Hewick and Shark Hanlon will bring the best story to Cheltenham, regardless of how the Gold Cup goes

The grind of living from year to year and horse to horse has been broken for the Carlow trainer by an unlikely superstar who only cost €850 but has won more than €700,000

Shark Hanlon makes room on his kitchen table for a strong pot of tea and two rounds of toast. He wrestles a great glob of soft butter from its packet and plops it on a saucer. A few light fingers of spring are reaching in through the window and there’s heat in the morning for the first time in months. No hardship in the life when it’s like this.

The Hanlon yard is on the Carlow-Kilkenny border. Literally on it. The kitchen is in Carlow, and the next-door neighbours’ house is 15ft away in Kilkenny. Every morning, two separate post vans arrive — one coming up the road with the post for the Hanlons, one coming down it with post for the Doyles. Since Hewick happened, the Carlow postie has been the busier one.

Shark and his partner Rachel began training here 19 years ago. All he had starting out was a cattle shed and the hard-earned conviction that he was done putting cattle through it. He bought a horse in Newmarket for small money and sold it to Dermot Weld for middling money and used the proceeds to build his stables and gallops and went from there. Every year since has been a grind.

Even now, that’s still the truth of it. Even after a horse he bought for €850 has raked in more than €700,000 in prize money, even with Hewick spreading his name to all corners of the game and winning everything from the Galway Plate to the American Grand National to the King George, even with all that, the grind is still constant and insistent and real.


“The man that’s earning €600 a week working in the yard there is earning more than I am,” he says. “Because he knows every Saturday evening that there’s €600 waiting on him. I don’t know that. There’s plenty of weeks here that nothing comes in. And then we’d sell a horse and we’d get a pay-day.

“I’m not ashamed to say it, there’s often Fridays here that I’d have to ring an owner who’d owe me for training fees and say, ‘Listen, can you throw that money into the account so I can pay the staff?’ That has happened umpteen times over the past 15 years. I’m lucky at the minute that I have good owners, they’re good payers and they keep the thing going.

“I often wrote cheques here on a Friday knowing there was nothing in the account but that we’d get it there by Monday. And that’s grand and lovely when you can do it but you have to go again the following week.”

This isn’t the poor mouth. He has no interest in grouching about the inequalities of the game. The Willie Mullins dream factory is six miles away across the fields, Jim Bolger trains just over the hill. Hanlon has been in and around intergalactic success and he sees what those operations take and knows it isn’t him. If he’s brutally honest about it, part of him is happy that he doesn’t have a string of horses worth upwards of a quarter of a million out in the stables.

“There’s a lot more pressure on you if you have those expensive horses,” he says. “If you have a horse tomorrow morning and god forbid he breaks down, well it’s a lot easier to ring the owner if he’s only worth 20 thousand. That’s a hard call to make if the horse costs 300 grand.”

No, that’s not who Shark Hanlon is. He’s not a top-tier trainer in the scheme of things. He’s more on the tier below the tier below the likes of Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead. Mullins sits on a tier of his own. Hanlon is one of the coping classes, getting from year to year and from horse to horse and working to stay ahead as he goes.

“My business is selling horses. I buy point-to-pointers and two-year-olds and three-year-olds and I get them sold and run the business that way. I wouldn’t be making money out of training. If I was depending on training, I’d be broke. There’s no way I’d be able to run my business if all I did was train horses for races. No way.

“The training is advertising. That’s what it is. Like, it’s great and I love it but it don’t pay the bills. We’ll have a lot of bumper horses and we get them to win or get placed and then we sell them on. That’s what we do.

“Hewick has kept my yard going for the last two or three years. Before that, we had Hidden Cyclone. Before that, we had Luska Lad. I’m lucky that since I started training 19 years ago, I’ve been able to pull out a good horse every two or three years. Something to keep the front door open. That’s all it does.

“If you have a horse in training tomorrow with me, that means I can have a store horse of my own, a horse that I can get ready to sell on as a four-year-old. We’re lucky enough there now we have 10 or 12 broodmares so we have foals to sell. We can sell three-year-olds rather than having to buy three-year-olds. But if I hadn’t got 30 horses out in that yard belonging to other people, I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep my own horses. That’s the way it works. It’s the same for everyone.”

The business is buying and selling. The work is the work. Through the winter, when the temperature drops, he gets up every two hours to run the tractor around the gallops to stop the sand from freezing solid.

In time, he’ll pass the place on to his sons, Paddy and Seán. They’re 16 and 14 now — Paddy is a jockey, Seán is more bookish and curates the social media for him

A lot of the time, he won’t even go back to bed after he does a turn. Instead, he’ll pull a coat up around him and sleep in the chair in the kitchen for the couple of hours before he has to go out and do it again. He has 17 staff working for him but it’s a rotten job and it’s hard to get anyone to put their hand up for it.

In time, he’ll pass the place on to his sons, Paddy and Seán. They’re 16 and 14 now — Paddy is a jockey, Seán is more bookish and curates the social media for him. Shark reckons they’ll make a perfect combination when they come to team up and run the business together. That’s a while away yet but they’re old for their age.

Paddy’s best friend in racing was Jack de Bromhead. They grew up pony racing together, both the sons of well-known trainers, both of them destined for a life of it. Jack was only 13 when he died in a freak accident at the Glenbeigh Pony Races in 2022, stopping the racing world in a finger snap. Tragic nearly seems too glib a word.

“If you go up to Paddy’s bedroom there,” Shark says, “the locker beside his bed has one photo on it. I thought it might be Hewick he’d have on but it’s not, it’s Jack. Beautiful picture. Every morning Paddy wakes up, the first person he sees and talks to is Jack. They were great friends.

“It’s been a tough time for everyone. Tough for Heather and Henry above all. Like, I couldn’t imagine being in this kitchen without Paddy being around. It’s something that they’re after coping with very, very well. They’re such great people to be able to come out and meet people. I was in Gowran the other day and Henry stopped me and said, ‘Paddy is riding well — all that pony racing is standing to him’. And sure of course, even as he said it, he was thinking of Jack. And I was thinking of Jack.

I saw Paddy going off down the track on his own and I went down after him. And he was roaring crying. This was only a couple of months after Jack had died. I said, ‘Only for Jack, we wouldn’t have won, don’t forget that. He’s with us’

—  Shark Hanlon

“There’s a lot of tears after being shed. When we went over to America, Paddy was looking after Hewick. We were all there, we were all roaring and shouting afterwards. And I saw Paddy going off down the track on his own and I went down after him. And he was roaring crying. This was only a couple of months after Jack had died. I said, ‘Only for Jack, we wouldn’t have won, don’t forget that. He’s with us.’”

America was when the Hewick story really took off. Up to then, it was still a bit of a fairy-tale but one that never had the heft behind it to pierce the inside skin of the racing bubble. Their biggest win had been the end-of-season Sandown Gold Cup in April 2022. It was a huge win by any measure — they took home a pot of $90,000. But nobody in the outside world gets too jiggy for the Sandown Gold Cup.

The American Grand National six months later was a different deal altogether. The name of the race alone was always going to generate headlines and soon enough, everyone bit on the detail about Hanlon buying the horse for €850. When he got home, he brought Hewick down to their local and ordered a pint of Guinness, immediately making viral stars of them both.

This isn’t supposed to happen. For most of Hewick’s life, it didn’t happen. The horse came cheap and it initially looked like Hanlon had overpaid. He ran in three point-to-points without ever completing. On the track, he finished in the money just once in his first 11 races. He looked like a bad horse for bad money.

“Everything went wrong,” Hanlon says now. “We thought here as a four-year-old that he was a lovely horse and that he would go and win his point-to-point and we’d be able to sell him on. But the first day out, he got brought down. The second day, he slipped along the ground. And the third day, a chap in the yard fell off him.

“If he had won any of those three, he’d have been sold. And sold for decent money. I would have expected to get 150 grand for him. I remember coming out of the third day and saying to Rachel on the way home, ‘We’re after turning a 150 grand horse into nothing.’

“Then we went on and he ran in a bumper. But he’s not a bumper horse. He’s a three-mile horse. A bumper was never going to be far enough for him. We gave him a few runs over shorter trips maybe than what he wanted and we got him handicapped. He started winning then.”

That was in September 2020. Since then, Hewick has had 22 runs and won 10 times. He’s won two Sandown Gold Cups, an American Grand National, a Galway Plate and, most incredibly of all, last December’s King George at Kempton when everything else either fell or went too fast in front.

If Willie [Mullins] had him, he’d probably be 6-1. But just because a smaller trainer has him, he goes off double figures

—  Shark Hanlon

And whether it’s the fact that he was bought for nothing or that Shark is Shark and not Willie Mullins, he has pretty much always been unfancied when he’s won. He was 12-1 for the King George, 16-1 for that first Sandown Gold Cup and the same for the Galway Plate. He’s 14-1 for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

“If Willie had him, he’d probably be 6-1. But just because a smaller trainer has him, he goes off double figures. The ground is the thing. We want good ground. You’re getting to the time of year that you’d be hoping the nicer days are coming. For the last 11 years, the weather has got better across the week and it’s been good ground on the Friday. Except last year, when it was soft. And Hewick doesn’t like it soft.

“He ran a cracker last year anyway, he’d have been in the first three without the fall. But I just think he’s a better horse this year. Last year, we went to every cockfight in the country with him. Everywhere that was on that we thought he had a chance, we brought him and he picked up a lot of money.”

They’re not done yet, either. Whatever happens, they’ll go back to America with Hewick later in the year. Shark would like to go to Aintree but it comes tight enough on the back of Cheltenham so he’s not sure yet.

Truth be told, he’d probably prefer to be going straight to the English Grand National but he figures you can’t not bring the King George winner to take his chance in the Gold Cup. It’s entirely likely that he might never have another runner in the race in his career. Hewick probably won’t win but sure what of it?

The best story is no small thing to be bringing to the party.

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Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times