The grande dame of Irish racing, Jessica Harrington, was crowned the unofficial 'Queen of Cheltenham' when Sizing John soared to Gold Cup glory and crowned Ireland's most successful ever National Hunt festival on St Patrick's Day.
Irish trained horses beat the home team 19 races to nine, a record haul propelled by Willie Mullins and his great rival Gordon Elliott saddling six winners each over the four days. The previous best was last year's tally of 15.
But in an exuberant Paddy’s Day atmosphere, it was Harrington, the daughter of a British army brigadier and a former Irish Olympic three-day event rider, who touched racing’s summit with her first Gold Cup runner landing steeplechasing’s ‘blue-riband’.
To make the day even better, she and jockey Robbie Power doubled in the very last race when Rock the World landed the Grand Annual Chase at 10-1.
“What a day!” Harrington said. “I don’t know when I’m going to come back down to earth.”
The Moone, Co Kildare based trainer has been a pioneering figure in Irish racing for decades, and has become just the third woman to train a Gold Cup winner. Jenny Pitman won twice, in 1984 and 1991, while Henrietta Knight saddled Best Mate to a Gold Cup hat-trick between 2002 and 2004.
Jewel in the crown
“This is the jewel in the crown. It’s amazing to win the Gold Cup. It’s the one I have always wanted to win,” she said. “The jockey was okay wasn’t he? Thank God he did a bit of showjumping in his youth because I don’t think he missed a bit the whole way round.”
Power, a Grand National winner on Silver Birch a decade previously, guided the 7-1 winner to success over Minella Rocco and Native River. Djakadam started a 3-1 favourite to finally provide Willie Mullins with a Gold Cup victory but could manage only fourth.
“When I won the National I was 25 and thought I was going to win everything. Now I’m 35 I realise I’m not, so to win a Gold Cup is fantastic,” said Power. “It couldn’t have gone better. I was on the inner, praying nothing would fall, and I thought Jessie would kick my arse for being on the inside!”
Harrington was sent Sizing John by Yorkshire owners Ann and Alan Potts last autumn. The horse had previously been trained by Henry de Bromhead.
Ruby Walsh’s record four winners on Thursday meant he was the festival’s leading jockey for an 11th time, but Gordon Elliott dethroned Willie Mullins as leading trainer. Both wound up with six winners but Elliott edged the award on placed horses.
Michael O’Leary won the inaugural leading owner award with four winners, the last of which was Champagne Classic, one of five Irish winners on the final day of the festival.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed praised the record-breaking Irish total. “It is a celebration of, and an opportunity for us to showcase, all that is good about the industry,” he said.