Harty still loving National buzz 50 years after Highland fling

“When he hit that hill, it was like he was doing what he was bred to do.” So said trainer Eddie Harty after Captain Cee Bee’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victory in 2008 but he could well have been talking about himself.

Four generations preceded the Curragh handler, not just as jockeys and trainers that rode and prepared winners of just about every race you can think of, but represented Ireland in other equestrian pursuits, most famously at consecutive Olympics.

Family and friends put on a surprise party for his father, Eddie Snr last Saturday night to mark the 50th anniversary of his stunning triumph on Highland Wedding in the Aintree Grand National. The patriarch loved it.

On Tuesday night, a tweet appeared courtesy of Senior’s grandson Patrick, who is assistant to his own father at Mulgrave Lodge, having had a stint learning the ropes with Nicky Henderson at Seven Barrows, where his sister Carolyn is now working.

It was a photo of his grandfather watching a rerun of the National, and by all accounts providing a play-by-play description of his thought processes throughout.

While the remove of 50 years had fooled him into thinking he was two years younger than was actually the case in the spring of ’69, it had done nothing to dim the truths that come naturally to a horseman, regardless of the fact that he will be 82 in June.

“I was a professional. That was my job,” says Harty of his part in proceedings.

He had combined race riding with show jumping and eventing in his early 20s and it was in the latter discipline that he competed at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Four years later, younger brother John would emulate him at Tokyo before also becoming a very successful NH jockey, who would ride the winner of the 1980 Irish Grand National, Daletta, trained by his brother-in-law Guy Williams.

This is the family business. Another John Harty was riding winners as far back as 1860. Michael ‘Boss’ Harty was one of three sons equally in thrall to racing and it was he who was the first public trainer based outside the Curragh in Alston, Croom. Five of his sons rode under Rules, four of them as professionals. The fifth, Cyril, was a brilliant amateur jockey, while Boss’s daughter Delma became the first woman to train a Cheltenham Festival winner (1970) and the first in Ireland to be appointed a racecourse steward.

Cyril was a captain in the Irish Army at the formation of the Free State was a founding member of the Irish show jumping team, the first to compete in front of the Tricolour, the first to win the Aga Khan Cup. In 1944, he trained Knight’s Crest to win the Irish Grand National.

Cyril had three sons. Eddie and John we already know. Cyril Jnr, known then and now only as Buster, was a talented rider who went on to make a major impact as a trainer, particularly with the brilliant Gypsando. Buster’s daughter Sabrina is a Grade 1- and multiple group-winning trainer.

Eddie himself has three children. Freda is a restaurateur of note but the two boys retained the racing link though Eddie Jnr did so via a successful stint in the financial sector before the lure of racing proved too much.

He has enjoyed plenty big days, though it would be hard to match Captain Cee Bee, bought by his father as a yearling, reared and pre-trained by his uncle Buster and named after his grandfather (Capt C B Harty).

Meanwhile Kentucky-based Eoin has enjoyed global success in the Breeders’ Cup and Dubai World Cup.

Eddie enjoyed a fine career in England after focussing on life as a jockey, Fred Rimell, Tim Molony, Fred Winter and latterly Highland Wedding’s trainer Toby Balding, with whom he would form a lifelong friendship, making use of his talents. By 1969, Highland Wedding was 12.

“In the parade, he stopped half way up, looked up at the stands, took what seemed an age before he moved on. It was almost as if to say, ‘I’m here. This belongs to me.’ That gave me a lot of confidence,” recalls Harty now.

“My motto from the start was to go down the middle-to-outside, which gave you room to go either way if horses fell in front of you.

“The first circuit is about getting your horse jumping and into position. The race would start at The Chair and The Water – they’ve shortened the water and they’ve lowered The Chair so it’s not so serious now – but when I went to The Chair, I had horses both sides of me and I thought, ‘Please God, give me a bit of room.’ They opened up like the Red Sea. I landed and then I jumped The Water well. You could easily lose a race there.

“Then you turned to go down to Becher’s for the second time. You can see in the video of the race, my horse is going very well on the outside. I had him rolling and he was running sweet. When your horse is running sweet, every time you jump and get a length, it’s like a pound in the bank. Somebody else has to get that money back from you because you don’t pull them back, you let them go and stride and my fellow was just loving it as much as I was.

“When I turn the corner, I’m on the outside a bit. When I jumped Becher’s, Andrew Parker Bowles (ex-husband of the current Duchess of Cornwall) on The Fossa was on my inside. He looked like he was going very, very well but he didn’t realise he was going to be a bit far off Becher’s.

I thought my horse might do the same sort of thing so I moved in a little bit on Andrew to shorten his stride and it probably got him around, he might have fallen. He finished 11th.

“I jumped that well, and the next one. We jumped across the Canal Turn and coming along there, I was watching for dangers. There weren’t that many. Richard Pitman was on my inside on Steel Bridge. I didn’t want to let my horse down too early because of having burst a blood vessel before. So I wanted to avoid getting into a struggle and I made sure that didn’t develop.

“He jumped the second last well. I had no dangers really going to the last and jumped the last brilliantly.

“The last thing my wife Pat used say to me going to the National – and I rode in nine of them – was ‘If you get caught on The Elbow, I’ll leave you.’ So I made sure I was out a bit so that anyone coming would have to come around you. And in those days, if anyone was on your inside – well, it’s race riding. That was their bad luck. They just hit the paling and the resounding crack would probably help your horse gallop on a bit!

“There was nobody there at all and he won by 12 lengths. But I could hear the commentator saying someone was closing! I looked left and I looked right and I couldn’t see any horse anywhere. But according to him, there was one there.

“I patted my horse on the neck going by the winning post. I went up to a policeman, just to confirm that I had won the National. The policeman grabs my horse to lead him in and I said, ‘Who won?’ And he said, ‘You did of course!’ And I said, ‘Oh thank you!’”

He chuckles at the incongruity of it all. When he got back to the Adelphi Hotel, Harty rang his father.

“I said, ‘Dad, you must be delighted the horse won’ and he said, ‘Oh if only the Boss had been there.’ That was my grandfather. He was dead before I was born. It meant that much to my father.”

Two years later, injury forced Eddie’s retirement from the saddle but he returned to the Curragh himself to begin training at Strawhall, producing a number of future champions. His eye for talent was obvious while still riding, when he bought the brilliant Killiney for Winter and later won on him. Little wonder he would be in demand as a bloodstock agent.

“I have had a privileged life with the profession I was in. I was doing what I loved and I was very proud for the Harty name.”

What about Saturday’s renewal?

“There are Liverpool horses and there are horses. When you’ve a Liverpool horse, you have a great horse. Tiger Roll won it last year and I’ve never seen a horse win the Cross-Country as easily as he did this year. If he’s in that form at Aintree, he will be very hard to beat.”

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