By Geoffrey Riddle at Cheltenham
Driving to the racecourse with Nicky Henderson on Friday morning, Jessica Harrington turned to her long-time friend and host this week at Seven Barrows and revealed that Sizing John was her first ever entry to the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Several hours later the leading female trainer at this four-day Festival at Prestbury Park became just the third woman to take home the Blue Riband when the Irish Gold Cup winner thundered up the Cheltenham hill under Robbie Power.
As Sizing John bounded past Native River over the second last fence on his way to becoming the third Irish horse in four years to prevail in the signature race, it was then that the 70-year-old trainer knew that victory was going to be hers.
Standing in the winner’s enclosure afterwards, after saddling her tenth Festival winner in all, Harrington was virtually speechless.
"It is the jewel in the crown,” she said. “It has not really sunk in yet, I can't believe it is true. I am sitting here, I am about to wake up and it hasn't happened."
Along with Supasundae, who won her the Coral Cup on Wednesday, Sizing John was transferred from Henry de Bromhead’s stable at the beginning of the season to her Commonstown base.
At a press conference here earlier in the week, De Bromhead was keen to stress that should his former charge prevail in the Gold Cup, he would be a proud man as he had bought the horse personally. A penny for his thoughts now.
Sizing John’s win is rich reward for the Potts, the owners who have poured money in to Jumps racing with fervour for the past 12 years. Although Harrington was quick to name check her benefactors, she was gracious enough to recognize De Bromhead’s contribution, too.
"I think Alan is speechless and this is especially great for Ann as she is not very well and it will give her a real boost,” she said.
"Alan and Ann Potts have really wanted to win the Gold Cup. I do feel very sorry for Henry de Bromhead, with this horse and Supasundae, he did all the hard work. I have only inherited them.
"I only got them in September. I had to get to know them, how to train them. Henry had done all the work and he bought them.
"There was never any thought that Sizing John was to join the Potts' horses who went to Colin Tizzard - this horse was already in my yard.
"This is right up there, it hasn't sunk it yet. This is the Olympics of horseracing, and I have won the Gold Cup!"Robbie Power was winning his first Cheltenham Gold Cup (Racingfotos)
Although Lizzie Kelly came to grief at the first when trying to become the first woman to complete the Gold Cup course aboard Tea For Two, this year’s Festival has been a roaring success for women.
All three races for amateur riders were won by female jockeys for the first time.
Lisa O’Neill struck aboard Tiger Roll in the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase on Tuesday. Gina Andrews was joy itself when she swept in to the winner’s enclosure aboard Domesday Book in Thursday’s Kim Muir and Bryony Frost succeeded where Victoria Pendleton failed when she was all out to drive Pacha Du Polder to victory in the St James’s Place Foxhunters.Sizing John beat Minella Rocco by nearly three lengths (Racingfotos)
Looking at the roll of honour of female trainers to have won National Hunt racing’s greatest prize, they certainly are not your run-of-the-mill women. Dual Grand National and Gold Cup-winning Jenny Pitman is no wallflower. Henrietta Knight, who sent out Best Mate to three consecutive wins in the Gold Cup, possesses an inner steel that belies her courteous approach. Harrington, decked out in a Tory blue jacket and black hat, is no different. An iron lady, if you will. Sporting a cast on her left hand, it masked a broken wrist picked up from skiing seven weeks ago that has resulted in a metal plate and seven pins being inserted in to her bones.
Harrington started out as an international eventer and rode in two Olympics before she switched to racing in 1989 and since then she has saddled a long line of top hurdlers and two-mile chasers. From Space Trucker, who secured her first Grade One in the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle in 1986 right through to Jezki’s Champion Hurdle triumph three years ago her success has been mainly confined to the smaller obstacles.
The last time she was dining at the top table with a true champion chaser was in the Moscow Flyer days over a decade ago. Even then she had broken bones. Harrington was rushed to hospital in 2005 when she suffered a riding accident in Kenya that left her hospitalised for 12 days. There was a neck brace and a zimmer frame, too.
In the murky Cheltenham night after Rock The World’s win in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup had handed her three wins across the four days to make her the most successful female trainer of all time here, the 70-year-old was keen to brush under the carpet the fact had capped a towering week for women.
“We are all trainers,” she said, dismissively. “It is amazing to have won. It really is. One of my Flat owners, Patrick Cooper, has said he probably won’t see me until May.”