Trainer John “Shark” Hanlon has revealed he plans to run stable star Hewick and recent recruit Cape Gentleman in this year’s Randox Grand National.
The County Carlow handler plans to run Hewick, who won the US Grand National in October last year, in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 17th, before sending him to Aintree for the world’s greatest steeplechase on April 15th.
The ambitious plan is an attempt to rewrite the history books, as no horse has won both races in a season since Golden Miller in 1934.
And Hanlon’s decision to enter 2020 Irish Cesarewitch winner Cape Gentleman in the race is another historical landmark, as his owners’ family won the Grand National exactly 100 years ago.
Cape Gentleman was successful in Graded company over both hurdles and fences for his previous trainer Emmet Mullins and made his debut for Hanlon when finishing down the field in a handicap hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The seven year old is now owned by Pierre Manigault, whose great-grandfather, Stephen Sanford won the Grand National with 13 year old Sergeant Murphy in 1923.
Speaking at a media event organised by The Jockey Club today, Hanlon explained: “They’re American owners and they (their family) won the National in 1923. They rang looking to buy Hewick and he wasn’t for sale and they said to me, ‘Is there any chance of getting a horse for it (the Randox Grand National)?’
“I went through the English horses and the Irish horses and there’s not too many English horses or Irish horses rated over 150 that are for sale and we got it down to three and one of them wasn’t old enough as he was only a six year old and the other horse was a horse that had problems and couldn’t be kept sound so we were left with Cape Gentleman.
“These people have the box taken in front of the line for the last five years for this year because there’s a good group of them coming from America – I think there’s 30 of them coming from America – and he just wanted a runner. He said, ‘I don’t care where he finishes as long as he runs, that’ll do’.”
Hanlon revealed that the owners got in touch after he won the US Grand National with Hewick last year and explained: “They rang me before the American Grand National to see if Hewick would be sold. I know we could have got a lot of money for him but the owner was happy enough to keep him and I was very happy to keep him.
“Then we went to America and after that I got a good few phone calls from him but this man wanted a horse for the National and he’s the only horse I could find. That’s hard to believe – you’d think for the Grand National there’d be no problem picking up a horse for it. You have Gigginstown, JP, you have Willie – you have all the big lads that have the horses for the National and they’re just not for sale and that’s it.”
Asked about the coincidence that Cape Gentleman had previously been trained locally by Emmet Mullins until his new American owners bought him, Hanlon said: “It’s amazing. I’ve always liked Cape Gentleman. I thought he was a nice horse from when Emmet got him first.
“The problem with Cape Gentleman is will he stay the trip? It’s a 50-50 but there was nothing else there. The horse goes to America after the National because there will be plenty of opportunities. I think he’s a real American horse because there’s good ground out there and that’s what the horse wants.
“But I have him now anyway and we’ll enjoy it. He’ll go to Taunton next week for a 3m 4f and he goes over there for that race and we’ll look forward to then going on with him.”
Hanlon also talked about Hewick’s bid to emulate Golden Miller, who won both races in 1934, and L’Escargot, the only other horse to have won both, albeit in different years when taking the Cheltenham contest in 1970 and 1971 before winning at Aintree in 1975.
An eight year old son of Virtual, Hewick claimed two major handicap chase successes in 2022 in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park and the Galway Plate, before going on to American Grand National success at Far Hills, New Jersey, in October.
The American Grand National bears little resemblance to Aintree and is more like a British or Irish hurdle race. Nevertheless only one horse in history has won both the American and Aintree Grand Nationals – Battleship, who won in the States in 1934 before scoring at Aintree in 1938.
Hanlon went on: “Hewick will also go to the English Grand National. That’s the plan. He’ll go for the Gold Cup and we’ll give him a run in the Gold Cup and then get him ready for the Grand National.
“We’ll see what will happen in the Gold Cup. He’ll be trying for his life in it but I don’t know if he’ll be good enough for it. There are a lot of horses in the Gold Cup that have a few little ‘ifs’ about them.
“Willie’s horse (Galopin Des Champs) – does he stay the trip? We know that Hewick will stay the trip and we’ll make plenty of use of him. If he’s getting beaten then he’ll (the jockey) be told to mind him.
“He’d definitely then go on to the National because we know he’d stay the trip in the National and it’s probably ideal for him.”
Asked about how tough it will be for Hewick not to have run all winter and then line up in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 17th, Hanlon replied: “It’s going to be a massive ask.
“He wants good ground and I just don’t see any point in running a horse like him during the winter. Look at the ground we’re having – heavy ground. Pull the tail-end of him and you don’t have a horse for the rest of the year. So I’d rather go straight there, take our chance and go on to the National from there.”
Asked about the exposure for a small yard like his to have two Grand National contenders, Hanlon added: “It’s great. You’re going over there hoping that one of them will do the job or at least to run well and I think that both horses in the National will run well.
“Hewick is probably maybe a little bit classier than the other horse but the other horse will do his job as well. The American owners are going to be over for it and it’s going to be a big couple of days over there.”
Asked about attracting owners from the US, he went on: “It’s an unreal boost. Since I went to America and Hewick won in America the business I’m after getting from America is unreal.
“I think to the month of December we registered 22 new owners and 17 are from America and there are a few new people who have come around from home too.
“I bought horses in Newmarket. I’m not buying point to point horses because all these owners are hoping we’re going to be able to go to America maybe next year – they’re all three and four year olds – or the year after. So I’m buying a horse off the Flat that’s rated in the 80s and 90s and that over there (the US) will take a lot of beating.
“We’ll be looking forward to it. I think next year we’re after picking out four different meetings in America that I’m going to go to with different horses. For me it’s great. It’s not Ireland but I don’t mind travelling. Have horse, will travel!”
Hanlon’s own son Paddy was close to Jack de Bromhead and would often ride against him in pony races. Schoolboy Jack was just 13 when he died while pony racing in September last year, just a month before Hewick’s victory in the American Grand National.
Hanlon recalled the impact it had on his own son and said: “I remember when the horse won in America and we were walking around with him and all celebrating and having a bit of a fun. I saw Paddy going off with the horse and I knew there was something wrong and when I went down to him he was dissolved because of Jack.
“I said to him that if it hadn’t been for Jack we might not have been here and that’s the way I looked at it. But for him and for everyone it was brilliant for Irish racing that we went over there and won in America. It gave everyone a boost and even today you meet people that didn’t know you and they’re all coming up to shake your hand for what you’ve done.
“That’s what Irish racing needs. Irish racing needs more of it for the smaller people. It’s great with Willie and Gordon and they deserve all the success because they’re putting the money into it.
“But when you can buy a horse for small money and go and win a pot like that it brings the small people back into consideration again. I was just talking to Seamus Fahey again the other day and he’s after getting new owners out of it because of what I’ve done.
“Alan King rang me three or four days after the race and just said, ‘Well done, you’ve done a lot for English racing’ and I said, ‘I don’t know about that’.
“He said, ‘Well let me tell you a little story. I had a crew that came to me to buy a horse the day before the horse ran and they were going to take him, then they rang to say they wouldn’t take him. And then he said after your horse won they rang me the day after and said if the horse was still there then they’d take him’.
“They asked him why and he said, ‘Well Shark ended up in America with a Grade One winner so there’s a chance for us all’. It gives every small trainer a chance and it gives everyone a chance to get a good horse. You don’t have to be giving hundreds of thousands to get a good horse – the horse doesn’t know what they cost!”
Asked what the celebrations would be like if Hewick can win the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Grand National, Hanlon concluded: “It’ll be unreal. If we can finish in the first three we’ll be delighted.
“It’s great because I have my two sons involved now with me and it’s a big thing. To have Rachel there who is a big part of the wheel and the two boys who are looking forward to going to the National and looking forward to going to America, the biggest job is trying to keep them in school!
“It’s great because they’re involved with it and that means an awful lot to me.”