Age just a number for pioneering Jessica Harrington
The Irish Times / Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year continues to raise the bar
Retirement at 70 is becoming compulsory for Ireland’s public sector workers but Jessica Harrington - Irish racing’s most recognisable female figure - seems to be only getting into top stride starting out on her eighth decade.
She was already guaranteed a singular place in sporting history here. Her accomplishments as an international three-day event rider were considerable: the dividends from over three decades as a racehorse trainer even more so.
But in 2017 Harrington successes have taken her to a new level again. She had never before had a runner in either the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Irish Gold Cup. A new recruit, Sizing John, won both. Then he completed a unique hat-trick of Gold Cup victories at Punchestown in April.
Just nine day earlier Harrington had won a first Irish Grand National - the richest jumps race in the country - with the exciting novice Our Duke.
Fourteen years after her former stalwart Moscow Flyer won the first of his two Queen Mother Champion Chase crowns at Cheltenham, Harrington emerged from National Hunt racing’s greatest festival in March with three winners. She had just six runners.
Then, as Sizing John & Co enjoyed their summer holidays, their trainer switched her focus to the flat and enjoyed a record season, finishing fifth to Aidan O’Brien in the trainer’s table with 44 winners and over €1.1 million in prizemoney in Ireland alone.
It was no surprise to see Sizing John acclaimed as ‘Horse of the Year’ at last week’s Horse Racing Ireland Awards, or to see Harrington honoured with the National Hunt prize ahead of luminaries such as Ruby Walsh, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.
At a time when Irish racing generally enjoys unprecedented levels of international success this 70-year-old grandmother is universally acknowledged as a Master of her profession.
Harrington is far too bright to be unaware of broader political implications to that status. This is a woman who recalls starting a daunting new career and dealing with owners demanding to talk to her husband - “the real trainer.”
Nevertheless, she can appear uncomfortable with the status of pioneer, or being credited as an inspiration for women in sport generally, even though both statements are accurate.
In a ruthlessly competitive sport she has always been too busy beating both men and women to waste time on those determined to categorise her according to anything else bar an ability to do the job.
After Sizing John won the Gold Cup on St Patrick’s Day, Harrington was immediately tagged ‘Queen of Cheltenham’ and acclaimed as the festival’s most successful woman trainer. Her comment was merely that she’d rather be the most successful trainer at Cheltenham.
It’s a straightforward approach of taking people as she finds them which helps explain why this privately educated daughter of an Olympic polo playing British Army Brigadier has become one of the most widely admired and popular figures in Irish sport.
The society accent and fondness for expensive ski slopes, not to mention a list of international owners that includes the Rolling Stones guitarist, Ronnie Wood, can seem removed from the more rustic roots of Irish jump racing in particular.
Yet there is no mistaking the near-universal regard for so accomplished a horsewoman, especially one who is famously capable of spinning that accent around some more familiarly agricultural vernacular when the occasion demands.
There is also something easily recognisable about the family basis to a training operation at the Moone, Co Kildare stables where Harrington is responsible for over 100 horses. Her daughters, Emma and Kate, are a fundamental element to its success.
They were also fundamental to their mother persisting with the stresses of training after the death of Harrington’s husband Johnny in 2014. He died just a couple of weeks after another of his wife’s most notable successes, Jezki in the Champion Hurdle.
Harrington concedes she briefly wavered. However, friends say they would have been amazed if she had retired. More than one has pointed out that behind everything is essentially a very competitive individual. It’s why she has little time for those who complain about lack of opportunity.
“For years Willie (Mullins) has dominated in National Hunt but it has made me want to be better,” she said earlier this year.
“I’ve had to raise my bar and the only person who can do that is yourself. There’s no use moaning. You’ve got to drive on and do it. You’ve got to want to go and do it. You’ve got to have that drive to get better,” Harrington added.
Despite everything she’s achieved Harrington is still anxious to break new ground. She admits she wants to win a classic on the flat. And secure a first Royal Ascot winner. And win the Aintree Grand National. Only an idiot would bet against any of them.
It’s 33 years since Harrington first took out a permit to train. She was an ambitious pioneering figure then. She still is.