Your successful riding career was brought to a premature end by two nasty accidents at Stratford and Musselburgh. You had to endure a series of complicated operations and lengthy recovery periods. What did such a stressful experience tell you about yourself?
I learnt what an impatient person I am! More importantly, I realised how lucky jockeys are to have the backing of the whole team at Oaksey House along with Dr Philip Pritchard. They were not only a help physically but, very importantly, mentally as well during a time of great frustration.
Of course, my family – wife Lauren and two daughters, Darcy, 2, and Freya, 1 – were a massive support too, though I’m sure I got under their feet when I was moping around and feeling very restricted. There were times when I would go for a look round at Kim Bailey’s or Ben Pauling’s yard, which would give me a break – as well as giving the missus a break from me. I am grateful for all their encouragement, particularly at times when I would not have been the best person to be around.
How challenging has been the change from race-riding to managing 120 jump and Flat horses spread among 24 trainers for Paul and Clare Rooney? Having ridden many of the jumpers yourself must be an advantage…
Yes, it is a big, big change and very challenging. But at the same time very enjoyable. I am there to be the middle man, to help Paul and Clare, who are very easy people to work for. Also the trainers, to whom we allocate the horses, make my job easier. We keep in constant touch largely by email or phone. You must trust the trainers’ judgement – I don’t want to interfere too much. It is an advantage that I know the tracks, having ridden a winner on every National Hunt course in the country.
I don’t ride very much these days because I am due to go for a final fusion in my spine following three back operations. I don’t enjoy riding so much these days, though I do miss the riding out in the mornings because it helps you to feel part of the scene. But, unfortunately, it upsets the old injury. So I’m afraid that’s the way it is and I have to accept it.
You were talked about as a potential champion jockey. Did you ever believe it could happen?
After finishing second in the jockeys’ championship in 2012 it became more of a realistic target, in the hope that the great Sir Anthony McCoy would retire one day. But even with AP gone, no way would it have been easy with Richard Johnson still around, particularly when you look at his fantastic record season on season. I am not one for regrets; I always look forward.
Now I have a great opportunity, thanks to Paul and Clare, to be an even more successful racing manager. And with a bit of luck and help from our trainers and bloodstock agent Kevin Ross, I am looking forward to the challenges ahead.
What are the priorities in a job involving such a variety of personalities, both human and equine?
The horses’ welfare is very important, probably the most important part of the whole operation. Every horse is different, physically and mentally, and it is a case of finding the trainer most suited to each horse.
So we look at every horse individually and try to allocate it to the right trainer to achieve the best results. I do reports regularly and communicate with the Rooneys and the trainers. All I’ve ever done is ride horses so I am now learning all the time.
You have switched from player to manager – has it been difficult coming to terms with missing the craic between all your weighing-room colleagues?
Of course I miss the lads in the weighing-room. After all, it is not every day people start work sitting naked next to their work colleagues in the sauna, but that’s how it happens in the jockeys’ world. We all take the mickey and have a good laugh, specially the jumping lads. You can never take yourself too seriously because you’re involved in a dangerous job.
At the end of the day the lads are very competitive and we respect each other out on the track. I used to find myself sitting next to any of Robert Thornton, Timmy Murphy, Tom Siddall and Paul Moloney, all good lads. I was getting closer to the door as I moved into my 30s and events have made me realise racing waits for no man and time moves on.
What made you leave your racing roots in Ireland and come to England?
At the time I was a 3lb claimer in Ireland and through a family friend, Tom O’Mahoney, the chance of a good job at Tom George’s came my way. I jumped at it and was working at Tom’s Gloucestershire stables for seven years. Chris Broad, my agent, has probably been the biggest influence on my career and life. Chris and his wife Jane were excellent people to have behind you. They were always there at the end of the phone to give sound advice and support, be it six in the morning or ten at night. It made you feel good just to know they were available.
You have already been involved with success at the highest level on the Flat with My Dream Boat in the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot. How tough has it been to find your way round the Flat racing world?
The Flat was all a little bit new to me at first, but you do discover there isn’t a huge difference. Clive Cox was our first Flat trainer and he has made it a lot easier by basically introducing me to the system. I used to ride on the level in Ireland and started with Joanna Morgan and Mick Halford and rode my first winner at Dundalk.
The Flat was all a little bit new to me at first, but you do discover there isn’t a huge difference
How does Royal Ascot measure up to the Cheltenham Festival for atmosphere and the ‘wow’ factor?
Both meetings are like the Olympics. There is more fashion at Royal Ascot and certainly a different atmosphere, but from my own point of view being out in the middle riding the track at Cheltenham was a terrific thrill. You simply cannot buy the buzz you get from success at the Festival. Coming up that hill on a winner is almost like riding into an unreal world.
But then with my new role on the Flat, I got so much pleasure seeing Paul and Clare step up onto the winners’ podium at Royal Ascot after My Dream Boat’s success – especially when you consider what they put into the game. They love their horses and get such a kick out of winning, particularly a Group 1 at the Royal meeting.
Are you involved with the fledgling breeding side of the Rooneys’ bloodstock operation?
I am serving my apprenticeship, taking sound advice from Richard Kent of Mickley Stud, where Paul and Clare have some of their mares. I have been active at the sales under the watchful eye of bloodstock experts Kevin and Anna Ross from Northern Ireland, who have been trying to educate me.
Kevin bought the Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander and he and Anna [Arthur Moore’s daughter] are very knowledgeable on horses’ conformation, movement and breeding.
You have been active at the sales. What is it you look for in the young Flat horse or potential jumper – and who helps you source stock?
This aspect of racing is new to me and I absolutely love it, seeing young horses, foals and just learning how to inspect each individual. I got a real buzz from riding, now I am in the fortunate position of being able to go round the sales.
I have got the bug for it and want to learn more and more. My uncle Trevor Maguire, who works for Wood Park Stud in County Meath, is also a great help. If there is anything I need to know about mares and foals he is the first person I go to.
Kieren Murphy does a lot of the breaking for us in Ireland and looks after the stores over there and I enjoy going across to see how each horse is developing. Richie McGrath, my former weighing-room colleague, does a lot of the breaking for us in Middleham.
What is it you miss most about the life of a jockey – and what are you happy to have left behind?
Riding winners, I suppose, I miss most. Though anyone that’s seen me recently will realise I haven’t missed raiding the fridge. I have probably put on a stone and a half since the days of doing 10st 7lb! I certainly don’t regret giving up the dieting and sweating. Watching your weight and having to drive three hours to work and three hours back were the worst parts of the job. Now I have more time at home, which is great with our two young girls.
How badly needed is the new JETS video ‘Jockey Matters’, explaining fitness, nutritional and weight loss techniques for jockeys?
It was badly needed. It is a huge asset and I hope it will help to change the lifestyle of jockeys. I imagine if it had been in place when I was riding it would have played a big part in preventing my weight from yo-yoing up and down so much. It seemed to be either feast or famine. Now with all the new information available jockeys should be able to control their weight and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.
I used to visit Dr George Wilson, the sports physiologist at Liverpool University, and he was a great help as he specialises in dietary practices and the health of jockeys. At some stage I am sure he would have had an input into ‘Jockey Matters’. My advice to a young jockey starting out would be: ‘Listen, speak when you’re spoken to and respect your elders. And don’t forget that in racing you are learning every day and never going to know everything.’
At times you have said you could be a bit grumpy in the weighing room. Without all the pressures of race- riding are you much more at ease and outgoing in your new role?
I’m more outgoing now and more approachable; I have to be because I am there to help the trainers and their staff. When I was riding I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well; that probably affected me. Imagine the routine of having to be in the car for three or four hours on the way to the races and then spending an hour in the sauna trying to lose 5lb.
After that, your mount stepped out on to the track and everything rested with you. But now as racing manager the riding is out of my hands. The lifestyle is more relaxed but I am still very competitive.
You won the 2011 Grand National on Ballabriggs. Now you must have high hopes of helping to point the Rooney-owned The Last Samuri, runner-up at Aintree last year, in the same direction. When will we see him again?
The Last Samuri is being aimed at the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby at the end of October. The main target is to get him back to the National in one piece. He’s done really well out in the field and is in good nick. He was in the lead and got taken on going to the last fence in the National and Rule The World outran him in those last 150 yards.
The Last Samuri jumped unbelievably round there and David [Bass] gave him a great ride. It was something special to be involved in the finish. Paul and Clare felt the same as me, the thrill of finishing second and happy the horse got round safely, but also we couldn’t help wondering what might have been.
You rode so many good horses, including Peddlers Cross and Overturn. Is there one horse that means more to you than any others? If so, why?
I’d have to say Peddlers Cross, who was the one horse I have ever thought was a certainty at Cheltenham when he won the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. He finished second to Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle the following year; I think that might have broken his heart. He had wind problems but without those he would have been something very special and gone right to the top.
He had such a high cruising speed, his jumping was so accurate; he was electric over hurdles. His acceleration and change of gear were fantastic. That extra gear would help him to quicken like no other horse I rode. Overturn was a very special horse, too. He would go out in front at a good gallop and keep it up. But Peddlers Cross was class, through and through.
Can you give us a young horse to follow that you are particularly excited about ahead of the new jumps season?
Willoughby Court, who won a couple of bumpers at Southwell and Warwick last season and has done really well through the summer. His form is pretty decent and Ben Pauling will be sending him hurdling. Willoughby Court is a nice horse and full of promise.