In 2010 you rode just six winners. The following year you joined forces with David O’Meara and have gone on to record two centuries (in 2013 and 2014) and capture two Group 1s. Did you always believe you had the talent to make it to the top – or have you been surprised by your progress?
I did believe I had it in me to make a successful jockey, even though 2009 was a real rubbish year. Before that I had been apprenticed to Declan Carroll and ridden out my claim in two and a half years, which was pretty quick going.
My stats at that stage were quite good and I’ll always be grateful to Declan for what he did for me. I just had a couple of bad years after I lost my claim and left Declan. It was probably a lot to do with the fact that I was not in a good place and my personal life wasn’t very stable at the time.
I didn’t have anyone in particular to work for, or give me support and the necessary opportunities. I realised how much I needed an anchor, a solid base from which to try and build a career, though I did keep telling myself I could make it. After all, I had ridden 95 winners in two and a half seasons as an apprentice. You do need a bit of luck in this game. I suppose I have been surprised by my progress after that sticky period – it’s all been down to David O’Meara.
Your confidence looks high now every time you go out to ride – but it can’t always have been the case. How did you cope when things weren’t going so well?
You have to take the bad with the good and keep your head down, keep going, even if you feel like giving up when things aren’t going well and you’re hardly making a living. Along the way you do learn just how tough a game racing can be, particularly when you’ve lost your confidence.
It is hard when you’re not getting many rides and there aren’t any winners. Nowadays my approach to life is to stick at it and never take things for granted; you have to work for everything.
The thing that boosted my confidence was being given more opportunities, which led to more rides and more winners. Starting at David’s was the beginning of everything for me. He has gone from strength to strength and carried me with him. Silvestre de Sousa was riding for David when I joined the yard, but he then got the call to ride for Godolphin – that opened the door for me. David said, ‘If you’re not doing anything get yourself in here and don’t be lying around at home.’
I found myself riding out every day and he gave me more and more rides. After that it all fell into place. I think winning the Group 2 Henry II Stakes at Sandown on Blue Bajan in 2011 cemented the job. It was a huge moment, our first Group winner together.
I realised how much I needed an anchor, a solid base from which to try to build a career
You missed Mondialiste’s win in the Woodbine Mile but produced a cool ride on him to take the Arlington Million. Did that make the victory extra sweet? Do you get an extra buzz from riding on the international stage?
It wasn’t that I really missed out at Woodbine because I was never going to do the weight at 8st 6lb or 8st 7lb, so Mondialiste wasn’t my ride in that particular race and Fergal Lynch took over and did the job. I have ridden Mondialiste at Sha Tin and finished second on him in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland.
Of course it is extra special racing at those big international tracks as you are on show in front of a worldwide audience. They are the big stages we all want to perform on and to win an Arlington Million is an amazing feeling. Every jockey dreams of those prestige races. And when it happens it makes you feel better about yourself and proves that you can perform taking on the best.
Yes, an amazing feeling! Now we have the exciting prospect of going back to the States for the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November. Mondialiste seems to enjoy his trips across the Atlantic so much there is even a chance he might have another race in America before the Breeders’ Cup.
The Arlington Million is a very valuable prize – £408,000 to the winner. Do you think about the financial rewards when riding?
Of course it’s worth a lot of money and that’s one of the reasons we travel for these big races. But the immediate buzz you get is from the prestige and achievement, that’s what’s in your mind in the immediate aftermath and when you are thinking about the race in the days after.
Yes, the money comes in handy, of course it does. But wins like the Arlington Million give you a great sense of accomplishing something you set out to do, and that’s the mark it’s left on me. It’s the biggest win of my career.
The association between you and David O’Meara has been very profitable. What is the secret to your success together and why does the partnership work so well?
We have a good understanding. He doesn’t tie me down to too many instructions. I ride out there most days when I can and I know the horses, so David leaves it up to me and lets me use my own initiative. It takes a bit of pressure off him because he knows I’ll go out there and hopefully do the right thing, though there are times when he’ll give you specific orders if he wants something doing differently. We have a good relationship.
David will ride out when he wants to and he’s a great rider – probably the best horseman I’ve ever come across. Sometimes he can come up with ideas no one else would consider; he is always thinking differently about how various techniques or stable routine can be improved. I have to say at times it seems he has a strange, unusual way of thinking, but obviously it works and is very successful. He has a good eye for a horse and knows what he wants out of them.
Since his move from Nawton, near Helmsley, to Willow Farm at Upper Helmsley, near York, he has changed his way of training and figured out the new set up. It is different and he has adapted to the layout of the gallops and got his own system working. You can be sure that he’ll get the best out of the place.
We have seen Kieren Fallon’s retirement bring the subject of depression/mental health among jockeys into the spotlight. Do you think more needs to be done to tackle this issue?
I believe there is pressure of varying degrees in any job. I think enough is being done for jockeys at the moment and the many different situations involving health and injury that arise in racing are being dealt with, which is a big step in the right direction.
In my opinion, raising the minimum weight would not make a big difference generally, though it would help me personally because I am a bit heavier than the average jockey. It is frustrating more than anything checking my weight every day, but that’s the job.
Riding out every morning, getting home and having to lose 3lb, 4lb or 5lb before going racing. It’s a way of life and I’m not complaining. If I didn’t have that regular routine of sweating every day I’d probably feel awkward, maybe even miss it!
You are 5ft 8in tall and can ride at under 9st. Watching your diet every day must be difficult and take great discipline. What is your mechanism for coping with a jockey’s life?
I come back from riding out and sit in a hot bath for about an hour, though I am having a new unit and hot tub fitted in my house. I’ll lose two or three pounds in the bath and when I get to the races I’ll sit in the sauna for a further session. Sometimes I’ll go for a run in a sweatsuit. I play a bit of golf and enjoy a kick around or a six-a-side game of football with the lads.
If I’m home in time I try to make my evening meal the main one of the day and have a proper main course of meat and vegetables, perhaps. And as I have a sweet tooth and am not particularly well disciplined I love my puddings too.
Have you seen the JETS film ‘Jockey Matters’, explaining how diet and exercise fit into daily routine, as well as the techniques of weight loss? If so, what do you make of it and have you taken advantage of any of the advice?
I think they have done a great job, covered every angle and the film is easy to watch. It will help a lot of jockeys to understand the problems and pitfalls when things aren’t going well. It would certainly have been a big help to me when I was struggling after my apprenticeship.
Becoming champion jockey has to be a possibility, even if a distant one. It’s a realistic ambition
It is something I shall work on and follow the tips, particularly in the diet area. I accept I need to do more to keep my weight in check. The film explains how you can eat more healthy food and lose weight, instead of eating less of the wrong things and not losing as much weight.
What part of being a jockey do you find hardest? And what do you enjoy most?
If I wasn’t looking after my weight I would weigh in at about 10st. So the sweating and wasting have to be routine in order to ride at about 8st 11lb or 8st 12lb. And that is a pretty tough routine on a daily basis.
It goes without saying that the biggest buzz comes from winning. Crossing the line on G Force in the 2014 Haydock Sprint Cup was a very emotional moment and sticks in the mind because it was my first Group 1, and David’s as well. That meant so much to both of us. And we followed up with a second Group 1 a month later with Move In Time in the Prix de l’Abbaye on Arc day at Longchamp.
We have seen Paul Hanagan and Silvestre de Sousa, who both started riding in the north, become champion jockey in recent years. Is this a realistic ambition and what would it mean to you?
I suppose it could be a realistic ambition; it’s not out of the question, anyway. Paul Hanagan had the stable of Richard Fahey behind him and that proved a strong base when he was chasing the championship. Of course, David’s powerful yard is full of the sort of ammunition you need if you’re going to ride over 100 winners in a season.
Both Paul and Silvestre are much lighter than I am and that’s the problem as far as I am concerned – my weight would restrict my choice of rides. That’ll make it harder for me and the main thing is that I need to stay injury-free. But becoming champion jockey has to be a possibility, even if a distant one.
I have had a lot of support from Luca Cumani over the last couple of seasons and had a good few winners for him. I am also getting backing from other Newmarket trainers and have had two winners from three rides for Sir Michael Stoute this season.
You don’t come from a racing background and gained your first experience of horses at the Northern Racing College. What do you recall about those early days and what made you want to become a jockey?
I was 16 when I left home in Scotland to go to the Northern Racing College and my first experiences were quite frightening. I hadn’t a clue about horses. In fact, I’d barely come across a horse and certainly not had anything to do with them, so having to sit on one on my first day there was very scary.
I was only at the NRC because a career adviser from my school near Irvine had pointed me in that direction after some poor exam results and because I was very small. The right size to be a jockey, I was told. I seemed to learn the ropes pretty quickly. Within a year of moving on to Declan Carroll’s yard he got a licence for me to ride in races.
Even then I was still clueless about the racing game, but Declan gave me the chances and pushed me in the right direction. He set my career in motion, even if I wasn’t too sure about it at the time.
Is there one racecourse you enjoy riding more than others, and what makes it special?
York. David likes to have a lot of runners there and, as a result, I always have a very decent book of rides. David has had a good few winners and is one of the most successful trainers on the Knavesmire, and that helps to make my experience of the place very enjoyable.
York is a very fair, flat track and attracts big crowds, which create a good atmosphere. David has been leading trainer there at least a couple of times but I just missed out to Ryan Moore one year as York’s top jockey. William Derby and his team seem to improve the facilities year on year and York’s new weighing room is one of the best anywhere.
You must have a favourite horse. Which is it and what sets him apart from all the others?
G Force, and if I could have him back I would. When David first got him I started riding him out every day and got to know him well. He was a lovely horse to deal with and I said to David before his first race at Newcastle that he wouldn’t get beat and would develop into a Group horse. He broke the Newcastle track record that day and I remember telling Tom O’Ryan, the Racing Post reporter, that G Force would be a top- class sprinter.
He went on to win his next race at York and of course the Haydock Sprint Cup, which meant so much as our first Group 1. He was very special – we all need those sort of horses.