fire. "If it had been left to me," the trainer joked at Cheltenham. "I would probably have taken him for racecourse gallops and wrecked him."
McManus's feel for the sport was never in doubt. He wasn't part of the new breed of owner who came to racing when money started to roll in great green waves through the country. He bought his first horse, Cill Dara, in 1976 when the sport was just as prohibitive to get into as it is now. He bought a mare because, whatever happened, he knew he'd be able to breed from her. For McManus, racing was no passing fad. He was making a lifetime commitment.
From the beginning, he knew it was a love that would not be reciprocated to any significant degree. For more than 30 years, McManus has poured money into the sport at such a rate that no positive return could ever be anticipated. Hardened businessmen are not often inclined towards emotional investments and jump racing is not a well-known channel for turning a quick buck. Why he would do so was captured best by the racing writer, Brough Scott: "Because he can."
A curiosity about McManus is the way that common punters, without a fraction of his means, still feel they can relate to him. By studiously avoiding the lure of Flat racing, he has identified himself with a majority of the Irish racing public.
He buys young horses, names them after Limerick streets or old hurling heroes and dreams of winning big races at Cheltenham or Aintree. He makes it look like fun and that is how it is supposed to be.
Racing people sometimes describe what they do as an industry as much as a sport, but McManus doesn't easily fit that assessment. He is a throwback to the great patrons of the past, from Dorothy Paget to the Duchess of Westminster, for whom racing was first and foremost a leisure pursuit, never a business. And perhaps Irish racing could easily survive without McManus's munificence, but it is a prospect few would wish to contemplate.
"Everyone knows himself and Gigginstown are the biggest assets Irish racing has in these hard times," says McManus's friend and trainer, Enda Bolger. "Only for JP I know I wouldn't be where I am today. And it's not just me, it's everybody in the yard. I have lads riding in point-to-points and you see the lift they get when they put on his colours. There's a sense of pride about them. It's great for young lads to get that chance."
There are those, of course, who don't share Bolger's enthusiasm for McManus's largesse. For some, the millions McManus has dispensed to hurling and rugby in Limerick, as well as the lavish amounts he has donated to charity over the years, are a poor penance for the tax exile status he enjoys in his adopted home in Geneva. Yet among those he knows and does business with, McManus commands a sense of loyalty that is truly staggering.
Every five years golfers arrange their summer plans around McManus's charity golf classic and it's a fair bet that if Tiger Woods was still on sabbatical he'd choose Adare Manor as the location for his comeback event. Before last year's Grand National, McCoy was asked if he'd be inclined to get off a McManus-owned horse to ride a more fancied runner. "I'd much rather ride a 50/1 shot of his than ride the 6/4 favourite," the world's most addicted winner replied indignantly.
It is six years since McCoy was lured away from a dazzlingly successful partnership with Martin Pipe to accept a lucrative retainer to ride in the famous green and gold colours of McManus's beloved South Liberties GAA club. A few years earlier, McManus had bought Jackdaws Castle, an imposing stables a short distance from Cheltenham, and brought Jonjo O'Neill south from Cumbria to train there. McCoy spoke about the operation becoming a "super force" in jump racing.
They haven't been without success. McManus has been champion owner in Britain three times since 2006 and should make it four this year. McCoy is sauntering to a 15th successive jockeys' crown. O'Neill has averaged in excess of a century of winners for the last decade. Yet the "super force" has emerged 50 or so miles to the south near Ditcheat in Somerset and the major prizes, a Champion Hurdle apart, have largely eluded them.
Why that is so has been ascribed by some to McManus's habit of spreading his horses so thinly and a buying policy that seems to favour quantity over quality. Yet he has never been averse to splashing out when in the mood. First Gold and Garde Champetre were bought with Gold Cups in mind, but a couple of cross-country chases at the Festival was the sum of their output. In the midst of a boom, McManus found, buying readymade champions was a tough business.
The size of his string isn't known, but conservative estimates suggest it is in excess of 400 horses. The statistics show that in February and March, 140 horses ran in McManus's colours in the UK and Ireland: a total of 232 runs producing 31 winners. In all, 37 trainers were represented and that Henderson was fourth in the list after O'Neill, Christy Roche and Bolger hints at a developing association that could yet lead to the big race victories McManus unquestionably craves.
More than anything, McManus would dearly love to win the Grand National and his annual multi-pronged assault on the great race has become one of jump racing's greatest obsessions. He will likely have four chances in Saturday's renewal, maintaining his average since 2004. In total, he has had 33 runners in the race since Deep Gale failed to get beyond the first in 1982. Clan Royal came close in 2004 but the toughest chase in racing has not been kind.
His main hopes arguably centre around the Willie Mullins-trained Arbor Supreme, which McManus bought after winning a bumper on his debut in January, 2007. The eight-year-old gelding, due to be ridden by Paul Townend, has been steadily supported into joint second-favourite behind the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Fella Thanks and hails from the stable that saddled Hedgehunter to win the race in 2005.
Yet while McManus would relish a win from any of his four horses, it is hard to think he won't be emotionally drawn towards the O'Neill-trained Can't Buy Time, McCoy's chosen mount in the race. For if the race has been frustrating for McManus, it has been spectacularly harsh on both jockey and trainer. "Three Grand National virgins," laughs Bolger. "No doubt about it. The National can be a cruel race. Very, very hard to win."
Every year around this time, McCoy's Aintree suffering receives a good airing in the press and the jockey always bears it stoically. Fourteen rides and as many blanks. On three occasions McCoy has finished third -- on Blowing Wind in 2001 and 2002, Clan Royal four years later -- but his completion rate is less than 50 per cent and it must be a test of such a great jockey's patience that his friend and greatest rival, Ruby Walsh, has not only won two Nationals but won at his first attempt on Papillon in 2000 in only his second season as a professional.
Yet McCoy's National record positively glows when compared to O'Neill's. As a jockey, O'Neill only competed in the National eight times, a reminder of the battering his body took from repeated falls and the cancer that tried to claim him in the late 1980s. Plenty of great jockeys -- John Francome and Peter Scudamore among them -- never managed to win the National. Not many could claim to have finished their careers, however, without at least finishing the race. Such a fate befell O'Neill.
His worst years came in 1978 and 1979. Rag Trade started favourite in '78 but broke down after the 21st and had to be humanely destroyed. A year later, he rode another favourite, Gold Cup winner Alverton, and a crushing fall at Bechers Brook second time round again claimed the horse's life. "He was a lovely horse," O'Neill remembered years later. "We'd have won easily. He was just cantering at the front. Losing the National meant nothing. Losing Alverton was a tragedy."
It's a gentler race nowadays, of course. The fearsome fences have been softened and the thumping falls that claimed the likes of Alverton are mercifully fewer now. Yet the character of the race hasn't been catastrophically diluted. O'Neill was knocked over by a loose horse when cruising on Beacon Time in his last National as a rider in 1983, a fate eerily similar to McCoy when he was carried out on Clan Royal while leading and travelling ominously well 22 years later. The National treats big reputations with as little respect as it has always done.
And whatever you think of JP McManus as an owner, or even as a person, it would take a hard heart to begrudge him a National success and, if it was to come in the hands of McCoy and O'Neill, it is easy to foresee a wave of emotion sweeping Aintree shortly after four next Saturday. "I'd love to have a runner," says Bolger, "but that would be the next best thing. It would be a great treble on the day." Grand National virgins no more.