Redefining Nearly in 20/20: Jessica Harrington and the Breeders’ Cup

Jessica Harrington has her eyes set on the Breeders' Cup yet again
Jessica Harrington has her eyes set on the Breeders' Cup yet again

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Jessica Harrington is who she says she is. That makes her unabashed, in a good way.

When I spoke to her by phone, I had lofty intentions, trying to tuck her into a certain category or paradigm. The method of approach would hopefully help me to understand her inner workings by ascribing her as a “type.”

When I asked the Moone, Co Kildare-based trainer if she was an “ambassador” for Thoroughbred racing, she replied with candor, “No, I am not an ambassador. What I am doing is responding to those that would knock down this sport.”

I kept at it, undeterred. “You seem to me to be a bona fides,” I said. Her reply was pithy, “No, not that either. I am focused on downplaying drama through positivity.”

Carrying on a conversation with the delightful Harrington is refreshing. She exudes the sense that her approach to life, and to her horses, is full of sincerity, honesty, and intention - even if she does not agree with the moniker of being a “bona fides.” She was beguilingly introspective concerning how 2020 has shifted her attitude and focus during what has become a Global Pandemic. Just like for us all, it has offered her a nexus of fresh outlooks.

This week, she is preparing to make her second consecutive visit to the Breeders’ Cup, which will be hosted by Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky on November 6th-7th. Last year, Harrington sent the graceful Albigna to Santa Anita for her BC debut. The filly acquitted herself well against a capacity field, finishing 4th to Graham Motion’s Sharing. Of course, this time around, unlike all the previous World Championships, there will not be fans present, only connections.

Harrington, who is formally known as “Mrs. J. Harrington” on the form, established a successful international career training both champion jumpers and flat racers beginning in the late 1980s. Despite her renown she puts you immediately at ease. Her clipped staccato is razor sharp both in content and intent. I will tell you what kind of trainer she is not. She is not a female trainer, a late-arriving flat trainer, and she is not a trainer who worries profusely about what she cannot change. She is a realist with a sprinkling of idealism. She is certainly willing to be flexible in times of uncertainty, and she has a wonderful sense of humor concerning the sublime.

Training and racing horses is an appendage of her, which was tested repeatedly during 2020 as COVID-19 closed racetracks across the globe. Harrington possesses a large stable and grinding that train to a halt was excruciatingly difficult. Sitting and waiting forces a trainer into practiced apathy—and that’s antithetical. As she said a couple of times, “There is no other way to put it, this is a very strange year.”

Off for 2 months, she busied herself as best she could, developing routines. Doing anything and everything, including the tearing down of ivy that had scaled the walls of her yard. “The mornings were fine because they were devoted to the horses, but by midday, when it is normally time to go to the races, there was just nothing,” she said. “It was gardening, which I am obsessive about, regular evening walks of around 4.8km, and then a nice refresher in the evenings.” She worked diligently during that time to busy the staff, which is extensive, and tried to take stock of future endeavors. At that point, even traveling to the Breeders’ Cup seemed distant.

I asked her if the feelings surrounding COVID-19 reminded of the Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001, where movements were restricted, the Cheltenham Festival was cancelled, and animals had to be quarantined due to possible illness. “Yes, you know it was similar in that we were all locked up and I was just heart sick about whether Moscow Flyer (her prize jump Champion) would be able to compete, but you have to remember that the time off only lasted roughly six weeks, then it was back to business.” Flash-forward to 2020, and as she sees it, this time period became totally different. Everything became a set of unknown scenarios involving waiting and watching.

Once the tracing of the horse business resumed, it was still difficult since quarantining followed any type of travel, even to Britain. At this point, she was still “concertinaed,” as she explained, because of her age. It was simply too dangerous, even with social distancing. She problem-solved like always. Family, which is extremely important to Harrington and integral to her operation, includes her two daughters, Emma and Kate, and her son-in-law Richie, among others. Serving as emissaries on the road in Britain and in France, her network became her eyes and ears. Even though she had full confidence in that cavalry, it was still a challenge.

June brought a fan-less, and top hat-less for that matter, Coronation Stakes during Royal Ascot. Harrington could not make it then either. However, she watched at home, as the Niarchos-owned Alpine Star (IRE) rode the rail guided by the indomitable Frankie Dettori. That win avenged her stablemate by defeating Sharing in regal fashion.  

What that time period taught Harrington was a reconceptualizing of the idea of nearly. That term has a usage that can cut both ways, depending on your vantage point. On the one hand, it means a miss, something that could have been - a negative. On the other, nearly means the effort was game, producing a result that was more than satisfactory - a positive. Since racing resumed this summer, Harrington runners have had a number of nearly-type moments.

Alpine Star, for example, got “shinned” 3 times with second place finishes at Chantilly, Deauville, and Longchamp. There were many others that experienced close calls and did not win. Before the Pandemic, Harrington would have looked at those near misses like the former, negatively. But restrictions have crystallized the importance of seeing value in the latter definition. Proving that changes in perspective can lead to change in oneself. A true 20/20 moment in 2020, if there ever was one.      

With the metaphorical roller coaster of 2020, Harrington sends 3 members of her stable to Keeneland, including Oodnadatta (IRE) and Cadillac (IRE), both 2-year-olds, and the well-seasoned 3-year-old, Cayenne Pepper (IRE) (pronounced Cay-N, for you Americans). She shipped them out on Friday last, after a final set of workouts two days before. All systems are firing, according to Harrington. She was unabashed, yet again, when I asked her if she was concerned about the flight. “No, you cannot spend time worrying; you just put them on the plane and hope when you see them again that they are in good health.” With her superb jockey Shane Foley, who has all 3 mounts, both embarked on the same flight on Tuesday, with Richie joining them in Lexington. Flying will feel like a “new experience,” she laughed, especially for someone so used to racking up miles across Europe.

Once everyone assembles, it will be time to assess how her two accomplished freshmen traveled. Harrington sees them as each-way players with a good chance to hit the board or even win. Both will run Friday on the “Future Stars” card in the Juvenile Turf and the Juvenile Fillies. She has had much success letting 2-year-olds be themselves. Who could forget the maturation from 2 to 3 of the splendid Alpha Centauri?

The upstart Cadillac, out of Lope De Vega (IRE) and Seas of Wells (IRE), follows that great tradition of young Harrington rookies. Running under her syndicate, Alpha Racing, which includes an American contingent, the connections will head to Lexington to cheer Cadillac on. This one will not be a fish out of water at Keeneland, as he has a left-hand turn win at Leopardstown that was a mile on good turf - a sign. As for Oodnadatta, named after the hottest place in all of Australia (GB), she punched her ticket to Keeneland with a 3rd place finish last out at The Curragh against a quality field. Out of famed sire Australia, her heart and ability to rate will serve well on what is expected to be a firm Haggin Turf Course for the Breeders’ Cup - another sign.

Last but certainly not least, Harrington brings in Cayenne Pepper to match wits with the other members of the Filly and Mare Turf on Saturday of the Breeders’ Cup. The race will be a highlight considering the depth in this one, including mounts from Chad Brown, Shug McGaughey, Aiden O’Brien, Graham Motion, and Bill Mott. Owner Sarah Kelly’s filly, I would imagine, will be a square price considering her class and running style, which Harrington describes as “another with an each-way chance.”

The story behind the ownership of Cayenne Pepper is a challenging one to hear. Sarah and her late husband, Jon, wanted to travel this year to their horse run, but his passing, coupled with the COVID-19 outbreak, brought those plans to a halt. Harrington wants to win this one, as she relates, “For Jon’s legacy.” Sarah will be on hand at Keeneland to watch her horse win. Hopes are high for all 3 runners, especially considering all that has occurred this year. No matter what happens though, just being at the Breeders’ Cup is hugely significant. You can hear that in Harrington’s striking voice.

And that really encapsulates the spirit of Jessica Harrington—hope, with a major helping of gratitude. She is a person who exudes positivity. She is not done yet, not by a long-shot. Despite a massive shutdown of racing, and life for that matter, her perspectives about what is important appear clearer than ever. Living through an unknown time can do that. Certainly, she had foresight on loan from previous experiences, but as she says, “Doing things in the dark can produce good decisions.” She immediately tempered that statement with some realism, “Though not always, of course.” But that’s the point returning to the discussion of how to interpret the word nearly. Harrington’s choice of positivity reflects a balanced set of emotions that are both raw and untested, yet also prosaic and full of patience.

Remember, Jessica Harrington is who she says she is. Arriving for the Breeders’ Cup, that poise she maintains so expertly is cupped in a shroud of positivity. It will serve her well for the rest of 2020, and as she travels to Keeneland for the World Championships. More importantly it brings into sharp 20/20 focus, for the rest of us, the benefits of looking at our own nearly moments differently.  

I learned something valuable about positivity from Mrs. Harrington. To put it another way, her reservations about labels and monikers, my deliberate typecasting, is precisely what makes her a bona fides - full of sincerity, honesty, and intention. She may still not care for this attribution, and now I understand why.

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