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Jessica Harrington

Jessica Harrington looks on as Sprewell canters up the hill towards her, his long, easy stride covering the Commonstown ground effortlessly, his partner Lauryn Faulkner almost motionless on his back.

“We’re very happy with him,” says his trainer. “He’s not a horse who works really flashily, but we’re happy with where he is now. All set for Sunday.”

Sunday is today, Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby day, when Harrington will bid to create history at The Curragh by sending out Sprewell to win the most important flat race on the Irish racing calendar. Not that Jessica Harrington is a stranger to the creation of history. On the contrary, a top-class event rider who competed and succeeded at the highest level, she has been pushing boundaries and setting standards since she first took out a permit to train racehorses in the 1980s.

Back then, a female racehorse trainer was a rare thing, and when owners would call to ask about their horses, they would often ask to speak to Jessica’s husband, the late and much-missed Johnny Harrington. That changed.

Jessica won the Galway Hurdle in 1994 with Oh So Grumpy and she won the Ladbroke Hurdle in 1996 with Dance Beat and she won the Midlands Grand National in 1998 with Miss Orchestra, and she won just about everything with Moscow Flyer.

It was all National Hunt in those days, Space Trucker and Spirit Leader and Intelligent and Macs Joy went along with Moscow Flyer’s 26 wins, 13 of them at Grade 1 level. She won the RSA Chase in 2011 with Bostons Angel and she won the Champion Hurdle in 2014 with Jezki and she won the Irish Grand National in 2017 with Our Duke. That was also the year that she trained Sizing John to win the Irish Gold Cup, the Punchestown Gold Cup and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a feat that no other horse has achieved before or since.

When you are so successful in one discipline, it obviously makes sense to continue in that discipline. But Jessica Harrington has embraced flat racing in recent times and, predictably, she has reached the top level there too.

She claimed her first Group 1 win on the flat when Pathfork won the National Stakes in 2010, and she claimed her second, third, fourth and fifth with Alpha Centauri, who won the Irish 1000 Guineas, the Coronation Stakes, the Falmouth Stakes and the Prix Jacques le Marois in 2018. Since then, there has been a steady flow of winners at the highest level on the flat. She has finished in the top five in the Irish flat trainers’ championship every year since 2017.

You can’t see it in the statistics, but the last nine months haven’t been easy for Jessica Harrington and her family. She was dealt a sledgehammer blow in October, diagnosed with breast cancer. Unsurprisingly and characteristically, she met the challenge head on.

“I reckoned, when I was being diagnosed, that it was going to be cancer,” she says. “I was ready for it. So when we got the results, when the doctor said, stage three, stage four, aggressive, I was okay. This is your programme, he said. This is how we’re going to beat it. I was up for it.”

It’s Jessica Harrington all over. She speaks with remarkable candour, with a frankness and a certainty that is at the core of all that she has achieved.

“I was helped by the fact that I was healthy before I started the treatment. And I knew that I was going to face it with a positive attitude. You don’t want to be negative, you don’t want to give the cancer a chance. It helped too that I live in a wonderful place, and I’m very lucky to have great people around me.”

There followed 16 rounds of chemotherapy. She plays it down, says that she just got on with it. She got sick just after Christmas, she was in hospital for four days, and she had to go in again for six days in February with a clot on her lung. But the road back has always been forward.

“Everyone here has been amazing. Emma and Kate (her daughters), and Richie (Galway, Emma’s husband) and Eamonn (Leigh, her head man). They have worked so hard.”

She snuck back to the races one day at Naas, just for one race, all smothered up and under cover, and she went back racing properly at Gowran Park in April. She just eased her way back gradually.

“Friends had a lunch during Punchestown. It was great to see everyone there, people I hadn’t seen for six months, but it was tiring. I was drained afterwards!”

All tests came back negative after her chemotherapy, thank God. All tests are clear. She has a three-week run of radiotherapy next, which starts next Wednesday, and she will continue with her immunotherapy until the start of October. But she is strong and sharp and healthy and well, and she will be at The Curragh this afternoon, that’s for sure.

“It helped too that we had a few good horses around!”

One of them is Pivotal Trigger, who runs in the German Derby in Hamburg at 1.15pm today. Another is Sprewell, the Leopardstown Derby Trial winner, fourth in the Epsom Derby, primed for the Irish Derby.

“He was a little bit unlucky at Epsom,” says Jessica. “Shane (Foley) was in the prime position, three fancied horses in front of him, and he thought that they would take him down the hill, but they didn’t. They all seemed to stop at the same time. He was checked, he had to get going again, and he was probably a little unlucky not to finish third or a bit closer to the winner.”

It’s not going to be easy for Sprewell today. He has to reverse placings with Auguste Rodin and White Birch from Epsom, but you know that he goes into the race in good form, Shane Foley has been passed fit to ride, The Curragh should suit him better than Epsom did and hopefully he will enjoy a better run through the race.

“He’s got a great outlook,” says his trainer. “He’s got the laid-back attitude, but he is also a fighter.”

They are common characteristics at Commonstown Stud.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd July 2023