Sunday 21 January 2018

Still counting magpies and still cherishing her winning routine

Jessica Harrington's Festival tally is the envy of many, writes John O'Brien

J essica Harrington loves a good story. A couple of years ago, she trained a chestnut gelding called Lukie Victor for a Dublin-based syndicate. The horse had won five races and brought them good times but he was eight now and, if they ever wanted to sell, well now was the time to do so. They got €11,000 for him and, happy with the deal, informed the trainer of their wish to reinvest in a younger horse.

The autumn passed and nothing happened. Then came Christmas. Harrington had a nice horse in mind, a subsequent dual-bumper winner, but still they held off. One day she took a call from Mick Malone. Mick had been part of the syndicate and now he was fed up. Mick was pushing 86 and didn't have time to be messing around. He had a few family members with him and was ready to do business. "Jessie," he said. "Go buy me a horse."

So she did: a nice bay gelding by Oscar for less than €40,000. In his first four runs Oscars Well twice finished second. Then last November he ran away with a maiden hurdle at Punchestown, announcing himself as a horse of some potential. When he slaughtered Zaidpour in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, it sent him to the head of the betting for the Neptune Novices Hurdle and Harrington's nerves spinning through the roof.

It would be one of those great stories, she thinks, that when they happen define what Cheltenham is all about. Mick Malone in the parade ring, surrounded by his family and friends, even his sprightly 75-year-old sister, Sadie. Before Leopardstown, Harrington had cut him a deal. One more run and she'd do her best to get Oscars Well to Cheltenham. "But Mick," she said laughing. "You have to get yourself there."

Man and horse so perfectly matched. "It's a wonderful thing," Harrington says. "Every time he runs, Mick leads him in. And the horse is so relaxed he stays with him. One step and he'll slow up to Mick's speed, almost as if he senses this is something special. They say horses look after the young and the old. I think they do. This one does anyway."

Harrington has always loved the narrative of Cheltenham and mostly it has been a joyful one. She sent the great Moscow Flyer to win three times there and has six Festival winners in all. Just one behind Arthur Moore. More than Noel Meade or Dessie Hughes. And more than Christy Roche and Tom Taaffe combined. By any measure, it is a hugely impressive haul.

Space Trucker was her first when he won the Grand Annual Chase, the last race of the 1999 Festival. She had been due to fly home that evening with her husband, Johnny, but they decided to change their plans and wait until the following morning instead. Landmark victories had to be celebrated even if that meant early-morning flights and hangovers. Space Trucker had taught her that when winning at the Cheltenham November meeting two years previously.

She had been at Punchestown that day, saddling the promising mare Dance Beat in a novice chase, recoiling in horror as she pulled up in distress before the last with a leg injury that was obviously fatal. The worst moment of her career dramatically unfolding half an hour before the best. She remembers consoling herself with the knowledge that Johnny was in Cheltenham, away from the devastation of losing a good horse.

"I always say when you have a good day don't be complacent about it," she says. "Celebrate it. Scream, shout, roar your horse home. Don't be like 'oh it's just another race'. It's never just another race because you never know where your next winner is going to come from."

For Harrington, however, the flow has been admirably sustained. She speaks disarmingly of the haphazard manner in which her training life has unfolded, marked by the absence of any grand plan. Johnny had held a permit when they got married but he was also a successful bloodstock agent and couldn't combine the two. Jessica took over the permit and, one year, they ended up with more horses than they'd expected. "Oh well," Johnny said casually, "you'd better take out a public licence then." Her first runner? Well, that was a winner. A filly owned by Lord Dunraven and ridden by Peter Scudamore at Leopardstown. In her first year she trained only four winners but one came at Christmas, another at Fairyhouse's Easter meeting, all spread evenly throughout the season and at times of maximum exposure.

It irked her a little that, although she was the trainer, people would still call and ask to speak to Johnny. They soon got the message, though.

Still, without Johnny she wouldn't be where she is. When Johnny travelled the world dealing in bloodstock, Jessica went along as often as possible. Johnny was friendly with John Dunlop and Peter Walwyn and, often, they would stay over. In the mornings Jessica would visit the yards, study what the trainers were doing, curious to see how a busy stable ticked over. Taking everything in, always curious.

In Adelaide, they stayed with Colin Hayes, the legendary Australian who trained Melbourne Cup winners. Hayes explained how he had built his premises on top of a hill so enough air filtered through the yard. How fascinating, she thought. When she was installing a sand gallop, she used her contacts to get in touch with Martin Pipe and spent a day at Pond House, observing the set-up, tapping into the multi-champion trainer's greatness. She visited Paul Webber too and studied the gallops at Newmarket.

"When you are making such a big investment, you don't leave anything to chance. You want to know what's out there, what successful people are doing. I was always naturally curious I suppose. I still am to this day, still learning. I always talk to other trainers. Find out what they're doing and tell them what I'm up to. Shared knowledge is knowledge. The day you stop learning is the day you start to go downhill."

At the start, Jim Bolger was kind enough to make his gallops available and one of the things Harrington noticed at Coolcullen was how loyal and hard-working the staff were. Bolger was far from the control freak of popular perception. At her yard in Moone, she has applied the same ethos. It is 10 years since RTE screened Turf Wars, an acclaimed documentary on life in Harrington's stables, and by and large the same staff still work there.

"My head man Eamon [Leigh] who used to walk up Moscow Flyer has never had another job. He came to work for Johnny when he was 16. His son Andrew rides out now. Nigel Byrne broke Moscow Flyer and then left to go travelling but he came back to us. My daughter Emma had another job but has come to work with me too. Yuri and Olena came from the Ukraine 10 years ago and Yuri's brother, Olech, has followed them. And Johnny is the linchpin. We've always been a great team: I like horses and he likes people."

It is the key to a happy life. The horses change from time to time, everything else stays constant. The Cheltenham routine is set in stone now: herself and Johnny will board a flight tomorrow morning and head for Nicky Henderson's place in Lambourn, their traditional base for the week. Together they cut an odd training couple: Henderson with his wardrobe of lucky ties and socks, Harrington with her need to count magpies on the road to the races and her anxiety not to deviate from her well-worn routine.

Unlike Henderson, she'll have just four chances to strike, Oscars Well by far the pick of them. Bostons Angel is an improving horse, though, and is a live contender for the SunAlliance Chase. Hard to say he'll beat the worthy favourite, Time For Rupert, but she loves the old racing saying that says you should never fear one horse. Summit Meeting in the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle and Roberto Goldbaek in the Ryanair on Thursday will complete her team.

Whatever happens, they'll head home on Friday and get ready for the Flat season which begins a week today. Aintree and Punchestown follow quickly and, hot on their heels, there are the first English Classics to think about. Pathfork in the 2,000, the filly Laughing Lashes the following day in the 1,000. Her stable is split almost evenly between jump and Flat horses now. Quality in every box.

It wasn't the plan, of course. She had always trained good Flat horses and then trained Curtain Call to win a Group Two at The Curragh in 2007.

The colt was winter favourite for the following year's Derby when the owners switched him to Luca Cumani. They wanted to sell shares in the horse and figured Cumani's higher profile would enhance the price. Harrington accepted their decision. That was how the business worked.

She has pushed on regardless. Pathfork has delivered her first Group One on the Flat and won his three races in impressive fashion. Laughing Lashes was second in the Moyglare Stud Stakes and, with normal improvement, could be a match for the speediest three-year-old fillies. As to how a Guineas winner would compare with Cheltenham, Harrington cannot say. "Don't know," she says. "Haven't done it."

She has only so many idle moments to dream. Bostons Angel, she thinks, could be a National horse next year or the one after, possibly even a Gold Cup horse. And Oscars Well? Well, the world could be his oyster but she doesn't like to get too far ahead. "No predictions," she laughs. "One step at a time." Anything more would sound too much like a grand plan.

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