Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sundance


Sundance

By Stephen Dwyer

As you would expect, JP McManus is an exceptionally busy man. Most millionaires are. Yet, at his Martinstown estate, he takes all the time in the world to be the perfect host. JP fits our interview into a window he created between the wedding ceremony and evening reception of his wife Noreen’s nephew. Replete in a fine suit fit for the winning circle of any racecourse, JP is at ease and more than willing to talk about horse racing.

When initially requesting an audience with JP, I happened to mention that I would include this article in a writing competition, the grand prize for which is £1,000. The reply to my letter was swift. A call came from Martinstown; JP would agree to the interview on the condition I gave him £500 if I won the competition!

This was a joke of course but horse racing is close to JP’s heart and a finer proponent of the sport you will not meet. Fitting then that every March the Cheltenham Festival coincides with JP’s birthday. What would be a more fitting time to have it for one of racing’s biggest benefactors.

Born in Dublin in 1951, JP moved to Limerick when he was three years old. Since then he has become Limerick’s greatest son. In his late teens and early twenties JP drove a D4 Caterpillar for his father’s bulldozing business. At 21 he took out a bookies license and stood at point-to-points and the Greyhound track at Market’s Field. There he plied his trade with clerk and lifelong confidant, Declan Moylan.

Declan tells the story of the first time they stood at a racecourse, a point to point in Patrickswell;
“It was a cold January day and we were setting up the stand for the first race,where there was a hotpot favourite priced 4/5 and touching 4/6 in places. He seemed a good thing but JP didn’t like the look of him and chalked up a price of even money on the board. I was holding up the stand in one hand and taking bets with the other when the race went off. All was going well for the favourite ‘til he fell three out.” With a nod Declan adds “A good start wasn’t it”. Couldn’t have been any better.

Four years later, aged 25, a trip to Goffs would forever alter the course of JP’s life in horse racing. He freely admits that he went to the sales that day with no intention of buying a horse. Cill Dara, a Lord Gayle mare who had been trained to win the Cesarewitch by Con Collins caught his eye. JP remembers parting with around 30,000 for her and it wouldn’t be long until she repaid her new owners faith.

On her first start, carrying 10 stone 1lb and ridden by Raymond Carroll, Cill Dara beat a horse ridden by none other than Joanna Morgan. The colours the mare carried that day and on to a repeat win in the Cesarewitch have since become world famous. They are the green and gold hoops of South Liberties GAA club, one of the oldest in Ireland since it’s inception in 1884.

Betting of course is a discipline in which McManus has achieved both fame and notoriety. It was at Alf Hogan’s betting office in Limerick city that JP spent countless Saturdays learning and refining his strategies. The betting tax rates at the time were much higher than now but in Hogan’s shop no tax was collected on win double bets. No prizes as to what quickly became JP’s specialty.

When the minister for finance revised the taxation laws and increased the tax on betting to 20% JP stopped betting overnight.

It was a decision that would not be reversed until a more sensible taxation rate was applied and upon resuming betting, JP became known as The Sundance Kid. The nickname stems from Jimmy Hayes, a friend who was born on the exact same day as JP. Jimmy was known as Butch Cassidy so his partner’s name stuck to JP.

Despite his early successes as an owner, it was not until Mister Donovan won The Sun Alliance Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1982 that it put the-then 31 year old McManus on the road to the big stage. Mister Donovan, trained by Edward O’ Grady and ridden by Tommy Ryan was second favourite for The Sun Alliance and it was rumoured that McManus won in the region of £250,000 on the race but the exact amount is not remembered.

JP had been having a disastrous Cheltenham prior to the win and even now he recounts the memory fondly. “Winning that day was badly needed, I often think looking back that if we hadn’t have won that race, we might not have had any more”. Now, almost thirty years later and with 31 additional Cheltenham winners, the show is firmly on the road.

Self-admittedly, JP is unsure of exactly how many horses he has in training and he modestly discloses that no particular success stands out. ”I have had some great days as an owner but you always tend to remember your last winner the most”.

Drawing a blank at this year’s Cheltenham does not faze him. With a keen eye on the current competition he thinks Hurricane Fly “is a hell of a horse” but would still relish challenging him with a fully-fit Binocular. Long Run, JP is quick to add “seems a very, very good champion and kept sound I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he won the Gold Cup again”.

Out of all the horses that have passed through Martinstown, the peerless Istabraq takes pride of place. In 2002, JP held a retirement party for the three-time Champion hurdler who he hastily considers “a hard act to follow but to us here he is more than just a horse”. The thoughts of being denied a fourth Champion Hurdle due to the foot-and-mouth crisis do not entertain him as JP believes firmly that every cloud has a sliver lining.

Not every horse can be an Istabraq of course and he reminds us “you have to have the bad ones to appreciate the good ones” But there are plenty of good ones around Martinstown. As of now Risk Of Thunder and Istabraq happily share both a large paddock and an penchant for carrots. Beside them Don’t Push It and Binocular enjoy their seasonal break. Baracouda keeps a surly French eye cast upon them all.

In the spotless yard beside the stables sits an industrial-size horse walker where the new crop of winners begins their journey. Local lads from around the parish tend to the upkeep of the vast estate, painting and creosoting the fences. It is all important, all part of the bigger plan.

Briefly touching on the topic of business, JP speaks of a recently discovered bank ledger from the 1960’s. In it are records of him lodging £1 each week into a saving account. From this humble start his best advice is; “in any business it’s not the amount of good decisions that you make, it’s the amount of bad decisions that you don’t”.

JP McManus is a man whose time is spent carefully as a medley of multi-faceted ventures. His contributions to charities and special causes are both admirable and affecting.

The Pro-Am, staged every five years has raised over ninety million euros and its last running attracted 40,000 people each day.

Knowing a little about his game I asked why his favourite club is a putter. JP replied briskly “That’s simple, it’s because you know you are still in the game”.

And with that I left JP to rejoin his nephew’s wedding party.

Still in the game JP, still winning and lots of golf to play.

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