Jessica Harrington did not set out to be a trailblazer. As a daughter of a brigadier, who attended finishing school in Paris, she grew up nursing a stronger ambition to find a suitable husband than to carve out a substantial career. It felt yesterday like the attitude of another century as this ever-ebullient Irishwoman held court in the winners’ enclosure, her arm still in a cast from a recent skiing accident but her smile firmly in place. Not only had she become the first woman to train a Gold Cup winner since Henrietta Knight with Best Mate, she had done so at her maiden attempt.
“Beginner’s luck,” she laughed. Naturally, for such an avowed perfectionist, this was no mere stroke of fortune. Harrington once argued that she would not countenance sending a horse to the Festival purely for decorative purposes. By her standards, it had to have a plausible chance of glory, and, in Sizing John, she had one that channelled the strange, stirring forces of Cheltenham on St Patrick’s Day to create a rhapsody in green. The first lady of racing? It is hard to deny her that mantle.
Prestbury Park has yielded glory for plenty of richly talented female trainers, from Knight to Lucinda Russell, Jenny Pitman to Venetia Williams, but Harrington is the first of them to reach 10 winners.
How does she do it? In part, hers is a success forged on dynastic lines. Harrington’s father, Brigadier Bryan Fowler – he was known simply as ‘The Brig’ – had served in both world wars but was also a celebrated breeder, not to mention Master of the Meath Foxhounds and a member of the British polo team that won silver at Hitler’s Berlin Olympics in 1936. Under his tutelage, the young Jessica was scarcely out of the saddle, whether she was trotting out at local gymkhanas or parading at the Navan Agricultural Show.
A willowy athlete and consummate horsewoman, she first found her métier in three-day eventing, often competing internationally. It is a passion she has spent half a lifetime bequeathing to her own children. Kate, her youngest, not born until she was 42 – a surprise that has “kept me young”, she joked – has developed into an accomplished jockey. There are grandchildren, too, but do not dare to depict her as an aged matriarch drifting gradually into retirement. The “hands-on” aspect of finding herself the grande dame of the family is, she insists, emphatically not for her.
Rather, it is her animals that still claim a monopoly upon her undivided care. None more so than Sizing John, who finally proved his much-rumoured staying power with this stunning Gold Cup finish to defy the favourite, Djakadam. Barely had the first bottles of Moet been uncorked than Harrington and her lieutenants at Commonstown Stud, the sprawling site in Co Kildare where the magic happens, were toasting another moment of wonder, as Rock The World lived up to his billing by winning the Grand Annual. Fleetingly, a euphoric Harrington could forget about the plate and seven screws now holding her arm together.
She left little doubt about the resonance the Gold Cup held for her, even if she had waited until she was 70 to make her first entry. “This is the jewel in the crown,” she said. “I’ve been watching and listening to this for as long as I can remember. Sizing John is still only seven, so I’ve got to keep him right.” Questions had been raised about his capacity to step up in trip from two miles to 3¼, but jockey Robbie Power boldly kept the faith. “Jessica Harrington is a genius,” he declared. Do not expect her ambition to recede any time soon, either. With more than her fair quotient of Flat horses to choose from back in Ireland, she immediately said: “I’ve got to win a Classic now.”
The older you become, or so the wisdom goes, the more it means. For Harrington, it is increasingly a philosophy to live by. Achievements on this scale have come relatively late in life but, after a remarkable Festival flourish, the winning habit seems to be self-perpetuating. She did not earn her trainer’s licence until 1991 but, ever since she saddled her first winner at Leopardstown three years later, she has devoted herself to perfecting the craft. It is hard to imagine today, but when she began on this path, prospective owners would call Commonstown and ask to speak to Johnny, her husband, who died from cancer in 2014. The more great feats Harrington engineers, the more that any instinctive chauvinism in her business should evaporate.
There is a noticeable parallel between the personalities of Harrington and Nicky Henderson, whose horses dominated the first day of the Festival just as hers lit up the fourth. Soft and warm-natured on the outside, they are implacably competitive on the inside. Harrington stays at Henderson’s ranch for Cheltenham week, just as he bases himself at hers for Punchestown. The rivalry, by all accounts, is forgotten once the final race is run. “Oh, all’s fair in love and war,” she said. One senses ‘The Brig’ would have approved.