The Barcelona of horse racing on adjusting to retirement and dealing with the daily dangers and strict training routines.
He was the most complete and remarkable jump jockey of his generation – the Barcelona of horse-racing – who rode over 4,300 winners in his legendary career. Risking his life with each race, the Northern Irishman seemed to create a new landmark on a weekly basis and he was eventually knighted in 2016.
Now 43, we had the privilege of talking to him about the difficulties of adjusting to retirement and dealing with the daily dangers and strict training routines of his unforgettable career.
Did you have a fixed day-to-day weight-loss regime throughout your career and did it change as you got older?
I ate a lot healthier when I got older. My first 7 or 8 years I had a terrible diet, eating sweets, chocolates, binging, sweating the weight off. But to be honest right up until the end I still had to sweat because of my height: I’m 5 foot 10 1/2 inches – and I’m not fat – but I’m 12 stone 4. I still go to the gym nowadays and I’m not in bad condition for somebody who has put on two stone.
Liverpool John Moores University experts have created special programmes to help jockeys lose weight safely. You took part in this towards the end of your career, saying recently that you could have been even better had you joined earlier…
I’m not sure it would have prolonged my career because I was nearly 41 when I retired. I didn’t mean it would have prolonged my career; I just would have been healthier throughout my career. I only got to know George Wilson [former jockey who heads the programme) in my last year. I didn’t have the privilege of having someone with that knowledge and experience in my career. I find it very interesting and I look at it today and think: is it the reason why jockey’s today should be so much better than we were because they are so much healthier with all these advantages?
Sport moves on. Every sport becomes more professional. When I was younger every jockey drank. I bet you half of them don’t drink now. Not as many of them smoke. They live healthier lifestyles. That’s not degrading the lads of the past, it’s just the way the sport has become more professional.
You left home at the age of 15 to become an apprentice jockey. That’s a huge sacrifice.
I really really wanted to be a jockey. That was my goal in life. I absolutely loved riding from a very young age. I started with racehorses at the age 12. I loved the speed, the thrill, the horses, the buzz – the whole concept of it. I loved the thrill of the idea of being a jockey. And I knew for me to be successful – because I was from the North of Ireland and I knew I was never going to be a jockey from the North of Ireland – was to make the sacrifice and move. I was very lucky in that I had a reasonably successful career so I don’t think it was a sacrifice as such. But my younger sister Kelly was 4 or 5 when I left home so I never got to see her grow up.
Were you a gifted apprentice or a grafter or a combination of both?
I don’t think I was ever that gifted to be honest. I spent four and half years at Jim Bulgers [training school] and I only rode 9 winners so you couldn’t for one moment say I was gifted. I was more a grafter. I had a better work-ethic than I had talent. I always had to work at it but I always had the picture. I think in sport you always have to have the vision. What is your goal? You have to have that goal or that image of what you want to be like, what it’s going to take to be that successful. I always had that.
Did you manage to maintain that vision – or a new version of it so to speak – to get you through all the injuries in your career?
Everything becomes a challenge. I found the injuries a challenge, a goal, to overcome. I know for a fact as a jump-jockey that if I ride between 700 and a thousand horses a year then I’m going to get injured. I’m going to end up in an ambulance. You have to be a realist. Then it’s all about: how quick can I get through the pain? How quick can I return? How good is my pain threshold? Can I get back riding sooner than everybody else has got back riding with a broken arm, broken wrist, or broken back – whatever it is?
You have ridden winners with all types of injuries. Is there one in particular that stands out – the punctured lung for instance?
I fractured my vertebra – my T-9 and my T-12 – on the 12th of January in 2008 and I had two metal plates inserted with 4 screws either side on the 15th of January and I think I rode on the 10th or 11th of March – the Friday before Cheltenham – less than 8 weeks later. Of all the things I’ve done in my career – I’m not sure it was the brightest – but that was a complete mind over matter moment.
You were also recently diagnosed with prediabetes…
I got an innovative health check – a Randox Health check – which flagged up an early warning sign. I was diagnosed with prediabetes, the precursor to Type-2 diabetes – a condition my mum suffered from towards the end of her life. Basically I would go on to develop diabetes if I didn’t make some lifestyle changes. It was shocking to hear and I’m not alone in having this. Even though I am now at a healthier weight, having implemented a more ‘normal’ three-meals-a-day-routine (compared to how I used to eat when I was racing), I was suddenly faced with a diagnosis that made me evaluate my lifestyle.
You see far too many great athletes prolonging their retirement and it’s an obvious mistake. Was this your reason for calling it a day?
I watch racing everyday and I think: ‘Yeah, I can still be a championship jockey.’ But there will come a time when that thought will be a reality that somebody else will beat me. I said it at the time: I didn’t want people to think that I wasn’t as good as I once was. I actually wasn’t that bothered about what people thought. I was more worried about myself. I didn’t want myself to think I wasn’t as good as I once was. I didn’t ever want to think: ‘You haven’t got what you had before. You’re not as sharp as you were.’
It’s the hardest thing because you love doing it. I would have loved to have come back a couple of days after I retired and just rode as somebody else, change my name and be somebody else because I loved it that much. My biggest problem was that I loved what I did. It would be different if I lost the passion. I would give it all back to do it again.
On the flip-side, it must get a little wearing to hear people asking you how you fill your retirement time…
Slightly, yes. I did a few novels but I’m not sure that’s a route I want to go down. The reality is nothing is really going to float your boat. But you have to try and find something that will interest you.
I’m not going to end up in a mental home if that’s what you’re asking. I won’t end being up a drug-addict or alcoholic. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way to others who have struggled in retirement. I’m aware that it’s over. In sport you only have a period of time where you have to be a realist. It’s hard. But I’m fine with it. I can do other things but people ask me what do I do and I struggle sometimes with the answer. I help JP McManus, I do a bit of work for ITV and William Hill but what do I do? I don’t know.
No matter what you do for the rest of your life what you had before is never coming back. You have to have an element of ego to want to go out and perform on a big stage and if you’re lucky enough to go on and win the Grand National or Gold Cup in front of 70-odd thousand people the adulation is irreplaceable.
In many ways you transcended the sport being the first jockey to win Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2010…
I don’t know about that. I’m a well-known name in racing circles but outside I’m not. Racing is a minority sport. It’s not like football or even golf. It depends what you’re in it for. It wasn’t recognition for me, I din’t want to be well-known. It’s not an attractive trait but it was pure selfishness that drove me. It was all about making me happy, making me get what I wanted.
I went through a stage in my life from 24 – 34 where I was an absolute psycho. I was so self-obsessed, so miserable. People would be like: ‘He’s miserable. He never smiles.” I was obsessed to the point of being ill. But then I got married and we had kids and that changed my attitude for the better. It made me not bring the good or bad home with me, more so the bad.
I did something that most jockeys probably don’t do. I kept reports of all the horses I rode. There was a bit of OCD there at times. I wanted to know everything. I had a record of everything. I wanted to be able to remember everything. At the same time I was never really content. I obviously get enjoyment from being like that.
What appeared to set you apart from most other jockeys was your special relationships with tired horses or ones that were not quite quick enough; where others may have struggled to win with these horses you rode them home with great style…
I think that I’m better with horses than I am with people. It was always about trying to get the best out of the horse. In my early years, a lot of people said I was very forceful and hard on horses but it’s about getting inside their heads. It was about playing mind games with them, trying to work out what they’re thinking. It wasn’t about bullying. It was about encouraging them, making them feel like they could run faster. That would have come from subtle little things that most people wouldn’t have noticed: riding them on a longer rein or shorter rein, making them switch legs – leading on one leg can be more tiring than leading on another. When you get them to switch legs you get a little bit extra out of them. Not everyone would notice that and not every jockey would think about that.
What was the greatest horse you never got the chance to ride?
I would have loved to have ridden Desert Orchid. He was a brilliant horse but he was also brilliant to watch. His form was extraordinary. He did things that others horses would never be able to do and even the brilliant horses since.
Who was your closest ally in your career?
I sat beside Richard Johnson for the best part of the 20 years I was riding. He was my biggest competition but we were good friends – best friends. We never had a cross word. Being a jump jockey is slightly different than any other sport because you realise the dangers of it and you know that one day you are going to need one of your colleagues to help you out, whether it’s going to hospital or whatever. There’s no room for arrogance, bitterness or enemies or cliques. It’s a pretty friendly place. There’s been lots of surveys over the past years saying jump jockeys suffer more concussion than any other sports person that’s including boxers, rugby players, NFL players. That tells it’s own story.
Which sportsperson do you most admire outside of horse-racing?
Tiger Woods for me will always be the iconic sports personality. I know he’s got a bit of history, things that he regrets. He was a winning-machine. He was extraordinary, so dominant. He has a huge presence.
And finally, the classic question: do you have any tips for the Grand National?
It’s not as much as a lottery as it was. I was impressed with Tiger Roll at Cheltenham. It has a good chance.
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