Popular Jessica Harrington keeping things in perspective
Pioneering trainer enjoying remarkable run of success in advance of Punchestown
Jessica Harrington: It’s only an age . Touchwood I feel great, my arm is mended, Punchestown’s next week and there’s plenty to be getting on with.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Inside a matter of weeks Jessica Harrington has won both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Irish Grand National. She’s had another result too in that she doesn’t have to deal with an irritating broken arm anymore.
The strapping inevitably got attention in the aftermath of last month’s Gold Cup success by Sizing John. Much of racing, and beyond, marvelled even more at the winner’s veteran trainer, presuming it to be a professional scar of honour.
Injuries are part and parcel of any life with horses except this wasn’t the result of some spectacular spill from the back of Sizing John or the National hero, Our Duke. Instead Harrington had broken her arm on the ski slopes in Mejeve.
“Someone fell getting out of the ski-lift, I took evasive action, hit some ice and came down,” she recalls. “I wasn’t even pissed on the piste – it was all very boring!”
It’s a story that sums up much of public perception of this pioneering professional: the hint of society but with a happily salty touch and delivered in a brisk no-nonsense style that suggests argument really is a waste of time.
If the common caricature of Irish racehorse trainers is of cunning bandy-legged little men whispering out of every side of their mouths, it’s Harrington’s lot that she conforms to a very different representation.
After all this is a woman whose father was a British Army brigadier who won a silver medal playing polo at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She grew up on a massive estate in Meath. She became one of Ireland’s finest three-day event riders and went to the Olympics herself.
She’s tall, at ease in charge of a stable of over 100 horses and gives the impression she couldn’t care less about the price of a litre of milk; we’re talking wealth and taste here. Maybe it’s no surprise the Rolling Stone, Ronnie Wood, is a friend, having had horses in training with her for years.
Yet far from any stereotypical grassroots popularity gauge, Harrington appears to have secured an authentic and singular place in public affections. The caricature might be pat but it only seems to have helped people embrace a remarkable story even more.
That story of Harrington breaching convention by succeeding in the overwhelmingly male profession of training racehorses had already secured her a unique spot in sporting history here.
But the success she has enjoyed over the last six weeks in particular seems to have taken it to another level again in terms of widespread public regard, perhaps because it is rooted in easily recognisable personal persistence.
“Not bad for 70,” Harrington declared after both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse, a snappy line that might have been perceived as making a point perhaps?
“No, no,” she insists now at her base near the tiny village of Moone in Co Kildare. “It’s only an age. Touch wood I feel great, my arm is mended, Punchestown’s next week and there’s plenty to be getting on with.”
The importance of getting on with things is a recurrent theme with Harrington, in relation to competition, the pressures of the job, or even closer to home. It’s impossible to forget then how it’s just over four years since its capacity was tested to the limit right at home.
Her husband, Johnny, was diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live. He beat those odds but 15 months after his diagnosis he passed away. Just weeks before he died, his wife saddled Jezki to win the 2014 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Such elite sporting success is known only to few. But the personal tragedy behind it is all too sadly familiar to anyone.
“Everyone goes through it at some stage. And funnily enough it’s only in hindsight you think, ‘shit, how did we manage’. But at the time you get through it. You don’t even feel particularly stressed. It’s only looking back that you realise,” she says. “He wasn’t really sick-sick until the last 10 days and he was still here, at home, and he saw Cheltenham. Jezki definitely put two weeks on.”
Johnny Harrington was a renowned bloodstock agent who had a permit to train a few horses. In 1984 his wife took over the permit. Five years later she took out a full licence and so began a new career as one of the finest trainers in the country. But they were always a team.
“Johnny was brilliant with owners. He loved people. If he sat on a plane he would be best friends with the people either side of him by the time they landed. Whereas I get on a plane and put up this invisible barrier – ‘don’t think of talking to me. I want my space’,” she laughs.
Her daughters, Emma and Kate, are now integral to the Commonstown operation. Harrington credits Emma with helping to keep it an economic proposition during the worst years of the crash when it was success on the flat rather than over jumps that kept the show on the road.
But her own resilience, allied to judgement that has consistently produced success with horses from the cheaper end of the market, was fundamental to what was first survival, and which has now created a momentum that has taken her back to the peak of the jumps game.
It’s little surprise then she has little time for those complaining about how difficult it is to compete in modern racing.
“I remember flat racing was never going to be the same again because Vincent O’Brien had all the best horses and was so dominant. But look at it now: Aidan [O’Brien] has whole lot of people snapping at his heels who haven’t sat down and said we can’t compete.
“For years Willie [Mullins] has dominated in National Hunt but it has made me want to be better. 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,” she says.
Harrington does appear to have the rare drive that makes 70 only a number and which reduces gender to irrelevance. It’s a straightforward faith in merit which possibly helps explain her popularity, although winners help too. It’s also why she’s uncomfortable with the ‘pioneer’ tag.
“Everyone else seems to think so but I don’t. It’s like they say I’m the leading female trainer at Cheltenham – I’m just a trainer, the same as everyone else,” she says although she’s far from blind at how male-dominated racing remains.
“I find it quite amusing that it’s got away with being so male orientated but I think it’s an Irish cultural thing. How many women TD’s are there? It’s the same all over, if you look at any business, the top end of it, how many women get to the top?
“Maybe it has something to do with opportunity, I don’t know but I am surprised that more women trainers haven’t come along. Then you look at lady riders and someone like Rachel Blackmore who have done so well. But still you ask some owners to put up a girl on their horse and they run a mile,” Harrington adds.
It’s a sorry reality that makes the longevity of her own racing career all the more remarkable although she herself says she has been a trainer for “only 28 years”. Her current purple patch has, if anything, made her even more ambitious.
“I’ve been second, third and fourth in classics and I’d love to win one. And I’ve never had a Royal Ascot winner. And somewhere along the line I’d love to have a (Aintree) Grand National winner,” she says.
It’s a reminder of the instincts that once made Harrington a fierce competitor at Three Day Eventing, a discipline in which she competed at World and European Championship level and which left her with agonising Olympic frustration in 1984.
She went to Los Angeles only for her horse to go lame. She couldn’t compete. She mimes a dagger to the heart for how that felt at the time – “horses do terrible things to you”. It’s a competitive zeal she traces back to childhood and her late brother, John Fowler.
“If you’re his younger sister, and he’s better at you at everything, and brighter, and you’ve got to be able to beat him at something, and you discover you’re better than him at eventing, well . . . it’s probably that!” she laughs.
A lifetime with horses also means she acknowledges that for all the drive and work there is also an inevitable element of luck involved. She points to pictures of her three Cheltenham festival winners last month, as well as Our Duke on Easter Monday, and says much of it is being in the right place at the right time.
“Rock The World I bought. But I inherited the other two [Sizing John and Supasundae]. Our Duke’s owners, the Coopers, first sent me his half brother, Oscar Sam, even though I’d never met them. I don’t know why. Maybe I said something nice to one of their friends. It could be as simple as that, who knows?” she says.
Whatever the fates, Harrington was available to make the most of the opportunities thrown up and goes into next week’s Punchestown festival in the form of her life. Sizing John is favourite for Wednesday’s Gold Cup and “everything that can possibly run will run”.
Whatever the results though perspective will remain.
“Whatever happens we get up the next morning, go out there in the yard and it’s exactly the same; people to talk to, horses to check, life goes on, in spite of everything. And I like that because it means you just keep going,” she says.
And that’s an attitude that applies across the board in this horse-mad country, whoever you are.