Donn's Articles » John 'Shark' Hanlon

John ‘Shark’ Hanlon

Timing is everything. If you are going to arrive hungry into a racehorse trainer’s yard, best to do so around lunch time. John ‘Shark’ Hanlon has his mother well briefed, and you can hear the sizzle from the pan inside before you even shake the waiting trainer’s hand at the door. Pavlov’s dogs had it sussed.

The talk, between forkfuls of steak and spuds and cabbage and onions, is inevitably of Truckers Delight, busy relaxing in his box about 100 yards from the kitchen table, all 16 hands of him, no more, immune to the fact that he is currently disputing favouritism for Thursday’s Galway Hurdle. As with the majority of the 70 or so horses who share the yard, there is a story behind this one.

In 2005 Hanlon was, as he is now, on the lookout for good young horses, good point-to-pointers. He had Jamie Codd well primed: if ever you come across a good one, make sure and let me know. Codd called him one November evening after he had ridden this Darazari gelding to win on his point-to-point debut at Boulta. This horse had gears. Hanlon watched the video. Truckers Delight was last jumping the third last fence, but he came through his field easily and won doing handsprings. Hanlon was doing some pre-training for Tony Mullins at the time, and he was buying horses for a couple of people, amateur rider Barry Connell among them.

“I remember going down to see the horse 10 days later,” recalls Hanlon now, “down to Batty O’Connell’s yard in Conna. The horse was in a stable with an old pallet for a door, held in place by a box. I liked him a lot when I saw him, and I was impressed with his win, but I thought I might get him for a lot less than they were asking. I called Barry and told him that I had found him a nice horse, but that he wasn’t cheap. Barry told me to go ahead and buy him.”

Hanlon thought that the horse would be going to Mullins, as most of Barry’s young horses did, but Barry decided to send this one to Jonjo O’Neill. He won his first bumper at Stratford by 14 lengths, then got beaten a short head by Ruby Walsh and Earth Planet in a winners’ bumper at Chepstow.

“That was a hell of a race,” recalls Hanlon. “I’d say it was one of the best races that Barry ever rode, himself and Ruby going head to head for the last two furlongs. We all went over together on the plane, myself, Barry and Ruby. I told Ruby on the way over that if he beat us I’d throw him off the plane on the way back. It didn’t stop him though!”

Remarkably, Truckers Delight never won another race for Jonjo. He was disappointing over hurdles and Barry Connell wanted bumper horses anyway, so they were happy to sell him back to Hanlon in the spring of 2008.

Hanlon never lost faith in the horse. He knew that he had ability, talent is permanent, and when he went to see him run at Sandown in February 2008, he thought that something may have been troubling him as he was going around the top bend after the stands. He asked his back specialist, Ted McLoughlin, to have a look at him as soon as he got him back to Bagenalstown, and Ted was able to straighten out a couple of things. At the time, Pierse, Annette and Michael Mee, friends of Barry Connell who had monitored the horse’s progress, were looking for a horse for the 2008 Galway Festival, and Hanlon thought that this could be the one.

Truckers Delight ran three times at last year’s Galway Festival. He finished fourth in a maiden hurdle the first day, won a handicap hurdle three days later, and was an unlucky fifth in another handicap hurdle the following day. They say that if a horse likes Galway, it is worth at least 7lb. Truckers Delight loves Galway, and he goes there in even better form this week than this time last year.

“Seamie Heffernan rode him to finish third in a mile-and-a-half race at Dundalk last September,” says Hanlon, “and he got down off him and said that he would win a Cesarewitch. That’s how much toe he has. That’s why I think he can win a Galway Hurdle. He’s not slow, but he stays well. He’s after winning now at the Galway Festival, at the Punchestown Festival, and at The Curragh on Derby day. There aren’t many horses you can say that about. He’s in terrific form, I’d say he still has a couple of pounds in hand of the handicapper, Davy Russell rides, and we go there with a hell of a chance.”

We are on to apple tart and custard before we get to rewind the clock. The name ‘Shark’ comes from the field of hurling. You are from Kilkenny, you play hurling, it’s a given. You breathe, you pick up a hurl. His dad tells the story.

“He was playing under-14,” he says, his son listening intently, broad grin on his face. “He was nearly as big then as he is now. He got four goals in one game, and sure he was hardly able to hurl at all. He was a foot taller than any of the other lads, and they just started calling him Shark. Actually, it was Pa Dillon, the great Kilkenny hurler, who first gave him the name.”

The Hanlons were always a cattle family, John’s grandfather and his father and he all dealt in cattle, but John went to school with Tony Mullins deep in the heart of horse country. He couldn’t fail but get interested. Two things happened in 2001 that turned his life upside down. He got kicked by a bullock and was laid up for a year. Foot and mouth disease hit Ireland at the same time, and we he came back to work, the whole cattle landscape had changed. George Mullins, who runs his own horse transport business, asked John if he would drive a horse box to England one day, and he stayed with him for two years. He worked with Tony Mullins then for another two years before he went out on his own.

“I had a couple of horses of my own out on the farm,” he says, “and we said we’d do a bit of pre-training with them before we’d send them up to Tony. Then I met my partner Rachel, and she started riding out for me. We had three or four horses for point-to-points at first, then I took out my licence and it just took off from there.”

Hanlon has had over 50 winners and over 200 placed horses in two years training. He figures that he was lucky to be up and running the year before the recession took hold, and he has had great help from the people around him.

“The staff here are great,” he says. “They are really dedicated. We have great facilities here, we have our own two-furlong gallop, our own hurdles and fences, and Ger Mullins’s Doninga gallop is just 400 yards up the road. We can walk the horses up to it and walk home. That is a great facility to have on your doorstep. Willie Mullins has been a huge help to me as well. If I have any issue, any problem, all I have to do is pick up the phone to Willie.”

This is a big week for Hanlon. As well as the Galway Hurdle, Truckers Delight also has an engagement in what used to be the GPT Handicap tomorrow evening. Sparkling Tara, runner-up in the Land Rover Bumper at Punchestown in April, could go in the bumper tomorrow evening as well. Invincible Joe, who won at the meeting last year for Ger Lyons, and Darenjan, who also won at the 2008 Festival, are also on track, as are Shaimaa and a whole host of others. But ask Hanlon what he is hoping for from this week, what he would settle for, and he is decisive.

“The Galway Hurdle would do,” he says with a laugh. “And if we could win the GPT as well, that would be a bonus.”

© The Sunday Times, 26th July 2009