Meet the new racing set: How Jessica Harrington and her two daughters are prospering in a man's world
Jessica Harrington’s yard, in the sleepy hamlet of Moone, Co Kildare, is anything but tired.
The clatter of racehorses leaving their stables is accompanied by the incessant barking of dogs, telephones ringing and a stream of bodies filtering in and out of the open front door of the beautiful farmhouse. It’s a chaotic yet domestic scene, a mix of cosy country house and busy stud farm.
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Trophies and framed photo-finishes crowd every surface, a copy of The Racing Post sits on the hall table, the figure of a race horse is etched into the glass above the front door, and copies of invitations to dinners with Royalty alongside family photos and memorable horses Moscow Flyer, Our Duke, Alpha Centauri and Sizing John litter the front room.
Harrington cuts an imposing figure, dressed in smart tweeds for the day’s photo-shoot, her stature concealed by the fact that she’s leaning over the banisters in the hallway as I enter. “Where do you want me?” she asks the photographer, somewhat nonplussed by all the hype, before extending a hand in my direction. “Very pleased to meet you,” she chirps and bounds out the door, heads above everyone, into the rain.
Harrington, who turned 72 earlier this year, is not your average septuagenarian: lithe, spritely with the energy of one of her race horses, she breezes in and out chatting to everyone. Her handsome face, reassuringly lined, is framed by a tousle of blond hair and piercing blue eyes.
In person, there’s something head-mistress-like about her, if it wasn’t for her laissez-faire attitude and distaste for rules. She is poised yet relaxed, elegant yet unfussy with a no-nonsense attitude and sharp wit. When she finally sits down in front of me she does it with a leg thrown over the armchair, in a manner that befits someone very comfortable in their own skin.
“Determined,” says her daughter Kate when asked to describe her mum. “And very pragmatic,” pipes her other daughter Emma. “She’s always taught us to trust our gut. That’s how she works, on instinct, and she’s usually right.”
In the world of horse racing a lot is down to luck, a lot down to a plethora of extraneous circumstances: the form of the horse on the day, the weather, the ground. But nobody could deny Harrington’s instinctive judge of equine talent. The 72-year-old grandmother is a one-name entity; a key figure in the pantheon of native horse racing heroes, universally acknowledged as the master of her profession. This season alone has seen 50 wins on home ground with two months to go before season’s end.
A sign on the arena wall at her Commonstown Stables reads ‘Moone’s Queen of Cheltenham’ – a nod to her unprecedented success at Cheltenham (11 wins in total). The most notable of these was in 2017 when three of the most prestigious races – the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and the Gold Cup – were won by three of her horses: Supasundae, Rock The World and Sizing John, with Our Duke winning Harrington her first Irish Grand National a month later, making her the most successful female trainer at Cheltenham ever and Ireland’s leading dual-purpose trainer for flat and hunt racing. No mean feat considering the stiff male competition.
“When I first started out, there really weren’t very many women working in the industry let alone training horses. The consensus was that I wouldn’t be around for long,” she laughs. “After all, I had three children, one of them only three months old, and a husband who would look after me,” she adds, eyebrow cocked in mock disapproval. “But I stuck with it. Whether you’re male or female, the only way to get things done is to get your head down and work hard.”
Clearly it’s advice that has filtered down to her daughters Emma (42) and Kate (30) who, together with Jessica, Emma’s husband Richie, and a staff of 60, help run the business. Emma’s background in finance means she’s ‘organically’ assumed the accountancy role in the business, along with HR and the everyday logistics and maintenance of the farm. All three agree it’s a tough business to be in, not least the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week routine, but the fickle nature of it makes life tougher with horse injuries and disappointments. Emma too, is trying to navigate the choppy Brexit waters.
“There’s no way of knowing so we can’t really plan but we do know it’s going to pose some huge problems. There will probably be travel restrictions, more paperwork, and more delays for horses, which will affect their performance. There’s no way to mitigate the problems,” she shrugs.
A mother to two boys, Jack (11) and Max (7), and her demanding job means she doesn’t get to ride much except for ‘naughty ponies’. Her sister Kate, while also managing logistics, is more hands-on with the horses. Although her career as a jockey was cut short three years ago when she fell from a horse and damaged her neck, she still rides but no longer races. The rigours of training and racing ensure that virtually no horse finishes a career unscathed and most jockeys suffer falls and injuries; it’s a risk that the Harringtons know only too well. Like her mum, Kate is philosophical.
“Things change,” she shrugs matter-of-factly. “Horse racing is so risky. If you were to describe it to someone it sounds daft,” she giggles. “You spend €200-€300k on a horse that is unbroken, that you don’t know if it can even run a race. If you want to succeed in it you have to be a risk taker, whether you’re a jockey, an owner or a trainer.” There’s no plans to go back to racing right now, instead she’s concentrating on her new role as TV presenter with Racing TV and her busy job at the stables. “I was lucky enough that when the accident happened, this great opportunity with Racing TV came along and I’m really enjoying that, but ultimately the end goal is to train horses under my own name. I love being alongside Mum on the training side. She’s taught me so much about how to use your instinct and your eye and be patient. It’s all about timing and being calm,” says Kate.
The mention of the word calm and Emma is evidently amused. Kate, she tells me, is brilliant with the horses and works so hard but is definitely the more ’emotional’ of the three. “She’s like my dad,” laughs Emma. “Very social but on a rollercoaster of emotions.” Jessica agrees. “Kate’s brilliant at buying and training horses and fantastic with people. Her father used to get on a plane and be friends with everyone by the time we got to the other end, whereas I’d have a sign that says ‘Do not talk to me’. Kate’s like that but then, she’s the total opposite to Emma who is measured and cool. When Kate has a cold she’s on death’s door, just like her father,” she hoots with laughter.
Despite the differences, the family dynamic works, namely because they have very separate working roles. “Plus, I don’t get involved in the squabbling,” says Jessica knowingly. “But it really is down to them,” she adds modestly. “I do the training, which I love, and they look after everything else; I’m merely the name on the door. Plus, I’m terrible at accounts and I hate lists,” she says, waving her hand in the air dismissively. “She’s also terrible at technology though she thinks she’s a whizz,” says Emma, smiling. “I agree I might be a techno dinosaur,” answers Jessica defensively, “but I’m not bad when I get going.” Emma shakes her head. “See, I told you she thinks she’s a whizz.” It’s the familiar blunt rhythm of family banter – the affectionate ribbing that only exists within a healthy family dynamic.
Most people entering their 8th decade might consider swapping the high-octane activities for the sedate: a cruise on the Med, a game of golf perhaps. “I don’t play golf, it takes too long,” interrupts Jessica. Travel, on the other hand, is something she is making more time for with a helpful push from her daughters. Although, Emma tells me, her holidays are not quite as leisurely as you might expect for a 72-year-old. Last year she went white water rafting in New Zealand but it wasn’t scary enough so she went to Croatia this year in search of a more white-knuckle ride, she tells me, rolling her eyes. She likes skiing although modestly admits to being inelegant preferring the ‘agricultural position’. “I try to get her to sit down and she’ll tell me she is but it’s on the lawnmower. She never stops.”
There’s a sense the girls are making space for Jessica, taking the pressure off. It’s one of the reasons Emma’s husband Richie joined the business last year. When Jessica heard he wanted to come and work for his mother-in-law she told him ‘he must be mad’, but it’s clear she’s touched by her family’s efforts to manage the growing business. After Jessica’s second husband and the girls’ dad, John Harrington, died from cancer in 2015, the business mushroomed. Out of heartache, sometimes great achievements are born; if you know about loss you know about resilience, strength and survival. Would they agree? “I’m not sure what happened, I’d like to think it was Dad weaving some magic from up above,” smiles Emma, “but we had a succession of wins and the business grew rapidly. And, yes, I guess we all pulled together even more. He started it all after all, it was his legacy.”
The stud currently has 160 livery horses and 60 staff. The summer season means they are racing every day and sometimes twice a day with evening races, but according to Jessica their success is not down to one thing but a mix of luck, hard work and being in the right place at the right time. “What is success really,” she muses. “I thought it was when I got my first Cheltenham win but the thing about success is you always want more. There’s always that dangling carrot and I’m the donkey always chasing the carrot,” she laughs. “That’s not a bad thing,” she adds. “Competition is healthy as long as you’re a gracious winner and a good loser. But success to me is being happy in my own skin.”
Surprisingly it wasn’t those Cheltenham wins she remembers most fondly but finishing third in the Badminton horse trials in England many years ago. It’s a tough event so a big achievement for anyone. Harrington’s father, Brigadier Bryan Fowler, was a Meath man who served in both world wars but was also a celebrated breeder and keen polo player. She describes her childhood as being ‘scarcely out of the saddle’ eventually finding her métier as a three-day event rider and subsequently, an Olympic team member.
Born in London, she moved to Ireland at the age of two and was home schooled until 12 when she was sent to an English boarding school followed by French finishing school. Although her accent suggests a very English upbringing she’s quick to dismiss any notion of being ‘English’. She is, in her own words ‘Irish through and through’. She had a lot of freedom growing up, she admits, but it came at a price; there was discipline. This may explain the sense of unwavering determination and unflappability about her. “She is passionate,” says Emma, “but she also has this amazing ability to let things go.” On this subject of disappointments, the conversation segues into sensitive territory of horse fatalities. Emma and Kate recall the morning after their beloved Our Duke died from a heart attack in the stables. “It was crushing,” says Kate sadly. “The worst part is the empty box; it’s terrible for the staff that groomed and fed him everyday. He was an incredible horse.”
According to Jessica, the disappointments in horse racing far outweigh the triumphs. It’s one of the reasons she encourages her owners to enjoy those wins because you never know what’s going to happen. “Horses have a good way of doing their best to commit suicide,” she says, eyes narrowing. “You can practically have them in a padded cell and they’ll find some way to injure themselves.” It might be enough to make someone retire from horse racing altogether but, for the Harringtons, it’s like a glorious infection for which there’s no cure. There have been countless fatalities and injuries, most recently the retirement of their two-year-old champion filly Alpha Centauri who won four Group 1 races in a row before experiencing a fetlock injury. “At least she’s not dead,” Jessica offers enthusiastically. “She was a super horse. She gave me my first Classic and Royal Ascot winner so I’ve a lot to thank her for. But that’s life, you have to get up and get on with it, you must be open to change.”
Asking Harrington to choose her favourite horse is akin to her choosing her favourite child. “I love them all,” she chortles. “But Moscow Flyer was fantastic and I have to mention Oh So Grumpy, she won me the Galway Hurdle, you remember those early horses.” It’s clear her ambition is not receding with a bucket list that includes an English Grand National, an English Classic and maybe a Melbourne Cup. But right now the focus is on the Longines Irish Champions weekend (September 14 and 15) and deciding which horses to run, a meet and greet with the Roses of Tralee in Moone tomorrow and a dinner she’s cooking for her grandchildren this evening. Her face lights up at the mention of the convertible MG she will be driving to meet the Roses the following day. “Fantastic car,” she practically shouts. “How lucky am I?” Luck, determination, mettle – call it what you will but it’s clear Harrington has the confidence and ability of a mogul with plenty of peaks to conquer yet. With that, she’s up, whooshing her three dogs off the sofa and out the door, charged with life and steely focus as she heads outside to her garden to pick some green beans for the dinner.
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