SO, a horse walks into a bar…. No, seriously, he does.
When Hewick returned to Ireland after winning the American Grand National, his trainer John ‘Shark’ Hanlon casually paraded him down for a drink to his local bar, The Pint Depot in Bagenalstown, much to the amusement of the regulars, who had their smart phones at the ready as Hewick slurped his way through a well-deserved pint of Guinness.
Over 150,000 people shared in that unique moment via social media. In almost a quarter of a century covering racing, I had only ever witnessed this once before when the late great trainer Oliver Brady marched Pablo, the winner of the 2003 English Lincoln, into a bar in the Glencarn Hotel in Co Monaghan during a Cheltenham Festival preview.
There was no social media back in those days but the episode quickly entered local folklore.
There’s quite a similarity between Shark Hanlon and Oliver Brady. Both trainers were/are acutely aware when they have/had a very good horse on their hands, have/had the ability to get them spot on for the big day and both are/were well able to celebrate their achievements in worthy fashion.
When Baron De Feypo finished third in the 2007 Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival, such was the exuberance of the celebrations it forced a delay to the subsequent race. It took Cheltenham security a long time to persuade Oliver Brady, bedecked in his beloved Monaghan jersey, to vacate the winner’s enclosure that day.
Should Hewick, an €850 purchase, manage to win the 2023 Cheltenham Gold Cup – and he is far from a forlorn hope – one can only imagine the scenes of unfettered celebration that would probably rival, if not surpass, that memorable day for Baron De Feypo’s connections. And what would Oliver Brady’s celebrations have been like if Baron De Feypo had actually won that day!
Hewick’s story is thoroughly remarkable given his inauspicious start to his racing career. In many ways, that’s what makes his story so improbable.
Hewick began by unseating his rider in a Knockanard point-to-point in February 2019 and followed that up with a couple of falls between the flags at Borris House and Dromahane.
Should the four-year-old have revealed even a fraction of the ability that he has now, his career would have taken a totally different path.
“I’ve no doubt if he had won one of those races he would have been gone” Shark Hanlon confessed.
“We then sent him over hurdles and he didn’t fare much better, so he was undoubtedly a four-year-old weak horse who needed plenty of time. When he got that time, he began to fill out and thrive.”
On Hewick’s seventh attempt over timber, he ran well to finish second to a useful horse of Oliver McKiernan’s, Unexpected Depth, in a Sligo maiden.
“That was a very good run and it just took him a while to come to himself. The more he ran the more the penny began to drop with him. And I realised the more racing he got, the better he was going to be,” said Shark. And he was 100% right.
Hewick finally cast off his maiden status at his 12th attempt in Kilbeggan in September 2020 under Jody McGarvey, winning a three miles and one furlong handicap hurdle in the style of a very good horse.
Since then, Hewick has been out of the top two on just one occasion in his 12 subsequent completed starts and it’s now a real possibility that he could win jump racing’s most prestigious prize.
It was when Hewick began to tackle the larger obstacles that his true talent came to the fore. He won on his first start over fences as a six-year-old in a beginners’ chase at Clonmel in June 2021.
“I thought he might have been a big contender for the Kerry National that year, but was rated 130 at that time and was about 3lb too low in the weights to get into the race, so we decided to send him to Perth for a handicap chase in early September and he finished a close second to a very good horse of Donald McCain’s, Minella Trump, who ended up completing an impressive sequence of seven consecutive wins.
“If Hewick had won that race, he would have been raised about 6lb and would have got into the Kerry National off about 10 and a half stone. He would have had a right chance, considering he ran so well in the race off top-weight this year,” said Shark.
Shark Hanlon has had some good horses though his hands before. Luska Lad, Hidden Cyclone and Skyace are probably his best known.
Luska Lad was a multiple Grade 2 winner over hurdles back in 2010 while Hidden Cyclone won 17 races including multiple Grade 2 successes over both hurdles and fences. His finest hour was winning the Fortria Chase at Navan in 2015.
Skyace was another inexpensive purchase who punched well above her weight providing Shark with a first Grade 1 success when she landed the Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in April 2021.
Her trainer told everyone who would listen she would win and it’s nice to validate that confidence by delivering on the big day. Skyace, formerly trained by Willie Mullins, was purchased for £600 and her improbable story garnered a lot of the positive publicity for the gregarious Bagenalstown man.
It wasn’t long before another bargain buy, Hewick, would further embellish Shark’s reputation as a man who could deliver way more than you would normally expect from unpromising stock.
In fairness, Shark is not a bad judge of human promise either, having been largely responsible for Rachael Blackmore’s emergence from relative obscurity. Hewick ran and won a handicap hurdle at Listowel on the same day as the 2021 Guinness Kerry National and that left him spot on for a tilt at the three miles and five furlongs Durham National at Sedgefield the following month. It was another piece of shrewd race planning by Hanlon.
“The ground had started to go against Hewick here in Ireland, so I decided to take our chance on good ground and he justified 3/1 favouritism to bolt up under Shane Fenelon.
“I decided that day that we would prepare him for the marathon four miles and two furlongs Midlands National at Uttoxeter the Saturday after the Cheltenham Festival.
“And we were very unlucky not to win that as well. Jordan Gainford told me that he still had plenty of horse underneath him when he was badly hampered by a loose horse that effectively ended his chance.
“I was absolutely delighted with that first run of the season. Jordan did the right thing by deciding to pull him up and walk him up the straight when his chance of winning had gone. He was really disappointed but I told him not to worry as there would be other big days ahead,” said Shark.
The pair didn’t have to wait too long for that big day. The following month, Hewick claimed another big cross-channel prize, the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown, by an eye-catching eight lengths.
When Hewick won, Shark told local reporters: “All he does is stay. He was a very good walker and I love a good-walking horse. And for €850, he was the price of a cow!”
Hewick’s lucky owner, T.J. McDonald, a farmer from Naas in Co Kildare, was understandably elated that day. “I can’t believe he won so well. His odds were a bit crazy during the week at 33/1, I kept saying to myself that he can’t win it but the more I looked at it with the race cutting up, I thought he could.
“I didn’t actually have a penny on him but the prize money is great so we’ll take that! This is my biggest win by far, it used to be a big deal for me having a runner at home on a Saturday in a handicap, never mind coming over here and winning this great race at one of the biggest meetings of the year. I’m delighted.”
McDonald could rightly be forgiven in thinking that Hewick’s win that day could be his crowning glory, but Hewick is the gift that kept on giving.
There was a bit of a scare for Shark when his pride and joy finished second next time out in a handicap hurdle at Ballinrobe in May.
“I thought he had broken down as he was on three legs when Rob James jumped down off him but a shoe had twisted and had gone up into his foot. Thankfully, he was 100% sound a few days later.”
That race proved to be a very nice pipe opener for another glorious day that lay ahead. Hewick went into July’s Guinness Galway Plate as a relative outsider at odds of 16/1 and belied those insulting odds in gutsy fashion to give his trainer, owner and jockey another never-to-be-forgotten day.
“I couldn’t believe the price he was as his runs in the Durham National and the Midlands National were terrific and we always knew he would get up that Galway hill.
“A loose horse carried Hewick right over on to the rail and, although the winning margin was officially half a length, he won have won even further if he had not had to drift off a straight line,” said Shark, whose elderly mother and father were in Galway that day to bask in of the great days of their son’s training career.
It was made even more special that President Michael D.Higgins was on hand to present the trophies to the winners.
An emotional Shark described that day how he had managed to buy the horse that could well be the best he will ever train.
“He came from the sales in Goresbridge for €850. I met this horse coming in the back gate with a lovely walk and Paddy Mullins had said to me years ago ‘if a horse can’t walk, he can’t run’.
“I went there to buy another horse and live only five minutes down the road so I went home for grub, but was thinking about him and went back down and bought him.” It proved to be a life-changing decision for the former cattle dealer who first took out his training licence in 2006.
Another stroke of good fortune at Galway was Jordan Gainford’s availability to ride the horse. “Jordan gave him a great ride, knew the horse and fair dues to Gordon Elliott, he could have told Jordan to ride one of his own but said ‘your horse has a chance’ so allowed me to put him up.
“Gordon was the first man to shake my hand coming back in,” said the man who was bursting with pride that day.
Hewick’s next adventure was attempting to become the first horse since the great Doran’s Pride back in 1997 to win the Guinness Kerry National at Listowel in September off top-weight. And he almost pulled it off.
Hewick and Jordan Gainford were upsides with the eventual winner Busselton when the pair parted company with a crashing fall at the final fence when they would possibly have gone on to win.
But further glory for Hewick, Shark, T.J. and Jordan would come shortly afterwards in the shape of a memorable success in the American Grand National at Far Hills in New Jersey. “Win, lose or draw at Listowel, he was also going to head for America,” said Shark.
The stable star once again obliged in stunning fashion, a performance which earned Hewick an Eclipse Award as America’s top steeplechaser.
“Hewick is rated 167 and deserves to take his place in the Gold Cup. I’m hoping that he gets some good ground. Some people are saying he might find it hard to lie up with the pace that you will undoubtedly get in a race with so many quality horses but they said the same about him in the Galway Plate and he made almost all of the running that day.
“We know our lad will stay and that can’t be said for quite a few horses ahead of him in the market. So, if we get our good ground, we would be quietly confident,” said Shark, who will once again hope that Jordan Gainford will be available to reunite with Hewick on St. Patrick’s Day.
Should Shark’s horse of a lifetime succeed in winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it’s odds-on that the pair would make a return visit to The Pint Depot in Bagenalstown for another celebratory pint of Guinness.
And just like the world’s most famous stout, Hewick took quite a while to settle before maturing into something very special.
This article is taken from The Irish Field Cheltenham Magazine 2023, produced in partnership with Goffs.