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Article 20th December 2022 Cheltenham

It is 40 years since legendary owner John Patrick McManus enjoyed the first of his record 69 winners at The Festival when Mister Donovan landed what is now the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in 1982. From Istabraq to Synchronised to Don’t Push It and Minella Times, ‘JP’ sat down with his former jockey and Cheltenham Festival ambassador Barry Geraghty to reflect on his life in racing, gambling and great horses...

Born on 10 March 1951 in County Limerick, JP McManus does not hail from a racing background. Even after attending the Christian Brothers School on Sexton Street in Limerick, rather than making his way in the world of racing, he first went to work for his father’s plant hire business. Considering how his passion for the sport began, he explains: “I’d say it was gambling that drew me into racing. As a kid, I loved to gamble and horses were the means of having a bet. You’d work all week so you could go into the betting office on a Saturday afternoon and have a few bets. I stopped overnight when the tax went up and moved into bookmaking for a while, before mixing the two. I was probably more successful as a punter than as a bookmaker. “I did it for a couple of years and found it tough. I went skint a couple of times and had to go back to my dad and look for my job back. He was never very happy that I went bookmaking in the first place and he’d warned me not to get into debt. He said I could always come back, and then as soon as I got a few quid, I’d be on my bike and back off to the races.” McManus had some major triumphs in the betting rings of the 1970s, and his success when gambling earned him the nickname of ‘The Sundance Kid’ from the legendary sports writer Hugh McIlvanney.

This same success enabled him to take the step forward to purchase some racehorses. To those who know his unmistakeable green and yellow hooped silks, it might come as something of a surprise to learn that it was with a Flat racehorse that things really started to move for him. He recalls: “When I got a few quid and things started to move a bit better, I bought a mare called Cill Dara who won the [Irish] Cesarewitch in 1976. “She was a good mare and won it the following year as well. I had the odd horse after that. In 1978, I got Jack Of Trumps, who turned out to be a very good horse and finished second in two renewals of the King George.” While Jack Of Trumps was his first significant Jump horse, he was not able to land McManus the most coveted prize at The Festival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the owner would have to wait until 2012 to get his hands on it. McManus continues: “Jack Of Trumps went to Cheltenham in 1979 and was the second favourite for the Gold Cup behind Gay Spartan, and I’d heard on the Saturday morning that Gay Spartan was almost certainly out. I rang Edward O’Grady to say that Gay Spartan was out and I’ll never forget his words as he said, ‘So is Jack Of Trumps,’ so I think that was my biggest disappointment in racing when I heard he wasn’t going to run in the Gold Cup. We had to wait until 1982 for a Festival winner with Mister Donovan.” While Mister Donovan did not go on to greatness following his success at The Festival in 1982, just becoming the first horse to carry McManus’s famous colours to success at Jump racing’s ‘Olympics’ helped guarantee his place in history, and his owner laughs: “I’ve often said that if he didn’t win, I might not have had any of the others!”

For all his success at The Festival, one race stands out – the Unibet Champion Hurdle. His nine successes in the two-mile hurdling showpiece have long since eclipsed the record of the late Dorothy Paget and are headed by the greatest hurdler of the modern era – Istabraq, who triumphed in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Bred by the late Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Shadwell operation, Istabraq was a three-part brother to the 1984 Derby winner Secreto. On the Flat, he was a relatively modest performer for John Gosden, winning two minor contests from 11 starts. Sent to the sales as a four-year-old, he ended up in McManus’s hands for 38,000 guineas. He was intended to be trained by John Durkan but this tragically never happened, with Durkan passing away aged 30 in January 1998, shortly before Istabraq’s first Champion Hurdle. McManus remembers it well: “Timmy Hyde bought him in 1996 and he was saying he was going to own him with a few lads and send him to John Durkan. Fortunately, Timmy passed him on to me and we had great fun and a lot of excitement. “John was going through some treatment at the time and he said he’d like us to put him into training, so John picked Aidan O’Brien. I have to thank John for picking Aidan as it worked a dream. “I never went to see Istabraq work, nor do I see any of the horses work, but I remember going down to Aidan’s on the Saturday before his first Champion Hurdle [1998]. I couldn’t see him as he was having his siesta, so we had a lovely lunch instead. I remember asking Aidan how he thought he’d run and he said he’d blow them away. I only wish I knew him as well as I do now! “The Champion Hurdle has always been a good race for us, we’ve won it nine times and Buveur D’Air was really good. He was a very slick hurdler. Binocular (2010), Jezki (2014), Espoir D’Allen (2019) and Epatante (2020) also won the coveted title. The great thing about winning the Champion Hurdle is that you can celebrate it for four days! You’re just walking on air.” While success flowed freely in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, McManus had to wait until 2012 to get his hands on the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup and even then, it required all the strength and determination of his jockey, a certain AP McCoy. McManus says: “It’s always nice to win the Gold Cup and I had a couple of chances before that with fancied horses, but to be honest with you, I found it hard to see Synchronised winning the Gold Cup beforehand.

“AP kind of believed and I think that victory was one of his greatest-ever rides because Synchronised wasn’t very big and like Istabraq he was by Sadler’s Wells. “I sent Mayasta [Synchronised’s dam] to be covered and John Magnier decided he’d cover her with Sadler’s Wells. John used to cover a couple of my jumping mares with him and I think it was more for a bit of fun, so it was nice to see Sadler’s Wells have a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup winner!” Success in the most famous Jump race in the world, the Randox Grand National, is another prize McManus coveted and ultimately achieved. After some near misses, Don’t Push It landed the Aintree spectacular in 2010, handing 20-times champion jockey AP McCoy a first National success at his 15th attempt in the process. McManus continues: “Aintree has been lucky. We’ve knocked on the door and been lucky enough to win it twice and be second five times. We’ve had some of our best days there and also some that weren’t quite as good, but it’s a marvellous race to win as it’s just so special. When AP won his National and Jonjo [O’Neill] won his National, it just made it a very special day at the time.” Minella Times became the owner’s second Randox Grand National winner in 2021 and provided another racing milestone with his winning rider Rachael Blackmore becoming the first female jockey to claim victory in the race. McManus adds: “How good was that? Rachael did the business and she was absolutely brilliant. A great ride is when you can’t see anything being done wrong. It all kind of fell into place on the day and that seems to come naturally to Rachael.” For all his success and everything McManus has achieved in the sport, he remains someone with his feet very firmly on the ground, a trait perhaps best summed up by his attitude to winning. He explains: “You have to celebrate everyone like it will be your last, as one day you’ll be right.” With 69 Festival winners to his name, there is very little left for him to add to his bulging CV, but the 71-year-old does have one more target in mind: “I’m trying to pass my own age!”


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