Following AP McCoy’s retirement, the jump jockeys’ championship has opened right up. Will your job with John Ferguson help give you the ammunition to come out on top at the end of the season?
It will definitely help and it’s a great position to be in, riding for John, and hopefully riding the majority of Venetia Williams’s as well. It’s brilliant to have those two stables behind me. Regarding the championship, Richard Johnson has set up a good lead and he won’t be stopping any time soon. No one deserves the championship more than Dickie.
He has been a great ambassador for the sport for so many years. If he doesn’t win it, whoever does would be an unpopular winner for beating such a popular guy. We certainly won’t be giving it to him easily. It’ll be like pushing water up hill, but we’ll keep trying.
How has this new role affected your relationships with Venetia Williams and Emma Lavelle, who have been big supporters and supplied you with plenty of winners in recent years?
I think it should all fit in well with Emma, Charlie Longsdon, Anthony Honeyball, and Venetia. So it’ll be a very busy winter, which is good; I’ll just have to juggle a few things here and there. Obviously I want to keep people happy and I can see things working out well.
My agent Sam Stronge is very good at communicating with everyone concerned. We go through riding plans together and try to be in the best place we can. I’d rather have it this way than not.
You started on the pony racing circuit in Ireland and at the same time produced an impressive Leaving Certificate at school. Being the son of County Cork teachers, was there ever any chance of a job in the world of academia, or a career outside racing?
Yes, up until my early teens there was. But the moment I started riding ponies when I was 14 or 15 my mind was made up. Before that I was at the stage of changing my mind every other day. When you’re that young you haven’t a clue what life’s got in store. I can’t really remember what thoughts went through me at such an early age. I do know the pony riding was the start of everything. After that, I just wanted to be a jockey.
If you let every bad day get you down you’d have an extremely miserable existence
You are known for being quite intense when it comes to your ambitious drive to reach the top of your profession. How do you keep a balance when things are not going your way and how do you handle defeat/missing winning rides?
I don’t think I’m that bad when it comes to getting wound up about things. When you’ve been a jump jockey a while you soon find out there are more bad days than good. When you’ve been doing it for a few years you realise as long as you’re fit enough to get in the car and go home you can always have another crack again tomorrow.
If you let every bad day get you down you’d have an extremely miserable existence. In fact, things would be so depressing you’d have no choice but to get out of race-riding and find something else to do.
Have you enjoyed a lot of support from your family? In particular your brother, Kevin, a former jockey and now University of Limerick sports science student, who must have knowledge/advice he can share with you…
Kevin rode a lot of winners and is looking for good results in his degree from his studies. He is a big help to me and I speak to him just about every day, as well as my parents who have always been a massive support. Kevin has been there and done it with his race-riding and watches a lot of my races so we can discuss them together and, of course, that means a great deal to me.
Since the retirement of McCoy how much of the great man’s presence and aura remained in the weighing room?
Just because AP isn’t there doesn’t mean you do your job any differently. People retire and some jockeys just come and go. Of course AP is seen in a different light because he dominated the sport for so long. But you can’t go into the weighing-room wondering where AP has gone. He is missed because he is a top man, mixes with everyone and we all like him – however it’s great not to have him in a race against you!
How comfortable are you with your weight and dieting? What is your fitness regime?
I can do 10st and I am slightly under six foot tall. So I am quite lucky with my weight. I think the vision of the stereotype jump jockey being small has gradually been kicked into touch. I am only slightly above average size in the weighing room and there are lads taller than me as well as a lot the same height. I don’t pursue a particular fitness regime, though in summer I’ll play quite a bit of golf, off 18 on the good days.
It must take plenty of mental strength to walk out of the weighing room six times a day to stare danger in the face – how do you cope with such hazards?
If you thought about it you wouldn’t do it, as simple as that. It’s my job and I chose to do it so I just get out there and get on with trying to ride winners. Crossing the road can be dangerous these days. People who are very safety conscious and try and take extra care every day of the week can just as easily be hit by a bus or be involved in any type of accident.
Talking of hazards, how do you reflect on the incident at Southwell in September when a member of the public entered the weighing room and punched you?
I haven’t reflected on the incident too much. All right, it happened, but you have got to get on with life. You could make a big deal out of it, but it’s done now – what’s the point of looking back? I’m sure the racecourses will change a few things to prevent a repeat of similar incidents, and it will be greatly appreciated if they do. But I’m not one for dwelling on the past.
Your best season’s tally is 97. What would it mean to break the 100-winner mark and what other goals would you like to achieve this term?
It would be a great personal achievement. There are not many jockeys lucky enough to find themselves in the position to chalk up 100 winners in a season. Of course it would be something to be proud of. I have started with quite a good strike-rate [about 24%] and John [Ferguson] always has a high percentage of winners to runners, which is a fantastic help.
Like all jockeys I just want to ride as many winners as possible and put myself in a position to challenge for the jockeys’ championship in the next ten years. I reckon I’ve got about 15 years’ riding left in me. I must try to keep building and improving my career.
Of all the winners you have ridden in your career, which meant the most to you and why?
I really enjoyed winning the Welsh Grand National for Venetia Williams on Emperor’s Choice. We have had other big days together but I was particularly proud of that one as it meant a lot to everyone connected with Emperor’s Choice.
I know after I’d just beaten Sam Twiston-Davies in the tightest of finishes he was caught on camera giving me a hug as we pulled up. Sam and I have been best of friends for a good while and the occasion was celebrated by both of us.
Of the Grade 1 tracks my favourite is Sandown, which is a great test of horse and jockey
Can you name your favourite course to ride, and why? Conversely, your least favourite?
I particularly like Stratford, where I’ve had plenty of luck and there is a very good atmosphere in the summer. I just enjoy going there. Exeter and Chepstow are really good, fair jumping tracks to ride round in winter. Of the Grade 1 tracks my favourite is Sandown, which is a great test of horse and jockey. And, importantly, I’ve had quite a bit of luck round there as well.
My least favourite is probably Catterick. I am never very keen on riding there, but I have had winners on the course.
In your opinion, is there any one aspect of the jump jockey’s lot that can be improved?
I think race planning needs to be looked at. It’s very annoying when there is no racing for a couple of days and then midweek there are three meetings on one day followed by two blank days. It’s very inconsistent and frustrating for everyone. I also think there should be a proper break in the jumping programme around August/ September time.
Some racecourses treat us better than others but they have all improved and are working at it, particularly on the nutrition side, which is much better than it was.
The ‘killer’ is the travelling; that’s the thing that gets us all down, with the traffic getting worse everywhere in this country. I accept we don’t have any choice; we have to be on the road to reach racecourses that are spread all over the country.
Plenty of jockeys have branched out into breeding or buying at the sales. Do either of these sections of the industry appeal to you?
I haven’t put a lot of thought into it as far as the future is concerned. At this moment in time I don’t have any aspirations to train, but in ten to 15 years time things could be different. I am very much keeping my options open.