It is 17 years since Moscow Flyer provided your first Cheltenham Festival winner in the 2002 Arkle Trophy. What do you remember about that day – and do you still get as big a buzz from riding at the meeting?
As I was walking out on to the track a friend from home appeared out of the crowd to wish me luck and I remember saying to him we thought Moscow Flyer should win. We had great belief in the horse and, provided he didn’t throw in one of his little blips, we were confident. With the exception of the fourth last, he was foot-perfect.
Winning your first race at the Festival is like sinking a putt to win the Masters or scoring the winning goal in the Cup Final. Relating to any sport, it is absolutely massive; you feel right at the very top. On the walk back to the winner’s enclosure the cheers were amazing and every so often I saw a familiar face, which adds to the thrill. I still get that same buzz riding there, wanting to win them all.
You were the first jockey to ride all four big Festival winners – Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup. Which of those victories gave you the most pleasure?
It’s impossible to split them. Winning the Champion Chase on Moscow Flyer in 2003 was brilliant because it was the first of the big ones. Then the next year taking the Stayers’ Hurdle for Jonjo O’Neill on Iris’s Gift was great because it was the feature that day. The Gold Cup on Kicking King was next.
I was 30 when I won the 2009 Champion Hurdle, but for some reason I’d got it into my head I was never going to win the race because other big ones had come my way much earlier in my career. Then I popped up on a 33-1 shot, Punjabi, by a head in a three-way finish. Quite surreal.
I knew Punjabi had a chance, but only a chance. He jumped at that flash of opportunity and, bang, he made it in a thrilling finish.
It’s vital the sport is seen in its best light
On a personal level, Bobs Worth winning the Gold Cup was huge because I’d been involved in buying and selling him early in his career and had won on him at three Festivals.
But Bobs Worth’s Gold Cup was overshadowed by the terrible injuries suffered by John Thomas McNamara the day before.
I remember meeting John Francome before racing on the Friday, wondering what would win the Gold Cup and we both agreed it didn’t matter. What happened to JT put everything in perspective.
Which horses are you looking forward to most at this year’s Festival?
Buveur D’Air is a dual Champion Hurdle winner and of course I’m hoping he can do it again. He is where you would like him to be at that stage of his Cheltenham preparation, so fingers crossed.
I’m also looking forward to Defi Du Seuil in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Nicky Henderson has a good bunch of novices with Champ, Birchdale, Champagne Platinum and we’ll have to see which races he aims for.
Anibale Fly is likely to have another go in the Gold Cup and Gardens Of Babylon could go for the Fred Winter.
How important is it for jockeys to promote the sport?
Massively important. We owe it to the sport to do what we can. It’s vital the sport is seen in its best light; hats off to Frankie Dettori in particular.
He is the ultimate showman, the household name, he draws people’s attention to racing and it all comes naturally to him. Any sport needs its Frankie Dettori and we’re lucky to have him.
If another jockey had won all seven of Frankie’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ on that day at Ascot in 1996 it would not have been the same.
Racing fans need instant involvement, they want it there and then and personally I think having a microphone stuck under my nose, pulling up after winning, is a good thing.
It gives the public breathless news and views from the saddle, so they can get a feel for the euphoria surrounding the winners.
Are jockeys better looked after now compared with when you started race- riding in the 1990s?
For sure, and the back-up we receive in so many departments is reflected in the longevity of riders. When I started, jockeys reaching 35 were considered old men. Now we’re riding beyond 40.
That’s thanks to the progress made in the way we are looked after. On-course physios are available everywhere and make a big difference when we are travelling from meeting to meeting.
The Injured Jockeys Fund in England and the Irish Injured Jockeys provide help and care with diet, weight and any other problems including re-education after serious injuries.
I had a great run for ten years and then in 2016-17 I broke my right and left arms, eight ribs, punctured a lung and broke a shoulder. I have to say I was well looked after.
I am very fortunate that my wife, Paula, is a nutritionist and I have given up wheat and a lot of gluten. My weight – I can do 10st 5lb – is more stable as a result of knowing what to eat and what to avoid.
If you could turn the clock back and do one thing differently what would it be, and why?
I am lucky because I have very few regrets. One event I have missed was the annual Irish Jockeys’ Challenge to Australia.
I was due to go in 1999 but the day before I broke a vertebrae in my back which kept me at home. The team of four was originally Jason Maguire, Paul Hourigan and the late Kieran Kelly, plus myself.
We were all about the same age, roughly the same ability, doing well and we got on like a house on fire. I’d say that trip was the one that got away.
As a youngster, watching television, you idolised Richard Dunwoody. What did it mean to you when you recently passed his record of 1,874 winners to become the fourth winningmost National Hunt jockey in Britain and Ireland?
I wasn’t aware of the situation after winning on Birchdale at Cheltenham until one of the press lads came up to me to break the news.
Richard was probably the most stylish rider there has been; he was pretty cool, very correct over a fence and driven to the end of the earth for success. I rode against him late in his career and out there in the action he came across as steely with unbelievable determination.
The lighter side of Richard was evident later on when he was riding good horses for Edward O’Grady, and not chasing those championships with Adrian Maguire. He was relaxed and probably enjoying his racing even more.
Having ridden against so many top jockeys, who would you say is/was your hardest opponent in the saddle?
Ruby is brilliant, as was AP. But I always found nine times out of ten Charlie Swan would be a step ahead of the rest of us.
You never stop learning in your early 20s, as I was then, and you soon realised Charlie had this knack of being in the right place at the right time.
I learned a lot tactically from watching him. He was always tough to beat.
We saw a number of Cheltenham contenders at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown. Has this new fixture been a success and how can it be improved?
For sure a success. It was just unfortunate the going, being as quick as it was, meant many of the horses did not get to run. But the racing we had was brilliant; it was great to see La Bague Au Roi come over and claim a big prize for Warren Greatrex.
There were some great performances, Bellshill and Road To Respect fighting out the Gold Cup, also Sir Erec in the juvenile hurdle.
It is also a big stage for young Irish-based talent to show their wares: Paddy Kennedy rode a nice winner on Whisperinthebreeze for Jessie Harrington, while Donagh Meyler won the first race on Sunday aboard Sassy Diva for Shane Crawley, who trains near me in County Meath. The meeting is on a par with any of the Irish festivals and, of course, we’d like to see more runners from England.
You were first jockey at Nicky Henderson’s before becoming JP McManus’s retained rider, two of the highest profile jobs in racing. Who has played a vital role in helping you reach your potential?
I started with Noel Meade when I was 17. Noel has a great understanding and overview of racing, but is also an outstanding race-reader.
He would go through a race with you and point out where you had gone wrong, so you wouldn’t be second guessing yourself. You would always learn a lot from him and he would instil confidence in you.
Not only is he a good trainer but a good teacher as well. It was a great starting point for me.
Richard was probably the most stylish rider there has been
My first ride, Market Lass for Jessie Harrington, was a winner and she provided my first winner in England, Miss Orchestra in the 1998 Midlands National at Uttoxeter. Eighteen months later I had my first win on Moscow Flyer for her.
Like Noel, she has a great understanding of how races can pan out. She has great belief in what she does and that rubs off on her riders. Noel and Jessie gave me solid foundations which took me further.
I also rode winners for JP as a conditional and have ridden many more over the years in his colours. My second Festival winner, Youlneverwalkalone, was for him and he is also very understanding in his outlook.
All of these are great people to ride for. And then there’s Nicky Henderson, who put me on some wonderful horses like Sprinter Sacre and, of course, Buveur D’Air.
Are you your harshest critic? How do you cope with criticism from outside, especially on social media?
I would be. You remember the one that gets away more than the winner. But you can’t carry that forward during racing.
You just have to park it in your mind until you get home and then try to figure out where you went wrong and analyse what you should have done differently.
Educated criticism is the only thing that counts and that I pay attention to. Things posted on social media don’t affect me or trouble me.
You are in a high-pressure job. How do you switch off after a hard day at the races?
I wake early but I sleep well. A lot of energy goes into a day’s racing, particularly at the Festival, where your mind is in overdrive all the time. I’m in bed by 10pm and gone. I’ll sleep right through til about six, have something to eat and go to the racecourse. Otherwise at home I switch off with the family, my wife Paula and our three kids, Siofra, 13, Orla, 7, and Rian, 3.
Paula has been a big influence when I’ve been trying to digest one that got away and it’s good to have her to talk it through with. Her support is needed in every aspect when I am backwards and forwards to England two or three times a week.
She runs the show here and everything is sorted for me. It’s not easy but nothing weighs on my mind because she has everything under control.
I follow the Gaelic football and enjoy farming, the cattle and bringing on young horses like Bobs Worth and Brain Power, who is another to have passed through our hands.
The call to ban the whip in racing is getting louder and louder. What would you say to those who want to see it removed completely from the sport?
Lizzie Kelly’s article on the whip debate in the Racing Post was absolutely brilliant. As she said, without the whip you are going to end up with highly strung, unmanageable horses who are of no benefit to anyone when their racing career is over.
That is the spin-off people aren’t taking into account. Horses are going to have to be trained, sharper, sharper, sharper and then they become a different character.
The people who are calling for a whip ban are generally uneducated as far as the racehorse is concerned.
When you travel the world and people ask what you do, they immediately mention the Grand National
I am not a whip-happy jockey, but the whip is essential, especially over jumps to keep your mount concentrating.
Some horses are so switched off they need a little tap to make them sharpen up and have a look. You might be five lengths clear going to the last and hit the horse one or two times and ‘Joe Public’ might be looking and thinking there’s no need to hit him. But we are making sure the horse is concentrating rather than looking at the 50,000 people in the Cheltenham stands.
Our understanding of the use of the whip together with the whip rules are at a very good level right now. You are never going to please the people who want it banned.
After that they’ll want the Grand National banned. Then before you know it the whole thoroughbred/racing industry will be shrinking.
As mentioned, you won a Cheltenham Gold Cup on Bobs Worth, a horse you bought as a yearling before selling on. Is this something you will do more of when you finish riding?
I pursue this business with Paula and in partnership with Warren Ewing and Aidan Fitzgerald. We’ve been fortunate it’s gone well – I enjoy the whole operation, hoping it might progress when I finish riding.
But I have no plans, just to concentrate on what I’m doing now. For 23 years I’ve been racing most days of the week, so I’d imagine I’d take a break from the road. I hope that’s not in the near future.
Of all the races you have won in your career, which sticks out most in your mind, and why?
The Grand National on Monty’s Pass in 2003. It’s the once-a-year race you grow up dreaming about winning.
My earliest memory was as a three-year-old in 1983, sitting on the floor of my grandmother’s sitting room in front of the television with everyone screaming for Ireland’s Greasepaint as he just failed against Corbiere. Colin Magnier was riding Greasepaint for a local trainer, Michael Cunningham.
When you travel the world and people ask what you do, they immediately mention the Grand National. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Asia or America, they know about the Grand National.
When you see AP and Davy Russell having to wait so long to win the National and great riders like Dicky Johnson and John Francome never making it, you realise how special it is.
If you’re allowed only one more winner, that’s the one you want.