The American Grand National (Grade 1)
GUY Torsilieri met John “Shark” Hanlon at the Far Hills finish line October 15th, minutes after Hanlon’s Hewick dominated the richest US steeplechase of the year. In the midst of an Irish scrum, an Italian from New Jersey asked a question.
“You coming back?” the Far Hills Steeplechase director asked.
“I’ll be back,” Hanlon said in an Irish brogue that rattled the brisk evening air. “I’ll be back.”
Then the towering trainer with a towering horse waved an Irish flag and a gaggle of Irish leapt into a Spanish-turned-Irish football tune.
Hewick deserved nothing else.
Bred by William Quinn and purchased for €850 at Goresbridge Horses in Training sale in 2017, the seven-year-old son of Virtual won his eighth career race (four over hurdles and four over fences) in a facile score against America’s best, including three-time Grade 1 winner Snap Decision.
Owned by T.J. McDonald and ridden by 21-year-old Jordan Gainford, Hewick galloped relentlessly, jumped flawlessly and showed where a 167-rated horse ranks on American soil.
Above it, to be sure.
Sent off second choice behind Snap Decision in the $250,000 stakes race, Hewick secured a comfortable spot just off American-based, British-bred Pistol Whipped and British invader Global Citizen, loped easily in the clear and stormed up the Far Hills hill to win by 11 and a half lengths over Lonesome Glory winner Noah And The Ark and Lonesome Glory third Ask Paddington.
Snap Decision ran in snatches before fading to sixth, the first time the eight-year-old has finished worse than second in his 18-race career.
“Look, magic. He didn’t put a foot wrong, he just loves galloping,” Gainford said. “He got to the front and took a look and the minute I gave him a click, he came back in my hands alive again, he’s a great horse to be associated with and thanks to Shark and T J for bringing me over here.”
They could have looked elsewhere. Gainford climbed aboard Hewick, then rated 126 in a novice chase at Killarney in July, 2021. The 5lb claimer and the horse who failed to compete in his first three point-to-points starts and took 15 tries to win his first race finished second that day.
Three winless starts later, Gainford got back on board to win a handicap hurdle at Listowel. From there, it’s been climbing steps, sometimes, two or three at a time, as Hewick picked up a handicap chase at Sedgefield in England, won the Grade 3 Bet365 Chase at Sandown in England, upset the prestigious Galway Plate in July.
There were a couple of blips on the jaunt up the steps, none bigger than a race-for-the-taking last-fence fall in the Kerry National at Listowel in his start before the Grand National. Gainford tried to brush it off while knowing every mount is up for grabs.
“Fair play to T J, they could have got who they liked over here to ride the horse, everyone else coming over, Sean Flanagan, Davy Russell, they’re top, top lads. I don’t know why they stuck with me, it’s a good question, ask T J,” Gainford said.
“Look it, you had to be upset after Listowel, I was, they could see that. T J said, ‘move on, we’ll have more days’ and that brought us here.
“It’s racing. My idol is Davy Russell, he’s ridden two winners here today, he’s had great days and he’s had some very bad days. I rang Davy straightaway, and he said, ‘Look, I don’t think you could have done anything different.’ It was just one of those things, speed and momentum, he caught the top of it and just knuckled over. Momentum.”
Hewick had all the momentum in the Grand National. Utilising stamina that had him in contention going three miles on good ground in the Kerry National and cruising speed that had him on the lead on summer ground in the two-and-three-quarter mile Galway Plate, the athletic bay gelding slid easily into third from the outside, just off Pistol Whipped and Global Citizen and outside Snap Decision.
“Jumped off and went a good even gallop,” Gainford said. “I thought it was the best good gallop he’s went.”
Like he still had the stabilising ear of Russell on the phone, Gainford kept it simple staying in the clear, sitting still when Hewick stood off a few of his fences and allowing for Hewick to take command jumping the third-to-last.
Sliding to the inside and well in the clear, Hewick skipped over the second-to-last and sauntered to the lead as Noah And The Ark, Belfast Banter, Ask Paddington and Snap Decision chased like kids after an ice-cream truck. None could counter Hewick’s relentlessness.
Hewick jinked left once, then twice, approaching the last as many do when they leave the inside loop, Gainford gathered and regrouped, and they met the last perfectly.
Riding under the long-forgotten, no-hit whip rules of New Jersey (that’s a long story for another day), Gainford did nothing more than change his hold and pump his whip at the finish.
“When I turned to jump the last, he had a slight look, he idles in front, but look, if a horse came to him, he would have picked up, he’s an idling type of horse,” Gainford said.
“He’s run in some top-class races but the way he hit the hill there after going a gallop after two miles, that was serious, that was some feeling. It’s magic.”
And the man who pulled the hare out of the bonnet was Shark Hanlon. A character in a game of characters, Hanlon went to the Goresbridge Sale five years ago, he said they call it a half-bred sale, to look on a lark and wound up with a legend.
“He was a great-walking horse. I love a good-walking horse. Paddy Mullins said years ago, ‘if they can’t walk, they can’t run.’ I was a great admirer of Paddy Mullins, I learned a lot of things from him. We were neighbours,” Hanlon said of the legendary trainer.
“No, you don’t think of things like this. He’s a real horse. Just a real horse. The owners have no interest in selling him, no issues, for me, it’s great. I own a bit of him myself.”
Hanlon had seen Irish stalwarts Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins plunder Far Hills in the past and put a plan into action for Hewick to win his second biggest pay cheque in his storied career.
“I had it in mind for a good while. The prize money is brilliant. When you have a horse good enough, you bring him. This horse will be minded and you’ll see him again next year. That’s my plan,” Hanlon said.
“It’s unreal. I’m after having winners everywhere, we’ve had no winner in Cheltenham yet, but we could have a Gold Cup in mind. He’s a good horse, I’d say he would go straight for a Gold Cup. He’s improving, this horse is improving.
“The ground today came perfect for him. I was afraid coming over, maybe the ground firm, the rain came Thursday, not too many people in America were doing a rain dance here on Thursday. I did.”
At six feet something tall and three feet something wide, Hanlon would have an advantage in any rain dance and the rain came two days before the sport’s biggest day, swaying the scales a bit further for the strong Irish team that competed at Far Hills. Three Irish-based horses won and Irish-breds swept six out of the seven races.
“This lad handles good ground, if he didn’t handle good ground, he wouldn’t be here,” Hanlon said with an arm around his 15-year-old pony-racing son Paddy.
“Listen, it’s great, an achievement for us, to have the family here, it’s unreal so it is, this lad looks after him at home.”
And if he wins the holiest of the holy grails, the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, would he really come back to America to defend his title?
“I think I will. I think I will. I just love it. I love the place. I love the people. We’re after having a ball. That’s what it’s all about. This is what the sport is about,” Hanlon said. “The people around this place, if they see the celebrations we had today, maybe they’ll buy a horse, not with me, with someone else, everyone deserves to get a chance at this game.
“If they want to give me a horse, lovely, but go down to their neighbor and give them a horse. That’s my motto and that’s my motto all the time. It could happen. It could happen.”
Hewick and Hanlon made it happen.
DAVY Russell stood to the side of the Grand National festivities, holding a saddle and a sweat-stained pile of equipment, eating a bag of crisps and looking off in admiration.
The Irish icon had won two on the day and now held Gainford’s tack. A jockey, a valet, Russell didn’t care.
“This is a good horse. He was going to win a Kerry National with top-weight and you don’t win a Galway Plate unless you have a quality horse,” Russell said.
“To be honest with you, it would have taken an exceptional horse to beat him here, he’s a good horse, in good form, trained by a good man.”
Earlier in the day, before he became a valet for a kid half his age, Russell guided The Insider to win the Gladstone Hurdle and Ted Hastings to win the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle. Both horses were trained by Gordon Elliott.
It only looked easy.
“We have a lot of pressure, like, we’re coming a long way and you need to get results so there’s a lot of pressure coming here. They’re not easy to win. It’s good racing. It’s good racing,” Russell said.
“It’s not simple to come here. Gordon picks out horses and we try our best, try to get a bit of experience into him, especially the juveniles. You need a good horse, you can’t just pick anyone, you need one that will travel over well. It’s no point coming here halfcocked, these guys over here know what they’re doing.’
Owned by Kenny and Laura Haughey and Kieran Byrne, The Insider put a two-race experience edge to good use in the three-year-old hurdle, cruising on the lead to crush six overmatched American-based rivals.
A race later, Russell engineered a mid-pack move from Ted Hastings to grind out a three-quarter-length decision over Howyabud in the $75,000 novice stakes.
Owned by Aidan Ryan, the son of Imperial Monarch improved his jump record to four wins from seven starts.