Donn's Articles » Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington

So what’s new at Jessica Harrington’s?  The new all-weather gallop, that’s new.  It snakes around you for seven furlongs and climbs a steady climb up to the highest point at Commonstown.  You feel it as you walk up the final furlong, you feel the pull, trying to match strides with the trainer, but try running up the last furlong after you have covered the previous six.  No wonder the horses are fit.

The new schooling strip, that’s new.  So new, in fact, that the Easyfix hurdles and fences have just arrived this morning.  Emma Harrington supervises as they are unloaded from the truck and placed on the gallop.

“Emma told me that if we won the Gold Cup we could put the schooling strip in,” says Jessica Harrington.  “Everything that we win, all the prize money that we earn, we put back into the place.  You have to keep moving forward.”

The new viewing structure, that’s new.  It looks like the first part of a bridge that should cross a railway line for all the world, but without the actual bridge and without the actual railway line.  But climb to the top, and you can see all of Commonstown and all of the horses as they wend their way along the new all-weather gallop.

“You’re okay with heights aren’t you?”

An Irish Gold Cup winner, that’s new.  An Irish Grand National winner, that’s new.  A Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, that’s new. 

And there he is, right on cue, Sizing John, Gold Cup hero, with Kate Harrington by his side, as she usually is.  He moves his ears forward, feigning interest in the intruder.

“He’s a gentleman,” says Kate as she pats him on the neck.  “Aren’t you John?”

King of the hill.

Sizing John was Sizing John before he arrived at Commonstown last August.  He was already a high-class National Hunt racehorse for Henry de Bromhead before owners Ann and Alan Potts moved him to Jessica Harrington’s last autumn.  The key for his new trainer was to keep him going forward, to maintain his progression, which she duly did.  Then she stepped him up in trip, and he exploded. 

“He was unbelievable at Cheltenham,” says Jessie.  “We went to Cheltenham with seven good horses we thought, seven good chances.  They all ran well, even the ones that didn’t win ran well, and when Supasundae won the Coral Cup on the Wednesday, that relieved some of the pressure.  He was great, and that was a winner in the bag.”

Jessie watched the Gold Cup from the owners’ and trainers’ stand with her daughter Emma and Emma’s husband Richie Galway.  Kate Harrington had watched Supasundae win the Coral Cup two days earlier on the big screen in the parade ring, so she said that she would go back to the same place.  Call it superstition if you want, call it habit, but they all took up their Coral Cup positions to watch the Gold Cup.

“I remember, when they were coming down the hill,” recalls Jessica.  “When he jumped the third last well and moved up with Robert around the home turn, thinking, amazing, we’re going to be placed in a Gold Cup.  Then he winged the second last.”

She pauses, not for effect, just to try to remember the moment, to find the words to describe it.  How do you describe the indescribable?

“I was shaking.  Really.  Literally.  I was thinking, God we’re going to win.  That feeling.  It’s impossible to explain.  Any winner that we have had at Cheltenham, they’re all special.  And this was the Gold Cup.  Then he hit the line.”

She talks through the aftermath, the next minutes, the next hour, the haze.  She had been there before in a sense, nine previous Cheltenham Festival winners, Jezki’s Champion Hurdle, Moscow Flyer’s Champion Chases, and they were all special, but this seemed somehow different, somehow bigger.  The Gold Cup, they call it the blue riband.

The congratulations, the presentations, the back-slaps, the television interviews.  The press conference in the media centre, she had never seen a media centre so big, and the microphones and the questions.

“Then I thought that I would quite like to have a drink with the owners before the last race.  I had to saddle two runners in the last, the Grand Annual.  And actually, if you had asked me beforehand what my best chance was of having a winner at Cheltenham, I would have said Rock The World in the Grand Annual.”

Rock The World and Robbie Power went out and won that too.

“It probably didn’t really hit me until the Sunday evening, when we had our evening in Moone.  Everybody was there, all the media, but also the locals, and our owners.  People came from everywhere.  That’s when it actually hit me, that this was a big deal.  I hadn’t really thought about it as being such a big deal.”

An Irish Grand National is also a big deal, and Jessica Harrington won that too at Fairyhouse last Monday with Our Duke.  When the Cooper family’s horse won the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown last Christmas, he looked like the ideal type for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham.  But that was never on the cards.

“The owners just didn’t want to go to Cheltenham with him this year,” says Jessie.  “They just didn’t think that it was the thing for him.  So we figured, if we weren’t going to go to Cheltenham, we’d go for the Irish Grand National on Easter Monday.  That was another special day.” 

Our Duke was brilliant at Fairyhouse last Monday.  Ridden aggressively by Robbie Power, the challengers assembled on the run to the third last fence, but Our Duke just pulled away from them again over the final two, and he ran through the line like a horse who had lots more energy left. 

“We had reservations about the ground, but Robert walked it beforehand and said that it was safe.  And Oscars love good ground.  As it turned out, he really enjoyed the ground, which it great to know for next season.”

There is a lot to look forward to for next season, all going well.  Two Gold Cup aspirants and probably the strongest team of National Hunt horses that has ever been assembled at Commonstown.  And that is without even considering the flat horses, over 20 two-year-olds for the summer and five winners already in the bag this flat season.

In the shorter term, preparations are almost complete for the Punchestown Festival next week.  Rock The World in the Champion Chase, Don’t Touch It in the Nick Coen Memorial Handicap Chase, Someday in the Champion Bumper, Forge Meadow in the Champion Novice Hurdle.  And Sizing John in the Punchestown Gold Cup.

“He’s very well,” says Jessie.  “You saw how well he was there this morning.  He has had a nice break now since Cheltenham, and he’s going really well.”

Jessica Harrington is going really well too.  That’s not new.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd April 2017