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Shark Hanlon

Sean Hanlon looks perplexed.

“Where’s me helmet Dad?”


“Where’s me helmet?”

The little fellow may be only four years old, and there may be only three feet between his shock of red hair and the ground when he stands on his tip-toes, but he knows that he needs a helmet before he is allowed sit up on his pony.

“It’s wherever you left it.”

Elder brother Paddy is already trying with moderate success to coax his white pony Rocky around the sand ring.

“I think this fellow might need a stick.”

Seven days.

Hidden Cyclone does not need a stick. Coat gleaming in the morning sunshine, ribs just about visible underneath in a symmetrical array that tells you that he is fit and healthy and ready to run for his life. He moves easily around the gallop under Rachel Blackmore, nothing too strenuous, just ticking over until his date with the Boylesports Champion Chase at Punchestown on Tuesday.

It has been a season of near-misses for Hidden Cyclone. Third in the Paddy Power Chase at Cheltenham in November, second in the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Christmas, second in the Victor Chandler Chase, second in the Ryanair Chase. If the ball had hopped a little differently, he could have been a multiple Grade 1 winner this season.

“He has won just once this season,” says John (Shark) Hanlon, “but he has won about €150,000 in prize money. I wish I had a few more like him.”

The trainer watched the Ryanair Chase from the lawn in front of the stands at Cheltenham. When you tower above most normal people, you can easily watch from the lawn in front of the stands without standing on steps. He watched as Andrew McNamara gave Hidden Cyclone a kick in the belly at the top of the home straight, he watched him bound into a three-length lead, and he dared to dream.

“He was still going well in front,” recalls the trainer. “The only other horse in the race who wasn’t off the bridle was Dynaste. When we got in tight to the last, I thought that we would struggle to hold on all right, but I was very happy with the way that he battled on to the line to keep second place even after Dynaste had passed him.”

The trainer was back in the parade ring before his horse that day. The delight that Hidden Cyclone had run so well, that he had gone so close, swirled around his head and mixed with inevitable thoughts of what might have been, at how close he had come to the pinnacle of his profession: a Grade 1 winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

And as he stood there trying to deal with it all, Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure’s amphitheatre of sound all a-hum around him, trying to come to terms with all of it in his own mind, suddenly there was a television camera in front of him and a microphone under his nose, and Lydia Hislop was asking him how he felt.

“I didn’t know how I felt, so I didn’t really know what to say! I just said that I was delighted, and I truly was, but deep down I was also disappointed. To have come so close. That would have been something for us. We are a small operation. To have a winner at Cheltenham. That could have been life-changing.”

His team may be relatively small, but it is tight and it is efficient, and it works. Around 15 horses for the track, another 20 for point-to-points. His partner Rachel O’Neill does the admin and the entries, rides out and just about runs the whole show, and he has a top team around him. He appreciates how good his staff are. Says he couldn’t do any of it without them.

“I wouldn’t mind having just a few more good horses,” he says thoughtfully, “but I wouldn’t want us to be too much bigger than we are. We sell a lot of the point-to-pointers. Mostly they leave us when we sell them, but we do get to keep some of them. And we have some top owners here, like Barry Connell and the Mees and Paul McMahon. We’re very lucky.”

He also appreciates Hidden Cyclone, stable star. Small yards need a horse like Hidden Cyclone. Favourite for the feature race on the first day of the Punchestown Festival, the horse commands the media attention, Hanlon tells you. Keeps the trainer’s name in the public consciousness.

Hanlon’s career has a trainer has been peppered with high-class horses. In the seven years since he took out his own licence, horses like Trucker’s Delight, Alfa Beat and Luska Lad have been poking their heads out over half-doors at his yard in Bagenalstown. Difficult to believe that, this week, it will be five years since Trucker’s Delight won a big handicap hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.

It is also five years since Hanlon bought Hidden Cyclone. Bred by Rachel’s father, the trainer really liked him from the first day that he saw him. He went to Tattersalls in 2009 with €20,000 to buy the Stowaway gelding, got him for €21,000, and hasn’t looked back.

“He has run 20 times for us, he has won 10 times and finished placed seven times. He has only been out of the first three just three times: once when he fell at Navan, once in the Lexus Chase on soft ground, and once in the Leopardstown Chase on heavy ground under top weight when we shouldn’t have run him. Apart from those three times, he has never been out of the money. He is an incredible horse.”

He could have won the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leoparstown at Christmas, going down in the end by just three parts of a length to Benefficient. A subsequent lengthy stewards’ inquiry determined that the result should stand, as did a subsequent appeal hearing, but it was a close call.

“I thought at the time,” says Hanlon, “that if every horse had kept a straight line, we would have won. And I still think that. I think that maybe if it hadn’t been such a high-profile race, they might have awarded us the race. It was a pity. He put up a huge performance that day.”

Another huge performance could be in store on Tuesday. As we speak, Rachel checks the entries. Champagne Fever is out, he must be going in the novices’ chase, but it looks like the two English horses, Module and Somersby, are going to make the trip to Punchestown. It makes the race more competitive, but the trainer remains unperturbed. You can’t expect an easy Grade 1 race.

“Two miles at Punchestown might be a bit sharp for him,” says Hanlon. “His ideal trip is probably two and a half. But when he settles in his race, he usually puts up a big performance, and he should settle over two. I wouldn’t mind making the running with him, or I wouldn’t mind taking a lead. We’ll see how the race pans out. Andrew (McNamara) knows the horse well, he will know what to do.”

Sean Hanlon has found his helmet. He knows what to do too.

© The Sunday Times, 27th April 2014