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JP McManus

JP McManus has always liked to have a bet. As news goes, this revelation is up there with the fact that the Pope has always been partial to the odd prayer or two, but it is reassuringly refreshing to know that one of the most successful gamblers of all time has always got a kick out of the punt.

In his younger days, he would finish work at lunch time on Saturday and go to a betting office in Limerick. He remembers having a bob each-way on Orchardist in the 1962 Cesarewitch, and straining his ear to listen to the crackly wireless as Orchardist won the race at 25-1, but was disqualified after a stewards’ enquiry and placed second, the race awarded to Golden Fire. He was so gutted that he hardly had the stomach to go and collect the place part of the bet.

There was no tax in Alf Hogan’s betting office in Limerick on doubles and trebles if one of the horses was odds-against. For win singles, you paid a shilling in the pound, for each way bets you paid a shilling and sixpence in the pound. Then the tax was increased to 20%, and JP stopped betting.

“I went from being a regular punter to stopping betting on horses completely,” he says thoughtfully now from behind a cup of peppermint tea. “I thought it was preposterous. I was still always interested in gambling, I’d still have a game of cards down in the local pub, nothing that serious, but maybe it was serious enough when you were on a wage. So the taxation was probably a good thing for me in that it made me change direction. I wouldn’t say that I was winning at betting on horses at the time, and it made me step back and have a look at my betting. You see the error of your ways, you learn from your mistakes. I knew that, in order to make money paying 20% tax I would have had to have been very very lucky. It didn’t make sense to continue.”

On the face of it, the 20% tax was bad for bookmakers’ business. Increase the price of a service and demand will decrease, simple economics. However, McManus believes that the tax could have been a good thing for bookmakers in the long run. It served as a protection tax, in that it took all the wide boys out of the system, the punters who realised how difficult it would be to make a profit when you were 20% of your turnover down before you started. It also had the effect of increasing the punter’s propensity to do multiple bets, doubles and trebles, because you pre-paid the tax on your stake. When he was 21, JP decided that he would like to sample life on the other side of the counter, so he took out a bookmaker’s licence to stand on the racecourse and at Limerick dog track.

“It wasn’t easy,” he says. “You’re standing at the end of the line, you don’t really know the game, you think you do but really you don’t, you go skint a couple of times and each time you come back you know a little bit more than you did the time before. You have to go and get your job back from your father, go back to work, you work early mornings and late evenings and you think to yourself: ‘I hope I’m not doing this for the rest of my life’. It definitely focuses your mind!”

Every spare moment that McManus had, lunchtimes, evenings, he had his betting books out examining the figures, trying to work out where he had gone wrong, and it struck him. Maybe the odds weren’t always in the bookmaker’s favour. Why did he have to be only a bookmaker? Sometimes he was laying horses that he wanted to back. Sometimes the value was with the punter. Why couldn’t he do both? Why couldn’t he be a punter when the value was with the punter and be a bookmaker when it wasn’t?

“I was lucky when I started to punt,” he says. “There was a notion out there that you couldn’t do both, you couldn’t be a successful bookmaker and a successful punter. But, as a friend of mine would say, there’s meat for eating and meat from selling. I tried to do both, and it worked.”

He linked up with Jimmy Hayes from Fethard who, coincidentally, was born on the same day as JP. They seemed to often want to back the same horses and, between them, they were affecting the market, so it made sense to team up together rather than compete against each other.

“I really enjoyed those years,” JP recalls. “We travelled the country going racing every day, and there was great camaraderie between all the bookmakers. Bookmakers are, for me, the most honourable people that I have ever dealt with. You don’t need a lawyer when you are going in to have a bet. It is all based on trust. You either pay or you don’t. Contrary to what common perception might be out there, there is great honour among them.”

JP bought his first horse in 1976. There was no major plot, no major plan, he was just at the sales at Goffs when the Lord Gayle mare Cill Dara, who had been trained by Con Collins to win the 1975 Irish Cesarewitch, came into the ring. He had always loved the idea of having a good racehorse. Being from a farming background, his father having had a really good Irish draft mare, he also liked the idea of breeding thoroughbred horses, so the idea of buying a good mare appealed to him greatly.

Cill Dara was the first horse to carry the now famed McManus green and gold hoops, synonymous with JP’s beloved South Liberties GAA club in Limerick. The mare carried the colours to victory in the Naas November Handicap and the Irish Cesarewitch later that year, before she was retired to JP’s farm, where she bred a couple of nice horses, including Gimme Five, who finished fifth in the 1998 Aintree Grand National.

McManus’s association with Cheltenham began three years previously, 35 years ago this year. On his first visit to the Cotswolds, he saw The Dikler get the better of Pendil to land the Gold Cup, and the six-year-old Comedy Of Errors run out an easy winner of the Champion Hurdle. To have a horse carry your own colours to victory at the Cheltenham Festival, to lead your own horse into the winner’s enclosure at Prestbury Park, now that would be something.

Cill Dara had lit the fuse. JP bought Jack Of Trumps and Shining Flame in 1978, and he bought Deep Gale in 1979. In fact, he went down to Edward O’Grady’s to try to buy Golden Cygnet in 1978, but the star hurdler was not for sale, so he bought Jack Of Trumps instead.

The great thing about Cheltenham at the time, as now, was that the market was strong enough so that you could have a few pounds on. Jack Of Trumps was entered in three races at the 1978 Festival, the Arkle, the Sun Alliance Chase and the four-miler, the National Hunt Chase. The goal was to win a race at the Festival, so they ran him in the worst possible race, the four-miler. Even though JP didn’t back him, the bookmakers still sent him off at odds-on, Boots Madden up, but he fell at the 15th fence. The following year, Deep Gale was sent off a short-priced favourite for the same race, but he too failed to complete. This Cheltenham Festival victory was proving to be more elusive than may have had appeared at first.

Jack Of Trumps was second favourite for the 1979 Gold Cup behind Gay Spartan in the weeks leading up to the race. The story of the preamble is well told. On the Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival was due to begin, JP heard that Gay Spartan was injured and was an unlikely runner. He phoned Edward O’Grady to tell him as much, only to learn that Jack Of Trumps was injured that morning and wouldn’t be running either.

JP laughs at the recollection. To have your hopes raised and dashed like that in one morning was character-building stuff. Such are the vagaries of racing – you can be very certain of very little.

But it all came right in 1982, when Mister Donovan carried the green and gold hoops to victory in the Sun Alliance Hurdle. McManus cannot remember if he won the £250,000 that was widely reported in one bet on the horse, but he knows that he backed him, and he knows that he got a huge sense of satisfaction from the victory.

“We got a great kick out of that,” he says. “I hadn’t owned the horse for very long, but he had been laid out for the race, and it all came right on the day. It was great to have a winner at Cheltenham, but the fact that I backed him made it all the sweeter. The money was important.”

Some 27 Cheltenham Festival winners later, and his hunger remains insatiable. How many is enough? Does it have to be a finite number?

“I try to have the horses trained for Cheltenham if they are good enough,” he says. “We try to peak for it. It’s not always the ones that you expect that go in, but we’ll take what we can get. We have 27 winners, but it’s like everything, the more you have the more you want. There’s room for another one anyway!”

Ask him to nominate the most memorable of his victories, and he struggles. They were all special. To have a winner anywhere is great, to have one at Cheltenham is just as good as it gets. But push him, and soon it becomes apparent that some are just that little bit more special than others. Mister Donovan’s win in 1982 (you never forget the first); Elegant Lord winning the Foxhunter in 1996 for Enda Bolger; Like-A-Butterfly winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2002 for Christy Roche; Danny Connors providing Jonjo with his first winner as a trainer when he won the Coral Golden Hurdle Final in 1991. And then there was Istabraq.

“Istabraq’s first Champion Hurdle was very special,” says JP slowly. “John Durkan had just passed away and Carol was working with us. I remember speaking to John after Istabraq had won the Sun Alliance the previous year, I was in the winner’s enclosure, he was in New York in Sloan-Kettering Hospital, he was so happy, so overjoyed, and then the next year he wasn’t there. It was quite an emotional time. It seemed to be more than just a horse race.”

This year, the McManus Cheltenham team seems to be as strong as ever. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that it is not the strongest team in terms of depth that he has ever assembled. Bookmakers’ quotes of just 33-1 about him having at least one winner on every day of the Festival, and 10-1 about him having to endure a blank week, gives you an indication of the depth of talent that will line up in green and gold this week.

“Captain Cee Bee, in the opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, lacks a bit of experience, which would always worry you,” says JP. “But it has been purely the ground that has kept him off the track all season. Eddie Harty has great respect for this horse and he just didn’t want to run him on heavy ground during the winter. We’ve left the training of the horse to him, and I respect that. I believe that he has had a very good preparation and, from what I hear, they are very happy with him.

“Song Of Songs’ first choice is the Coral Cup,” he continues. “I think he’d have an each-way chance. He will appreciate the step up in trip from Wincanton the last day, the strong pace will suit and I think he is not badly handicapped on a mark of 129. Franchoek looks like the one they all have to beat in the Triumph Hurdle, and Don’t Push It goes in the Racing Post Plate. He could be really well handicapped on a mark of 149. We were going to go for the Ryanair or the Champion Chase, but we figured, why waste a mark of 149 by going for a conditions’ race? If he can’t win the Racing Post Plate off that mark, even off top weight, he would have no business going for one of the graded races anyway.”

And the McManus goals for the week?

“I’m always happy to have one winner,” he smiles. “I think a winner at Cheltenham is something to be cherished. Better that it comes the first day, then you have a week to celebrate it.”

© The Sunday Times 8 March, 2008