Guy Torsilieri met John “Shark” Hanlon at the Far Hills finish line Oct. 15, minutes after Hanlon’s Hewick (Ire) dominated the richest United States steeplechase of the year. In the midst of an Irish scrum, an Italian from New Jersey asked a question of an Irishman from Kilkenny.
“You coming back?” the Far Hills Races chairman asked.
“I’ll be back,” Hanlon answered in a 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 to celebrate a win in the $250,000 American Grand National-G1.
Hewick, who got his nickname as an 18-year-old hurler (Irish lacrosse player might be the best description), deserved nothing else.
Purchased for €850 at Goresbridge horses in training sale in 2017, the 7-year-old son of Virtual (GB) won his eighth career race (four over hurdles and four over chase fences) in a facile score against America’s best, including three-time Grade 1 winner Snap Decision. Owned by TJ 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, Hewick secured a comfortable spot just off American-based Pistol Whipped (GB) and British invader Global Citizen (Ire), loped easily in the clear and stormed up the final hill to win by 111⁄2 lengths over Noah and the Ark (Ire) and Ask Paddington (Ire). Snap Decision ran in snatches before fading to sixth, the first time the 8-year-old has finished worse than second in his 18-race jump career. Hewick finished 2 5⁄8 miles over yielding ground in 5:11.60.
“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 TJfor 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 five-pound apprentice and the horse who failed to finish his first three point-to-point 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 Bet365 Chase at Sandown in England and upset Ireland’s prestigious Galway Plate in July. There were a couple of blips, 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 TJ, 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 TJ,” Gainford said. “Look it, you had to be upset after Listowel. I was, they could see that. TJ 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. Utilizing stamina that had him in contention going 3 miles on good ground in the Kerry National and cruising speed that had him on the lead on summer ground in the 23⁄4-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 stabilizing ear of Russell on the phone, Gainford kept it simple, sitting still when Hewick stood off at a few of his fences and allowing for Hewick to take command jumping the third-last. Sliding to the inside, Hewick skipped over the second-last and sauntered to the lead as Noah and the Ark, Belfast Banter (Ire), 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 2 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, he went to the Goresbridge Sale five years ago, he said they call it a half-bred sale and it is well known as a source for sporthorse prospects, 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 neighbors,” 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 and put a plan into action for Hewick to win the second biggest paycheck of 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 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.
Far Hills Undercard
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, before he became a valet for a kid half his age, Russell guided The Insider (Ire) to win the Gladstone Hurdle and Ted Hastings (Ire) to win the Foxbrook Champion Hurdle for 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 half-cocked, 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 3-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 (Ire) in the $75,000 novice stakes. Owned by Aidan Ryan, the son of Imperial Monarch (Ire) improved his jump record to four wins from seven starts.
Veteran Redicean (GB) returned to his best form to win the restricted Appleton Stakes handicap hurdle for Sharon Sheppard, trainer Leslie Young and Irish-based jockey Sean Flanagan. Young added blinkers to the hard-trying 8-year-old after three losses in Grade 1 company this summer. The son of Medicean (GB) drew off to win by 4 lengths over Theocrat (Ire) and Soviet Pimpernel (Ire). Redicean ticked over $300,000 in career earnings with his 10th win (six over hurdles and three on the flat) . . . Ljay (Ire) kicked off the card with an upset in the Harry E. Harris for 4-year-olds. Owned by Belle Meade Jockey Club and the International Venture, the son of Champs Elysees (GB) pulled off a half-length win over Maryland-bred Who’s Counting and Proven Innocent. Trained by Keri Brion and ridden by Parker Hendriks, Ljay picked up his second 4-year-old stakes win of the season . . . Jockey Bernie Dalton cajoled and corralled a hard-pulling Agitare (Ire) to win the inaugural running of the John Forbes Memorial, a 2-mile flat stakes worth $100,000, for Brion and owners Molly and Paul Willis, CFC Stable, Danny and Sheila Kelly and LF Racing. The son of Teofilo (Ire) ran down Monmouth-based Basso, trained by Greg Sacco and ridden by Nik Juarez, to win by 4 lengths. Millionaire Cross Border finished third . . . Riverdee Stable’s Cool Jet (Ire) won the nightcap, a $50,000 maiden hurdle, added to this year’s card. Because of low sun, stewards omitted six of the 11 hurdles in the 21⁄8-mile contest. Cool Jet won a bumper for Willie Mullins in Ireland before going 0-for-3 for Brian Ellison in England. Owner Pat Boyle took a chance and sent the son of Jet Away (GB) to Jack Fisher in late spring. The bay gelding made his debut at Foxfield and came back two weeks later to win the richest maiden race of the season . . . The richest National Steeplechase Association meet of the season at $625,000, Far Hills featured pari-mutuel wagering and complete coverage on America’s Day at the Races via Fox Sports 2.