Donn's Articles » Gavin Cromwell

Gavin Cromwell

You can pick Jer’s Girl out of this line-up.  Ten or 12 long brown heads hang over half-doors, flank the walk down the centre of the barn, some with pricked ears feigning interest, others with a vacant look of absolute apathy.  But only one head has that distinctive white blaze that runs from the centre of her forehead all the way down to her right nostril, as if somebody has dipped a thick paintbrush into whitewash and run it down the length of her face.  If Jer’s Girl has committed the crime, the eye-witness will identify her, no question.

Gavin Cromwell opens the door to her box and rolls back the rug that covers the mare’s body and most of her head.  She hardly turns a hair as he leads her out into the yard, she is used to this, used to the attention.  And then she stands, stock still, a picture of equine wellbeing, watchful eyes, attentive ears.  It is not a bright day, but her bay coat still manages to gleam, the outline of her ribs just about identifiable when she exhales, encasing a body that is fit and well and thriving.  Her trainer pats her on the neck.

“There girl.”

The last time we saw Jer’s Girl in public was at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, when she was finishing last of five runners in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle.

“She just ran a bit flat that day,” says Cromwell.   “Barry (Geraghty) said that, when he sat up on her, she just wasn’t bouncing, so he wasn’t overly surprised that she ran as flat as she did.  In fairness to Barry, he wasn’t overly hard on her once it was obvious that she wasn’t going to be competitive.”

Cromwell can’t really explain it.  It could have been a combination of things.  Maybe he over-trained her, he muses out loud, pinning the blame on himself.  Perhaps he wanted to have her so right that he pushed her too hard.  Perhaps it was the hard race that she had had against Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle on her seasonal debut.  And she hadn’t been well earlier in the season, she had had that skin allergy, and that takes it out of them.

The mare had a nice break after Leopardstown, she returned to that five-star equine hotel that is owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud, got some R&R in, and she returned to Cromwell’s place just outside Navan in County Meath in tip-top shape.

“We could have given her a run,” says her trainer.  “We could have got her back and run her in the Quevega Hurdle at Punchestown on Wednesday, the race in which Limini beat Apple’s Jade, but it would have been a rush to get her there.  Best to get her ready for Cheltenham from here.  She’s in great nick now.  She worked on the grass at Fairyhouse last Tuesday and she went well.  I couldn’t be happier with her.”

Cromwell has been happy with her for a while.  She didn’t stand out when first she arrived into the yard.  Indeed, she didn’t even look like a racehorse, her trainer confides.  She was a hairy pony.  You’d never have thought then that she would be a Grade 1 horse.  But that’s the way this game goes.  You never know what you have.

Allowed go off at 33/1 on her racecourse debut in a 10-furlong maiden on the flat at Sligo in May 2015, Jer’s Girl surprised just about everyone by finishing second. 

“She’s from a flat family,” says Cromwell, “but she is by Jeremy, who gets good jumpers, and I was always thinking that she would be a hurdler.”

It was the following November that she made her National Hunt debut in a maiden hurdle at Limerick.  Her trainer was very hopeful.  She had been going well at home, and her jumping had been electric.  Gavin Cromwell doesn’t bet very often, but he backed his filly that day, and his money was never in danger.

Jer’s Girl was owned and bred by Gus Bourke, an octogenarian who bought the mare’s great grandam in 1970 and has had the family since.  The owner/breeder had horses with Gavin’s uncle Jerry, and it was through Jerry that he got in touch with Gavin.

Cromwell’s family has always had an interest in racing.  His uncle trained, his dad was involved, and his grandfather on his mother’s side trained point-to-pointers.  Young Gavin was brought racing and point-to-pointing, he loved riding and he spent two summers with Dessie Hughes when he was a teenager. 

He spent another summer in Newmarket, working with Ben Hanbury and, when he finished his Leaving Cert, he went back to Newmarket and worked with Paul Kellaway for nine months. 

“I met an Australian lad there, and I ended up going to Australia for a year,” he says, “which is where I started my apprenticeship as a farrier.  But I couldn’t get a visa to stay, so I came back home and got an apprenticeship as a farrier here.  I realised that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional jockey.  I had ridden a few point-to-point winners, but I just wasn’t good enough.  Thank God I had the cop to realise that when I did!”

He bought the land here in order to start to keep some point-to-pointers, and so the training operation grew.  At the same time, he completed his apprenticeship as a farrier and he got busier.  He got his trainer’s licence and started taking in outside horses.

“It kind of just evolved.  I just got a few horses for a few owners and it went from there.  And the farrier work grew, I had three days’ work a week as soon as I finished my apprenticeship, and it wasn’t long until I had an apprentice of my own.  I used to live with Gordon (Elliott) when I was going point-to-pointing, he and I used to go point-to-pointing together.  Then he started training his own point-to-pointers and his operation grew.  I’ve been shoeing his horses since.”

The shoeing is important to Cromwell, and the training is going well, the operation is expanding.   JP McManus bought Jer’s Girl last March, two days before she won the Grade 1 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Fairyhouse’s Easter meeting. Then she followed up by landing the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.

“Gus just told me that he wouldn’t be averse to selling her, so I mentioned it to Barry (Geraghty), and within a few days the deal was done.  Gus was happy to sell her, and it’s great to have an owner like JP McManus in the yard.  He’s brilliant to deal with, and just even to have the colours hanging up in the room.”

The Mares’ Hurdle on the first day of the Festival looks like the ideal Cheltenham target for Jer’s Girl, but she is also in the Coral Cup and the County Hurdle.  We’ll see what weight she gets next week.  No matter how things pan out, however, all going well, she is in the form of her life and her white blaze is pointing to the Cotswolds.

© The Sunday Times, 26th February 2017