Donn's Articles » Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington stood in the winner’s enclosure at Leopardstown last Saturday, enveloped in a swathe of journalists. She had just watched Oscars Well win the Deloitte Hurdle, completing a rare Grade 1 double on the day for the trainer, after Bostons Angel had landed the PJ Moriarty Chase just an hour earlier.

Oscars Well hadn’t just won the Deloitte Hurdle though, he had danced in. He had travelled supremely well for Robbie Power through the race, made his ground on the run around the home turn, moved to the outside as they straightened up for home, looked over at his two toiling rivals towards the inside and laughed at them. And these weren’t just ordinary horses. On the contrary, Zaidpour, Hidden Universe, Shot From The Hip, this was probably the best group of novice hurdlers that had been assembled together anywhere in Ireland or the UK this season, and Oscars Well had bounded away from them as if they had been second-raters.

Harrington fielded the journalists’ questions with verbal dexterity, confident in the afterglow of a job well done.

“He was a big price, wasn’t he?” came one from left-field.

The trainer looked over in the general direction of the question: “Ours are always under-rated.”

It is a point well made. How else do you explain Oscars Well’s SP of 7/1, impressive winner of his previous two races, including a Grade 1 contest? How else do you explain the fact that he was still available at 7/1 for the Neptune Hurdle on Monday morning, and that it wasn’t until the last couple of days that people have begun to cotton on to his outstanding chance at Cheltenham, backing him in to as short as 3/1 in places? How else do you explain Bostons Angel’s SP of 8/1, another Grade 1 winner going into Saturday’s race, and odds of 16/1 about him still for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham? A Fort Leney Chase winner, a Dr PJ Moriarty winner, do you think if he were trained by Willie Mullins he would be any better than half those odds?

Of course, a horse’s chance in any race is influenced by the quality of the trainer who prepares him for that race. It is a little incongruous to say that a horse who is being trained on a grassy plain in north County Dublin would be a shorter price for the Gold Cup if he were trained by a top trainer. The fact is, obviously, that if he were trained by a top trainer, he would have a better chance of winning the race, so it makes sense that he should be a shorter price. However, there is a point at which fashion comes into it.

Jessica Harrington’s ability to train, and affinity with horses, is beyond question. Before taking over the permit from her husband Johnny in the late 1980s, she was one of Ireland’s top three-day event riders. As a trainer, she made her name with horses like Oh So Grumpy, Space Trucker, Dance Beat, Spirit Leader, Macs Joy, and she scraped the stratosphere with a horse called Moscow Flyer.

And just in case she was in danger of being pigeon-holed as a mere National Hunt trainer, she has taken the summer game by the scruff of the neck as well. Curtain Call, Jumbajukiba, Long Lashes and Laughing Lashes have shown that Harrington can train horses to run as well as to jump. And then there is Pathfork, her first Group 1 winner on the flat. The stratosphere is once again in sight.

Despite the fact that she thought Oscars Well had a big chance on Saturday, the ease with which he won still surprised Harrington.

“Everyone was saying that it was a weak Grade 1 race that he had won at Navan,” reflects the trainer now. “But it was still a Grade 1! A Grade 1 is a Grade 1, the best horses run in Grade 1 races, and he won that race very easily in a good time.”

Remarkably, Oscars Well didn’t manage to win a bumper. Three attempts, no wins. His best run in a bumper was actually on his racecourse debut at Fairyhouse on this day last year, when he finished second to Day Of A Lifetime. Harrington wasn’t that perturbed, however. Moscow Flyer never won a bumper either.

“He was actually quite sick last year,” Jessica recalls. “We ran him at Punchestown in April, but he still wasn’t right, so we let him off for the summer with a view to sending him over hurdles this season.”

It wasn’t straightforward, however. Because he hadn’t won a bumper, Harrington found it difficult to get him into a maiden hurdle at the start of this season. She kept entering him, and he kept getting balloted out. It was difficult to train him, to keep him ticking over when you weren’t sure when or if he was going to get a run. Even when he eventually got to make his debut this season in a maiden hurdle at Thurles in early November, he had started the day as first reserve, he only got in because there was a non-runner on the day.

“He surprised us at Thurles,” says Harrington. “I wasn’t really training him, yet he ran really well to get beaten just a half a length. We thought then that he might be good.”

They were right. The son of Oscar won his maiden hurdle at Punchestown by nine lengths, and he won that Grade 1 Navan Hurdle by eight lengths with his head in his chest, before going and beating the best that Ireland could muster at Leopardstown last Saturday. It would be surprising if, all going well between now and then, he didn’t emerge as clear favourite for the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham on 16th March. It is probable that he is not finished yet.

Oscars Well will head up a strong team that leaves Moone for the Cotswolds at the start of the third week in March. Bostons Angel will go for the RSA Chase.

“He does nothing at home,” says his trainer. “If you were riding him up the gallop in front, you’d think you were riding a donkey. Once he gets to the front, he thinks he has done enough. But he jumps, he gallops and he stays, and that’s what you want in an RSA Chase horse.”

Summit Meeting will go for either the Coral Cup or the Pertemps Final, Chasing Cars may go in the Festival Plate, Alpine Eagle will probably go for the Imperial Cup at Sandown on the Saturday before Cheltenham, and may go for the County Hurdle after that, while Saludos will run in the Grand Annual if the ground happened to come up soft.

And Pathfork? He’ll go for the Guineas.

© The Sunday Times, 20th February 2011