First of all, how are you handling the cancellation of racing in Britain due to the coronavirus pandemic?
I am doing everything I can within the government guidelines to keep myself going. I ride out three lots a morning for Mark Johnston and then try and keep myself in shape at home. There is nothing like race-riding for fitness but I have everything in my garage to keep myself in shape.
It’s not a full-on gym but there is everything I need to keep ticking over. You just have to make the best of your own situation and do what you can to get through these strange times. Of course we get an income for riding out, but it doesn’t measure up to our regular earnings when we’re race-riding.
How has this stoppage had an impact on the wider ranks of jockeys?
It can affect many of us mentally. When you think about it we are on the go 24/7, out and about dashing here, there, north and south. You’re rushing to ride out first thing in the morning and then rushing to the races all over the country.
Then suddenly it all stops and you have to stop. Your head doesn’t know what’s going on because you’ve got so much time on your hands and it can be very stressful trying to adjust to a new and unknown situation. But we must remember this virus is affecting the whole country, top to bottom.
Everybody’s life has changed, not just in racing. A lot of people are a lot worse off than we are. But I have to say it is alarming how many seem to have had a total disregard for the government guidelines by going out and becoming part of unnecessary crowds. The sooner everybody gets on board, the sooner we can all get back to work.
In your role as the Flat jockeys’ President of the Professional Jockeys Association, are you pushing for financial help for your colleagues who are self-employed?
I don’t think anyone has any idea when racing might start up again. But rest assured the PJA are working tirelessly trying to make sure their members are financially and mentally looked after.
Various financial plans and ideas have been put forward. We must just try and ride out the storm while a lot of people are pulling together in the interests of the jockeys. No situation is perfect at the moment and we all have to adapt, not forgetting that the heroes of the country are the people looking after the sick.
We just have to wait and listen for what the government wants us to do next and make sure we follow their advice. My wife Abby has started home-schooling our two young daughters and we’ll have to see how that goes.
The Karl Burke-trained filly Laurens provided you with four Group 1 victories and ultimately a retainer with her owner, John Dance. What is your lasting memory of the crack northern-trained filly and what difference has she made to your life and career?
The first morning I rode Laurens work as an unraced two-year-old she told me how good she was. A couple of Karl Burke’s jumped off at the five-furlong marker and I jumped off at the six with another horse who could only stay with me for two furlongs. The front two were only there as a bit of a guide, but with a furlong to go Laurens strode pass them and pulling up I knew I was on something special.
“Becoming a Classic-winning jockey meant a lot to me”
She has since raised my profile professionally. At that stage I was already on the up with winners increasing year- on-year, but you do need a horse like Laurens to take you to the next level.
She helped me to show that I could produce the goods on the big stage. A very straightforward animal, except as a four-year-old there were times when she wouldn’t let you into her stable; it was her’s and she’d make sure you knew it!
Which of her big wins meant the most to you, and why?
The Prix de Diane at Chantilly was an amazing day. Abby was over with me and the Diane had been the plan ever since Laurens finished second as a two-year-old at Deauville. When you make a long-range plan, getting there fit and healthy on the day is one thing, but to win as well is extra special, particularly a Classic.
Becoming a Classic-winning jockey meant a lot to me. Laurens has given me the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The weirdest day was watching her win the Matron Stakes from a wheelchair at Leopardstown after breaking both my feet at Newcastle.
I was delighted for connections but at the same time absolutely distraught at missing out. It took a bit of getting over, but then the prospect of teaming up with Laurens again got me back riding within a month of my accident.
With just three winners on the Flat in your first four seasons in Ireland, you joined the late Ferdy Murphy in Middleham. What did you learn during your time together?
I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel in Ireland and a friend got me the job with Ferdy. In two and a half years at Wynbury Stables, I learnt more than I’m ever likely to learn in the rest of my life – watching how Ferdy handled horses, people, owners, jockeys, the ins and outs of racing, how to conduct yourself.
Being a jockey, there is so much more than just rocking up and riding horses. Ferdy taught me that. It was the right place for me at that stage of my career.
I needed someone like Ferdy and had so much respect for him. You knew when to question him and when not to question him. You had to work hard and I loved every moment of it. He instilled confidence in me.
Don’t get me wrong, he gave me plenty of bollockings, but there would also be a comforting arm round the shoulder when needed.
You rode Ferdy’s Hot Weld to win the 2007 Scottish National before moving back to the Flat. Why did you make the switch and what are the biggest differences between the two codes?
I loved jumping and thought I was going to be a jump jockey. But when Ferdy turned all his horses out in the summer he would get me a job at Karl Burke’s or riding out somewhere else on the Flat. I came into contact with Alan Swinbank and after riding 25 jumping winners
and about 30 Flat winners that summer, Alan, who trained 100 Flat horses, offered me a job as second jockey to Neil Callan. Ferdy told me I’d be mad not to give it a go. It was a no-brainer and the Flat took off.
“We must just try and ride out the storm”
Of course there are differences between the two codes, but if you can ride a horse you can do it over five furlongs or three miles. You must adapt to circumstances and have to be a bit sharper on the Flat, because there’s less time to make decisions. But don’t forget we can ride two miles five on the Flat at Pontefract and half an hour later switch to a five-furlong sprint.
As representative and spokesman for your weighing-room colleagues in your PJA role, what are your views on the much-publicised issues of welfare?
We are in 2020, times change and we all have to adapt whatever our sport or business. Jockeys are very much on board with the BHA and authorities trying to make racing more appealing to the general public.
There isn’t a jockey in the weighing-room that didn’t get involved in racing because he or she didn’t love horses. We see the horses every day and know how well looked after they are, but you only need one bad story and the public latch on to it.
Then the public perception becomes distorted. I’m afraid that’s the world we live in.
It was an honour to be asked to do this job with the PJA. I have always had an opinion and liked to get my point of view across. Plus, I love the racing industry and want to see it move forward in the modern age.
The Horse Welfare Board has recommended increased penalties for whip offences. Do you and your colleagues support this move?
Yes, we do. The whip issue is never going to go away and we want to be on board and work with the BHA and try to come to an understanding where we are all happy. No jockey goes out there with the intention of breaking the rules, but it is a competitive sport and things happen in the heat of the moment.
We want to do our best for the people we’re riding for and for the horse because we want to win. But we’ll work together on any new penalties within reason.
Some in racing believe that the sight of jockeys carrying whips will soon be consigned to history. Could you do your job effectively without the whip? Personally, I hope it doesn’t happen.
I learnt to ride with a stick the first time I sat on a horse and have carried one ever since. But we can’t bury our heads in the sand and everyone in racing has to sing from the same sheet.
I accept it is tough being under scrutiny all the time and it bothers me that we are having to adapt to the views of people who are not involved in racing or with horses.
We shouldn’t forget that racehorses are athletes bred to be in top flight and sometimes need a little bit of encouragement.
We know jockeys are under huge stress at certain times. Are the support structures in place to provide help when it all gets too much?
In the last five years conditions have improved a great deal. We have a lot of help and support from all aspects, nutritionists and mental health specialists who are on call on a 24/7 help line. Also physios on every racecourse.
The sport has moved forward so much and it’s only going to get better; I have no worries on that front.
Since my girls Amelia, 5, and Lavinia, 3, have been around I have handled the tough times a lot better. When I walk in the door after a bad day they smile, run up, greet you and you quickly forget any frustrations. They put things in perspective for me.
You met your wife Abby when you were both working for Ferdy Murphy. What role does Abby play in your career?
I’d be lost without her. She is an absolute rock for me and I would not be able to do what I am doing without her. It’s as simple as that. Abby keeps me going and is there to give me a boost when times are tough as well as when things are going well.
She brings our two daughters up virtually on her own for three-quarters of the year. She’s there 24/7 for all of us. I have loved racing all my life and for a long time I didn’t have a balance.
My life used to be defined by what was happening on the track, what trainers were saying to me and how I was performing on a daily basis. Abby and the girls have given me a much needed, different outlook.
Could your experience working on behalf of the jockeys encourage you to take up a role involved in stewarding or starting when you step out of the saddle?
Abby is always suggesting I should be thinking about putting plans in place, but right now I am one hundred per cent concentrating on my riding. Racing has been my passion all my life and I think I’d find it quite a shock if I was ever working away from the sport.
“It was an honour to be asked to do this job with the PJA”
I would want to be involved in some form. Working with the PJA is a great experience and provides me with an opportunity to speak to lots of different people and take on board their different views.
How do you spend time with your family away from racing?
The girls have a pony each, sometimes they want to go for a ride, other times they don’t. We like to go out with them, maybe for a meal and that’s when we’re most relaxed and chilled out.
I have been a Liverpool fan all my life and enjoyed watching them these last few years. I trained for boxing at school and had a few spars. Nowadays I enjoy following and watching professional boxing.
Having ridden a century for the past three seasons, could you see yourself challenging for the jockeys’ championship this year when racing restarts?
My main target is to continue riding at the top of my game for the people who support me. After that, what will be will be. I can’t go out and try any harder than I have been.
If I found myself in a position to challenge for the championship it would be brilliant. Would I lie awake at night worrying about it? Absolutely not.
Which horses are you most looking forward to riding this season?
James Tate has a lovely sprinter, Far Above, who I partnered three times last year and we won all three. It is not set in stone that I ride him but he’s one I would look forward to after our victories together.
Duke Of Hazzard, trained by Paul Cole for Fitri Hay, is another lovely horse. I won a couple of Pattern races on him and he could be competing at the top level. Two nice horses and hopefully I can keep a leg on either side of them.