Trainer Profile - Jessica Harrington
By Lissa Oliver
Some towns are all about the horse, the vast number of racing stables in the one place defining the community that has sprung up among them. Wherever there is a racing centre there are racing people at its heart. The tiny village of Moone is slightly different. There is only one stable in Moone, but that stable is the beating heart of the community.
The County Kildare village is home to the Commonstown Stables of Jessica Harrington, and the success of the yard has sent ripples of prosperity throughout south Kildare and the Wicklow border. Harrington herself might refute that, but Seamus O’Reilly, a local business owner, will beg to differ. He has witnessed a tide of changes in his 40 years at nearby Crookstown, where he owns and runs a now-thriving service station and shop, and he understands better than most the economic impact of a racing stable that has grown to be the area’s largest employer.
“I started the service station in 1978 and this area of South Kildare was unknown then. It was hard to give directions to anyone, no landmarks, they wouldn’t know where to find us, we were tucked away from anywhere,” he recalls. “Things have improved in the last 20 years and it’s more accessible now. It’s a huge bonus to the service station and retail business to have Jessie there; a lot of her employees come in, plus visitors such as her jockeys and owners and the media. The spin off from her success is great.”
It’s interesting to reflect that, about a 40-minute drive away in County Carlow, trainers Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins are the biggest employers in that particular county, so the importance of horseracing to Ireland’s rural heartland can never be underestimated.
Moone has no pub, no post office and no shop; although since the closure of the post office, some of the residents opened and run a part-time community shop. The village may be home to the historic Celtic High Cross, but there is otherwise nothing to bring people here. Except, of course, Commonstown Stables and the stars within.
Don’t get this wrong though, JHR couldn’t be better sited. Moone may be off the radar for many, but a new network of roads and bypasses links it quickly and smoothly with the nearby motorways serving Cork, Tipperary and Dublin, with the Dublin and Rosslare ports accessible within an hour. At home, the horses nestle in the idyllic peace of a secluded part of Kildare, and their journey to the racecourse is just as smooth and comfortable.
It’s a traditional stableyard with a comfortable rustic ambience that blends seamlessly with the more state-of-the-art features that are part of a modern racing establishment. Yet it’s also a production line of Group One and Grade One winners, at the centre of an industry.
“It’s like a small factory,” Harrington’s son-in-law, Richie Galway, observes, as Harrington sits with her family and gives some thought to how her business sits within the community. He recently took a backseat in his managerial role at Punchestown racecourse to devote those skills more fully to JHR (Jessica Harrington Racing), very much a business operation.
“Lots of our staff come in from Castledermot; a lot of them live there,” Richie points out. “There are a few who live here in Moone, but most travel in each day.” Castledermot is a bigger village 20 minutes away, with plenty of local shops, but most of its residents face a daily 90-minute commute to jobs in Dublin city centre.
The Irish rural landscape is changing at a quickening pace, with the so-called commuter belts widening and isolating communities. New housing estates replacing the farmland that no longer pays its way are home to those working in cities an hour or more away, and the homes largely stand empty during the day. Moone is becoming typical, with no local amenities, forcing the car to take over from walking, even for the school runs; and the opportunity to meet, mix and socialise are decreasing as a result. For JHR, the workplace is the hub of community.
“When the post office closed, it was a big loss,” Harrington reflects. “The postman now picks up our post when he delivers and he’s been very good. He makes sure he comes in to us first, so we receive everything earlier in the day, which is a benefit. In many places with just one postal service a day, it tends to be midday, and that must make it hard to organise an office when you’re waiting on something.”
The office is the main entrance room of the farmhouse, leading into the kitchen and hub of family life. It’s no different to any racing yard office—a little too small for the three women working away there and the volume of paperwork, calendars, diaries and newspapers they share it with in the race to stay ahead of the entries. It’s edge of the seat stuff, but only because the chairs are also occupied by the smaller of the dogs who share the space too.
There can be no better working environment, whether for Ally Couchman, office manager, Jessie’s two assistant trainers, her daughters Emma and Kate, and Richie in the office, or the 65 staff members who form part of Team Harrington, headed up by head lad Eamonn Leigh and yard manager Nigel Byrne. It’s hard to imagine where 65 employees would find work elsewhere, particularly the hands-on physical outdoor work that won’t be on offer in Dublin.
“I don’t know how vital we are to the community,” Harrington muses, a lady who prefers not to take credit where it may not be due, as she considers what her business brings to Moone.
Richie is more forthright. “There was a public meeting in Athy on the increased business rates affecting the shops and commercial premises in the area,” he recalls, “and Seamus O’Reilly stood up and stated that if it were not for Jessica Harrington Racing providing so much employment locally, none of the businesses would have the huge revenue that brings in.”
There’s more to it than revenue, of course. Horses engender a strong sense of attachment, and successful horses offer something even stronger—pride. This was never better illustrated than in March 2017, when Jessica was crowned Queen of Cheltenham. The homecoming she received caught her completely by surprise. Imagine Jubilees, Founders Days, Royal Weddings, and then add in the joy and fervour of ‘shared ownership’ as the people of Moone welcomed back their very own heroes.
Supasundae, Rock The World and Gold Cup hero Sizing John had helped to cement their trainer’s name in history as one of the most successful Irish trainers at the Cheltenham Festival and certainly the winning-most lady trainer, should we feel it’s necessary to make any distinction. Harrington’s record speaks for itself, and she’s on an equal-footing with all great trainers. Bringing home three cups from the 2017 Festival, the top prize itself among them, was suddenly Moone’s badge of honour, not just Harrington’s.
“We had a homecoming for Sizing John, to parade him for the media and local fans, and it just took me so much by surprise,” admits Harrington. “The whole community seriously came out, everyone wanted photos taken, we were there for a good couple of hours. I remember worrying about everyone crowding behind the back of the horse, but he took it so well.
“They made me a huge banner; it stretched right across the street, ‘Moone’s Queen of Cheltenham’,” Harrington reveals with a smile. “They very kindly let me keep it, and we have it hanging up in the indoor arena. The village hall was opened up for tea and biscuits and buns and cakes for everyone. It’s amazing what it does for the community.”