She may have entered her eighth decade in February, but horse trainer Jessica Harrington has no thoughts of retirement — in fact, she’s had one of her most successful years to date. Here, she takes a look back at the lessons racing, hard work, motherhood and grief have taught her. Katie Byrne reports
Some people think of their 70s as a leisurely period of retirement, golf outings and bridge classes. Prolific horse trainer Jessica Harrington has other ideas. Rather than winding down, her career has been on the up and up since she turned 70 in February. The following month, she had three winners at Cheltenham, an unprecedented success made all the sweeter when she won her first Gold Cup with Sizing John — her first ever runner in the race.
At the time she joked that it was “beginner’s luck”, yet when she won her first Irish Grand National a month later, it became clear that Commonstown Stud had more than luck on its side. And Jessica’s horses will be back in action this September 9 and 10 at the Longines Irish Champions Weekend. Attracting some of the best flat racing horses and jockeys in the world, the weekend has two feature races — the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes and The Comer Group International Irish St Leger.
Jessica, who is perhaps best known for training the legendary chaser Moscow Flyer discovered her calling early in life. Her father, Brigadier Bryan Fowler, was a decorated British Army officer, a member of the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase and a renowned horse breeder. Jessica was born in London but the family relocated to an 850-acre farm in Rahinstown, Co Meath, when her father inherited it in 1957.
She was winning pony club championships from the age of 11 and soon became a force to be reckoned with as an Olympic-level three-day event rider. Her late brother, John, went on to become a leading amateur jockey and, later, a trainer.
She married her first husband, David Lloyd, when she was 21 and they had two children, James and Tara. When their marriage ended in 1976, she moved back to Ireland with their children and married bloodstock agent Johnny Harrington. He had a permit to train horses, which his wife took over in 1984. She was granted her full-training licence a few years later. Jessica and Johnny had two daughters, Emma and Kate, who are 12 years apart. Emma looks after the office and younger daughter Kate, an amateur jockey and assistant trainer, helps out in the yard.
It’s a family business, which made the loss of Johnny, who passed away from cancer in April 2014, even harder. Jessica says his death made her consider retiring from the world of racing but her children encouraged her to stay the distance. It’s just as well — her recent string of success would suggest that, at age 70, her race is far from run.
My approach to ageing is to keep going. I think when people stop doing things they just stop altogether. Retirement can be the worst thing in the world for some people. I think that was taught to me by my father because he rode until he was in his 80s and he was always doing something. I don’t think of myself as 70. I still think I’m 60. When I was younger I thought people who were 50 were half-way dead! Of course, when you’re younger, everyone seems ancient… You need to keep the limbs going, though. I’m not a great person for taking pills, although I should probably take something for arthritis. The only thing I take is Juice Plus+ capsules, which gives me my five-a-day and I eat healthily. I don’t eat convenience food — although I’m definitely a chocoholic.
Energy breeds energy. I used to think my mother was mad — she was always doing something, never sitting down. I always wondered why she wouldn’t sit down and relax but then that came through to me and I realised that was why she had lots of energy. If I want to get something done, I go and do it. I don’t rely on other people and I don’t want to be beholden to other people either. The only time I ever thought about winding down was three years ago, after my husband died. It was a panic reaction more than anything else. ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ We’d had a good year but then I thought, ‘Do I really want to do this all on my own?’ The children — the ones who are involved in it — were great. They sat me down and said, ‘You train the horses and we’ll do all the bits you don’t like doing’. And I thought, ‘Okay, fine. I can manage. I can do it’.
I’m a hard worker. Most people thought I had a silver spoon in my mouth because I was brought up in a big house but my brother and I always had to look after ourselves, and look after our ponies. There was no lounging around in bed in the morning. And then, at a certain age, I had to get up and cook breakfast. It put me on porridge for the rest of my life — my father had it every morning for his breakfast. We were never spoilt. I parent the same way: If you want to do something, you work for it. It’s never handed to you.
You learn by example. I used to think my parents knew nothing and I knew everything as a teenager. I remember my mother and father embarrassing me by saying things but now I find myself turning around and saying the exact same things to my children. Young people today get a little bit more protected. I don’t think they grow up as quickly as my generation. I basically left school at 16 and went off to a school abroad in Paris. I finished at 17 and then I was out in the big, bad world. My generation didn’t really go to university. The boys did, but not the girls, and that was the way it was. Nowadays, children go to school and then university and they are not out in the big, bad world until their 20s.
When I was 20, everything was black and white. It was right or wrong. There was no grey. In a way it’s sad that as you get older, and you have children, grey creeps in because life becomes a compromise. I miss being able to say, ‘That is what I want to do and that is where I want to go’. I got married at 21 and I had my first child at 23. There was no such thing as antenatal classes or car seats then. It was definitely trial and error and I wonder how my children ever survived me. I sometimes wonder how I ever managed to bring them up without killing them!
The secret of a happy marriage is plenty of space. It’s important to have a little bit of independence or else you have nothing to talk about when you get home in the evening. Being great friends helps too. Alone time is important. I’m happy in my own skin and therefore I’m happy in my own space and perfectly happy on my own. I love people and I love having people around but I’m comfortable being on my own too. I left my first husband with two small children. And I’ve been on my own for the last few years after Johnny died — before that he was in hospital a lot and then, early on in our marriage, he used to go away on business. So I got used to being in my own company. It’s the same with friends. Good friends respect your space. I have friends who I might not see for six months because I’m busy and they’re busy. They’re the sort of friends I love because they’re not needy.
When you want to get your own way, don’t confront it head on. Work around it and try to get your point of view across without it being a yes or a no. Maybe if we did this, or maybe if we did that … Confrontation usually doesn’t get you anywhere. Take, for example, if an owner, for whatever reason, takes their horses (to another trainer). I don’t have a row about it — and you usually find in those situations that they realise the grass isn’t greener and they come back to you. And because I haven’t fallen out with them, they haven’t lost face by coming back to me. Having a row with someone and effing and blinding will only give you satisfaction for a few minutes — and you just might regret it a couple of years down the road.
I knew if I wanted to train racehorses and I would have to then do the shopping and come home and feed my children. That’s the way life was. That’s what I was expected to do and I didn’t complain.
As much as I loved him, Johnny didn’t do much of changing nappies. The men today are brilliant — they do lots of work with their children but I just did it all. I knew no different so I just did it.
Never, in a race, be afraid of one horse. If there’s a really hot favourite in one race and you’re thinking, ‘Oh God, we’re never going to beat him’, don’t be afraid because horses, like humans, can always have off-days. Horses are a great leveller. They had a great saying in the pony club that it’s character-building. I once said this to someone and he said, ‘I think I’ve had enough of character-building. I want some of the other side of it now!’
Sometimes my children say I’m much too straight. But if you want to say something, why faff around the point? It’s so much easier to just come to your point. When I get cross it’s WHOOSH! And then, two minutes later, it’s over and done with. I don’t niggle and I don’t go back and say, ‘You shouldn’t have done this and you shouldn’t have done that’.
There are lots of ifs, and ands and buts in your life. When I came back to Ireland after my first marriage, it was through my father that I started eventing again. I had two children, a new husband and then another child. My father was in his 70s at the time and he said, ‘I’ll keep the horses and take them to the events — you just ride them’. And that’s what got me back into the eventing. If he hadn’t had done that I wouldn’t have got back into it. There were a few forks in the road, but I went one way when I could have gone another way. There are plenty of things I wish I had done when I was younger but I’ve done so many other things. You’ll always have regrets and you’ll always wonder ‘If I’d done that, what would have happened?’ Would it have changed my life?’
I didn’t get to where I’ve got to alone. There’s a whole team: the people in the yard; the owners who have sent me horses and had trust in me. It wasn’t just me deciding that I’m going to go out and train horses. It’s a long, slow process. I prefer to be thought of as a trainer as opposed to a ‘woman trainer’. Recently people were saying, ‘What’s it like being the most successful woman trainer at Cheltenham?’ and I felt like saying, ‘Well, actually, I’d like to be the most successful trainer in Cheltenham but if you want to put that label on me, grand’.
You must never gloat because pride cometh before a fall. If you start gloating and saying ‘I made it to here or there’, you haven’t. No one has. You might get to a certain point but there is always someone coming up behind you in any business. You may have got there but you have to work even harder to stay successful. My parents always told me to have respect for people. They also taught me that not everyone can succeed. There is always someone who is middle of the road.
It’s brilliant working with family. If you go away you have absolute trust and I think what gives me comfort is that I know they are not going to turn around and stab me in the back. They will always support me.
There is more than one way to skin a cat. We all train horses to win races at the end of the day but we all do it slightly differently. If you’re going in one direction and you think, Oh, that’s not so good’, change the direction — you will still get to the same end. A lot of horse training is gut instinct. I always tell my children that the first decision I make is always the best decision. When you’ve got to make a decision, trust yourself. And don’t look back. When you’ve run a horse in a race and it hasn’t gone to plan and you’re cross, the thing to remember is that you can’t alter the past. You can’t change what’s been — so get going and do something to improve the next step. You have a lot more disappointments than you do successes in horse racing so you have to be resilient.
People say you make your own luck. And yes, there is probably a bit of being in the right place at the right time, but something propels you to be in that place. Nobody gets to the top of anything without a lot of commitment and a lot of hard work and a lot of disappointments along the way. I do believe in fate, though. They might be very small things but I believe some things are meant to be.
I trust everybody until they prove to be untrustworthy. You can’t go in thinking that someone is untrustworthy. You have to trust them and then, if you are proved wrong, you have to reorganise your thoughts about them.
Everybody does grief differently. Everybody has their own way of getting over things and, probably, my way of getting over things is to put my head down and keep going.