Penny McCormick tries to keep up with trainer JESSICA HARRINGTON on a visit to Commonstown Stables, Co Kildare …
What’s your morning routine like? Mine felt positively monastic, if not mundane, after I visited Jessica Harrington Racing in Moone, Co Kildare ahead of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend, in September.
Acknowledged as Ireland’s best female trainer ever, Harrington is nowhere to be seen as we are ushered into her farmhouse, past an extensive tack room, and into a pretty pink kitchen. Harrington is overseeing the daily 8am “riding out”, held hourly until one o’clock, comprising 150 horses, a sizeable team of work riders and her assistant trainers, daughters Emma and Kate.
I am handed the 9am schedule of horses and riders and draw a blank. My equestrian knowledge has been limited to assorted books (from KM Peyton’s Flambards trilogy to Jilly Cooper’s Riders), which has not prepared me for today’s visit. I warm to the domesticity of the scene, the perfect synthesis of working farm and country house style – not chintzy, rather a comfortable layering of family mementoes and framed photographs of past winners (among them recent victors Supasundae and Rock the World). Trophies, both silver and crystal, crowd every available surface. Housekeeper Karen Holden, whose daughter Emma is one of Harrington’s apprentices, is busy basting sausages and says there’s a lot of dusting to be done. Office manager, Ally, shows us Harrington’s most recent additions – a silver salver from Royal Ascot and photos of the aptly-named wunderhorse Alpha Centauri. Harrington admits later, “My first Classic win was a dream. Obviously we want to win the best races and Royal Ascot followed by a Group 1 win at Deauville [Prix Jacques Le Marois] was amazing.”
I take in other details – a radio tuned to the racing channel, a copy of the Racing Post on a counter with a basket of apples from the orchard. From a bundle of fur at my ankles I distinguish four wagging tails, and Harrington’s own dogs are joined by two Jack Russell terriers belonging to a bloodstock agent who has just arrived with a visiting American owner, from Virginia. The latter’s horse is in the 9am riding out schedule. Emma pops in to say hello en route to leaving her children to school. Total head count is now 14. When Harrington herself bounds in there is a subtle gear change. A commanding presence – like a progressive headmistress – she asks if we’ve all had coffee before helping herself to a cup, checking her messages and chatting to the owner and agent. Her open door policy means that owners (who include Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood), and agents frequently drop in to check on progress. Harrington’s late husband, Johnny, was a bloodstock agent and his touching Times obituary hangs in the loo.
Tall and lithe in jeans and branded blue puffer jacket, Harrington looks younger than her 71 years, something she attributes to exercise: “I don’t hold back on eating or drinking but I keep fit and I think that has made the difference and kept my body and mind on track.”
She leads us outside to the indoor arena, dogs and all. It’s an impressive sight, the two-year-olds being put through their paces. Harrington gives instructions to each rider. As it’s a pre-race day, the aim is to let the horses fill their lungs and have some gentle exercise. The impressive facilities include gallops, a four-furlong sand gallop, a schooling area, six paddocks, as well as a hydrotherapy spa.
The arena has a large sign on one wall reading “Moone’s Queen of Cheltenham” from her victorious homecoming, of which she says, “Winning the Gold Cup was a milestone I thought I would never see. We had an amazing journey with Sizing John [and jockey Robbie Power] winning three Grade 1 races [the Irish Gold Cup, Punchestown Gold Cup and Cheltenham Gold Cup] in a row. However, there were a lot of people behind the win.” I’ll say – the yard is humming with full-time stable lads, under head lad Eamonn Leigh, and yard manager Nigel Byrne, with a different team on weekends. There are 65 in total on the payroll.
Next we head out, past the orchard and garden, to climb a stand overlooking the stiff five furlong hill gallop. Harrington checks as the group canter to the finish, before the horses are led to the yard and hosed down. I meet the Virginian’s horse – The King. I thought I had found a fellow Elvis fan until she informs me he is named after golfing great Arnold Palmer. He’ll be heading to Leopardstown in the morning for the Longines Champions weekend (where he is placed in one of the races). I become aware of the logistics of moving so many potential champions. In addition to six horse boxes, there are three lorries: to avoid infection, the yard prefers to retain control of all transportation details.
Harrington admits to feeling nervous about a week prior to a race before a sense of inevitability takes over. “Racing is full of ups and downs – amazing highs and when there are lows, the whole yard is upset.” I sense her moods are mercurial. She confesses, “I’m a lot less volatile now. I’m old enough to know when to rear up and when to back down and listen.”
Next it’s off to the paddock and we finish our tour at the main yard, home to 70 horses – it’s less Ralph Lauren advert, more The Horse Whisperer. Then we pile into the kitchen for those delicious sausages and steaming coffee – we eat about a dozen each – there’s nothing like watching others exercise to build up an appetite. It’s still only 10am, and the next riding out group is saddling up. Harrington, however, has a driver waiting to take her to a race meet
The next time we speak, she’s at a sale in Newmarket. Since acquiring her training licence in 1989 she remains pragmatic, if self-deprecating: “Money doesn’t buy success – there is a fair bit of luck in it.” Her track record begs to differ – under her tutelage, if a horse shows potential it will flourish. Oh So Grumpy kick-started her career before Dance Beat, Moscow Flyer and a string of Group 1 winners including Cork All Star, Boston’s Angel and Jezki consolidated her reputation.
I realise the sense of continual motion is underpinned by the transience of the horses she trains. Does she ever slow down? “Oh yes, I can be bone idle if I want to be.
I relax, I go on holiday and enjoy my garden.”
Harrington doesn’t dwell on past victories, three-day eventing, Olympic participation or awards, which include The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year in 2017. She’s looking forward to the National Hunt season and buying more horses. There’s no mention of retirement anytime soon. “The secret is to keep moving forward – what’s done is done, don’t look back.”
Harrington’s Sparkle ‘n’ Joy won at Leopardstown during the Longines Champions Weekend.
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