JOHN Hassett had a reputation in Irish racing for being a very shrewd racehorse trainer and knowledgeable veterinary surgeon, but it was the man’s personal qualities – intelligence, humour and kindness – which were repeatedly mentioned during his funeral Mass this week and in tributes from some of those who knew him well.

Aged 85, he passed away peacefully on Sunday at University Hospital Limerick. Predeceaed by his son Paddy, he is survived by his wife Eileen and children Margaret, Mary, Eileen, Úna and Johnny.

He is best known in racing as the trainer of Cheltenham Festival winner Generosa, hunter chaser Eliogarty, top sprinter Baby Brew and the prolific Back On Top. He was also a veterinary surgeon for over 50 years.

Generosa won the Stakis Casinos Final (now the Pertemps) on the first day of the 1999 Cheltenham Festival, and finished a close third in the Coral Cup a day later. Baby Brew finished second in the 1979 Group 1 Prix de l’Abbaye and had previously won the Rockingham Handicap, as did stable companion Naomi Joy two years later.

In the 1980s he trained Eliogarty to win multiple big prizes on the hunter chase scene though the horse did not run in his name when winning at Cheltenham. His final winner was Royal Tara, who won a Quakerstown point-to-point and hunter chase at Tipperary in 2017.

Great character

Paddy Aspell, racing manager for Sean Mulryan, knew John for the past 20 years. He said: “Racing has lost one of our great characters. John was one of the toughest and best men I have ever met. It was an honour to have known him.

“He was always an interesting person to be around, He told some great stories. He had a wonderful sense of humour, a love of humanity and an in-depth knowledge of horses.

“John had a unique and intelligent wit and style, regaling us with mischievous stories with a glint in his eye. He was a legend and everyone whose life he touched was of the same opinion.

“He was a man of rare humility and kindness, and he had a real sense of loyalty. He was a terrific trainer and his handling of Generosa embodied that. But for all his achievements in racing, he seemed more interested in other people than himself. He was a great family man.”

Diverse interests

Equestrian artist Peter Curling knew John for over 40 years. “He was just the best company,” he said. “He was very well-read and held some forthright views. He would surprise you all the time with his knowledge of Irish literature and history. He had diverse interests. Once he came out to Venice to stay with me and he was great company.

“A great raconteur, he was full of wit. At the sales he would give you a running commentary on various people. He was also very good at the sales himself and gave us a lot of help.

“When it came to horses, he was not bound by traditional methods. He would be open to taking a different approach if he thought it would work. He was always looking at alternative training methods, such as swimming horses in the Shannon Estuary long before others.

“John was amazingly tough and came through some gruelling medical battles, a heart attack and bypass, a kidney transplant and much more. He had great fight in him and was incredibly resilient right up to the end. A very brave man.”

Jockey Chris Hayes is engaged to John’s granddaughter, Rachel, and enjoyed his occasional visits to Ballyhannon. “He was the life and soul of the place and I was always made to feel welcome there. We had some real good chats.

“He had very few runners in recent years but I rode a few horses for him and I found him to be fairly meticulous, even at that stage of his career.

“One day in 2017 Rachel and I rode out Royal Tara and another horse for him. I wouldn’t know anything about jumpers but I could tell by the glint in his eye that he had the horse where he wanted him. He had the Tipperary race picked out and, as everyone says, there was nobody better to train a horse for a specific day. The general consensus is that he was always ahead of his time.”

Ready to win

His royal blue and gold quartered colours were draped on his coffin this week. His daughter Úna remarked that her father had a healthy if “conversational” relationship with the racing authorities who, along with the bookmakers, were often bemused by his ability to produce a horse ready to win on the day it was expected.

Úna recalled how he had enjoyed his trip to Dublin in September 2019 to mark 50 years as a veterinary surgeon with old college friends and family. It was to be his final away day, the train ticket found in his suit this week, along with a poem, The Moor by R.S. Thomas.

His love of poetry was also touched on by Daragh Hassett, who recited Lament for Thomas McDonagh at the funeral ceremony.