Racing: Harrington keeps faith in Moscow's ascendancy
The trainer of Ireland's favourite chaser tells Chris McGrath of her high expectations for next week's Cheltenham Festival
Monday 06 March 2006
There is nothing like sport to expose the fundamental absurdity of so many political, social and religious divisions. Even the bloody partition of Ireland has long been cheerfully overlooked by rugby fans either side of the border. And certainly the Cheltenham Festival is far too serious a business for anyone to dream of importing ancient feuds from the same island.
After all, one of the most cherished horses in Ireland - one that has already plundered sterling from the Cheltenham bookmakers three times, and will confirm himself one of the great modern steeplechasers if repeating those depredations next week - is trained by a Protestant aristocrat.
When Moscow Flyer first won the Queen Mother Champion Chase, three years ago, Jessica Harrington received her trophy from Princess Anne. That was nice, she said, because they knew each other from their eventing days. Her father was an Anglo-Irish landowner, a brigadier in the British army, an Olympic medallist in polo. She was educated by a governess.
Yet the Irish betting proletariat would sooner swear by Harrington than at her. In fact, depending on how things turn out next week, she is eligible to become one of the most popular women ever to make her home in Co Kildare.
Along with Moscow Flyer, Harrington is responsible for Macs Joy, second favourite for the Champion Hurdle. Their supporters in Britain and Ireland alike know them to be in remarkably dependable hands. Of the first six horses she ran at the Festival, four won.
This time round, however, she would understand if their faith were to waver. In winning the Champion Chase a second time last year, Moscow Flyer maintained a record over fences that easily surpassed that of Best Mate. Whenever he had jumped round, he had won. At Aintree the following month, he extended that record to 19 races. He was entering Turf folklore, and Harrington agreed to write a book about him. Sure enough, he has not won since.
His loss of form was matched in midwinter by the entire stable. Harrington saddled 97 consecutive losers over 12 weeks. There has been a palpable revival since Moscow Flyer last ran, at Christmas, but at the time it was harrowing. "Self doubt does creep in," Harrington confessed. "Hell, you think, I've done the same thing for all these years and it has always worked, why isn't it working now? You start to wonder if they were all just bad horses. Moscow Flyer might have aged, Macs Joy gone backwards. Eventually I did change the hay, and stopped feeding oats. Whether that made the difference, I don't know, but everything else we did was exactly as always."
Nor was this the gravest crisis since publication day. Last autumn, Harrington was fortunate not to have been paralysed by a fall during a horseback safari in Kenya. "In hindsight, it frightened the life out of me, but at the time you just get on with it," she reflected. "If anything, you wonder why everyone's making a fuss. OK, I thought: I've got a broken neck, but I'm grand. I'm not dead, or in a wheelchair. Sometimes I'd feel a bit sorry for myself, but then I'd go to the hospital and see people far worse off, and reproach myself. I was lucky, but unlucky as well - to think of all the squishes I've had eventing, schooling, hunting, getting pinned under horses in ditches. I should have broken my neck 100 times. And then to go and do it trotting . . ."
Her father survived Passchendaele, so a lingering stiffness in her neck was never going to stop her skiing last month. Meanwhile, the yard's drought was relieved when Studmaster won a valuable hurdle at Leopardstown in January. "If he hadn't won I'd probably have shot myself," she said. "He could be a Champion Hurdle horse next year."
At 59, Harrington remains a handsome woman, natural and vivacious. It is only 15 years since she took over a training permit from her second husband, Johnny, and she seems bemused to find herself running a stable of 100 horses. "Everything has happened very quickly," she said. "And by accident. I do a lot of things with no idea why. That's why I ride out. Sometimes I just see something, just sense that a horse has had enough for the day. It makes me sound unscientific, but a lot of it is instinct, gut feeling."
And that, as it happens, is the only way to gauge the abiding potency of Moscow Flyer. Visiting the Harringtons' pink-washed farmhouse last week, every vista had been flung open by a sparkling afternoon: the great Midlands plain to the west, the Wicklow hills to the east. But still there is vestigial doubt, like the traces of snow hugging the shade beneath stone walls. Sooner or later, age will rein in Moscow Flyer, and not even Harrington can be certain whether his recent struggles have been transient.
"He's a hard horse to read," she admitted. "Just as he only ever wins by short distances, he never does anything on the gallops. But that's him. All I can say is that he seems very bouncy. When he worked on Wednesday he walked back briskly, his ears pricked. This horse was not a horse down on himself. He doesn't have to improve much even on his form this winter to win again. I think he's still got all the fight."
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