When Jessica Harrington was named Ireland’s sportswoman of the year in 2017, a couple of months before her 71st birthday, she listed three ambitions for her training career which remained unfulfilled: a Classic winner on the Flat, a winner at Royal Ascot and a Grand National winner at Aintree. Within six months, she had crossed off one and two, and while the National continues to elude her, Harrington’s mare Magic Of Light finished second to Tiger Roll in 2019 and was one of the favourites for this year’s race before it was abandoned due to the coronavirus crisis.
It is just the way that things have been going for Harrington over the last few years: one fresh achievement after another, at a point in her career, and in life, when many might be considering easing down a little. Instead, and in the space of three or four seasons, she has turned her yard in Moone in County Kildare into the most successful dual-purpose stable in the game.
Since March 2017, Harrington has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Sizing John, her first runner in the race, and the Irish Grand National with Our Duke. She has also saddled half a dozen Group One winners on the Flat and could record another landmark achievement on Sunday afternoon when Millisle, last year’s Cheveley Park Stakes winner, will start at around 5-1 to give Harrington a first English Classic success in the 1,000 Guineas.
The sudden ascent of Harrington’s yard to challenge, and beat, the most successful Flat operations in the business was not, she says, the result of careful planning. “Nothing’s a conscious decision with me,” Harrington says. “I just train what’s put in front of me, and it’s always been like that. I’ve just been lucky that I’ve been sent some very nice horses. I’ve always had a few Flat horses, and I had Pathfork [a Group One winning juvenile in 2010], which was great, but I just didn’t have top-class Flat horses, which can happen.”
The suspension of racing in both Britain and Ireland from March means Harrington is working entirely on instinct as she prepares for a delayed start to a 2020 campaign which has the potential to be her best yet on the Flat. Both Millisle and Albigna, who will start favourite for the Irish 1,000 Guineas at the Curragh next weekend, were Group One winners at two, while Harrington also trains an Oaks contender in Cayenne Pepper, an unlucky fourth behind Quadrilateral, the 1,000 Guineas favourite, in last season’s Fillies’ Mile.
“She’s done very well and we’re very happy with her, but we’ve got no yardstick on what form the yard is in or anything because I haven’t had a runner since the end of March,” Harrington says. “It’s one of those things, you’re taking a stab in the unknown and hoping the yard is in form. She’s by [the sprinter] Starspangledbanner but she’s got stamina on the dam’s side, she’s got Group One form on the track and she’s a very relaxed horse in her races, so that will help her as well.
“The worst thing was not knowing when we were going to start. There were rumours we’d be back on the 18th of May or the 28th, and it kept getting pushed back, so you’d think, I’d better give these a bit of work this week, just in case we’re coming back. That was probably the hardest thing and hopefully I’ve got it right, I don’t know. We’ll know in the next few days.”
Ireland’s quarantine rules for returning travellers mean that Harrington will not be at Newmarket tomorrow, while Horse Racing Ireland has imposed a ban on anyone over 70 attending meetings when the sport there resumes behind closed doors from Monday. Harrington’s competitive instincts and enthusiasm, though, remain undimmed.
“I’ve always got ambitions,” she says. “You don’t give up and rest on your laurels, you always want to strive to get the next place and there’s lots of races out there that I haven’t won and that I’d like to win. It hasn’t been easy, but everything will be got round in the end and we’ll all look at it as being a bad nightmare.”