The Irish aren’t just good at winning horse races: they are in the Super League when it comes to celebrating victories. After Shark Hanlon’s Hewick had collected the £90,000 first prize in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park last Saturday, the red-haired trainer said with a twinkle: ‘The plan was to go home this evening. The plan just changed.’ I hope the craic was good: the year before, when Shark had his first Grade One victory with Skyace, he went home and fed 50 calves before opening a bottle of champagne only for his boxer bitch to start producing a series of eight pups – a process that engaged him until 5 a.m.
There is nothing sinister about the name Shark. John ‘Shark’ Hanlon is a big man who earned the soubriquet as an under-14 hurler because he was about a foot taller than his contemporaries. Until the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 he was a cattle dealer. He had, though, owned the odd horse with the great Paddy Mullins who once told him: ‘If you’re a judge of a bullock, you’re a judge of a horse.’ Shark has a real stockman’s touch: he paid only £600 for Skyace and of Hewick he told us: ‘He was a very dear horse as he cost us £850 – he was a good walker and he was only the price of a cow!’
Truth be told, it wasn’t only Shark celebrating Hewick’s victory. Since the Irish dominated Cheltenham in 2021, my approach in big races has been to select a potential winner and if that choice isn’t an Irish horse to have a saver too on the likeliest Irish entrant. Earlier that day at Sandown, I had encountered a racecourse friend I often see at Cheltenham, an intimate of many Mullinses and a man as well tuned in to the Irish racing intelligence network as a champion truffle hound is to the odour of those toothsome tubers. He told me simply: ‘Shark says there’s no way his horse will be out of the money.’ I had already backed the valiant Kitty’s Light, unluckily denied victory in the 2021 race and third again last Saturday, but I managed to get 20-1 for Hewick, who started at 16-1, and Mrs Oakley and I will be having a couple of good dinners out on the proceeds.
Sandown’s jump-season finale gave us plenty to cheer about. Paul Nicholls celebrated his 13th trainers’ championship by training five of the winners on the seven-race card. Listening to him flipping through his mental card index in each post-race debrief, you could only marvel at the thoroughness of his approach, the wisdom of his race-planning but especially his utterly uncorroded enthusiasm. Ditcheat will clock up plenty more championships yet. Brian Hughes shyly accepted his second champion jockey award having become only the fourth man, along with the greats A.P. McCoy, Peter Scudamore and Richard Johnson, to ride more than 200 winners in a season. That has involved 70,000 miles of driving but it would be welcome if he could turn the steering wheel south a little more often in future.
There are, though, other achievements to mark which didn’t qualify for awards. Donald McCain suffered a massive blow when Paul and Clare Rooney took 60 horses from his stable in 2015. His win total dropped that year to 53. This season he has trained 155. That is grit, rebuilding and recovery for you. The fast-rising Fergal O’Brien trained 128 winners plus more seconds and thirds than any other trainer and Milton Harris put past troubles behind him with more than 50 winners. It would be interesting to see the results if some of the big money boys put horses with those two.
I have two other personal awards to bestow. Jockey Paddy Brennan rates Sportsman of the Year. Twice he has been involved with racecourse inquiries after close finishes. At Cheltenham, in the Pertemps Hurdle, he lost by a neck on Alaphilippe to Third Wind, ridden by Tom O’Brien, and insisted to the stewards: ‘I didn’t feel any interference. I had a good crack at it.’ At Aintree, when Paddy’s Knight Salute and Pied Piper ran a dead heat after Davy Russell’s Pied Piper had jumped across him at the last, Paddy told the officials: ‘I don’t think it affected my finishing position,’ although they gave him the race anyway. In jump racing there is still room for honesty, even at a financial cost. Just think of the contrast with a footballer in the penalty area diving and howling for a penalty after a sleeve has brushed across him.
Finally comes the Quote of the Year from the remarkable pensioner couple Ann and Ian Hamilton whose four-horse stable produced 13 victories from 33 runs, a strike rate of 39 per cent. They call going to the races a way of getting off the farm. ‘We don’t do anything else. We don’t go on holidays and we don’t go to the pub. But we still get as excited about having a winner as we did 30 years ago.’
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