Sky’s the limit!

Joy from Abu Dhabi to Roscommon as ‘€700 horse’ romps home!

It’s one of the sports stories of the year, one that will be told many times in years to come. It’s about a horse bought by a Roscommon-headed syndicate for the princely sum of 600 pounds sterling – and which has already won over €120,000 in prize-money, including success in a Grade One race last Sunday.

The horse, Skyace, was bought by trainer JJ ‘Shark’ Hanlon for the Birdinthehand Syndicate – headed up by former St. Brigid’s and Roscommon footballer Cathal McHugh – at the sales in Ascot in December 2019. Skyace won in Down Royal and Punchestown in 2020, and this year, she ran a cracking race in Cheltenham, finishing fourth in a two-mile mares race which was won by Rachael Blackmore on Tellmesomethinggirl.

Then, on Sunday last, Skyace provided Shark Hanlon and jockey Jody McGarvey with their biggest win yet when the combination held off all-comers in a thrilling finish to land the Grade One Irish Stallions Farms EBF Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse, worth almost €60,000 to the winning connections.

 There were joyous scenes as Cathal, his wife Aoife, and a number of friends watched the race in McGettigan’s Bar in Abu Dhabi, where he has been working as a teacher for the past three years. The scenes have been widely shared on social media.

I spoke to Cathal on Monday and there was still plenty of excitement in the air: “She is some battler, and it was a brilliant win. We had a great night here in Abu Dhabi. The reaction has been absolutely huge. Everyone loves to see the small guy win sometimes. It’s just different from Gigginstown, Rich Ricci and JP winning all the time!”

Cathal explained how the group came by the horse: “I was involved with a syndicate in 2016, and Shark was the trainer that time. We contacted him in 2019 and told him we had about €10,000 to spend on a horse, and he was going to the sales in Ascot. When he told us he had bought what he thought was a really good mare for just 600 pounds, we couldn’t believe it.

“Shark is the perfect trainer for a syndicate. He is great craic and so enthusiastic. He told us last weekend that the horse wouldn’t be beaten, so that was good enough. It was some performance, and I am delighted for Jody McGarvey (jockey) as well” Cathal said.

The former Roscommon footballer says that there is huge interest in the horse in the Irish community in the Middle East.

“There could have been two hundred people in Victors Bar (in Dubai) for Skyace’s race in Cheltenham. Then we were in McGettigan’s Bar in Ajman at the weekend, and I’d say there were fifty or sixty people on holidays that just made it their business to be where we were for the race”.

Cathal says that he hopes to be able to see the horse in the flesh when it’s safe to do so. But the regulations with regard to Covid are not nearly as strict in Abu Dhabi, due to vaccinations: “Our regulations aren’t as harsh as they are in Ireland. We’re all getting vaccinated. I’d say 90% of the people that were there watching yesterday have received the first dose. We’re able to go out and have a few drinks, and we were playing golf today. So it’s different over here.

“You hear stories from friends finding it tough at home. We’re fortunate. But we’re looking forward to going home and seeing her run some day,” he concluded.

The Birdinthehand Syndicate is made up of Cathal McHugh, Kevin Crean from Wexford and Kieran Breslin from Donegal, who are in Abu Dhabi, and also three Irish-based members, Kerrill Sutton from Wexford, Mick Delaney from Dublin and JJ ‘Shark’ Hanlon, who is based in County Carlow.

Cathal McHugh played for Roscommon at all levels, and won an All-Ireland senior club medal with St. Brigid’s in 2013. He is son of Brigid’s club legend Peter McHugh and wife Brigetta. Cathal was previously a teacher at Roscommon Community College before taking a career break in 2018 to travel to the Middle East, where he works as a teacher of Social Studies and Business.