Rossa Ryan recalls vividly his first winner under Rules. Not that it happened in some distant past – at only 21, the jockey is one of the freshest faces in the weighing room. It’s more the circumstances around that debut success at Dundalk in December 2016 as a 7lbclaimer that stick in his mind.
“I remember the day well because it was my sister Holly’s birthday,” Ryan explains. “We had family over from Australia at the time. I thought the mare would win so I told them to come up to Dundalk on the Friday, but they all said no, because it was the same day as Holly’s birthday and they had a party planned.
“I had to find my own way to the track and caught a lift with a trainer from Athlone. It was good craic though and the winning owner was a next-door neighbour, so it was even better.”
Ryan is reflecting on his start in racing from outside the Newmarket weighing room during the Craven meeting, which tells its own story. His ascent in the sport has been swift, aided by the support of trainer Richard Hannon and latterly Kia Joorabchian, whose purple Amo Racing silks are now a familiar sight at racecourses in Britain and Ireland.
As the son of a small jumps trainer based outside Tuam in County Galway, Ryan could have been expected to follow his father David into the National Hunt scene. Yet his career took a different path after family friend John Bleahen, a noted store horse producer who spotted the early potential in future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John, put in a word for the young rider, who had excelled on the pony racing circuit, with bloodstock agent Ross Doyle.
“I loved it at the Hannons,”
Doyle, who with father Peter has unearthed any number of top-class horses for the Hannon stable, rang the trainer to recommend the 16-year-old apprentice.
Hannon phoned Ryan, a trial was swiftly arranged in October 2016 and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I loved it at the Hannons,” Ryan says. “They asked me to sign up and I did the following January.
“Mum and Dad wanted me to finish school and I was planning to stay on to receive my Leaving Cert, but when the offer came in, Dad took my mother to one side and told her I was going to have to try and make it work.
“It was a big move but it’s only across the water. Where we are in Galway, if I was going to ride out for anyone, I’d have to go for a week or two to make the most of it. Most big trainers are on the other side of Ireland. I was kind of used to travelling; I was never really at home.”
The teenager, who had enjoyed playing Gaelic football for his beloved Corofin until racing took over, wasted little time in making an impact in his new environment. Having finished runner-up to Jason Watson in the apprentice race in 2018, a year that produced 78 winners, he enjoyed a breakthrough Pattern success when guiding the Paul Cole-trained Duke Of Hazzard to victory in the 2019 Group 2 Celebration Mile at Goodwood.
The following year saw another first, also for Cole, as Ryan bagged a maiden Royal Ascot success aboard Highland Chief in the Golden Gates Handicap.
“Most of the jockeys in Ireland have come through the pony racing scene”
Watching Ryan produce the perfect waiting ride, coming from near last to first and getting the better of Oisin Murphy and William Buick in the finish, begs the question – how is such a young man able to look so polished on the big stage?
He explains: “I rode 150 winners on the pony racing circuit and I enjoyed it. It’s big in Ireland – horses that have fallen out of love with the Flat game can go pony racing. It’s a real academy.
“Most of the jockeys in Ireland have come through the pony racing scene, including all the apprentices around my age group who have now lost their claim.
“You get experience. You’re sharper. You know how to hold your position. It’s like bringing a two-year-old to a barrier trial before having a run – it’s just teaching you how to hold your own in a race.
“When the apprentices come through in Ireland, they’re all well able to hold their position against the likes of Kevin Manning and Chris Hayes, all those top lads, whereas here with a 7lb claimer you could give a shout and they’ll just move.”
So what does it feel like to triumph at Royal Ascot – albeit in a Covid-hit year without crowds – having just got the better of some of the best riders in the business?
“I had an awful lot to do on Highland Chief,” Ryan reflects. “But I was surrounded by Ryan Moore, William Buick and Frankie, so I knew I wasn’t too far away.
“Royal Ascot is the longest final two furlongs in the country – you’re never getting home there, at least that’s what it feels like to me.
“I pulled him out and at the two pole I thought I might get there. To be on a horse that can pick up and do what you want them to do – those 30 seconds are what you wake up for every day. When jockeys say you can’t put the feeling into words, you really can’t.
“I’ve always asked the owners I ride for what has been the key to their success?”
“Winning a big race – it’s down to you and the horse, luck in running, making the right decisions, everything going right.
“I’ve always asked the owners I ride for – often wealthy people – what has been the key to their success, and the answer is always right place, right time, making the right decisions. It’s the same as horseracing. You ride more losers than winners so you may as well enjoy it when it goes well.”
Ryan’s talents soon caught the attention of Kia Joorabchian, the football agent turned racehorse owner, whose expanding stable of runners under the Amo Racing banner included the promising Mojo Star with Hannon.
I told him from day one that I’d be straight with him
“Kia came in when I rode Mojo Star in his first gallop,” Ryan says. “I loved him. Everyone did. He was a star from the word go. In the stable office is a wall with all the good winners over the years, ridden by Ryan Moore, Pat Dobbs, Sean Levey, Tom Marquand, Richard Hughes, Dane O’Neill, Oisin Murphy, all those lads. But I wasn’t on it!
“He had no stable jockey at that point, but he told me that Mojo would put me on the wall. I said I’d hold him to it. I then won on a horse of his called Mr Kiki – a tricky customer – at Yarmouth [in July 2020] for Ralph [Beckett] and a week later he offered me the job as first jockey.
“I didn’t say yes straight away. I spoke to the boss, Mr Hannon, and discussed it with him. We sat down and he said to me it could be the job that takes me up the ladder quicker. I rang him back and accepted.”
He continues: “The relationship is very good. I told him from day one that I’d be straight with him. There’s no pretending a bad horse isn’t bad. If I like it, he’ll know about it.
“In the first year I was learning what a good horse really was and what was needed where. This year we’re figuring out where we need to go. You’ve more insight of what type of two-year-old you need to go where. I work well with our trainers. They would ask me for my opinion on the horses, most of which are with Richard [Hannon] and David [Loughnane]. We plan our horses’ campaigns and map out the best places to go.”
The story may be overwhelmingly positive so far, yet it should be noted that Ryan has also endured setbacks along the way. A broken collarbone last year meant the jockey was unable to compete in the Derby – “I was sickened to miss out on the ride on Mojo Star” – then a stomach problem resulted in his appendix being removed, which meant being absent from Royal Ascot. Despite missing such a large chunk of the season, Ryan still managed a career-best 120 winners.
Criticism on social media is another fact of life for today’s riders and Ryan admits it’s not always easy to turn the other cheek.
“I do struggle with it sometimes,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy. But my father is a big help. He’s been my mentor from the start. No matter what abuse I receive, if he tells me I’ve done nothing wrong in a race, I can let it go.
There are days when I’ve rang him to ask about a ride because of criticism. It’s a sport that can knock you down quickly.”
Ryan returned from his spell on the sidelines in time to partner Mojo Star in the 2021 St Leger, chasing home Hurricane Lane in second, before the pair ran down the field in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, an experience not lost on the rider.
“I always said the race I’d most like to win is the Derby, but not every horse that wins the Derby is the best horse, whereas the best horse always wins the Arc. I found that out last year,” he explains.
“You need to handle everything; to be able to stay, to quicken, to go on any ground. You need the ultimate mile-and-a -half horse to win that race.”
Ryan has also ridden in Australia, spending three months with David Hayes and partnering seven winners – “all at bush tracks” – while the then Amo Racing owned Devilwala took him to Keeneland for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup.
He says: “I really enjoyed my Breeders’ Cup experience – it is where you want to be as a jockey. It’s great to be known around the world to the extent that Frankie [Dettori] and Ryan [Moore] are – if you don’t want that there’s no point being in the sport.
“Kia loves Royal Ascot and British racing, but he spends quite a bit of time in America and I’d say the Breeders’ Cup means everything to him. It’s the world stage.
“I’d also love to go back to Australia. It’s not like European racing, where we jump, go a gallop and the best horse usually wins. You tend to sit, sit and sprint. You learn the clock and it was a big eyeopener.”
What I’m looking forward to is finding the next big thing.
Before those international ambitions can be realised, this year or in the future, big spring engagements beckon and Ryan, winner of four Group 2 races at the time of writing, is hoping one of his supporters can supply him with a first top-level winner.
He came agonisingly close in last year’s Fillies and Mares Stakes on Champions Day, when beaten a short-head on Albaflora by Eshaada and Jim Crowley, and the likes of Mojo Star and Hello You, last year’s Rockfel Stakes heroine, will help to give him every chance of hitting that milestone sooner rather than later.
He says: “I’d love to win a Group 1 this year and I have a lovely bunch of horses for the big stage. It was a dark place walking in at Ascot when Albaflora got beat on Champions Day; I hope she can win a Group 1. She’s been one of the breakthrough fillies for me.
“What I’m looking forward to is finding the next big thing. That comes with every two-year-old; it’s about seeing the good ones progress. I think Mojo should be there in the staying division. I wouldn’t question his ability to stay the Gold Cup trip. I think he will, but we won’t know until we try. It would be class and a dream [to win].”
It’s fascinating to observe a fierce competitor like Ryan talking with such quiet authority about the sport he loves. The contrast is stark in an industry that demands complete focus and dedication and can often appear to foster a win-at- all-costs mentality. Does he think you have to be ruthless to make it to the top in racing?
“No,” he quickly responds. “Look at Ryan Moore or William Buick riding. Are they ruthless? Not at all. Would they have always made it to the top? Yes, because they have the work-rate and they’re unbelievable riders. “Of course, you need to be competitive but there’s a difference between being ruthless and having drive, even in a sport where it’s every man for himself in a race. Or woman – look at what Hollie Doyle has achieved.
“You have to want it so badly and you need that drive and determination. But you also need to be able to take a step back. “The biggest thing for me is that I would love to be champion jockey one day. I’ve come to terms as I’ve gone on in racing that you must be realistic, and I don’t think it can happen this year. William Buick is a force in himself – he’ll be a hard man to take down, but I’ll do it one day. I wouldn’t be in racing if I didn’t think I could become champion jockey.”