by Andrew McNamara
I was a jockey during the golden era of Ruby, Barry, Davy and Paul Carberry. It’s a huge measure of these men that nobody else got going. There was plenty of good riders my age but they didn’t break through because the best rides were constantly taken. They never got the chance.
Same in England with how Richard Johnson and Tony McCoy dominated for so long. Some very good jockeys never became great, they couldn’t get on the horses to catch up, and loads of other careers never even happened.
That’s a testament to how Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, Davy Russell and Paul suppressed everyone else.
Without opportunities you cannot improve. Sean Flanagan found the room to come through because Paul Carberry retired. Sean nearly gave up a few years ago, he was well down the pecking order, but he’s doing well now with Noel Meade in one of the top jobs in the country.
Davy was temporarily usurped by Bryan Cooper but I think it is fair to say he has switched that around again.
Jack Kennedy and Paul Townend are also doing brilliantly nowadays, and they are very good jockeys but Davy is the favourite jockey in Gordon Elliott’s yard, Ruby in Willie Mullins’.
That nobody has usurped them is a measure of their ability and that little extra grit. This is a hugely competitive sport but there’d be a hunger to Ruby and Davy that they’d succeed at anything.
Because horse racing is such a dangerous sport you need to be ruthless. I know I was that way. Not robbing rides on people or anything, but trying to get your foot in the door when someone else was doing the same. It’s not like a human race where the fastest tends to win, position is so important, if you can slightly interfere with the best jockey or the fastest horse, bending the rules to your favour as much as you can.
Now I’m a trainer I look to the best. With jump racing it is Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. On the flat Aidan O’Brien and Ger Lyons have taken a foothold. I’m lucky enough, having been a jockey, that I would know a lot of these people and they are generally quite open.
We have just started to do a job on the gallop and before we started I spoke to about ten of the top trainers in the country. You would be surprised how generous they were with advice and their time.
Riding out is only one small aspect of training so it is hard to know what others are doing behind the scenes. Gordon and Willie have taken it to a new level, I’d also be friends with Noel Meade.
Sounds like a man’s world, right? Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry contested that theory throughout their careers, that both recently finished. They achieved a huge amount, riding loads of Cheltenham winners, while Katie has ridden in Australia and had a big winner in France. They come from racing families, which was probably a help, it being bred into them, but they are two very confident people and brilliant riders. They might not be as strong as Ruby or Paul but you’d put them up on any horse. It’s got nothing to do with being a man or a woman. There is a lot of skill to riding a horse, the skill is far more important than strength.
Katie and Nina I think would have inspired the likes of Katie O’Farrell and Rachael Blackmore. All four of them are very talented. Someone might get half a length over them in a finish but the horses settle so well, and jump so well for them, that the fraction they might lack in strength does not matter. Nina and Katie could have easily turned professional and been hugely successful. I’d imagine – and I never asked them – it was down to the amount of falls. That’s not fear on either of their parts, but the logic of riding professionally for ten years with thirty falls a year you will end up with 300 falls. They probably decided not to go down that route as an amateur you ride more on the flat and in bumpers.
We were all having a drink after Katie retired recently when a fella in our company stated the obvious: you probably don’t realise the life you all have, going to work every day with friends, playing a sport you love in this very social, active existence. He sits in an office from dawn until dusk Monday to Friday.
Others get a kick from going to the races every now and again while we live it every day.
The reality of that can be stark.
My family come from Croom in Limerick. Dad is a trainer so we always grew up around ponies and horses. Nothing else is normal.
Only as a veteran jockey did I become interested in training. As a child it was all about riding winners. Everyone kept telling me I was too tall so I never fully believed it could happen; too many people who know racing better than they know themselves were adamant a few spins as an amateur would be the height of it.
So away I went into the real world. Well, sort of. The only reason I went to the University of Limerick and not up to Dublin, where most of my friends from Crescent College moved, was to stay close to home. Close to the horses.
Halfway through third year studying maths and computers something snapped. There we sat, broken into groups to work on a project, dressed like a student doing what most people my age were doing, but bored to tears.
I got up and walked out.
Economically speaking, the worst move of my life so far but I needed to give it a go. Still only twenty, worst case scenario I’d finish off the degree and make my fortune in finance, but first I needed to fail at what I love doing. There are plenty of miserable souls with healthy bank balances.
I’ve never looked back.
Height was my main rival, not another jockey or horse. Age fourteen it looked like I’d stretch way past any possibility of becoming an amateur. Thankfully the growth spurt stalled through secondary school as I moved away from rugby and back towards early mornings in the yard.
Cutting weight is hell for jockeys, but me especially. Boxers have it easy. They need to lose those last few pounds for the weigh-in, then pile it back on for the fight, and that only happens every few weeks or months. Jockeys have a constant battle. Only now do I see how unusual and demanding the weight loss demands became; I’d need to be around 10 stone 7 pounds to get on most rides. I’m over 11 stone without eating much for a week so I’d be sitting in steaming tubs sweating off five or six pounds of water every other night. Dehydrating myself, basically, to such an extent that it effects your performance. I used to get down to 10 stone 4 pounds but that became ridiculous. The hot tub can peel off about three pounds an hour. Your face looks horrendous after it. Every meal I ever ate I was conscious of what was on the plate. Fluid is the real killer.
”Try being dehydrated for ten years, my entire career as a jockey.
That was the sacrifice.
Low amounts of high energy food is not good for you. Even lean chicken adds weight, so you cannot be eating much of anything.
In the end back problems ended my career age 32. That’s young for a jump jockey but the weight kept creeping up, which lessened my opportunities for the horses I wanted to ride, and it took a toll on me physically. Due to constant muscular problems I got worse as a jockey when others were improving. Hidden Cyclone was the last really good regular ride.
Really, I exceeded my own expectations, riding some great horses in Hourigan’s and for Edward O’Grady, competing at all the big festivals with close to 500 winners was beyond my wildest dreams when boring myself to sleep in UL, but once you start winning your goals evolve. I quietly presumed my career would be over by 30 and it probably should have been.
What’s the lyric? “If I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor.”
The physical demands only increase. Along with the risk.
I finished up not long after Robbie was paralysed. It was time, I knew that, but it became increasingly difficult to go on. I was going to give up, eventually, but you keep doing what you know best, even after Robbie and John Thomas, my brother and cousin, had their accidents.
”Robbie was paralysed from the waist down after falling at Wexford in April 2015. I was in the same race and rode the next one because that's what a jockey does. You are no use to anyone in an ambulance or a hospital corridor.
I presumed at the time that friends and family would be worried if I didn’t reappear. Perhaps that was a bit naive. If I knew my little brother was paralysed I would have gone straight to the hospital in my silks. Falls happen all the time, most jockeys get up and walk away, even those who are hospitalised are back riding in a few weeks. Broken bones heal. When you hear a jockey has broken his back you wait to hear he is not paralysed and instantly think, ‘Well, that’s ok.’
It happened just in front of me. I couldn’t see how bad a fall it was but I was directly behind him and only moved out approaching the jump. He fell and others went over him. I so easily could have run over Robbie.
The doctors said I could stand down for the day so I knew it was fairly serious but everyone would be petrified back home and I couldn’t do anything or find out any solid information in those two, three hours. I kept going for the day, riding two winners on unfancied horses.
It took a week to fully accept what had happened. The doctors gave us some hope but it takes time to process.
Robbie has had some really tough days since, but his overriding attitude has been: it happened, I am going to get on and live my life. He was at the Electric Picnic within a few months, sky diving, playing golf. He’s remarkable.
I never saw myself in direct competition with him, but presumed I’d be jealous if he won a major race at Cheltenham. When it happened, the champion bumper in 2014 on Silver Concorde, I made a show of myself, screaming and roaring at the television in the Owners and Trainers room. Surprised myself how happy I was for him.
Only time will tell who’s the better trainer!
John Thomas died in July 2016, age 41, from injuries related to a broken back and neck he sustained falling off Galaxy Rock at Cheltenham in 2013.
I had retired before John Thomas died. After Robbie’s fall racing changed dramatically for me. You’d arrive at the races and walking from car park to weigh room up to twenty well meaning people could stop me to ask how he was doing. The same one line response had to be trotted out.
“He’s fine, on the mend, the doctors are taking good care of him.”
End the conversation politely but firmly and stay focused on what you are here to do. Don’t think about Robbie today, don’t contemplate suffering the same fate, you can’t compete with that mindset. Head down.
“Andy,” a vaguely familiar face blocks my path, “how’s Robbie?”
Poor me, I know, but it became too much. One day Dad was training the horse I was riding when the owner came over to us.
“How is he?”
“He’s fine, on the mend, the doctors are taking good care of him.”
He meant the horse.
”That was it. My head was gone. As a competitor I wasn't anywhere near the standards I expected of myself. Finally, I listened to my body.
Yes, we are the only sport literally followed around by an ambulance but you cannot tell somebody not to be afraid. The courage to ride is either in them or it isn’t. Some jockeys change over time. Up to about 23, 24 they have no fear but when hunger doesn’t overpower any fear of falling you are in trouble.
On some horses after a few jumps you know there is a good chance both of you will end up on the floor. That is not enjoyable. But if you start thinking like that more than once in a while you are in the wrong job and definitely on the wrong horses.
Jockeys and trainers see fear in other riders. A little negative going down to the last jumper or other small tells. There were days on particular horses when I knew it was a nightmare but I never wanted to stop.
It took three years since I retired in 2015 to wake up in the morning without pain.
”Concussions were a problem that almost ended my career before it got going. I had at least ten, and once I was unconscious for a day. The emotions are confusion and anger; we've see it so many times that jockeys can tell before most doctors when someone is struggling. I'd be unable to focus with a mild concussion but frustration boils into anger depending on the severity of the fall.
I got one concussion in Tramore, not long after getting the Edward O’Grady job, after riding a lunatic for him in the first race which fell, and lying on the ground, a bit groggy, I remembered there was another runner the same day that would definitely win so in the ambulance back to the weigh-room, with the doctor was asking me questions, I was lucid enough to answer correctly. I’m cleared to ride.
”I get out of the ambulance and look back at the doctor, the order of Malta man and the doctor again. There was two of him.
When you get older and have a secure job you can take a few days off but nobody wants to miss the big days. When others started wearing gum-shields, the chatter of your teeth on your jaw seemed to spark concussions as the vibrations transfer through, but a gum-shield absorbs the shock. This was the theory, hardly scientific proof, but the gum-shield marked the end of my concussions.
Riding is something that can be done injured. Ruby Walsh returned for Cheltenham despite his leg not being fully healed. Now it didn’t work out but as long as you don’t fall…
The race course doctor, Adrian McGoldrick, is retiring this year and through the time with Robbie and John Thomas he was unbelievably supportive. There is huge trust between Adrian and jockeys. You could go to him knowing he would leave you ride as long as it was safe, and he would direct you to the best place to recover in the meantime. It means you could be honest with him, where previously jockeys would be wary going to the doctor as being stood meant a loss of earnings, so you hide serious problems as long as you can.
The only thing I ever broke was my wrist. The same fall I got a kick in the back, which was so sore I didn’t know about the wrist until about five seconds after the injection.
I’m a trainer now, so the life I’ve known since growing up in Croom continues. I go into our yard in Meath every morning to see the horses and the majority of them have super personalities.
”But Beef or Salmon is the most human horse I ever encountered. So intelligent. He'd know exactly what’s going on, following you around the yard, going to the walker or back to the stable all by himself. Riding over a jump he would adjust strides to make sure we got it right every time. Now, a lot of horses do that but Beef or Salmon always did it.
On a work day we’d go up the gallop three times. Steady the first, increasing the second and at a certain point the third time we’d quicken up. Until that moment he wouldn’t do an ounce more work than he had to all week, but he’d know it was coming, because he’d cheat. About 30, 40 yards before the point of acceleration the reins would be pulled from my hands so he’d have a head start on the other horse doing the same piece of work.
”Ferocious competitor, like no horse I've ever known and only a few humans, he'd burst himself to win but if the other horse got a nose in front of him - because he was quite slow - that was it, he'd drop off, give up and hack home.
Just a lovely, friendly horse.
I also really loved Tranquil Sea. Rhona and Elizabeth, my wife and sister, laugh whenever I say this, but he seemed a little autistic. There was no real interaction from him but you could tell he liked your company just being there beside him. An unusual looking horse, funny colour with a big white face, white eye and he had ring worm at some stage so there’s spots on him but noble and beautiful at the same time. He’d look at you strangely with those wild eyes, but fabulous to ride. A Rolls Royce, floating along the ground, so athletic over a jump.
There is plenty of fun in the yard, a good atmosphere and then you go to the races. That competition drives me. In school and college I was always staring out the window, usually dreaming about riding a winner. I still get to live that from the stands nowadays. It’s not the same but you wouldn’t know it from the roars out of me when we win.
You would miss the weigh room. The craic, the rows, it’s an interesting atmosphere that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.