They had seemed two fairly ordinary suggestions. “Let’s go over to the house and chat over lunch,” said J.P.McManus. “Shall we ride round the place to see the jumps,” asked Enda Bolger three hours later. They turned out to be two undersells of the century. And, if you must know, we all backed a winner in between.
J.P.’s Martinstown base in County Limerick was no great surprise at first. Pretty strict security gate, traditional mid-sized house on the right opposite the main yard on the left with, to the front of us, a gleaming, glass-fronted, one-storey, hushed, deep-leather, office block. In the chairman’s room JP was casual but studious behind a desk on which a small bronze of a wide brimmed Kentucky farmer turns out to be a study of John Magnier to the life. With 21 potential runners at the Festival, and the best chances, Garde Champetre, Captain Cee Bee and Get Me Out Of Here all on the first day, you might think that J.P. had plenty to be casual and studious about. But then you go to lunch and remember that there is rather more to him than that.
It was raining and we went by car which was a bit wimpish as the house was hardly a hundred metres away. But it wasn’t that house. We dipped down between two paddocks and there, on the bank above the lake in front of us was this magnificent Palladian style mansion for all the world like Castletown or one of those stately homes of Regency times. “When was that built?” we asked in ignorance. “Last year,” he replied.
This is today the largest private house in Ireland and has to be the ultimate statement of the journey that JP McManus has made since he first came to Martinstown as a 19 year old driving his father’s JCB digger in October1970. “I remember the date,” he says, “because the place belonged to Mrs McCalmont and I had a fiver on her Linden Tree who won the Observer Gold Cup (now Racing Post Trophy) at 25s. I had £20 each way on him at 20-1 for the Derby when he was second to Mill Reef but then put on two hundred quid at the Irish Derby only for him to get his tail stuck in the gates and never come out of the stalls.”
The story is delivered in that measured, ruminant way of his, carefully guiding us down the river of memory. We have reached the shoulder of the parapetted terrace and duck into the underground car park. As JP leads us along the wide basement corridor towards the roman style swimming pool, it’s a huge reminder that while he may have been a gambler from the beginning, he hasn’t got here by chance.
“I love gambling,” he says, “I gamble but I think I am disciplined. If I lose my money I don’t have a bet for two weeks, it doesn’t bother me. For gambling is a gene. It’s not your fault if you gamble. It’s like an addiction but I had a friend who had a problem and I said I wanted to teach him not to be an addicted gambler but an addicted winner. We don’t bet to gamble we bet to win. Winning is the addiction not gambling.”
Proof of the statement was all around us – a gym, a cinema, a treatment room and on the walls a set of pleasing paintings by Bob Dylan (yes that Bob Dylan) – but one of the key links only appears when J.P. says proudly “have a look at this” and suddenly we are standing inside an utterly authentic old Irish pub with two photographs which hark back to the roots of it all. One is of a young, big haired McManus beside an odds board in his days as a bookmaker and the other is rather earlier than that. It is of his father John James McManus with a horse called Roxboro Jack at the Cappamore Show in the 60s, standing upright in the classic farmer’s “Sunday Best” suit with a lean, leathered face redolent of the work ethic that set the family on their way.
“I was lucky in my life,” says J.P. “because when I left school I could go working for my Dad’s earth moving business on the diggers five and a half days a week – that was 12 hours a day Monday to Friday and five hours on Saturday and milk the cows every other weekend – and always go to the betting office on Saturdays. At that stage tax was 5p in the pound on win bets only, no tax on doubles if one of them was odds against, and 5/6 and 10/11 was taken as ‘Evens’. Then suddenly they put tax at 20% on everything. Overnight I stopped betting in the shops, began taking some bets unofficially, then got a board at the dogs.”
“It was all an education,” he explained. “We went skint a few times but I never went into debt, never owed money to any bookmaker or anyone in the ring. I would go back to my father looking for the job back, work for ten or twelve weeks, lose the money again and back to father again. Each time you are learning about your mistakes because you have plenty of time to think about them out there on the digger in the early morning.”
The philosophy is simple and authoritative but has a sympathy about it which makes it difficult to bridle at such unmissable wealth. “Move easy when your jug is full,” had been one of the watchwords at the Christian Brothers School in Limerick’s Skelton Street and in a way even the building of a modern day stately home as his family house can be seen as part of the push to keep Irish pride in the community. For all the winning drive which has seen him and confederates like Magnier, Dermot Desmond and Joe Lewis make millions out of the money markets, and everything from Manchester United to the present spat with Mitchells and Butler en route to their winters in Barbados, there is a very firm benevolence at the core. Much of this is private but the annual public seven figure donations from the JP McManus Charitable Trust Foundation have seen him acclaimed as Philanthropist of The Year. Martinstown is part of the legacy for the ages.
Of course much of the present day fortune has been amassed playing the markets from the trading room at his Swiss domicile in Geneva, but the original passion for racing remains. “What is your banker for Cheltenham?” he asks as we sit down for lunch with the Ballyhoura Hills and the Galty Mountains beyond the rain. “No one is allowed in here,” he jokes afterwards as he takes us in to an elegant, book-lined room with a handsome, laptop-crowned desk facing a flat screen wall on which he can call up four meetings at a time. “I think we should see Istabraq on the way,” he says as we drive off in late sunshine for jumps king Enda Bolger who is to saddle no less than five runners in this year’s Cheltenham Cross Country.
So we stop off at the barn next to the office to pay homage to the greatest of the 31 Festival winners to have carried the green and gold hoops which originated from the colours of the South Liberties GAA club . Istabraq is 18 now but still has something of the aura of the record breaker who won three English and Four Irish Champion Hurdles. “Of course he goes to the gym every day,” says JP McManus of the horse walker sessions that keeps Istabraq in trim, “his wins were great for glorious reasons, but my most important one at Cheltenham must have been the first one, Mister Donovan in 1982. He was needed.”
As we move on through the old garrison town of Kilmallock and out through the timeless Limerick countryside, it fully dawns that it is only because JP has now got himself so well breeched commercially that he has been able to become by far the greatest single benefactor that jump racing has ever seen. If he won every single race at the Festival it would still nowhere near balance the £ 4 million plus annual costs of over three hundred horses in training albeit they have already won 128 races and over £1.3 million in our two islands this season. He does it for the same reason and more that he has given millions in the last ten years to support the Gaelic Games teams in Limerick. He does it because he loves to be part and to play in the whole mad “gas” of it – and because he can.
Which brings us to Enda Bolger. The man who trained Grande Champetre, L’Ami and Drombeag to take the McManus colours into the first three places of last year’s Festival Cross Country and his own training tally to three out of the last four renewals, is a “Ying” to his patron’s “Yang”. Whereas J.P. is quiet, shortish and cerebral, Enda is big, brash and physical. This year he is adding previous winner Heads OnThe Ground and the far from useless Ferney Cross to bid for an unprecedented first five home for the yellow and gold.
Enda choreographed a group photo of the horses who had all worked at Thurles that morning and stood amongst his quintet with easy familiarity. J.P. takes up his position with the reserve that a non-riding owner sensibly shows – especially when his mind is ticking. He comes over and gently confides one of the tastiest offers a racing man can hear. “We are having a bet today,” he says quite precisely, “what would you like on it?” Having suggested, rather boldly for me, that I might risk fifty, J.P. McManus says “let’s make it a hundred.” Only a wuss could demur.
The race was apparently the 4-50 at Bangor, horse and jockey were not disclosed because Enda had produced hat, boots, riding chaps and a mighty chestnut beast called Tipper “to show me round our jumps.” With a good hour before “Bet Time” there seemed no need to get the details of where our hundred quid was going. So McManus, his son in law Cian Foley, photographer Edward Whitaker, and former Finance Minister and European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy who had come along for everything but the ride, repaired to the Bolger house to for tea and TV in front of a roaring log fire. I took the ride – to find that five minutes was to be nearer ninety.
There is a rogueish innocence in Enda’s smile. Far from taking me to see the replica cross country fences laid out on a figure-of-eight course not half a mile from the yard, he was across the road to blaze a unique jumping trail around the banks, ditches, gates, wire fences and even one unwitting garden wall in the blameless Limerick country side. The next hour and a half was like being behind some brilliant but demented ski guide, you track him on the assumption that he cannot actually want to kill you.
Tipper was a splendid, big, solid truck of a thing. Three years ago he had carried John Francome for five hours without disaster. But Francome rode nearly a thousand more winners than I did and Enda retired after setting a new record for a point to point jockey and his final ride was to win the famed La Touche Cup cross country race at Punchestown on Risk Of Thunder owned by “Licenced to Kill” Sean Connery. Tipper was 51 years younger than me but 16 is still quite old for a horse to be following Bolger cross country. Francome sent old “Tip” some carrots afterwards. I am thinking of sugar lumps laced with Calvados.
For wherever Enda went Tipper bravely and footsurely followed even to the point of staying upright when Enda and “Ted” (named after his owner Ted Walsh) turned over in the ditch landing off one particularly tall and thicket filled bank with barely a horse’s width to get through. He jumped wire fences when you couldn’t see them, he cleared gates beside a river bank and when we were hopelessly out of stride for a gaping brook, he just shortened and safely cleared it. He even stood still when we stopped and had a quick Guinness at O’Riordan’s.
When we clattered back up the drive a reception committee was waiting. But they weren’t interested in us. They wanted to say what had happened at Bangor. A.P. McCoy had been loaded onto a McManus horse called Award Winner, a Brendan Powell seven year old who was returning to fences after a confidence restorer over hurdles and a 7lb drop in the handicap. The first price, which we got, was 7-1. Award Winner was backed at all rates down to 2-1. At the very first fence it looked all over with a stirrup less McCoy draped round his mount’s blundering neck. But A.P. held on to battle home in glory. Whitaker was so excited he has probably quit Racing Post to be J.P.’s gopher and McCreevy could hardly have looked happier if he had got Brussels to swallow the whole of Ireland’s bank debt.
All the way home J.P. just kept a smile that was both avuncular and serene as if there was something else to smile about. There was. A year to the day he had got the news that he needed an operation for prostate cancer. Now he was standing in his beautiful, oak panelled drawing room sipping cranberry juice whilst we guzzled champagne. His wife Noreen was playing with two pyjama clad grandchildren, he was among family and friends and we were looking at a photo of his ten year old self holding his father’s hand one far distant summer.
“You know a lot of good came out of the cancer,” he said. “You see things in different lights. I got more out of it than I lost and there was never a day when I thought I wouldn’t make it.” He glanced around the room, his voice quite deep, and gratitude in his benevolence. “Isn’t it great,” said J.P.McManus, “when everyone’s a winner.”
Unconsciously my left hand strays to the side pocket where fourteen folded fifties have a pleasing bulk about them. There may be better days ahead. But I am not counting on it.