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JP McManus

A couple of things you should know about Geneva. The city has a population of almost 200,000 (smaller than Dublin, bigger than Kilmallock), almost half of whom are resident foreign nationals. It is the fourth most expensive city in the world, has an unemployment rate of just over 6% and accommodates a whole host of international groups like the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the European Headquarters of the United Nations.

It also accommodates JP McManus’ offices. Six stories high with glass-fronted views over Lake Geneva and Jet d’Eau, the city behind and the mountains beyond. Idyllic. Yet JP would rather be in Limerick.

He doesn’t say so explicitly, but there is an undercurrent that runs through the conversation that is unmistakable. The wistfulness with which he speaks about Ireland, about Limerick; his hopes for the city, the county and the country. You think that JP McManus is passionate about horses? Listen to him speak about home.

For JP McManus, racehorse owner, 2012 was dominated by Synchronised. In a few short weeks, the son of Sadler’s Wells took his owner on a journey that explored every square inch of roller-coaster rail that is National Hunt racing: as high as a soprano, as low as the ocean floor.

If you embark on the journey as a National Hunt racehorse owner, the Cheltenham Gold Cup is your ultimate destination. Standing in the Cheltenham stand and watching as a horse carrying your colours bounds up the hill in the Gold Cup, that’s just about as good as it gets. On March 16 this year, that was Synchronised. The highest high.

Grand National day, April 14 was the lowest low. Any day that you go to the races with a horse and come back without him is a bad day. When that horse is your first Gold Cup winner who had just four weeks previously run his lungs out to win racing’s blue riband for you, well, it is just difficult to put words on the depth of that low.

“When Synchronised won the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last December,” says McManus slowly, thoughtfully, fondly, “we thought about letting him take his chance in the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown, maybe with a view to running in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. But he just wasn’t ready for the Hennessy, he wasn’t putting the weight back on after the Lexus, and Jonjo (O’Neill) just thought that we might be better off going straight to Cheltenham.”

The trainer was reasonably bullish before Cheltenham. He thought that Synchronised was as well as he had ever had him. The vibe coming from his rider AP McCoy wasn’t negative: this horse has a chance.

“I was just hoping that he would give a good account of himself at Cheltenham. I hoped that he would be there at the bottom of the hill and, if so, he’d have his chance. But AP gave him an extraordinarily good ride. I was fearful that he would ask him at some of those fences, but he didn’t. He just let him go in and pop, maybe lose a half a length at his fences, allow him stay in the race.

“And even after they jumped the third last, he didn’t really get after him. He just sat there, let the race develop ahead of him. Full marks to the horse but AP was exceptional on him. He just encouraged him. Sychronised wasn’t the biggest horse in the world, he was never the type of horse that you would pick out on looks as being a potential Gold Cup winner, but he had a big heart and he had the perfect partner in AP.”

At what point did he think that Synchronised would win the Gold Cup? When he turned for home in fifth place, five lengths worth of daylight between him and the group of four that looked destined to fight out the finish? Probably not.

When he jumped the second last, moved to the near side, but was still only fourth rising to the final fence? When he put his head down and galloped after the last? When he joined Long Run and The Giant Bolster half way up the run-in and surged on in a momentum-fuelled gallop that would take him and AP up the hill and into the history books?

“When they had weighed in!” is the answer with a knowing smile. “Honestly. With all the melee afterwards, you’re afraid that something will go wrong, that someone will drop something. You get all these thoughts. I’ve been around for so long, you’re always worried, until you hear ‘Weighed in’, you’re not happy.”

It was an unforgettable day. Not only did McCoy weigh in all right after the Gold Cup, but earlier he had won the County Hurdle for JP on Alderwood, and two hours after the Gold Cup, Paul Carberry, also clad in the famed McManus green and gold hoops, would smuggle Bellvano to victory in the Grand Annual. Three winners at Cheltenham on Gold Cup day, including the big one. Magic.

Synchronised’s victory was all the sweeter because of the fact that JP and his wife, Noreen bred the horse themselves, out of their Bob Back mare Mayasta, who was, in a strange twist, the first winner that McCoy ever rode for McManus, back at the 1996 Punchestown festival. That sweetnesss served to exacerbate the heartache of Grand National day, however.

“Hindsight is a great thing,” says JP slowly. “The horse was in tremendous form. He came out of the Gold Cup so well, and the team seemed keen to run him. He had a chance to become the first horse since Golden Miller to win the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year. It was nice to give him the opportunity to achieve that. Needless to say, in hindsight, you wish you had done things differently, but at the time, I believed it was the right decision.”

He was nervous before the race. When you develop an affinity with any horse, you are nervous every time he goes out to race. JP was naturally disappointed when he saw Synchronised fall at Becher’s Brook first time, but was relieved to see both the horse and McCoy get up, apparently unscathed.

“I didn’t see him fall when he was running loose but my son was watching on the screen. He was worried and I didn’t know why at the time. I watched the finish of the race as Sunnyhillboy just got beaten by Neptune Collonges. Then I met Jonjo on the way down to the winner’s enclosure and he told me that we had lost Synchronised. That was a strange feeling. I’d say it was the saddest day that I have ever had in racing.

“It wouldn’t have made any difference to me then if Sunnyhillboy had won by a nose instead of getting beaten by a nose. I was in bits mentally. If I had won the National, I don’t think it would have made an awful lot of difference. To have won a National after losing Synchronised, it wouldn’t have mattered. You wouldn’t have been drinking out of the cup that night, that’s for sure.”


It was in Alf Hogan’s in Limerick that JP McManus cut his betting teeth. His dad had a farm and an earth-moving business and, the eldest of five children, young JP started working in the family firm as soon as he finished his schooling. He learned how to drive a bulldozer and he worked long hours.

His dad was fair, but there was no place to hide. McManus jnr would work five and a half days a week, and would milk the cows every second weekend, but every Saturday afternoon without fail, he went to Alf Hogan’s.

You paid a betting tax of a shilling in the pound in those days on win bets, no tax on doubles and trebles. Hogan paid 10/11, 11/10, 5/6 and 6/5 as even money, and the punter had a chance. (There’s that wistfulness again). Then the government increased the tax to 20%, and JP stopped betting.

“Instead of betting an even money shot, £5 to win £5,” he says, “you were actually betting £6 to win £4, and that made it impossible. So I thought that I would try it from the other side. I took out a bookmaker’s licence, went skint a couple of times and had to go back working for my dad, but I learned a little every time.”

Gradually, McManus honed his skills. He had an opinion on most horses and sometimes he found that he was laying favourites (because that’s what bookmakers did) that he actually thought would win. So he changed his modus operandi. He started backing the horses he fancied and continued to lay the ones he didn’t. He hooked up with Jimmy Hayes, an excellent judge of form and, minds together, they were on their way.

The Lord Gayle mare Cill Dara was the first horse that JP bought. Cill Dara carried the McManus colours to victory in the Irish Cesarewitch before she was retired and became a successful broodmare. Jack Of Trumps and Shining Flame followed, then Deep Gale and Mister Donovan, as the South Liberties colours gradually grew to become more prevalent and more prolific.

“We probably have more horses in training now than we have ever had, and we probably have plenty of moderate ones. I suppose you have to have the poor ones to appreciate the good ones.”

There are and have been many good ones. From Jack Of Trumps and Mister Donovan all the way to Istabraq, Baracouda, Like-A-Butterfly, Binocular and Synchronised. When you start a list, it is difficult to know where to stop.

“There was a sadness with Istabraq because of John Durkan. I never would have had Istabraq had it not been for John. And when he wasn’t well, it was he who suggested that I should send Istabraq to Aidan O’Brien. There was a poignancy about Istabraq because of John.”

Racing is a pastime for McManus. It probably costs him more, he reckons, than it costs any other owner in Ireland, but he loves it, loves being a part of it, and enjoys putting something back into the game from whence it all began for him. And loyalty is key. You will rarely, if ever, see a good horse moved away from its trainer after it has been bought by McManus.

“When you have a good horse, you get a lot of pleasure out of it, but the trainer, the lad or the lass probably gets as much pleasure out of it as I do. Whether they are winning the best-turned-out prize or leading a winner back in, they get a huge kick out of that.

“When you buy a nice horse in a yard, you realise how much it means to the people who are already involved, so, as a result, I don’t always move them.”

His racing manager, Frank Berry does most of the communicating with the trainers, and the pair speak just about every evening when he is in Geneva.

“Like everybody, you like to win the big races, races like the Galway Plate, the Irish National, and the Galway Hurdle would also be a nice race to win. It’s all about winning the big races. But one of the great things about having a good horse is that it always seems to bring the family together. When you have a good horse, they all seem to turn up. It’s great to get the family all together. That’s another bonus.”

Life moves on apace, things change. McManus’s horses are in Ireland and Britain, but his business is in Switzerland’s second city.

“I have met some wonderful people in racing, some wonderful characters, especially when I was bookmaking and going racing every day. The tea room before racing was something not to miss, the stories that you’d hear. I enjoy meeting my brother Kevin when he comes back from the races, hearing the stories from the track.

“But I got to the stage of my life where I needed another challenge. Luckily for me, business went well and I was able to afford to have horses. Racing is a hobby for me now. That said, I would love to see my horses running more often than I do. The best days of my life were when I was bookmaking and going racing every day.”

There’s that wistfulness again.


JP on…

The Grand National

I do think that it is a very good idea to have the first fence closer to the start, but I’m not sure about moving the start. There was a lot of character to having the start where it has always been right in front of the grandstand. However, these people have given it a lot of thought and they make an awful lot of right decisions. They also care for the ground so well. I would be slow to modify the fences though.The Grand National is an institution, don’t destroy it.


It’s more a hobby than a business for me now. I’d go to Cheltenham and I may decide that I’m going to back Darlan for the Champion Hurdle, but I tend to find it difficult to get on these days. I’d have a bet on an American Football game, a game of gin, or backgammon. But we gamble every day in the office, and it’s not seen as gambling. And we don’t always win.

Tiger Woods

I don’t speak with Tiger often. He might send me a text every now and again,. When Tiger comes to our Pro-Ams, he doesn’t get an appearance fee, he doesn’t get paid his expenses, yet he comes. For me he is a man apart.


Family is everything. Noreen, the children, the grandchildren. You just want them to be healthy and happy and to be able to spend time with them.

The owners’ championship

At the start it didn’t really mean that much to me, but it does now. In Ireland it seems to be a contest between Michael (O’Leary) and myself. He has a lot of talented horses, he has more good horses than we have, but for some reason we seem to be hanging in there.

AP McCoy

AP is an exceptional man. Quite apart from his exploits on the racecourse, of which everyone is aware, he has some wonderful qualities as a person, and I am very lucky to have him as a friend.


I was very very lucky. I was lucky that the cancer hadn’t moved out of my prostate by the time it was discovered. If you have prostate cancer, and it is diagnosed on time, and if you are prepared to give up a few weeks of your life, it’s not a problem. Get yourself into shape, go easy on the drink, so that when you have that operation, you’re going to recover earlier. But overall, it was a good experience for me. Noreen was wonderful, the kids were great. You see life a little differently, you appreciate the simple things in life. Maybe you need a wake-up call every now and again. I am sure that I was the winner out of it.

© Irish Racing Yearbook 2013