Winner against all odds

profile: J P McManus
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The Independent Online
Boxing Day at Leopardstown, five miles outside Dublin, sees the Irish indulging in their national passion for horse racing. Among the milling thousands walked one man who embodies that passion. He was unremarkable, a slight figure in a smart dark overcoat, and for the most part kept to his private box, but twice a special cheer went up as he led into the winner's enclosure horses that had carried his colours to victory. The colours are green and gold, and they belong to JP McManus, the "Sundance Kid", the greatest gambler of the age.

McManus tends not to bet in Ireland these days - he will have been keeping his powder dry for another raid on the English bookmakers at Cheltenham in March - but three purchases have kept his name in the headlines recently. He was part of a consortium of Irish businessmen who paid around pounds 40m for Sandy Lane in Barbados, one of the world's most exclusive hotels; he paid an undisclosed sum to acquire Clifton Fox, a successful flat racing horse who was quoted at 33-1 for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham as soon as McManus's deal was made public; and at a charity dinner in London, he donated pounds 50,000 for a plaque with a horseshoe from each of Frankie Dettori's "magnificent seven" winners at Ascot.

Each deal reflects an aspect of McManus's character. The hotel is the most conspicuous evidence yet of his clout as a businessman, and a sign that his Geneva-based currency dealing operation is bearing fruit. The horse, which has been sent to the trainer and former jockey Jonjo O'Neill in Penrith, represents McManus's intense desire to add one of Cheltenham's great prizes - the Champion Hurdle or the Gold Cup - to his total of seven previous winners at the Festival. The plaque is a rare public example of the generosity that McManus has often displayed in private: one of the reasons why his countrymen do not begrudge him his fortune and fame.

"He hasn't let it all go to his head," according to Raymond Smith, editor of the Irish Racing Annual and the author of Better One Day As A Lion, a tale of the Irish turf in which McManus looms large. "There's no flamboyance there, no showing off, just a sensible overcoat."

This self-effacing image is at odds with his aggressive approach to buying horses. "He tends to buy the best, if you know what I mean," one senior Irish racing official said. "If I had a horse and it had won four or five races, he'd buy it." There is little resentment from the smaller players of his ability to pay high prices. "The horses are going to be sold anyway," Smith said, "and the English are always waving their cheque-books. JP goes for quality. He's looking for potential Cheltenham winners, and the whole Irish nation is involved in Cheltenham."

JP McManus (no one calls him John, his given name) was born 45 years ago in Limerick, where his father, the late John James McManus, had a small farm and plant hire firm. JP's first job, at pounds 10 a week, was operating his father's machinery. One of the sites that he worked on became a nine- bedroomed house and 400-acre farm, Martinstown Stud, which is now his own Irish base. "I never dreamt I was going to own the place one day," he has said. "If I had known I would have done a far better job."

In truth, he had long ago found his vocation, when as a nine-year-old schoolboy at the Sexton Street Christian Brothers' School in Limerick he had a few shillings on Merryman II, winner of the 1960 Grand National. He first made an impact on the English racing scene one day 20 years ago when he left the Queen's Hotel at the top of the Promenade in Cheltenham with a satchel full of cash, walked into a bookmaker's and put it all "on the nose" of an Irish-trained "sure thing" in the Gold Cup. It lost. But with that bet McManus's career as a big player at Cheltenham was launched.

These days McManus lives for most of the year in Cologny, a suburb of Geneva overlooking the lake, with his wife Noreen and their children John, 18, Sue-Ann, 16, and Kieran, 15. Every morning, after a bacon-and- egg breakfast and a telephone check on the money markets, he travels to his office in the Rue du Rhone.

The view from the sixth floor windows is magnificent: snow-capped Mont Blanc beyond the River Rhone. But McManus's gaze is focused on the two screens on his desk. One displays the latest changes in the international money markets, and the other bookmakers' ante-post prices. Much of McManus's wealth is attributable to his skills - learned in 20 years as a licensed bookmaker - at playing what he calls "the money wheel", dealing in currencies and bonds. The sums involved dwarf what he has won or lost on the race- track, but McManus is more disciplined than his Wild Man of the Turf image might suggest. "He has a very hard edge," said one friend. "He's a survivor, he is tough as nails, and it is very foolish to underestimate him."

Off duty, he has a lot of fun - and wins some hefty side-bets - playing golf. He once hired Nick Faldo's coach, David Leadbetter, for a private lesson, and he will shortly be off to play in Robert Sangster's annual pro-am event in Barbados. He has also done well at backgammon: his ready hand with the doubling dice intimidated many opponents. But his favourite pastime, one that has made him an Irish national hero, is National Hunt racing, and fearless plunges in the betting ring, notably at Cheltenham.

McManus's first big winner at the Cotswold course was Mr Donovan in 1982: he was said to have taken pounds 250,000 out of the betting ring. It was, as he would put it, "a nice little touch". Since then he has led six more winners in at Cheltenham, always accompanied by a jubilant crowd of his countrymen, and there have been many more spectacular gambles. When the cry "The Kid is having a go" is heard in the ring, most of the bookmakers there will shudder. "Over the last 20 years, his record as a gambler is second to none," one of the longest-serving bookies on the Cheltenham rails said. "On the few occasions I've had dealings with him, I've tended to finish up second. He is feared by most of the bookmakers in this country."

One man McManus does not scare is Stephen Little, the Bath-based bookmaker with whom he has had his most spectacular wagers. At Cheltenham in March 1994, Little accepted from McManus what may well be the largest bet that has been struck on a British racecourse: pounds 30,000 to win pounds 250,000 on McManus's horse Gimme Five. It finished down the field.

The next day, McManus was back with more ammunition. Danoli was the Irish "banker bet" of the meeting, and McManus waded in, betting pounds 80,000 to win pounds 155,000, and when Danoli romped home, McManus had more than recouped the previous day's losses. Or, as he put it in a phrase that has become part of Cheltenham folklore: "That put the wheels back on the bike." Little remains unbowed by his adversary. "I respect him," he said. "I'm scared of anyone who has a winning bet, but I'm not scared of him to the extent of avoiding him." The two get on well socially, but you will not see them sharing a bottle at the racecourse: neither McManus nor Little drink when they are working.

No matter how friendly he may be with the bookmaking fraternity, there is no sentiment in a McManus punt: it is always the result of long hours studying the form book and video records. "His success is no accident," a leading private bookmaker said. "He has a tremendous mathematical brain and he puts in a lot of effort." McManus is in constant touch with the trainers of his own horses, but he does not put pressure on the trainers when he is preparing a "touch". "Decisions would be taken together," said Eddie O'Grady, who trains for McManus in Ireland. "He likes to discuss his horses' programmes, but in the 20 years that I have known him he has never divulged any betting to me."

"He's a great owner," Jonjo O'Neill said. "He pays his bills, and he leaves it up to me. We don't see much of him, although he did come and see me when I was sick with cancer." O'Neill has been charged with introducing the speedy Clifton Fox to jumping obstacles, en route, perhaps, to the Champion Hurdle. He is unruffled by the responsibility. "He's been schooled, and he jumps nicely, touch wood, so all being well we should have a little bit of fun with him."

Should Clifton Fox make the grade, JP will watch the action from his private box overlooking the winning post at Cheltenham. There he dispenses Chateau Haut Brion to his guests, who might include his business partner Dermot Desmond, who owns London City Airport, Taoiseachs past and present, and racing figures such as Peter O'Sullevan, Robert Sangster and Dr Michael Smurfit.

"JP's arrival is one of the rituals of the Festival," said Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director. "His appearances are a bit special, which is why he is never taken for granted. It's like, Here comes the Queen Mother... and here comes JP." Gillespie puts McManus's popularity with his countrymen down to the fact that "he shows how much success really means to him. In any other sport people would run the successful man down. But if JP does well at Cheltenham, all the Irish do well with him."

Great gamblers of the past, like "Mincemeat Joe" Griffin and Terry Ramsden, have been undone by a flutter too far. But McManus, discipline reinforced by his daily immersion in the mysteries of international finance, seems unlikely to follow their path.

"The great thing about JP as a gambler," Raymond Smith said, "is his ability to close up shop. He won't chase the game now." More's the pity for the British bookmaker.