Donn's Articles » Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington

Shortly after Alpha Centauri first arrived at Jessica Harrington’s yard as a yearling, the trainer had her weighed.  It’s normal with new recruits.  Check their weight, monitor their progress.  And the result came back: 530kg.

“That’s wrong,” said the trainer.  “It can’t be right.  She’s only a yearling.  Weigh her again.”

So they did.  530kg.  And again.  530kg.

“I couldn’t believe it.  She was a big lady.  A filly at that stage of her life would usually weigh somewhere between 430kg and 450kg.  She was heavier than a lot of the colts.  At least we knew then what we had to work with.”

When a young filly is as big as Alpha Centauri was, she usually needs time.  She takes time to grow into her body, time to fill her significant frame, and her trainer was happy to give her all the time that she needed.

“I loved her from the start.  From the first time I saw her.  A big grey.  She probably looked more like a National Hunt store horse than a flat-bred filly.  I just thought that she had great balance and a super walk.  Most people who looked at her probably thought that she would end up being slow.  But I thought that she had such good movement.  And she had a very good back pedigree.”

The filly was allowed to develop in her own time.  It wasn’t a big deal if she wasn’t going to make it as a two-year-old.  She was always going to progress as she matured and strengthened.

But she progressed quickly.  Everything she was asked to do, she did easily.  In March last year, when they started just breezing the two-year-olds, she was able to do it more easily than any of her peers at Commonstown. 

“Anything I put her with, she’d just canter up beside them.  And I kept looking at her and thinking, she’s so large, what am I seeing?  So I got brave, and ran her at the beginning of May in Naas.  I thought, everyone is going to think I’m mad.  When she walks into the parade ring, she’ll probably be twice the size of some of these fillies.  But she ran and she won well, and I didn’t feel like such an idiot!” 

Alpha Centauri is three now, she is no heavier than she was when she was a yearling, still weighs in at 530kg, but she is still big, even for a three-year-old.  If she lifts her head, you have to stretch to reach it.  She is strong, she has the strength to match her physique, but she is gentle, laid-back.

“You have to push her to get her to do anything,” says Debbie Flavin, who rides the Mastercraftsman filly out every morning.  “If you don’t push her, she won’t do it.  She’s so easy-going.”

She looks at the filly as she talks about her.  Pats her on the neck.

“I was so lucky to get to look after her.  It happened by accident really.  The lad who used to look after her left and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  I’ve been all over the place with her.  I’ve been to France and to England with her.  I’d go anywhere with her.  She’s unbelievable.  I love her to bits.  I think she knows that she’s a star.”

Alpha Centauri’s first trip to England this year was in June, for Royal Ascot, for the Coronation Stakes.  Jessica Harrington had never had a winner at Royal Ascot before.  She went close last year when Alpha Centauri was beaten a neck in the Albany Stakes, and she went close this year when Torcedor was beaten a length in the Ascot Gold Cup.  That was on the Thursday.  Alpha Centauri ran on the Friday, her trainer’s last runner of the week, her last chance of bagging a Royal Ascot winner in 2018. 

“Winning the Irish 1000 Guineas in May was brilliant,” says Jessica.  “Our first Classic.  And then for her to win the Coronation Stakes, our first Royal Ascot winner, and the way that she did it, breaking the course record.  That was unbelievable.”

The Niarchos family’s filly has since gone even higher.  In July, she went to Newmarket and, under an astute ride from Colm O’Donoghue, beat the older fillies in the Falmouth Stakes.  Then last month, she went to Deauville in France and, under a similarly efficient ride from O’Donoghue, beat the colts in the Prix Jacques le Marois.  She is now the highest-rated three-year-old filly in the world, and she is on track for the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes at Leopardstown next Saturday. 

“Everything has been good with her since,” says her trainer.  “Nothing seems to faze her.  All going well, she will go to Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend, as long as the ground isn’t too soft.  That’s the plan.  We’re not looking any further ahead than that.”

It has been a remarkable season so far for Jessica Harrington.  Alpha Centauri has been the shining light of course, but she has also won Group races with Torcedor and I’m So Fancy and Pincheck and Beautiful Morning.  She now sits third in the 2018 Irish flat trainers’ championship, behind only Aidan O’Brien and Joseph O’Brien.

The trainer’s success on the flat does not mean that there is any diminution in her concentration on National Hunt, the sphere in which she initially forged her name as a racehorse trainer.  On the contrary, she has reached a new level over jumps too in the last two seasons.  Irish Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Irish Gold Cup, Irish Grand National.  And even now, as we watch the flat horses stretch their legs, National Hunt stars Sizing John and Supasundae are among them.

Kate Harrington is on Sizing John’s back, as she usually is.

“It’s great to have John back after his injury.  He seems to be as good as ever.”

It means that it is full on at Commonstown.  No let up.  12 months a year.  But that is possible when you have a talented team around you.  Jessica’s daughters Emma and Kate are deeply involved, head man Eamonn Leigh remains a key cog, and son-in-law Richie Galway, known best as a key man at Punchestown racecourse, has recently taken on added responsibility.

“We’re lucky to have such a good team of people.  Everybody knows their job and everybody gets on with it.  We’re lucky that we have some nice horses now too.”

Some of those nice horses will be going to Leopardstown and The Curragh next weekend to compete on Irish Champions Weekend.  Alpha Centauri is the star, though, and she knows it all right.

© The Sunday Times, 9th September 2018