‘The se­cret of a happy mar­riage is lots of space’

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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - IN HER OWN WORDS -

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 three­day 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. Longines Ir­ish Cham­pi­ons Week­end takes place at Leop­ard­stown and The Cur­ragh on Septem­ber 9 and Septem­ber 10. Off the track, race­go­ers can com­pete for the Longines Prize for El­e­gance, which has €25,000 prizes on of­fer

Jes­sica Harrington en­joyed one of her most suc­cess­ful years at 70

GOLDEN MO­MENT: Jes­sica with Jockey Rob­bie Power af­ter Siz­ing John won the Gold Cup

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