With the Cheltenham Festival just around the corner (Tuesday 10-Friday 13 March), we spent the morning with Irish trainer Jessica Harrington to find out how the preparations are going.
Jessica began her equestrian career as one of Ireland’s leading event riders. She competed at Burghley at the age of 18 and went on to compete at the Europeans, World Championships and Olympics.
She took out her training license in 1989 and now trains runners on the Flat as well as over jumps.
Jessica has trained eight Festival winners and is perhaps best known for sending out the great Moscow Flyer, dual winner of the Champion Chase with Barry Geraghty at Cheltenham.
“Moscow Flyer was an amazing horse there and I guess the biggest satisfaction I got when he went back there and regained his crown at the age of 10, when everyone said he couldn’t do it,” she says.
“You don’t really appreciate a horse that good until you don’t have them. Every time I entered him, he turned up and won — or got rid of Barry!”
This year she sends over a handful of contenders, including the reigning Champion Hurdler Jezki, ridden this time by AP McCoy, who bids to win the race at his final Festival before he retires.
“I refuse to compare Moscow and Jezki!” she says. “Luckily, come Cheltenham, the spotlight will be on AP not me. It would be great if it happens, and I hope he wins all the big races from now until he retires because he’s pushed the bar for endurance, riding, everything to do with racing. He’s gone beyond every limit there’s been before. AP is yet to win on Jezki though, so I hope to God we break that duck at Cheltenham!”
Jessica will head to Lambourn from her Moone, Co. Kildare base, on Monday to stay with trainer Nicky Henderson during the Festival.
“There’s plenty of rivalry, but he’s the first person to congratulate me — all’s fair in love and war,” she says. “Winning at Cheltenham always makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up on end. I’ve been lucky to have a few, but when you send one over that doesn’t win, you’re a bit disappointed. So when you get that buzz again it’s amazing.”
Jessica Harrington’s leading Cheltenham contenders
Jezki: the 7yo by Milan, owned by JP McManus, bids to retain his Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday
”Jezki’s probably had a better year than he did last year in that he’s finished closer to Hurricane Fly twice and hasn’t really had any hard races,” says Jessica. “He seems to like Cheltenham and the spring of the year, so as long as we have nice safe ground… He doesn’t really appreciate heavy ground.
“Faugheen’s the one I fear most – he’s the unknown quantity – but I also know how much Willie [Mullins] loves Hurricane Fly,” she adds. “I think Jezki’s more settled now, the hood has definitely helped and he’s very settled here at home. If he won a second Champion hurdle we’d then be looking for the third and the fourth – you’re always looking to get better.
“He came here as a three-year-old and he just did everything very easily. I soon realised he was a special horse. But horses who are good become special because they get the attention – they like the photographing, they like the people around them and I think horses do appreciate that. It becomes all about them.”
Jetson (left): 10yo by Oscar, a half-brother to Jezki, targets the World Hurdle on Thursday. Every day, the brothers enjoy some field time together
“At the age of 10, he has made the transition into Graded company, which is quite funny,” says Jessica. “He was a revelation last year. In his first run outside handicap company, he beat the great Quevega in the stayers’ hurdle at Punchestown. I think a lot of the jockeys were looking at each other and forgot he was out in front of them. I thought that was a bit of a fluke but he has been second in two Grade One races this year – the Hatton’s Grace and the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown.”
Burn And Turn: 9yo by Flemensfirth, with an entry to Thursday’s Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate. National. Grand National winning jockey — and occasional showjumper — Robert Power rides her out at home.
“She was second to Road To Riches in the Galway Plate last year, which is obviously quite good form,” says Jessica. “She has not run since November, but that is not a concern because she always runs very well fresh. She is a good jumper and won over two miles and five furlongs at Punchestown last year, so I’m hoping it is the right race for her.”
Kabjoy: 4yo by Intikhab, heads for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle on Wednesday and enjoys a daily work out under Olena Sharhut.
“She won on the Flat and won first time out for over hurdles at Gowran,” says Jessica. “She has had two runs since in graded races. We will look at the mark she gets before deciding if she definitely runs. She has had a good break since her last run and will like a bit of nice ground. I think she will have a good chance.”
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Stable star Jezki, ridden by Mark Bolger, leads a 23-strong string in the warm-up area before they head out on the gallops
The five-year-old Walk To Freedom bypasses this year’s Festival but impresses on the gallops
Hayley O’Connor and Hurricane Ridge, who line-up for Thursday’s charity race, lead Niall Redmond (High Stratos) and Debbie Flavin (Chitter Chatter) back to the stables after a spin on the gallops
Modem strides out for Adrian Bolger. The five-year-old hasn’t made the cut for the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle this year
The Co. Kildare landscape provides plenty of hills for fittening work
Sandymount Duke, owned and bred by Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood
Jezki enjoys a wash down from travelling head lad Eamonn Leigh
Impressive silverware: Can Jezki win another Champion Hurdle? The race takes place on Tuesday 10 March
It’s not just racehorses at Jessica Harrington’s yard — the equine residents come in every shape and size