ESTIMATING how much owner JP McManus has spent on his passion for jump racing over the past five decades is a hard call.
A figure of £100million will probably not be on the wild side, although the man himself would not be correcting anyone either way, but he will not regard it as money wasted.
McManus (66), the billionnaire currency trader, needs two more winners at this week’s Cheltemham Festival to get to his half a century of Festival victories. And each one, like the 48 that have come before, will be treated like a gift beyond price.
McManus’s first visit to the Festival was in 1973, the day The Dikler won the Gold Cup and six years later his Jack Of Trumps was second favourite for the race.
On the Saturday before, McManus had heard that Gay Spartan, the ante-post favourite, was injured and a non-runner. He phoned Edward O’Grady, the trainer of Jack Of Trumps, with the news only to be hit with the rebound that his horse had been injured that morning and would not be running either.
McManus would have to wait until 1982 for his first Festival winner when the O’Grady-trained Mister Donovan – carrying the green and gold hoops, synonymous with the South Liberties GAA club in Limerick – won what is now the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.
“JP’s first Festival winner was a maiden with a heart murmur,” O’Grady would later recall. “Afterwards JP had a painting done of Mister Donovan jumping the last in front of Spiders Well and every time he invited Demi and me to dinner at Martinstown he would insist that Demi sit opposite the picture so he had to stomach it a bit more.”
By now bookmakers and punters alike had learnt to take note of the compact, dapper young man and where his money went. He liked a bet, but liked a winner even more, although the reputed £250,000 he took out of the ring that day will remain just that. This man simply does not do bragging rights.
We got a great kick out of that,” he said. “I hadn’t owned the horse for very long, but he had been laid out for the race, and it all came right on the day.
“It was great to have a winner at Cheltenham, but the fact that I backed him made it all the sweeter. The money was important.”
McManus would win the same race again in 1997 with Istabraq, the horse who was to take McManus to the heights with his three successive victories in the Champion Hurdle, the final one bringing drama that could have been drawn from the pages of a Dick Francis novel.
After suffering a nosebleed in the racecourse stables on the Monday evening, Istabraq was the subject of a nail-biting will-he-won’t-he-run saga as Aidan O’Brien, his trainer, spent nearly an hour with the horse on the Tuesday morning before arriving at a decision to let him take his chance.
“This means so much to me, I could never really describe it,” McManus said after the win. “Every day that he works on the grass, I’m always dreading that the phone might ring. You have to look after the business to have the horses but he is a major part of my life.”
Garde Champetre was bought by McManus for a wallet-shredding 530,000gns in May 2004 and, to put that in some perspective, Best Mate only banked £203,000 when he won that season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Synchronised gave McManus his long-awaited success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2012. As he stood in the winner’s enclosure once more McManus was transported back 30 years.
“There have been so many great moments here at Cheltenham but this has to be up with the best of them,” he said. “Someone asked me which was my favourite winner and I said ‘Mister Donovan’. I was asked why him and I said ‘If it wasn’t for his win I wouldn’t have had any of the others.”
-Extracted from Racing UK, edited.
-Photo: JP McManus and his former retained rider, AP McCoy.