IT seems like it takes a truly remarkable story to emerge from the sport of horse racing to get into the media mainstream these days. Hewick is that remarkable story.
The horse that cost the price of a fancy television has now earned over €400,000 in prize money and recorded major race wins in Ireland, Britain and now America, following his runaway success in the Grade 1 American Grand National at Far Hills last Saturday.
It’s amazing when you hear Shark tell the story of the process he went through to buy Hewick. He’d gone up to Goresbridge to see a horse but found an empty box. On his way back out the car, he saw this horse walking towards him. He had a quick look and went on his way. Sat in his kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, he couldn’t stop thinking about the horse. He said to his partner Rachel that he chance his arm going back down to the sale and see if the horse would come worth the money.
For the horse’s owner T J McDonald, things worked out nicely as well. He bought Shark’s other big rags-to-riches story Skyace for £80,000 to stay in training with Shark in at a mixed sale in March. Just a month later, he had the price of her back and change when Hewick took apart a top-quality Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown.
Racing is full of those right place, right time, butterfly-effect moments.
Jordan Gainford will attest to that. Having made a huge impact in a small space of time on the point-to-point circuit. He had initially planned to wait until the end of the 2020-21 season to turn professional. Then with Covid cutting the point-to-point season short, he accelerated his transition having spoken to key people around him.
Once his licence came through, he rode winners, caught the attention of plenty, including Emmet Mullins. The Shunter was set up for a huge bonus win at Cheltenham and it was owner Paul Byrne who insisted they needed a 7lb claimer. As Mullins revealed after the race, they felt Gainford was the only choice.
Right place, right time. But it’s one skill to get yourself through on goal and it’s another to finish. Gainford was Mo Salah-like at Cheltenham, controlling the tempo of a feverishly competitive Festival handicap chase, defying his inexperience on the biggest stage of all with raw talent.
Success breeds success. Every jockey will tell you that. Two months later, Shark wanted to claim off Hewick in a handicap chase at Killarney. The Enniscorthy, Co Wexford native was the number-one choice again.
“I think that was my first ride for Shark,” Gainford recalled this week. “We finished second that day but he ran very well. I rode him then on his next run at Listowel and we won. I think that was probably important, that things just clicked for me with the horse.
“He went to England then, Shane Fenelon rode him and I was lucky enough to get back on him when he went to Uttoxeter for the Midlands National.”
This is a part of the Hewick story that needs a bit more explaining. Shark told anyone that would listen to him after Uttoxeter that the horse could have and possibly would have won on the day granted a better run through. Watching the race back, truth be told, it’s hard to see that exactly with the horse pulled up. Gainford puts a bit more flesh on the bones.
“I actually did think we were going to win there,” the 21-year-old asserts. “It was four miles and two furlongs, the ground was lovely, everything was in his favour and he travelled lovely. Just going down to the fifth last, a loose horse brought him out. Then he missed the third last and I pulled him up straight away.
“In fairness to Shark, he was actually delighted I pulled him up. I met him out on the track and told him I thought we’d have won and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll go to Sandown.’”
It was a big move to make for a 21-year-old jockey. You’re travelling well in a marquee handicap chase, it can be difficult to think about anything other than the there and now. There is easily a scenario that could have developed where Gainford kept going with Hewick, finished in a nice position but perhaps done some sort of damage. Does Sandown, Galway or America happen then? Who knows.
“He won very well in Sandown,” Gainford recalls. “Never missed a beat the whole way. I couldn’t believe how far he won to be honest. It was great to win a race worth so much money but I didn’t realise how big it was until I got a few phone calls either.
“Sure Galway was amazing as well, the way the race panned out. A lot of people asked me what I was thinking going to the line (when taken across the course by the loose horse) but I think I was more worried coming down to the second last because there was two loose horses to my left and the first thing you think is they’re going to come inside the fence on to the hurdles track. That was my biggest worry.
“Once we straightened up it was just a case of getting to the line as quickly as we could in the circumstances. I thought I was bet to be honest. There were a couple of flat jockeys standing there. I think it was Colin Keane I shouted over to and he gave me the thumbs up.
“Listowel was just one of those things. To be honest with you, the way he picked up from the third last was unreal and I didn’t think he was going to lose out for a second because every stride I was gaining on JJ (Slevin, on Busselton).
“To be honest I think if I rode down to the fence 10 times I don’t think I’d have done anything any different. Maybe other people thought something else but it was just one of those things, you move on, and thankfully things have worked out since.
“Shark was good to me just after the race. He came up, tapped on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
That is the jumps racing rollercoaster kicking in. The ups are great but the downs can be brutal. The fact Shark had a plan for the American dream already in motion would have been a help and that dream became a reality on Saturday.
“It was some experience,” Gainford recalls. “It’s a great event and it was great to be there. You probably could see from the television, the sun was very strong and he had a little grab at the second hurdle, there was a bit of a shadow there but in general it was straightforward.
“He has his own technique over a fence if I’m being honest with you. He has more respect for a fence than a hurdle too. But the jumps there were a mix between hurdles and fences and he jumped them well. There was a bit of talk about him handling the trip but we thought he’d be fine.
“At Galway, I couldn’t believe the speed we were going to the first fence and he was never out of his comfort zone. Still, in fairness to Shark, he told me to make sure to stretch them good and early, and when he sent him to the front, he went about his business very well.
“It was an amazing race to win and there was great atmosphere after it. I was back home the following morning, myself Sean Flanagan and Danny Mullins were on the same flight, so there wasn’t too much celebrating.”
The celebrations can wait because the jumps season proper is upon us and Gainford will hope to maximise a fruitful summer with the potential for more opportunities this winter. Given his achievements so far, you’d forget how short a time he’s been a professional jockey. This is just his third full season as a professional and he has already ridden out his claim.
“It’s been deadly,” he says. “And the main man behind me is Gary Cribbin (agent). He gets me a lot of these good rides. If there is one thing I’d like to say is that agents don’t get half the credit they deserve. I could ring Gary at 11pm at night and he’d answer the phone.
“He does more than just book rides for me. I’d often ring him if I thought something didn’t go to plan or I did something wrong. He’d tell you straight and that is what you need. If he thought I was half asleep on a horse, he’d be telling you to pull up your socks. I appreciate that.
“I’m in a great place in Gordon’s. Like, it’s a great place to learn. The staff there are great and there is always a good atmosphere. I’ve always looked up to Davy (Russell) and he’s always been good to me. I could ring him for advice at any stage as well. Davy is one of a kind really, probably the best rider I’ve ever seen anyway. If you watch him down to a fence or a hurdle he never moves, and he’s never changed his style from day one.
“You could ring him up about a horse and he’ll tell you all about him in a sentence. I’d often ring Barry O’Neill as well. He has been a great help to me since I was at Colin Bowe’s, which was a great place to learn the ropes. I start off riding ponies at Shay Slevin’s. All these people were great to me along the way.”
Gainford is well established in a short space of time but there is a slight paradox to his predicament given he can no longer use his claim and that is a significant challenge for him to take on.
Around about this time 12 months ago, Darragh O’Keeffe spoke about that challenge in this feature where he felt the need to prove himself all over again without his claim and at that stage of his career, it was like moving into the Premier League he said.
“I remember speaking to Gary about it a few times,” Gainford says regarding his claim. “We looked after it for a few months and Gary kind of felt after that, you may just take it and get what you can. Touch wood, we did. Maybe it was a bit slow there for a couple of months but we got going again.
“I’ve plenty of contacts made and I’m tipping away nicely now, I’m delighted where I am. It’s probably an advantage that I’m naturally light enough. You can still ride horses there at the bottom of the weights and that’s a big help.
“I’d be good friends with Keith Donoghue. There are few taller lads like him and they’re unreal to look after their weight - it’s nearly like a second job. When you see someone like Keith riding a winner, you’d always be happy for him. He is a great rider and it’s serious dedication from him.”
With 49 winners on the board in Ireland last season, a half century seems like a nice target for Gainford this term but he’s not one to get overly bogged down with set goals.
“I take each day as it comes,” he says “It’s racing, everyone is obviously trying to do their best and ride as many winners as they can and good winners but look it, whatever comes comes, and we’ll try our best anyway.
“I love riding winners. That’s the one thing for me. It’s probably the same for everyone. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s Tramore or Cheltenham, that feeling going by the post is hard bet.
“I’m in a great place at Gordon’s and I’ve got great people around me. This is a great time of the year. I’m lucky enough to be riding work on the likes of American Mike. Stepping up in trip, he has so much class and I think he could make a real impact this season.”
Jordan Gainford has already made a big impact and with his talent and scope to get better. Just like Hewick, it has been brilliant so far, but there is lots more to come.