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John ‘Shark’ Hanlon

John ‘Shark’ Hanlon was in the Listowel stands with his dad when the field turned down the back straight for the final time in the Guinness Kerry National on Wednesday. He trained his sights on Alfa Beat, easy to spot, the brightest of the two grey horses in the race, travelling well in second place, a little wide on the track, out in the centre, giving away ground at every turn, but that was fine, that was the plan.

Not that it is ideal to be giving away ground every time you turn at a tight track like Listowel in a race as competitive as the Kerry National. But Hanlon and jockey Barry Geraghty had figured that the ground was much softer on the rail than it was out deeper on the track, and if Hanlon knew anything about Alfa Beat, he knew that soft ground was Kryptonite.

“Don’t be too worried if you are watching on television and you see him going wide,” Hanlon had told the horse’s absent American owner Irvin S Naylor. “If he goes into that soft ground on the inside rail, he might never come out of it.”

Hanlon’s fear was that his horse would start to struggle when the pace increased down the back straight. He remembers watching the race last year, when Alfa Beat won it, with Charles Byrnes’s name in the trainer’s column, not John Hanlon’s. He says he must have watched that video 10 times before Wednesday, and he figured that the horse struggled down the back straight, that it was his stamina that saw him home in the end.

“If he can just keep that momentum now,” Hanlon said to his dad quietly. “If he can just hold his position, he must have a chance.”

More than hold his position, when long-time leader Fosters Cross made a mistake at the fifth last fence, Alfa Beat was left in front. That wasn’t ideal either, it’s a long way from the fifth last to the winning post at Listowel, but Geraghty knows the horse well and he didn’t want to take a tug, he didn’t want to disappoint him.

Alfa Beat is not straightforward. Hanlon replaced the cheekpieces that he wore when he won the race last year with blinkers this year. They just sharpened him up, something different, maintained his interest. Two lengths clear of his field rounding the home turn, he pinged the second last fence, pinged the last, and kept on strongly up the run-in to hold the late challenge of Bideford Legend, who is, somewhat coincidentally, trained by Charles Byrnes.

This tale is overflowing with coincidence. Hanlon was at Doncaster Bloodstock Sales in May, minding his own business, when he was approached by Tom Foley.

“My boss in America is looking to buy a Grand National horse,” said Foley. “Are there are potential Grand National horses in this sale?”

Hanlon had been through the catalogue with a fine tooth comb.

“There’s just one,” he said, “but he might be very expensive.”

Hanlon had no idea who Foley’s boss was or how much he had to spend, and he had no idea who was going to train Alfa Beat if they did manage to buy him, but they did – good value now at £75,000 – and he was delighted to learn that the horse was heading back to Bagenalstown with him.

The trainer had never heard of Irvin S Naylor. He didn’t know that he was one of the leading jumps owners in the USA, he didn’t know that he had been a top amateur rider, or that he had been paralysed in a fall in the Grand National Timber Steeplechase at Maryland 12 years ago. He still hasn’t met him.

“You never know where your next break is going to come from,” says Hanlon thoughtfully, “but you can be sure that you won’t get it if you are sitting at home in your armchair. You have to be at the races, at the sales, you have to be in these places. I have no doubt that, if I hadn’t been at Doncaster that day, somebody else would be training Alfa Beat now.”

The owner asked Hanlon to come up with a plan for the year that would end at Aintree in April 2012. Hanlon phoned Barry Geraghty.

“You have to go back to the Kerry National, and go from there,” said the jockey. “He is proven at the track, and he should get his good ground.”

Two runs over hurdles paved the way to Listowel, and even when the ground turned against the horse on Wednesday, Geraghty’s faith remained undimmed.

“In fairness to Barry,” says Hanlon, “every time I asked him to work or school the horse in the lead up to the race, he was there. I’m sure he had plenty of options in the Kerry National, but he stayed with our fellow. He kept telling me, there was only one horse he wanted to ride in the race.”

First part of the plan achieved, Alfa Beat will spend the next few months out in a field relaxing. He will come back in the spring, but he won’t do anything that might affect his handicap mark for Aintree before the Grand National weights are published in February.

“I’m only training four years,” says Hanlon, “and the Grand National is a long way away, but it’s great to have a horse who could have a chance of winning it.”

The winter months could be just a little shorter this year.

© The Sunday Times, 18th September 2011