When I rode my first Bellewstown winner two seasons ago I thought I’d completed the feat until someone rang my wife Louise to say that Hereford was still outstanding. I didn’t really think it was much of a thing, and I’m still not entirely convinced to be honest. There are probably only a handful of jockeys who have ridden regularly in both countries, and Ruby [Walsh] and Barry [Geraghty] for example wouldn’t have ridden at all of the small tracks, as I’ve done. I decided I’d better give it a go all the same, but I’d be a quiet sort of man and I didn’t expect all of the publicity. After a second, a third and a fourth I’ll have to try again, but it wouldn’t be every meeting.
I’m not from a racing family – my dad was a farmer and my mum ran a public house – but I loved ponies when I was very young and I progressed through gymkhanas and pony racing. When I was 18, I went to Francis Flood, a legendary trainer and a former champion in Ireland, and he started me off. It took me a while to get going, but I rode some fantastic horses as an amateur then turned conditional and joined Noel Meade while I still had one winner left with my 7lb claim. That was quite a ballsy move, as with Paul Carberry and ‘Slippers’ Madden among the five or six of us
wanting rides the competition was intense, but I worked hard and got lucky with smaller trainers before getting on a roll with Noel and then getting on the big stage by winning a Galway Plate on
Ansar for Dermot Weld.
Paul Carberry was a massive influence on my riding. I didn’t set out to copy him, but every time Paul got injured Noel expected me to ride like him. Paul was the most naturally gifted jockey who ever rode – the Lionel Messi of jockeys – and I had to develop a racing brain like his. I love to ride with confidence, using my head, and that’s what led me to getting the Howard Johnson job and winning on the bigger stages in England.
I’d had a Grade 1 win for Charlie Swan on Offshore Account and was absolutely flying along when I got the call from England. I was only 24, and I’d had a couple of other offers at the time, but
once I’d flown over and seen all of those wonderful horses of Graham Wylie’s, my mind was made up. I’d been riding Sizing Europe and I knew he was going to be a superstar, but it would have been very hard to turn down the opportunity to ride horses like Tidal Bay and Inglis Drever. I had a magnificent run in England that first season, with a Long Distance Hurdle on Inglis Drever, a Boylesports for David Pipe on Tamarinbleu and then the Festival wins on Inglis Drever and Tidal Bay, who won at Aintree too. The following season was even better numbers-wise.
The job with Howard was one of those where you knew it wouldn’t take much to lose it. I missed a crucial few weeks after breaking a collarbone in a fall on one of Howard’s at Aintree and then I broke it again in a fall back in Ireland, so couldn’t ride Tidal Bay in the Cleeve Hurdle. I missed quite a lot of the season, and with Inglis Drever retired and no good horses coming through, the pressure was on. I got a phone call on the way back from the Scottish National and that was it.
I could have come back to Ireland then but instead I moved south, probably in a bit of a sulk because I’d never been sacked before. I got lucky with Victor Dartnall, who had a lot of nice horses and was doing well at the time, and also with Paul Webber and others, and that all led to me joining John Ferguson and riding an awful lot of winners for him. I also won a Fighting Fifth for
John Quinn on Countrywide Flame and a Cotswold Chase for Malcolm Jefferson on Cape Tribulation, but when John Ferguson decided he wanted a change I was back with nothing again. I was lucky that Tony Martin saw a gap for me in Ireland, and I was very lucky for him both there and in the UK. That led to me getting the job with Barry Connell, which yielded another Festival win on Tully East. Returning full time after ten years in England is unheard of, and when that finished I rode good winners for Gordon Elliott.
Last season’s Grade 1 win on Gigginstown’s Beacon Edge for Noel took me full circle and confirmed it was a good move for myself, Louise and our two young boys. It’s gone exceptionally well, although an injury in September meant I missed seven weeks of this season. When Davy Russell goes back into retirement after standing in for Jack Kennedy, I’ll be the oldest in the weighing room again at 40, but I just love riding horses and there’s a lot left I’d like to do. I’d love to win a Grand National, either at Aintree where I was second on Black Apalachi, or in Ireland, and I’d love to win a Gold Cup. Another Cheltenham winner would be great, and I’d love to get on a horse who keeps on winning, as I’ve always believed I’d really suit one good horse if I could stay on it from the start.
I wouldn’t rule out training one day. It’s very hard in Ireland though and a lot of good trainers just can’t make it work. When I started riding it was in an era of what I’d call ‘super jockeys’ – Paul, Ruby, Barry and Davy – but now in Ireland we are in the era of the ‘super trainers’, with three or four of them dominating the big meetings. Those super trainers are so far
ahead that unless you are riding for them it’s very difficult to get a look in. There are a lot of jockeys chasing the few decent spare rides, so you just have to hope and pray you get on one now and again. I was lucky enough to do so last season, so let’s hope it happens again soon!