‘The party has started and Shark has a cowboy-booted brunette on his shoulders’
Story from Patrick Mullins - Racing Post and all credit to Racing Post
The American national anthem comes to an end, the police officers take their hands down from their hearts and the crowd cheers wildly. "Up Wexford!" shouts Mikey Fogarty, causing a few glances to be thrown his way.
It's sunny and warm in Far Hills, New Jersey. The giant wooden watchtower, the only permanent building I can see, stands out among the ocean of cars parked around it. The tents down below are the stables and the weigh-room. The stars and the stripes flutter in the wind left, right and centre. This place is a racecourse for one day a year, and what a day it is.
It takes less than an hour to get out from Manhattan to Far Hills. Which doesn't sound long until you have to get up after going out in Manhattan on a Friday night. Mikey got into the hotel room at 5.30am and promptly snored for three hours, so none of us is running on much sleep. At breakfast, I'd changed my flight to leave tonight instead of tomorrow.
After getting out of our Uber at the entrance to the track, we'd wandered into the infield to find some food. It was wedged full to the neck full of college students. There's definitely a dress code, slightly different to Ascot in June. The girls have cowboy boots, short leather skirts, light jumpers and cowboy hats. Long hair and longer legs. Lots of it is real, some of it ain't, but it all looks great. The guys have hair just long enough to run their hand through, sunglasses, chinos and collars.
Outside the track are thousands of cars. This is a major tailgating event, and BYOB. Jeeps the size of horseboxes are parked up and picnics and bars spread around them. We've perched beside a massive black SUV where doughnuts, sandwiches, beer and pizza are freely available. The Shark is holding court, meeting and greeting and making sure everyone has everything they need.
Paddy Hanlon, Shark's son and winner of this year's Dingle Derby, appears at his elbow. "The trouble we had this morning!" The Shark throws his eyes to heaven: "Sure, didn't Paddy tell the fella at the stable yard he's only 15, and you need to be 16 to get in." He sighs theatrically. "If anyone asks you your age from now, say you're 16!" Paddy protests immediately. "But . . . but yesterday at the hockey game you told me to say I was 11!" Paddy has lots to learn.
Shark Hanlon and Jordan Gainford, (Carl Evans)
The chat of the day is that sticks were banned for this meeting in a late decision by the New Jersey Race Commission just yesterday. They can be held but not used, which isn't the case in the one Flat race on the day where they can be held and used. The word on the street is that it'll get sorted but not in time for today. You'd wonder.
The first race goes off but there's no commentary for some reason. We ramble up to the Chairman's Tent, in the shadow of the wooden watchtower and just past the winning line. We manage to grab a picnic table and sample some of the free bourbon on offer.
Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell win the next two races, but we can't back them as there's no betting on site that we can see. The racecard directs you to a mobile betting site but that sounds like hardship. We cheer them home anyway.
Ben Pauling and his wife Sophie sit down and give us some tips on how best to do Ibiza. Brian Acheson comes over and chats away for a while about his hopes for Bob Olinger this season. Two American girls on the next table tell us they'll be in Cheltenham on the Tuesday and really they should have a horse running while they're there and could I keep an eye out.
I get up to chat to Mike Hankin of Brown Advisory, owner of Snap Decision, the best jumps horse in America. He's worried this is the end of a long season for his horse. He's given away nearly two stone to allcomers in his last two runs, and that can leave a mark.
The horses circle before every race on the grass in front of the watchtower, and the jockeys are buggied up from the weigh-tent down below. The Grand National has been delayed but eventually the horses arrive up. Snap Decision will be taken on by Cheltenham Festival winner Global Citizen and Galway Plate winner Hewick, major winners from three different countries.
TJ McDonald with horse Hewick with Jordan Gainford aboard, (Patrick McCan)
The commentary is back working. Twice the horses gallop past around the infield, jumping the small fences/big hurdles before swinging out on to the home-straight chute which rises steeply until it reaches the watchtower. Hewick and Jordan Gainford power clear and win easily, with both Global Citizen and Snap Decision blowing out.
The Shark is first out to greet his winner but the entourage aren't far behind. An Irish flag has appeared (where do they come from?) and "ole ole ole" has broken out. Gordon, Tom Malone and Jamie Codd are cheering as loud as anyone else.
I find myself standing beside Michael Dickinson and ask him whether he thinks Hewick is a Gold Cup horse. "Possibly," he replies before pulling out a picture book of Cheltenham that he's done up. Suddenly he turns to me and asks, "Now, Patrick, you guys had 17 runners on the first day of Cheltenham last year and only won with the last of them. Why was that? If that was me I'd have been tearing my hair out!" I scratch my chin. "Well, I suppose they can't all win, can they?" Dickinson looks into the distance, closes the book and walks off muttering. It's not easy being a genius, I think to myself.
Back at the SUV and the party has started. Shark has a cowboy-booted American brunette about my age on his shoulders. A speaker has been borrowed from a car three spaces down and is blaring Country Roads. Bud Lights and Coors Lights are being passed around.
The Shark asks me about the Nakayama Grand Jump that Blackstairsmountain won, and could Hewick do that? I'd not bet against it. I laugh imagining how this great red chunk of raw Irish would fit in over in Japan. They'd need a bigger boat, a bigger winner's enclosure, a bigger everything.
Mikey Fogarty has come back around. We've been invited to dinner in Williamsburg and then to a show at The Box on the Lower East Side. I don't know where it will all lead. I don't care. I rechange my flights to tomorrow night.
Now the Shark is swinging a blonde around on the grass. The sun is still shining. The music is playing and "ole ole ole" has started up again. There's three cheers for Hewick and three more for the Shark. And aren't they right?
Long live Hewick. Long live The Shark. And long live the American Grand National at Far Hills, New Jersey.