Shark Hanlon's father remembers a summer evening long ago, sitting in a field with Paddy Mullins, the pair quietly admiring the horses as they grazed. A cattle dealer like his father, and his grandfather before him, he would always put a few horses to pasture for his neighbour.
He gestured at the animals in the sinking sun. "There's hardly much that you don't know over a horse, Paddy," he suggested.
The great trainer shook his head. "Look it, Willie," he said. "A young fella coming home from school would learn me a thing."
Some 30 years later, the old man shakes his head at such humility. At Aintree on Saturday, however, his own son could confirm himself the very fastest of learners. In only his fifth season as a trainer, John "Shark" Hanlon hopes to win the John Smith's Grand National with Alfa Beat – and already has a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup horse waiting back in Ireland.
In those days, Shark was no more than the schoolboy evoked by Mullins, sooner into hurling than horses. In fact, that was where he acquired the nickname, playing for the parish in a Co Kilkenny semi-final, a young Finn McCool with limbs that might bestride a bullock. "A coupla balls came across and I poked my hand up and caught 'em," the big man recalls now. "A goal, a goal, and a goal. And this lad on the other side said: 'Will someone cut the head off that shark in there?' They all heard it in the stand, they all laughed. And I always have the name since."
He looms over the table of an unpretentious kitchen at the old farmstead. Outside, the byres and barns have all been converted to stabling. It was the foot and mouth that ended the generations of trade conducted here by the Hanlons. They had always had a horse or two with Mullins. Now Shark started getting more involved with a couple of his sons – in the yard with Tony, driving a lorry for George.
"I'd get back at nine or 10 at night and the old man was always there," he recalls. "I'd walk round the yard with him as he fed the horses. And you'd learn more off Paddy Mullins in a minute than you would in a lifetime off other lads. He was pure genius. He had a gallop out back the size of a saucer, but by God did he train winners off it. It would be little things, but you always go back to them. 'Where did I hear that, now?' you wonder. And it will be Paddy."
Shark was still a young man when Mullins told him something that sustains him now, in his subsequent, accidental career: "If you have an eye for a bullock, you have an eye for a horse." It was something he pondered as he started breaking in young stores, prepping point-to-pointers. Driving for George Mullins, he had been to some of the great jumping yards. In France, he saw two-year-olds jumping obstacles inside a walker; he took 18 horses at a time over from Tom Costello's academy to Britain. Martin Pipe would ask what he thought of his cargo, and then spot him two years later at Cheltenham. "That's the one you liked," he'd say.
Shark won a point-to-point with a mare. Within six weeks she had added a bumper and a maiden hurdle. He has since built up a stable of some 60 horses, including the raw, slashing Hidden Cyclone, winner of seven of his nine starts and a very feasible Gold Cup candidate for next season.
Like almost all the horses that have put Shark on the map so soon, he found Hidden Cyclone himself.
"In the first 10 seconds with a horse, you either like it or you don't," he shrugs. "I can't explain it. Now there are plenty you won't like that will go on and win. But I'll pull a horse out of the string in the morning and send it home, I hardly know why, and a couple of days later it'll have a dirty nose."
He had to stop the lot of them, more or less, after Alfa Beat disappointed in his rehearsal at Fairyhouse in February. A throat infection was sweeping the yard. It was his first real setback. Shark bided his time, took himself off to Florida – forcing himself to keep his hands off them.
"If you don't have patience, you've no business training horses," he says. "Cheltenham is lovely, but there's no point running there for the sake of it. If I have one good enough, it'll go. But you have to mind them, to get them there."
Alfa Beat, in his favourite extolment, is back in "savage" form. The horse ended up here quite by chance. The American owner's agent bumped into Shark at the sales, asked if there was anything in the catalogue that might make an Aintree horse. Shark picked out the grey, winner of the Kerry National for Charles Byrnes, and promptly took him back to Listowel in September to win the same race – thwarting a gamble on the runner-up, trained by Byrnes. "They went for a savage touch," grins Shark. "I remember meeting Charles on the morning. 'You've no chance on that soft ground,' he said. In fairness he came straight over afterwards and shook my hand."
Not every trainer in Ireland is enchanted by Shark's emergence, perceiving a menacing new fin in turbulent waters. But he enthuses about the help of his neighbour, Willie Mullins, Paddy's son and himself a champion trainer, always at the end of a phone if needed. But Shark has broadly made his own way. True, his partner, Rachel, is steeped in horse lore. Her father rode many winners for Paddy and stands Europe's busiest stallion in Stowaway. But it is the spirit of a legend that animates the big man, first thing in the morning, last thing at night.
"Paddy never went to bed in his life without walking round the yard," he says. "And I love being out again, before anyone arrives, to see how they have eaten up. Paddy always said if the pot isn't licked, they don't get ridden out.
"When I was 10 years of age I wasn't really that interested in horses. But for the National the whole family would go into the betting office in Bagenalstown. And we'd sit down and be glued to that telly for hours. To think now of all the people round the world, like me 30 years ago, and me having a runner with a chance. And maybe a Gold Cup horse for next March. These are the things that get you up in the morning. We mightn't win it, but he's going over with his chance so he is. And if it ever happened, there'd be serious celebrations round here."