‘You could travel the world to find a horse like him’: meet the £800 bargain bidding for Gold Cup and Grand National glory

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  • Irish racehorse trainer John “Shark” Hanlon is riding the crest of a mighty wave with £800 purchase Hewick. The diminutive gelding has won more than £600,000 in prize money, including winning the American Grand National and most recently triumphing in the Grade One King George VI Chase at Kempton Park.

    Next on the agenda is a crack at racing’s Blue Riband event, the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup, before all roads lead to Aintree for the Randox Grand National.

    “You could travel the world to get a horse like him and the lad came from only five minutes down the road,” says Shark, who says Hewick’s small stature may have put off potential purchasers at his local Goresbridge sales. But after Shark’s intended purchase was a no-show, something about Hewick caught his eye, knowing nothing about him or his pedigree. “You never know where your next bargain is going to show up – and I like bargains!

    “Every day you buy a horse you’re hoping that he’s the one, that he’s better than what’s on the card or you can improve his farm. But it’s getting harder.”

    The Shark Hanlon-trained Hewick in action on the gallops at home under 16-year-old Paddy Hanlon

    The Shark Hanlon-trained Hewick in action on the gallops at home under Shark’s 16-year-old son Paddy Hanlon.

    Hewick – “The biggest legend of all time and our pet”

    The now nine-year-old gelding was bought for the knock-down price for owner TJ McDonald and Shark’s 16-year-old son Paddy now looks after the stable superstar.

    “He was a bit wilder when he was younger so I took over when he was a five-year-old,” Paddy tells H&H. “As a four-year-old he wasn’t going that great – he had no luck point-to-pointing [his form figures read UR, F, F] or even when he went over hurdles. But it all just clicked one day and he’s been on an upper ever since. When he won Sedgefield over 3m5f in 2021, we realised we had something special – we had a Grand National horse on our hands.

    “He’s the biggest legend of all time. He’s our lad and our pet.”

    Hewick stays all day and is one of the “most chilled” horses on the yard, standing happily with his stable door wide open to greet his visitors on the day we visit, later enjoying a good roll in the mud with his field companion.

    “A few horses would knock you down if you left his door open, he’s just one of those horses you can do what you like with him, go where you like with him – he has a great temperament and travelling doesn’t bother him so we probably won’t go to Cheltenham until Wednesday,” reveals County Carlow-based Shark.

    Hewick’s target is Friday’s Gold Cup and the team are hoping their “tough as nails” yard hero fares better than his fall two fences from home in last year’s race when he looked in with a chance of victory under jockey Jordan Gainford.

    “After Cheltenham, there is the English Grand National, then it will be back to America,” says the trainer. “There was also a race in Australia I was considering, but there are no flights which fit in with the two weeks’ quarantine, so he won’t be able to go this year. But the big plan remains to go to Australia with him.

    The Shark Hanlon-trained Hewick in action on the gallops at home under 16-year-old Paddy Hanlon

    “Having a horse like him gives us such a buzz,” says the trainer. “Hewick is such a talking horse, he’s everyone’s horse and everyone loves him, no matter where you go, everyone knows and wants to talk about Hewick. There’s a buzz everywhere – I was in the local town yesterday and they were all wishing us well for Cheltenham. But had he been at Willie Mullins, he wouldn’t have been seen because he’d be only one of a big number. Willie has a lot better horses than Hewick, but there’s not nearly so much buzz about them.”

    Hewick “hits a flat spot then always comes back on the bridle”

    “But the buzz of winning in America was unreal. The race after ours was delayed by about 25 minutes because of all the celebrations. Then it was absolutely brilliant to win the King George. I knew before we left that there was going to be some serious pace in the race because it had six runners, five of whom were front runners, and in races like that they often end up cutting each other’s throats. I said to jockey Gavin Sheehan that going down the back you might feel like he’s beaten, but don’t stop riding him, your last two furlongs are going to be your best two furlongs and that’s exactly what happened. Similarly, when Rachael Blackmore won on him at Sandown, she said, ‘You were right Shark – I thought he was well beat’, but he just comes back on the bridle.

    “The one thing about our lad is you can make the running, you can sit in second or you can sit in last, it doesn’t matter,” says Shark, revealing that the son of Virtual is “in really good form” in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival next month (12-15 March).

    “He had a small cut on his leg before he came back in this season and we only had seven weeks before Kempton so I was afraid he wasn’t going to be fit enough,” explains Shark. “But he is not a huge horse who needs a lot of galloping – a couple of gallops puts our lad right and he is easy enough to keep sound.

    “The ground is most important for him – he doesn’t want soft ground. Galopin Des Champs is obviously a very good horse but I’d love to meet him on proper good ground. Maybe if he’s as good as he is, he’ll win, but maybe he’s not as good on heavy ground. But every horse in the race is there to be looked at – it is always going to be a good race.”

    “He’s small but he’s mighty – hopefully I’ll get a spin on him one day”

    Paddy describes the feeling of his “powerful stride” when you’re riding Hewick.

    “He’s small but he’s mighty, he’s come back stronger than ever and he’s fresh and happy in himself,”says the teenager, who has to wait for his 17th birthday in May before he can ride over jumps in Ireland, but has already ridden a winner for his father in England.

    “Hopefully I can get a spin on Hewick one day. I learn from Dad every day – I’m tall so I’m not going to be a jumps jockey forever, so eventually I’d love to be a trainer. Hewick turned him from rags to riches and I hope he gets more horses. Four-year-old Silver Pageant is one we think very highly of – she’s doing everything right at home anyway, so hopefully she’ll be good for us when she races.”

    Shark never ducks away from a challenge, travelling all over the world with his stable celebrity, but facing the might of the likes of Willie Mullins often feels like a David versus Goliath situation.

    “It’s a tough game for smaller trainers and I think HRI [Horse Racing Ireland] need to open their eyes,” he says. “There should be more races for smaller trainers – maybe races for trainers who haven’t trained more than 10 winners, or 20 winners, or 30 winners and so on.

    “I speak to my owners every day and some of them don’t even want a runner on a Sunday because they’ll come up against Willie winning all the races, so they’d rather have one in Thurles or Clonmel where they’d have more chance.

    “At the Dublin Racing Festival there was more excitement in the two big handicaps than there were in all the Grade Ones. The Grade Ones and Grade Twos are lovely but they’re all about three or four people. HRI need to look beyond that to work out how they’re going to get people back to racing. That’s nothing against Willie or Gordon Elliott or anyone. But the smaller people have to be looked after, because without them you’re going to have races every weekend with five runners and people will quickly get bored.

    “If it wasn’t for the cost of getting the horses from Ireland to England, I’d be racing in England every week – you can say I’m running away from Willie, I don’t care! But you have a better chance because you have a bigger area, more suitable races and lower grade races.”

    Hewick will carry top weight for the Randox Grand National

    Hewick has been allocated top weight of 11st 12lb for this year’s Randox Grand National on 13 April, where he bids to become the first horse since Golden Miller in 1934 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same season, which, with a cyclical four-week gap rather than three between the two races this year, makes for a prime opportunity.

    “He probably deserves top weight,” says Shark. “I think the trip will suit him. He’s going for the Gold Cup first and please God he comes out of the Gold Cup safe and if he does he’ll definitely head to Aintree.

    “He won the Galway Plate off nearly top weight, he won the bet365 Oaksey Chase at Sandown Park off a big weight. It’s not that he’s not used to carrying top weight and he carries it very well.

    “It’s a mighty day. It’s one of those days you look forward to all year. The National, the Gold Cup and the King George at Kempton – they’re the three big days in England aren’t they, so it’s great to have a runner there.”

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