Donn's Articles » Sizing John

Sizing John

The competition for Horse of the Year at the Horse Racing Ireland Awards on Tuesday was intense, but it was no great surprise when Sizing John was announced as the winner.  It was just another accolade in a year of accolades for Jessica Harrington’s horse.

“He is an amazing horse to deal with,” said the trainer’s daughter Kate from the stage at Leopardstown on Tuesday, as she joined her mother and her older sister Emma, as well as Sizing John’s rider Robbie Power, to accept the award.  And Kate should know, she deals with Sizing John just about every waking day of her life.

“What he did last season was amazing.  He would be a top three-day eventer or show jumper too.  He just wants to please you.”

Rewind 12 months.  This time last year, Sizing John was a talented young chaser who couldn’t beat Douvan.  Trained by Henry de Bromhead until that point, he had won the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown and he had won the Grade 2 Craddockstown Chase at Punchestown, but he had faced Douvan on six occasions at that stage, and he had never beaten him.  Three times over hurdles, three times over fences, six times over two miles.

The Midnight Legend gelding made his debut for Jessica Harrington at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival last year, took Douvan on one final time over two miles and, once again, he finished second, eight lengths behind Willie Mullins’ horse.  Then he stepped up in trip and, woosh.

There was no point in banging your head against the wall, reasoned his trainer and rider.  Continuing to take on Douvan over two miles.  There was no point in doing the same thing as you had always done and expecting a different outcome.  So Sizing John was racing over two and a half miles for just the second time in his career when he won the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles last January.

It was his stamina that won the Kinloch Brae for him, said Robbie Power afterwards.  At the second last fence, the rider thought that they was beaten, he thought that Sub Lieutenant had them, but Sizing John stayed on well from there, around the by-passed last fence, and finished strongly to beat Sub Lieutenant by two and a half lengths.

All the talk afterwards was of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.  The talk was logical, the Ryanair Chase over two miles and five furlongs was the sensible Cheltenham Festival target for a horse who had finished second in the Arkle as a novice over two miles, and who had just proven that he could stay two and a half.  But sometimes you have to look beyond logic, beyond sense. 

Harrington had never won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, she had never had a runner in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, but she put Sizing John into the race and, quietly, they planned.  Robbie Power said that he was confident that they would win it.  He rarely gets that feeling of confidence about a horse in a race, maybe once or twice a year, but he had it going out on Sizing John at Leopardstown on 12th February.  He was sure that John would stay three miles, and he couldn’t see any of his rivals beating him if he did. 

He did and they didn’t.

Driving out of Leopardstown that day, Power phoned Sizing John’s owners Alan and Ann Potts, and all the owners could talk about was the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  The Ryanair Chase was off plans, it was their lifelong dream as owners to win the Gold Cup.  And in March, they realised that dream.

There is a poignancy attached to the green and yellow Potts colours now.  Ann Potts died in August, Alan Potts died just last month.  And there is a particular poignancy attached to Sizing John, their only Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, who is set to run for the first time this season in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown this afternoon.

“It’s very sad that Ann and Alan are no longer with us,” said Jessica Harrington on Tuesday.  “Alan always wanted to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and it was fantastic that Sizing John won it for him.  They have left a great legacy.”

Sizing John was due to make his seasonal debut at Haydock two weeks ago in the Betfair Chase, the first leg of the British Triple Crown, which incorporates the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, with a £1 million bonus going to any horse who can win all three legs.  However, Jessica Harrington decided that the ground would just be too soft for her stable star at Haydock that day, and plans were aborted.  £1 million bonus or no £1 million bonus, the most important thing was to do the right thing for the horse.

Sure enough, the ground was very soft at Haydock, Bristol De Mai won the race by 57 lengths, a record for a Grade 1 race, and the beaten horses finished very tired.  Whether he had won or lost, Sizing John would have had a grueling race.  These decisions are easy in hindsight, but Harrington had the foresight to make the correct one.

The ground will be soft today at Punchestown too, which is not ideal, but the John Durkan Chase is over two and a half miles, not over three, and Sizing John lives just 25 minutes down the road from Punchestown at Commonstown.  He will not have the added strain of international travel.

He will not have it all his own way today, not with old rivals Djakadam and Sub Lieutenant in the line-up, but it is a good starting point for him into the season.  It could be a season of more accolades.

© The Sunday Times, 10th December 2017