Donn's Articles » Eddie Harty

Eddie Harty

Monday morning, the day before the 2008 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Eddie Harty went into Cheltenham town for a bit of breakfast. There wasn’t much more that he could do. He had just given Captain Cee Bee his last canter, everything had gone well, the horse was as well as he could have him. He picked up the Racing Post before his breakfast arrived. Captain Cee Bee was now favourite for the 2008 Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser.

It had been an interesting few months for the fledgling trainer. He had always held Captain Cee Bee in the highest regard, ever since he first cantered him as a three-year-old, but it wasn’t really until he beat Leading Run by 12 lengths in a novices’ hurdle at Punchestown the previous November that other people began to take note. He hadn’t raced since then. It hadn’t really been the plan, Harty hadn’t intended to leave him off from November, pitch him into the white hot heat of a Cheltenham Festival contest with just two hurdle races under his girth and without a race in four months, it was just the way things worked out.

He had intended running him at Punchestown in early February, there was a nice race there for him, the ground was unsuitably soft, but the trainer figured that he would be okay on it, he needed to run, a race would put him spot on for Cheltenham.

On the morning of the race it snowed. The ground turned from the type of soft ground with which the horse would have been able to cope to the kind of bottomless ground with which he wouldn’t. Harty walked the track before racing and thought no, it wasn’t worth risking it on that ground, not just five weeks before Cheltenham. You could tear the guts out of a novice hurdler on that ground and leave your Cheltenham challenge right there on the Punchestown turf. As he walked, he saw Frank Berry, racing manager to JP McManus, Captain Cee Bee’s owner, coming the other way. He caught Frank’s eye and shook his head, just as Frank himself was shaking his own head. There was no decision to be made, Captain Cee Bee was a scratching.

There wasn’t another race for him before Cheltenham, before it got too close to the Festival to allow him have a race that would bring him on and not run the risk of setting him back, so the decision was made to go straight there. JP had a strong team of young hurdlers for Cheltenham in 2008, Captain Cee Bee for the Supreme Novices’, Franchoek for the Triumph Hurdle, Binocular probably for the Triumph as well, possibly Jered. AP McCoy would ride Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme and probably Franchoek in the Triumph, which would mean that Mick Fitzgerald would probably ride Binocular in the Triumph. Then Binocular was confirmed for the Supreme Novices’ instead, so JP would have two in that race instead of in the Triumph. Harty ploughed on.

The trainer felt the pressure as he sat there having breakfast. Here he was, still effectively serving his apprenticeship, responsible for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite, his first runner at Cheltenham, and he was bringing him straight there without a run for four months. It wasn’t the done thing. People were wondering if he could prepare a horse from home without a run, a new trainer. Harty was a huge admirer of Henry Cecil growing up, and he knew that Cecil could always prepare a horse for a big race at home. Aidan O’Brien does it all the time, wins the Guineas with horses making their seasonal debuts. It could be done.

Then his phone rang. Frank Berry. AP rides Binocular instead of Captain Cee Bee. Disaster. He had been convinced that AP would ride Captain Cee Bee. Five to 10 on Monday morning and he has no jockey for his horse. He quickly went through the options with Frank. All the top Irish lads already had rides in the race. What about Choc Thornton? He doesn’t have a ride. He’ll do for me.

Strange thing, the pressure that he had felt seemed to lift from that morning. AP had chosen to ride a different horse, the weight of expectation shifted, Captain Cee Bee drifted in the betting, he was no longer favourite. Harty watched the race from the owners’ and trainers’ stand, he watched as his horse came under pressure at the top of the hill (“Maybe he’s not that good”), arrived at the bottom of it travelling well again (“Maybe he is”), then kicked from the final flight and withstood the late challenge of Binocular. Amazing.

“It was more relief than anything else,” recalls Harty now from the sanctity of his kitchen. “It was vindication for all the times you took him out, didn’t run him on the deep ground. You’d done it, won the Supreme Novices’ after four months off. You’ve had all the doubters and nay-sayers, they’ve been banished. It was an amazing feeling though.”

It was Eddie’s father, Eddie senior, who bought Captain Cee Bee. He saw him as a foal at Goffs in 2001 and bought him with a final bid of £4,500. Eddie himself was busy trading currencies at the time, the idea of training racehorses was just a kernel of an idea in the back of his mind.

Mind you, it would have been unusual if horses hadn’t featured somewhere on his radar, given the depth of his family roots in equine pursuits. His grandfather, Captain Cyril B Harty, after whom his father named Captain Cee Bee, rode on Ireland’s first Aga Khan Cup team and later trained an Irish Grand National winner. Five of his grand-uncles were professional jockeys. His father, Eddie, rode Highland Wedding to win the Aintree Grand National in 1969. And just for good measure, his brother Eoin is one of the top trainers in California.

“I was always gently guided away from horses when I was younger,” says Eddie. “Times were tough. Eoin went to America in 1982, the same year that I went to London. Eoin did the Irish National Stud course and went to Kentucky ostensibly to be a stud manager. I did a degree in Galway and got a job in the city of London the same month. I always wanted to come back and give training a go, but there was always a good reason why I couldn’t do it or shouldn’t do it. Then we bought this place in 2004, and we said we’d have a go at it.”

When he says we, he means we. It’s a team effort. Wife Marie, a partner at Anglesey Lodge Equine Hospital, is also the yard’s vet. Son Patrick and daughter Carolyn ride out most mornings. With just 25 horses now, the result of a recent cull, it’s a struggle to make it pay. Eddie is certain that, in the current climate, were it not for Marie’s veterinarian work, they wouldn’t survive. Even so, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says, “it’s a great life for the family, great for the kids. At 11 o’clock at night, most teenagers are trying to get out and go to pubs or clubs, our two are in bed, wrecked from working with the horses all day. They love it.”

The Harty family will be busy over Christmas. Baron De’L and Siege Of Ennis will be running at Leopardstown, and Eddie will have runners in some of the maiden hurdles, but Captain Cee Bee is still the main event. He made his debut over fences at Naas two and a half weeks ago, his first run in 20 months, the ground was softer than ideal, but he still won, battling on well to beat Zaarito.

Next up is the Grade 1 Bord Na Mona With Nature Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day, when he will probably meet top class rivals like Sizing Europe and Osana, but he deserves his place in that company.

“He’s very well, he’s in great form,” he says. “He came out of the Naas race very well and he should come on for it. He had been off the track for a long time, and this ‘bounce’ theory is in the back of my mind. He could run flat. I don’t expect him to, but he could, and if he’s beaten at Leopardstown, it won’t alter my plans one iota.”

After that, the Arkle at Cheltenham in March is the primary target. And you never know, he may just go there without another run.

© The Sunday Times, 20th December 2009