Trainer Profile - Jessica Harrington

Trainer Profile - Jessica Harrington

Small Town Hero – Jessica Harrington      Some towns are all about the horse, the vast number of racing stables in the one place defining the community that has sprung up among them. Wherever there is a racing centre there are racing people at its heart. The tiny village of Moone is slightly different. There is only one stable in Moone, but that stable is the beating heart of the community.     The County Kildare village is home to the Commonstown Stables of Jessica Harrington, and the success of the yard has sent ripples of prosperity throughout south Kildare and the Wicklow border. Harrington herself might refute that, but Seamus O’Reilly, a local business owner, will beg to differ. He has witnessed a tide of changes in his 40 years at nearby Crookstown, where he owns and runs a now-thriving service station and shop, and he understands better than most the economic impact of a racing stable that has grown to be the area’s largest employer.     “I started the service station in 1978 and this area of South Kildare was unknown then. It was hard to give directions to anyone, no landmarks, they wouldn’t know where to find us, we were tucked away from anywhere,” he recalls. “Things have improved in the last 20 years and it’s more accessible now. It’s a huge bonus to the service station and retail business to have Jessie there; a lot of her employees come in, plus visitors such as her jockeys and owners and the media. The spin off from her success is great.”  It’s interesting to reflect that, about a 40-minute drive away in County Carlow, trainers Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins are the biggest employers in that particular county, so the importance of horseracing to Ireland’s rural heartland can never be underestimated.     Moone has no pub, no post office and no shop; although since the closure of the post office, some of the residents opened and run a part-time community shop. The village may be home to the historic Celtic High Cross, but there is otherwise nothing to bring people here. Except, of course, Commonstown Stables and the stars within.     Don’t get this wrong though, JHR couldn’t be better sited. Moone may be off the radar for many, but a new network of roads and bypasses links it quickly and smoothly with the nearby motorways serving Cork, Tipperary and Dublin, with the Dublin and Rosslare ports accessible within an hour. At home, the horses nestle in the idyllic peace of a secluded part of Kildare, and their journey to the racecourse is just as smooth and comfortable.     It’s a traditional stableyard with a comfortable rustic ambience that blends seamlessly with the more state-of-the-art features that are part of a modern racing establishment. Yet it’s also a production line of Group One and Grade One winners, at the centre of an industry.     “It’s like a small factory,” Harrington’s son-in-law, Richie Galway, observes, as Harrington sits with her family and gives some thought to how her business sits within the community. He recently took a backseat in his managerial role at Punchestown racecourse to devote those skills more fully to JHR (Jessica Harrington Racing), very much a business operation.     “Lots of our staff come in from Castledermot; a lot of them live there,” Richie points out. “There are a few who live here in Moone, but most travel in each day.” Castledermot is a bigger village 20 minutes away, with plenty of local shops, but most of its residents face a daily 90-minute commute to jobs in Dublin city centre.     The Irish rural landscape is changing at a quickening pace, with the so-called commuter belts widening and isolating communities. New housing estates replacing the farmland that no longer pays its way are home to those working in cities an hour or more away, and the homes largely stand empty during the day. Moone is becoming typical, with no local amenities, forcing the car to take over from walking, even for the school runs; and the opportunity to meet, mix and socialise are decreasing as a result. For JHR, the workplace is the hub of community.     “When the post office closed, it was a big loss,” Harrington reflects. “The postman now picks up our post when he delivers and he’s been very good. He makes sure he comes in to us first, so we receive everything earlier in the day, which is a benefit. In many places with just one postal service a day, it tends to be midday, and that must make it hard to organise an office when you’re waiting on something.”     The office is the main entrance room of the farmhouse, leading into the kitchen and hub of family life. It’s no different to any racing yard office—a little too small for the three women working away there and the volume of paperwork, calendars, diaries and newspapers they share it with in the race to stay ahead of the entries. It’s edge of the seat stuff, but only because the chairs are also occupied by the smaller of the dogs who share the space too.     There can be no better working environment, whether for Ally Couchman, office manager, Jessie’s two assistant trainers, her daughters Emma and Kate, and Richie in the office, or the 65 staff members who form part of Team Harrington, headed up by head lad Eamonn Leigh and yard manager Nigel Byrne. It’s hard to imagine where 65 employees would find work elsewhere, particularly the hands-on physical outdoor work that won’t be on offer in Dublin.     “I don’t know how vital we are to the community,” Harrington muses, a lady who prefers not to take credit where it may not be due, as she considers what her business brings to Moone.     Richie is more forthright. “There was a public meeting in Athy on the increased business rates affecting the shops and commercial premises in the area,” he recalls, “and Seamus O’Reilly stood up and stated that if it were not for Jessica Harrington Racing providing so much employment locally, none of the businesses would have the huge revenue that brings in.”     There’s more to it than revenue, of course. Horses engender a strong sense of attachment, and successful horses offer something even stronger—pride. This was never better illustrated than in March 2017, when Jessica was crowned Queen of Cheltenham. The homecoming she received caught her completely by surprise. Imagine Jubilees, Founders Days, Royal Weddings, and then add in the joy and fervour of ‘shared ownership’ as the people of Moone welcomed back their very own heroes.     Supasundae, Rock The World and Gold Cup hero Sizing John had helped to cement their trainer’s name in history as one of the most successful Irish trainers at the Cheltenham Festival and certainly the winning-most lady trainer, should we feel it’s necessary to make any distinction. Harrington’s record speaks for itself, and she’s on an equal-footing with all great trainers. Bringing home three cups from the 2017 Festival, the top prize itself among them, was suddenly Moone’s badge of honour, not just Harrington’s.     “We had a homecoming for Sizing John, to parade him for the media and local fans, and it just took me so much by surprise,” admits Harrington. “The whole community seriously came out, everyone wanted photos taken, we were there for a good couple of hours. I remember worrying about everyone crowding behind the back of the horse, but he took it so well.     “They made me a huge banner; it stretched right across the street, ‘Moone’s Queen of Cheltenham’,” Harrington reveals with a smile. “They very kindly let me keep it, and we have it hanging up in the indoor arena. The village hall was opened up for tea and biscuits and buns and cakes for everyone. It’s amazing what it does for the community.”     Taking such ownership of their equine neighbours begs the question of privacy. Is this strong community spirit ever intrusive or unwelcome? “No, never,” Harrington states firmly. “It’s nice for them to be a part of it and they never take advantage. Everyone is always very respectful of the business.”  For her part, Harrington also does a lot in return, though it takes Richie to reveal the full extent. The trainer is neither shy nor retiring, but she prefers to work quietly in the background and not make too much of what she views as just a small token of support. This, Richie explains, is sponsoring an annual 10km charity walk and providing jerseys for Moone Celtic Soccer Club. “We have school tours coming into the yard as well,” Jessie reminds him.     Later, at Crookstown Service Station, Seamus O’Reilly reveals that a fundraiser he held at the premises for the Jack And Jill charity was opened by Harrington. “She did it for us for free and was going racing that day; that’s the sort of person she is.”     You might also wonder if all this avid interest is an advantage to JHR, which is surely never short of local young people looking for work. “We do have students looking to come in during the holidays, but I tend not to take on anyone who hasn’t worked with horses already, as it’s just too dangerous,” says Harrington. “They usually come in to us when they’ve finished school, or are in college and come back and work with us during the holidays or work around lectures. When they finish college they may go on to something else or travel; it’s important they have the freedom to do what they want. They know they are always welcome to look for work here later on when they’re ready, hopefully with greater experience.  “One has to look after staff. We do our best, but we have a worry at the moment regarding working hours. The government fails to realise a stable is not an office, and we can’t just switch off the lights at the weekend and go home. They have to use common sense. None of us want to treat our staff unfairly, but horses need round-the-clock care every day of the week.  “The wellbeing of staff is retention of staff. Look after people and they’ll stay with you. You have to do your best, look after their needs and when it comes to workplace regulations, grin and bear it.  “We are always looking for some staff, but we have a main core of local people. We need a constant supply of good riders—we really need good riders. We have staff for riding out and staff for mucking out, as well as people taking care of maintenance and the garden. Grooms go racing, leading up, and they each do a line of stables, a combination of tasks; everyone does a bit.  “And we also use local people such as electricians, plumbers, the blacksmith, vets. We get our hay from Kilkea and our feed from Connolly’s Red Mills, which is only down the road, and we use all the local services really, such as Quinn’s in Baltinglass for hardware.”  In the case of Commonstown Stables we could take this one step further, because top-class training facilities are quite literally on the doorstep. Those based in a training centre can also boast the same and, of course, the maintenance costs are shared; but so too is the use and availability. Having full control of your own facilities and schedule has to be an enormous benefit.  “It’s a terrific advantage,” Harrington agrees. “We don’t have to start so early; our first lot goes out at 8am. We’re not loading horses into horseboxes to go to the gallops and we can get through more. There are no disadvantages; it’s very nice having all your own gallops. Maintenance is not a huge cost; we have someone who comes in once a week when they’re topped up.”  The onset of winter is a relatively quiet period, as the yearlings are sent away to be broken and the Flat horses are out, but the gallops and schooling grounds offer plenty of choice for the National Hunt horses who came back into training in July. JHR has charge of 150 horses, a mix of Flat and National Hunt, and how their fitness programmes are managed is fairly straightforward.  “The routine is the same summer and winter,” reveals Harrington. “All the horses do the same—they all work together. The two-year-olds work with older horses, the Flat horses work with National Hunt horses.”  There are the usual facilities you would expect in a top-class racing yard—covered horse walkers, a set of starting stalls, and an outdoor arena where the horses warm up and are assessed by Jessie every morning before going out to the gallops. An indoor arena is primarily for the young horses, where they can be safely introduced to their new career before eventually going out with their experienced stablemates. It’s also used for lunging and loose schooling over poles, although another essential advantage is in keeping the whole string fit when the weather is too bad to get them outside.     The most recent addition to the set-up is the curved 1400m sand and fibre Work Gallop, installed in the autumn of 2016. It rises gently uphill in the final 400m and perfectly complements the 800m sand Round Gallop. The legendary Hill Gallop, 1000m of Wexford sand, where the skill and fitness of the many Commonstown champions is truly honed, runs along the perimeter of the farm and climbs steeply to meet the Round Gallop.     The schooling area has a row of five hurdles, including Easifix, and three standard chase fences, plus a smaller chase fence for novices to learn their skill. An additional sand and fibre schooling strip with three Easifix hurdles and three chase fences are perfect for year-round schooling.     Harrington is a horsewoman first and foremost, and keeping a racehorse mentally and physically fit isn’t only reliant on work. There are six large turnout paddocks where the horses are turned out daily to relax and play and simply ‘be a horse’. And, being horses, there is the inevitable state-of-the-art hydrotherapy spa, which uses aerated salt water chilled to 2-4 degrees, useful for any knocks and injuries. The hydrotherapy reduces swelling and hardens tendons and ligaments, speeding up the healing process. The salt water keeps the wounds clean, while the aeration provided by water jets increases blood circulation—a great benefit to repairing tissue.     The final pieces in the perpetual puzzle of keeping a horse healthy are the three large JHR horseboxes and six smaller horseboxes, ensuring the risk of infection is kept to a minimum by avoiding ‘public’ transport.     None of which could really be said to have made Commonstown the success it is, though of course every little bit helps. “Success is down to hard work and luck. I don’t care what anyone says,” insists Harrington. “Most trainers realise that they can’t just get there overnight; luck is a huge part of it and the hard work of the team. Eamonn and everyone in the office and all the staff, we all pull together.”     And that ethos reminds us again of Harrington’s personal impact on the community, as Seamus O’Reilly points out. “I’ve been in business here for 40 years. Within that time we’ve had a few bypasses to threaten the business and roads upgraded and then the motorway, but I’ve taken it on with gusto and I don’t give in, a bit like Harrington. I always admire people like Jessie; she has unreal strengths. People like her don’t say anything, they just hide in the background and do their job.”     Much like Seamus, who declined to be pictured. This is Jessie’s feature, after all. “Harrington and the other successful businesses are nice and silently make south Kildare what it is and it’s nice to see it,” he says. “We open here at 6am and Jessie’s staff come in on their way to work. People say it’s a rich man’s sport, but we see the real side of it. It’s a hard industry; you can’t say you’re sick. As an outsider looking in, I know it’s a hard game and I’m full of admiration for the workers.”  A touch of the homecoming enthusiasm is never far from the surface where racing and ‘outsiders’ meet on neutral ground. “All the talk is between horses and cattle and sport,” Seamus reveals of his daily business and the customers dropping in for fuel, coffee and lunch. “When Harrington gets a winner, it’s a great confidence booster and it’s nice to have a winner too!”  Back at the stables, however, there’s a wider community to worry about and the racing world is not without its problems. Harrington is 71 and has held her licence since 1989, so there are few better people to ask for an opinion on the current state of affairs.     “HRI does a good job and is accountable to the government. There are good things going on in Irish racing and a few annoying things. There are probably little things wrong, but when common sense prevails, most things can be sorted out. For us, as trainers, we need to recognise it is two-way traffic and we have to get on together. When things are brought in without consulting anyone it’s very frustrating. If they just sat down and talked to everyone, we could solve problems instead of getting into corners. We’re not trying to break the rules. We’re not always right, but there’s got to be give and take.  “The most annoying thing is endlessly trying to get guidelines for vaccinations and not having to go back years to find a passport error,” she says, echoing the views of many Irish trainers, several having suffered fines since the strengthening of IHRB raceday regulations. “Stewards have been very good lately about letting us withdraw horses and have been very sensible about that. If people just use common sense, issues can be resolved. At the end of the day common sense always prevails. Horses are not machines, and simple common sense is the best thing.”     Harrington recognises the current divide between the leading trainers and owners in Ireland and those struggling to compete with them. “It is top heavy on the Flat, but you just have to raise your own game. Irish racing is becoming more competitive; it’s difficult for small trainers. Perhaps HRI could look at the framing of races better, so everyone gets a fair crack at the whip. But our standard of racing is very good and we are great sellers of horses. We have all been brought up to sell horses and the Irish have done very well across the board.”  As with any commercial enterprise, the industry cannot struggle with minor problems while ignoring the bigger issue, which Jessie identifies as funding. “I would love to see the minimum prize money rise to €12,000 and enable owners to see a way of paying for training through prize money,” she concludes. “I just hope the government continues to recognise the importance of funding racing.  “We must not take that for granted. I would love it if the percentage from betting tax comes back to racing automatically, so we’re not competing alongside housing and welfare and health care. We should be self-financing rather than at the mercy of the government. The betting tax should never have been cut in the first place, but if we could be guaranteed a percentage we would not be going in each year with our begging bowl. I would love to see the industry on a more secure financial footing.”  For the moment, though, we can be assured JHR is on a sound footing, and those living within its environs are more than grateful.

By Lissa Oliver

Some towns are all about the horse, the vast number of racing stables in the one place defining the community that has sprung up among them. Wherever there is a racing centre there are racing people at its heart. The tiny village of Moone is slightly different. There is only one stable in Moone, but that stable is the beating heart of the community.

The County Kildare village is home to the Commonstown Stables of Jessica Harrington, and the success of the yard has sent ripples of prosperity throughout south Kildare and the Wicklow border. Harrington herself might refute that, but Seamus O’Reilly, a local business owner, will beg to differ. He has witnessed a tide of changes in his 40 years at nearby Crookstown, where he owns and runs a now-thriving service station and shop, and he understands better than most the economic impact of a racing stable that has grown to be the area’s largest employer.

“I started the service station in 1978 and this area of South Kildare was unknown then. It was hard to give directions to anyone, no landmarks, they wouldn’t know where to find us, we were tucked away from anywhere,” he recalls. “Things have improved in the last 20 years and it’s more accessible now. It’s a huge bonus to the service station and retail business to have Jessie there; a lot of her employees come in, plus visitors such as her jockeys and owners and the media. The spin off from her success is great.”

It’s interesting to reflect that, about a 40-minute drive away in County Carlow, trainers Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins are the biggest employers in that particular county, so the importance of horseracing to Ireland’s rural heartland can never be underestimated.

Moone has no pub, no post office and no shop; although since the closure of the post office, some of the residents opened and run a part-time community shop. The village may be home to the historic Celtic High Cross, but there is otherwise nothing to bring people here. Except, of course, Commonstown Stables and the stars within.

Don’t get this wrong though, JHR couldn’t be better sited. Moone may be off the radar for many, but a new network of roads and bypasses links it quickly and smoothly with the nearby motorways serving Cork, Tipperary and Dublin, with the Dublin and Rosslare ports accessible within an hour. At home, the horses nestle in the idyllic peace of a secluded part of Kildare, and their journey to the racecourse is just as smooth and comfortable.

It’s a traditional stableyard with a comfortable rustic ambience that blends seamlessly with the more state-of-the-art features that are part of a modern racing establishment. Yet it’s also a production line of Group One and Grade One winners, at the centre of an industry.

“It’s like a small factory,” Harrington’s son-in-law, Richie Galway, observes, as Harrington sits with her family and gives some thought to how her business sits within the community. He recently took a backseat in his managerial role at Punchestown racecourse to devote those skills more fully to JHR (Jessica Harrington Racing), very much a business operation.

“Lots of our staff come in from Castledermot; a lot of them live there,” Richie points out. “There are a few who live here in Moone, but most travel in each day.” Castledermot is a bigger village 20 minutes away, with plenty of local shops, but most of its residents face a daily 90-minute commute to jobs in Dublin city centre.

The Irish rural landscape is changing at a quickening pace, with the so-called commuter belts widening and isolating communities. New housing estates replacing the farmland that no longer pays its way are home to those working in cities an hour or more away, and the homes largely stand empty during the day. Moone is becoming typical, with no local amenities, forcing the car to take over from walking, even for the school runs; and the opportunity to meet, mix and socialise are decreasing as a result. For JHR, the workplace is the hub of community.

“When the post office closed, it was a big loss,” Harrington reflects. “The postman now picks up our post when he delivers and he’s been very good. He makes sure he comes in to us first, so we receive everything earlier in the day, which is a benefit. In many places with just one postal service a day, it tends to be midday, and that must make it hard to organise an office when you’re waiting on something.”

The office is the main entrance room of the farmhouse, leading into the kitchen and hub of family life. It’s no different to any racing yard office—a little too small for the three women working away there and the volume of paperwork, calendars, diaries and newspapers they share it with in the race to stay ahead of the entries. It’s edge of the seat stuff, but only because the chairs are also occupied by the smaller of the dogs who share the space too.

There can be no better working environment, whether for Ally Couchman, office manager, Jessie’s two assistant trainers, her daughters Emma and Kate, and Richie in the office, or the 65 staff members who form part of Team Harrington, headed up by head lad Eamonn Leigh and yard manager Nigel Byrne. It’s hard to imagine where 65 employees would find work elsewhere, particularly the hands-on physical outdoor work that won’t be on offer in Dublin.

“I don’t know how vital we are to the community,” Harrington muses, a lady who prefers not to take credit where it may not be due, as she considers what her business brings to Moone.

Richie is more forthright. “There was a public meeting in Athy on the increased business rates affecting the shops and commercial premises in the area,” he recalls, “and Seamus O’Reilly stood up and stated that if it were not for Jessica Harrington Racing providing so much employment locally, none of the businesses would have the huge revenue that brings in.”

There’s more to it than revenue, of course. Horses engender a strong sense of attachment, and successful horses offer something even stronger—pride. This was never better illustrated than in March 2017, when Jessica was crowned Queen of Cheltenham. The homecoming she received caught her completely by surprise. Imagine Jubilees, Founders Days, Royal Weddings, and then add in the joy and fervour of ‘shared ownership’ as the people of Moone welcomed back their very own heroes.

Supasundae, Rock The World and Gold Cup hero Sizing John had helped to cement their trainer’s name in history as one of the most successful Irish trainers at the Cheltenham Festival and certainly the winning-most lady trainer, should we feel it’s necessary to make any distinction. Harrington’s record speaks for itself, and she’s on an equal-footing with all great trainers. Bringing home three cups from the 2017 Festival, the top prize itself among them, was suddenly Moone’s badge of honour, not just Harrington’s.

Sizing John and Jessica’s daughter, Kate.

“We had a homecoming for Sizing John, to parade him for the media and local fans, and it just took me so much by surprise,” admits Harrington. “The whole community seriously came out, everyone wanted photos taken, we were there for a good couple of hours. I remember worrying about everyone crowding behind the back of the horse, but he took it so well.

“They made me a huge banner; it stretched right across the street, ‘Moone’s Queen of Cheltenham’,” Harrington reveals with a smile. “They very kindly let me keep it, and we have it hanging up in the indoor arena. The village hall was opened up for tea and biscuits and buns and cakes for everyone. It’s amazing what it does for the community.”





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