Donn's Articles » John ‘Shark’ Hanlon

John ‘Shark’ Hanlon

If you leave Bagenalstown in County Carlow at 4.30am on Christmas Eve, up the road to Dublin, across on the ferry to Holyhead and down the M40, you’ll be in Kempton on Christmas Eve at around seven o’clock.

That was John ‘Shark’ Hanlon’s Christmas.  Christmas Day in Kempton.

“We were all together, which was great,” he recalls now, reflecting on the adventure.  “Rachel, Paddy, Sean.  On Christmas Day.  Taylor Kingsley was with us too, the girl who rode Chef D’Etat to win for us at Tramore during the summer.  And Hewick.” 

Hewick was a key member of the travelling party.  Actually, Hewick was the reason there was a travelling party, his engagement in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day, Boxing Day.  And few horses do travelling as well as Hewick does travelling.  For a horse who won the Grand National Hurdle Stakes at Far Hills in New Jersey in October last year, Bagenalstown to Kempton was a jaunt down the road.

“The travelling took nothing out of him,” says his trainer.  “He had a roll in the paddock in the evening when we arrived, and Paddy (son) rode him out on Christmas morning, around the outside of the course.  Kempton were brilliant, they did everything for us.  And the ground was lovely.  It wasn’t quite as quick as Hewick likes it, if it had been in Ireland we would have called it yielding to soft I’d say, but beautiful ground.”

The bookmakers offered big odds about Hewick winning the King George, but that didn’t faze his trainer.  Hewick has often been allowed go off at big odds.  He was a 16/1 shot when he won the Bet365 Gold Cup, he was a 16/1 shot too when he won the Galway Plate.  Shark knew that he was in good form, he had gone well in a schooling bumper at Naas 10 days earlier, and he knew that he was going to Kempton with his chance.

“The way I saw it, there were four horses who wanted to make the running, and there was a good chance that they would take each other on.  We could just hunt away in behind and see how it developed.  That last thing I said to Gavin going out: this horse has won over three miles and five furlongs, he’ll stay, he’ll keep going.”

Gavin is Gavin Sheehan, the England-based jockey, from Dunmaway in West Cork, who won the Coral Gold Cup and the December Gold Cup earlier this month, and who, with Hewick’s regular rider Jordan Gainford on the sidelines through injury, was entrusted with the ride on Hewick in the King George.

“I was heartbroken for Jordan,” says Shark.  “He was brilliant though, he rang Gavin to talk through the race with him.  Rachael (Blackmore) rode Hewick to win at Sandown there in April, but she was obviously tied up at Leopardstown with Henry’s horses.  Brian Hughes rode him in the Galway Plate this year, but he was at Aintree riding for Donald McCain.  Gavin had never ridden for me before, but he’s a good rider and he’s riding with such confidence, those big wins earlier this month.  Sometimes things just fall into place.”

The pages of the remarkable Hewick story continue to fall into place.  Shark first saw the two-year-old gelding at the back gate at Goresbridge sales in October 2017.  He was actually there to buy another horse, but he noticed the son of Virtual, he was struck by his walk.  He went home to have his lunch, but he continued to think about this horse, so he went back to Goresbridge, just down the road, bid €850 for the horse who would be named Hewick, and had him home with him.

Hewick ran in three point-to-points, he unseated in the first and he fell in the other two.  If he had fared a little better, he probably would have been sold.  He raced 11 times over hurdles without winning, before he got off the mark in a handicap hurdle at Kilbeggan in October 2020, a 16/1 shot in a race restricted to horses rated lower than 95.  

That was the start of it.  A Bet365 Gold Cup followed, a Galway Plate, a Grand National Hurdle, an Oaksey Chase.  Hewick unseated at the last in the Kerry National when he probably would have won and he fell at the second last in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when he probably would have been placed.  A horse who cost €850.  And now a King George.

Shark was right about how the King George would pan out too.  They went fast early up front.  When they jumped the second fence in the back straight, Hewick was about five lengths behind the other five runners and, if you didn’t know Hewick, you would have said that it looked unlikely.  ‘And now getting some way behind is Hewick,’ said the commentator, at around about the point at which he traded at 549/1 in-running.  But he didn’t get any further behind than that, and that was key.

“When they ran to the end of the back straight, Rachel (O’Neill, partner) said to me, we’ll finish in the first four.  When they turned for home though, it looked like he might do even better than that.”

Then there was that dramatic King George finish, Shishkin stumbled and unseated his rider and Gavin Sheehan conjured that final, irresistible run from Hewick that took him past his rivals and one and a half lengths clear by the time he reached the winning line.

“Ah it was unreal.  Amazing.  It was brilliant to have everybody there with us.  And my mother was sick in hospital, we were worried about her.  But my brother and my sister went in to sit and watch the race with her, and it gave her a great boost.  She’s much better now.  She’s flying.”

Shark told the throngs who assembled around the winner’s enclosure at Kempton to get a good look at Hewick, that the next time they would see him would be in the parade ring before the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March.

“It was great to get home too, to the team at home.  We have a brilliant team of people here.  We couldn’t do any of this without them.”

If you leave Kempton at 6.00pm in the evening, you’ll be back home in Bagenalstown by about half past seven the following morning.

© The Sunday Times, 31st December 2023