Success hasn’t changed them. AP McCoy, Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus are still the most pleasant set of high achievers you could ever wish to meet. And Don’t Push It remains about as crackers as any racehorse this side of the mad house.
“You couldn’t see him in the horsebox for steam and sweat when he came back from his holidays,” said Jonjo earlier this week before adding with a laugh, “he’s a nutter really. We don’t seem to be able to make him behave like a normal horse so we just went back into the old routine, putting him in with the sheep and training him out of the field.”
So much has rightly been made of last year’s winning ride Grand National ride which crowned A.P. McCoy’s unique 15 championship career that it is easy to forget quite what an astonishing training performance O’Neill and his team had done to get Don’t Push It to the start line in the first place. “He was always talented enough,” says Jonjo of the horse who won five of his first seven races before falling two fences from home when challenging for the 2007 Arkle Chase at Cheltenham. “But we just couldn’t get him to settle or to eat properly.”
So the plan was hatched to forswear all the magnificent high tech facilities that O’Neill and McManus have installed high in the Cotswolds at Jackdaws Castle just a dozen miles from Cheltenham, and revert to nature’s way. Don’t Push It would be rugged up and live and be fed in a field with its own little corral and stable with 6 Jacob’s Sheep to put up with his neuroses.
“He just won’t relax or eat around other horses,” explains Jonjo who himself never completed the National in 8 attempts as a jockey and had 16 years as a trainer before even having a runner, “and you can’t have him in the string because he jigs around and upsets the rest of them. So my assistant Alan Berry rides him off on his own all the time and only joins in if we have to gallop him. It’s an odd thing to do but coming in to this National he seems to be in better shape physically and mentally than last year. Or that is what Alan tells me.”
It was Alan Berry who, in a Market Rasen bumper in September 2005, first rode Don’t Push It into the winners’ circle and who last year was board for the horse’s final pre-National run in which his morning partner ran so deplorably that Alan had to pull him up whilst most of us, McCoy included, abandoned serious hopes for Aintree. This year’s effort in that same Pertemps Hurdle Final at Cheltenham last month was much more encouraging not that O’Neill thinks that guarantees anything.
“We just hope we can get him there in a good mood,” says his trainer. “He was very tired at the end of last year’s race but by the time he was leaving the winner’s circle he was pulling my travelling man Paddy Brennan’s arms out. We showed him to everyone next morning and paraded him at the local point to point before he went back to JP’s place at Martinstown. But,” he added with the smile a parent reserves for a talented but errant offspring, “he’s a bit too fussy to put up with that sort of thing.”
JP McManus Irish home and stud at Martinstown in County Limerick is a treasured place for both humans and horses. It is where 3 times Champion Hurdler Istabraq rules in retirement and where of a summer McManus loves to look benevolently on the four legged friends who have carried his green and gold silks during the winter. “It’s great to have them around,” says JP with the relish of a man who has worked his way from driving his father’s JCB digger to become the greatest owner and philanthropist that Irish jump racing has ever seen, “but this horse was not one to take on parades so it had to be a private pleasure.”
If it took McCoy 15 attempts to win the National, Don’t Push It’s success was the first in 34 tries for McManus and the thrill comes back into his face as he remembers it. “Everyone wants to win the National,” he says, “you think it’s not going to happen, so it’s nice to complete what you want to do. Mind you a second time would be even sweeter.”