Six weeks since that unforgettable triumph and still Shark Hanlon is being greeted by folk who excitedly tell him how their bank balances have improved.
‘I was in Carlow recently and people were coming up to me, wanting to shake hands,’ says the trainer responsible for shaping the career of Hewick, racing’s fairytale horse. ‘They say, “Well done Shark! What a win!” It seemed to me like everyone was saying they had a few pound on him!’
Hewick seized the headlines on Boxing Day, when he won Kempton’s King George VI chase, and Hanlon, a big bear of a man, is not indulging in artistic licence when explaining how the gelding that went through the sales ring for £800 in 2017 financially transformed many a festive season.
One yarn involves Father Paddy Byrne, a priest who Hanlon knows well, advising his congregation in the final blessing at Christmas Eve mass to avail themselves of the fancy double figure prices that had been chalked up — a new twist, you will agree, on divine intervention.
‘I’d told my owners Hewick was 33-1 and really didn’t deserve to be that price,’ says Hanlon. ‘I was certain he’d be in the first three. I even told Father Paddy, when I bumped into him at Cheltenham in November. What did he do? Went off and backed him at 33-1!’
Hewick streams to victory at Kempton’s King George VI race on Boxing Day 2023
Hewick has quickly become a fan favourite after its incredible victory at Kempton’s King George VI
Delighed trainer John “Shark” Hanlon celebrates after his horse Hewick wins at Kempton
This is a throwback story, the kind you used to get before racing was dominated by super yards for powerful owners, and it explains why Hewick’s popularity is growing by the day, with dreams he might pull off the biggest miracle in March.
While Hewick potters around in a paddock in Hanlon’s Carlow yard today, the horse expected to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup will be in action at Leopardstown in the Irish equivalent aiming to show why many want to anoint him as the best since the magnificent Kauto Star.
Galopin Des Champs, the apple of trainer Willie Mullins’ eye, has many things — class, pace and a massive engine — but does not boast the popularity of Hewick, who should have been named ‘Hawick’, after the village in Scotland, but an admin error during his registration changed history.
‘It’s good for everyone, isn’t it?’ Hanlon jovially explains. ‘He’s one of those horses. Years ago, we had a horse in Ireland called Danoli. My God, everyone loved Danoli, didn’t they? Well, if I can say anything, this fella is the new Danoli.’
That comparison is not used lightly. Danoli, during the 1990s, was a brilliant but fragile star who took Cheltenham’s roof off when he won the Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle and had racegoers in tears when he won the Irish Gold Cup, as he was called ‘The People’s Champion’.
Hewick has that about him. Not in a million years would Hanlon have expected this journey to unfold when he started training him but in the last seven years he has won all manner of big races and built up a prize fund of more than £600,000; it really is incredible.
It is why, when Hanlon took Hewick to a meeting at Gowran Park last Thursday to parade him, the locals were five deep around the paddock, looking to get a glimpse of an animal that had a prizefighter’s swagger as he was led around.
The scene will be no different the next time he sees a racecourse. Hanlon is adamant Hewick has what it takes to win the Blue Riband event — he was galloping at a fair old pace when he toppled at the second last fence 12 months ago — and he also has Aintree in mind.
For now, though, he will be content to keep listening to the stories from Christmas past, about the cheers and the delight at seeing the relentless surge that carried him from last to first and showed, again, that in sport anything is possible.
Winning jockey Gavon Sheehan celebrates after winning an excellent race with Hewick
After the win at Kempton Hewick is expected to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup this year
‘Listen, I’ll tell you one thing: the people love the horse,’ Hanlon says. ‘England, Ireland, it doesn’t matter. There were a lot of race meetings on that day but everyone, everywhere, looks at the King George and what he did was something magical.
‘From what I hear, when he came with his run, they started to cheer for him. I knew we’d be in trouble early on. They were going to go a million miles an hour — Frodon goes hard, then Paul Townend wanted to make the running on Allaho.
‘You then had Bravemansgame up there; Shishkin needed to be woken up at the start, so he was always going to head off at a rare old pace. So I knew we were going to find it all frantic, even though he’s a horse who has made the running before.
‘Racing is about dreaming and ours is still alive. The Gold Cup is to come, there is also the Grand National.
‘There are a lot races for him to have a crack at. Let’s see where he takes us.’