In the past 18 months, Jessica Harrington celebrated numerous firsts: A first Irish Gold Cup victory, first Cheltenham Gold Cup success, first Irish Grand National, and became the most successful lady trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.
The only surprise was that they were firsts, as Harrington has long been a leading National Hunt trainer.
But there is more than one string to Harrington’s bow and yesterday afternoon, at the Curragh, the sprightly 71-year-old added Classic glory to her long list of achievements when Alpha Centauri pounced late to land the
Tattersalls Irish 1000 Guineas in the hands of Colm O’Donoghue.
From an early stage, outsider Could It Be Love took the field along at a furious gallop and, for much of the straight, it looked as though Donnacha O’Brien may have stolen the race aboard the 33-1 shot. But this racecourse tests every ounce of a horse’s stamina and, having given so much, she was unable to resist the late mid-track move of Alpha Centauri and O’Donoghue, with the favourite, Happily, a staying-on third.
“Fantastic, I finally won a Classic,” said Harrington. “I’ve been second and third, and the horses have always run very well, but this is really a dream come true for me.”
Delighted as the winning trainer was to follow Ken Condon into the Classic-winning elite of Flat racing, her true passion could not be masked.
“It’s almost as good as winning a Gold Cup,” she insisted, before qualifying “that’s a Cheltenham Gold Cup, not an Ascot Gold Cup. It probably is better, but to win a race like this is absolutely fantastic.”
Of the filly, who looked special in early starts last year but who was touched off at Ascot and well beaten on testing ground on her final start of last season and first of this term, Harrington added: “This is the first time since Ascot last year that she got good ground, and that’s the key to her. She likes good, quick ground.
“She ran here in the Moyglare on soft-to-heavy ground, and her first run this year was on soft-to-heavy ground.
“She’s a big, big filly, and she just can’t pull herself out of the heavy ground.
“She’s some big lady, but she’s a beautiful filly. She’s gone and done it today, so it’s onwards and upwards. We’ll let the dust settle, and then see what we’ll do with her but she’s in the Coronation Stakes, so I presume that’s where she’ll be going.”
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by Harrington’s achievements as, after watching Willie Mullins dominate the Punchestown Festival to such an extent that he came from an unlikely position to retain his crown as champion trainer, she said: “What he’s done just makes me want to try harder.”
Alpha Centauri’s success was just a reminder that, for the remarkable septuagenarian, age is just a number.
For Buttevant native O’Donoghue, it was a third Irish Classic success, after his victories aboard Treasure Beach in the 2011 Irish Derby and aboard Bracelet in the 2014 Irish Oaks.
“She’s a wonderful filly,” said the winning rider. “Mrs Harrington has brought her along with kid gloves. It’s tremendous. Everyone who works in the yard has done a wonderful job — the horses are bouncing.”
Harrington and O’Donoghue were earlier on the mark with Indigo Balance, who made a winning debut in the Tally Ho Stud Irish EBF Maiden, a race which seems certain to produce numerous winners.
Aidan O’Brien had to settle for filling the places in the Guineas but enjoyed Group 1 glory earlier in the day when Lancaster Bomber produced a teak-tough performance in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.
Despite not having won since August 2016, the winner was backed from an overnight high of 14-1 to 10-3, and Seamie Heffernan sent his mount to the front at an early stage. He quickly established a significant advantage and showed grit and determination to find extra when stable-companion Cliffs Of Moher threatened to steal his thunder.
O’Brien later completed a double when Lucius Tiberius took the finale, to bring his tally for the meeting to six winners.
It was also a red-letter day for trainer Michael Halford, whose victory in the Group 3 Airlie Stud Gallinule Stakes with the Irish Derby-bound Platinum Warrior was his 1000th in Ireland.
And he wasn’t long in getting the second thousand underway as Saltonstall took the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Habitat Handicap in good style.
And Emmet Mullins, who has his dual-purpose team in fine form, earned a first Curragh winner when the Ronan Whelan-ridden St Stephens Green took the Curragh “Where Champions Are Made” Handicap,
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved