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"Shut your mouth or you will be given a black card" - Carew claim

Posted on 9 April, 2017 at 7:15

NIALL Carew has called on the GAA to facilitate the provision of specific boxes for management and coaching teams in grounds around the country, similar to what is commonplace in major rugby stadia.


The Sligo manager says that it should be mandatory for team personnel to sit in these boxes, not just because it offers a better vantage point of proceedings, but to avoid heated interaction with the match officials in stressful situations.


In his column in The Sligo Champion, Carew claims that he was told by a linesman at a recent Allianz League game to shut his mouth or risk having a player black carded.


Admitting that he reacted vehemently, Carew asserts that Brendan Egan was black carded soon afterwards even though, he argues, video footage shows no offence to have occurred.


An increasing number of team sitting in the stands but this is not fit for purpose according to Carew, as the proximity to supporters leaves managers and their staff open to abuse.


Carew begins his column by bemoaning a decision to award Galway a point from a shot he felt was clearly wide in Saturday’s Connacht final and thus deny Sligo a first title at this level, with the sides finishing level before Galway took the honours in extra time.


“If I was (manager) Paul Taylor and (selector) John MacPartland Jr, I would feel cheated by a system that fails so regularly and yet there never seems to be any consequences” writes Carew. “If a player, member of management or county board official makes a mistake we are punished by the powers that be and rightly so.


“I am 10 years in inter-county management and not once has an official asked me for a video of a match. So how can they improve if they don't learn from their mistakes?


“When we played Offaly, I questioned the linesman when Criostóir Davey got a full box in the stomach when he was in possession.


“The reply I got was ‘Shut your mouth or he will be given a black card for pulling a player down.’ To be honest my response was not pleasant and 10 seconds later Brendan Egan was awarded a black card for what exactly no one knows because video evidence shows Brendan making no contact.


“The fact is the linesman was punishing me or my team for my reaction hence my decision to go to the stand in Drogheda to view the Louth game (last Sunday). But that's not ideal either because you are a sitting duck as management have no privacy unless the game is in Croke Park. When you’re in the middle of supporters you will be subject to abuse especially if things are not going well. It’s one of the less attractive sides to human nature.


“I would suggest to Croke Park to make it mandatory for management teams to take to the box but they will have to meet counties half-way and provide these boxes in every county ground in the country.


“I personally find it so stressful dealing with officials on match day as there are no guidelines for management to approach them and it's generally at the discretion of each official if he wants to listen or not. In my opinion that's not good practice for anyone and this is an area that needs clarification before championship.”

O'Connor makes 16,000km round trip for Killarney cause

Posted on 8 April, 2017 at 9:15

IN ANOTHER year, Padraig O’Connor might have been preparing with the Kerry squad for Sunday’s Allianz Football League Division 1 final against Dublin.



Padraig O'Connor stayed on San Diego time before Killarney Celtic's dramatic quarter-final victory over Janesboro at Celtic Park


Instead, O’Connor arrived in Ireland on Wednesday from San Diego and will complete the 16,000km return trip next week, hopefully having played his part on the pitch in getting Celtic to the final of the Aviva- and Umbro-sponsored FAI Junior Cup.


If that happens - and while Celtic will have home advantage in tomorrow’s semi-final, they face the might of defending champions Sheriff YC at 5pm – O’Connor will be making his third transatlantic trip, and will have clocked up a staggering 48,000km for the cause.


A prodigious player as a teenager, O’Connor won a soccer scholarship to Saint Xavier University in Chicago in 2008 but he returned home, primarily to focus on playing Gaelic for Kerry. He had two years with the county U21s and progressed to the senior panel in 2010, making his debut in the League against the Dubs alongside close friend, former Celtic man and future All-Star, James O’Donoghue.


He won a Munster championship medal that year but could never establish himself and remained on the margins. He was introduced during last year’s Allianz League final, also against Dublin, but too many other areas in his life were suffering so he gave up on that dream.


Among those was Killarney Celtic, the club that his parents revered. O’Connor could not but have been influenced by the passion Packie and Noreen have for Celtic and to be back in the green and white thrills him.


“I came on against Dublin in the League final last year, which was my first time to play in Croke Park” reflects O’Connor.


“It would be kinda cool if we could somehow beat Sheriff – they’ll be tough opposition – but if we could beat them, I’d have played in Croke Park and the Aviva in just over a year. That would be a pretty nice thing to say.


“I had sacrificed loads of things, holidays I couldn’t go on because I was training, so it was a time in my life when I wanted to move on. I was delighted to go back playing soccer before I went to San Diego with my girlfriend Aisling after finishing college, on a year’s visa. Thank God I haven’t lost for Celtic yet this year.”


This his second trip home. A suspension left a vacancy in midfield for quarter-final and manager, Brian Spillane got on the phone.


“The only time I was getting homesick was when the lads were playing. Then Brian called and it was the biggest game in the club’s history. I was so happy to come over.


“I came back the Thursday and the game was the Saturday. I left again the Tuesday. It was such a short visit I stayed on San Diego time. The game was a 7pm and I got up at 4.30pm. It wasn’t ideal preparation but I didn’t want to chance being wrecked.


“Personally, I thought I was poor technically but I was happy mentally that I kept at it and I’d be fit enough from my training all the years and have kept active in San Diego, so I was okay.”


The fitness was very much in evidence as he burst into the box in the dying embers of extra time, dived into a tackle and diverted the ball to Stephen Hayes, who thumped a dramatic winner against the competition’s second favourites Janesboro in front of around 2,000 people at Celtic Park, sparking delirious celebrations.


Fitness is his stock and trade now, having done a Masters in nutritional science after initially qualifying as a science teacher. He set up Harvest Food and Nutrition with a friend and is currently working as a health coach in one of the world’s great fitness hubs.


But for now, he is focussed entirely on tomorrow.


“Sheriff are just a fantastic team, so the chance of playing against a great team for my own club is unbelievable. I do love Killarney Celtic and the prize on offer of playing in the Aviva Stadium with my friends is unbelievable.”

Derry defeat a positive on Kildare's promotion march says Sweeney

Posted on 28 March, 2017 at 10:15

KILDARE coach Ronan Sweeney has pinpointed the Lilies’ last-gasp defeat to Derry in round 3 of the Allianz Football League as an important step in the squad’s development, pointing to the manner in which they have closed out tight games in recent weeks to cement promotion to Division 1 as proof of the lessons taken on board.


Kildare had posted comfortable wins over Meath and Cork in their opening games and were expected to return from Celtic Park with their unblemished record intact, given that Derry had struggled.


Everything appeared to be going to plan as they led by five points at half time and though they suffered a major lull in the third quarter to fall two behind, they seemed to have recovered by kicking four on the trot.


A poor turnover led to the concession of a goal in the third minute of injury time however. It was the type of blow that has precipitated a freefall in previous Kildare teams but after getting back on track against Fermanagh, Cian O’Neill’s crew dug deep to emerge successful after titanic tussles against Down and Clare.


“I’m kind of glad we lost that game against Derry the way we did now that we’re qualified because we learned an awful lot from it, just about ourselves, about game management” said Sweeney on the Kfm radio station.


“In the last couple of games we have been in difficult situations and we’ve gotten out of them late on in the game because we were a bit more controlled whereas in the Derry game, we weren’t.”


Sweeney has seen many highs and lows from the time he played in Kildare’s Leinster championship-winning season as a teenager in 2000 to when he ended his county career at the end of 2013.


Since then, he has spent a year with Niall Carew at Waterford and moved west to Sligo with his fellow Kildare man for two terms, before joining up with O’Neill this year, having found the travelling a burden as a family man trying to run his own business.


He welcomes the opportunity of playing at Croke Park that a League final provides, and especially an extra fixture given that Kildare will not have a competitive outing again until facing Laois or Longford in Tullamore in the Leinster quarter-final on June 4.


The break will allow players to return to their clubs, something Sweeney considers of utmost importance.


“The players will go back to their clubs a lot more for the next couple of weeks to play a lot of League games. That’s important too in terms of trying to create leaders. You want them to go back to their clubs and train and lead the fellas who have been so good to them for letting them be away for so long.


“There’s a long break between the League and the Championship but this extra game with the League final will stand to us.”


A lot will happen between now and next year but playing in Division 1, and staying there, is vital to Kildare’s continuing development according to Sweeney. He acknowledges the gaps that exist between the second tier and the top half of the elite level however.


“It’s gonna be a big eye-opener for a whole lot of us I think. We’ve said it all along; Division 1 is probably a couple of steps ahead of where everybody else is at, especially the top four or five teams in that division.


“So it’s gonna be a huge challenge but it’s what we want. It’s why we play the game. We want to win, we want to compete with the best, we want to be up there with the best and hopefully one day be the best. And the only way to do it is to play week-in, week-out against these guys.”

Never give up

Posted on 21 March, 2017 at 8:45

 

THE congratulations cards are wedged above the fireplace, battling each other for a good posi. Room is tight, particularly with the plaque as winning jockey of the Champion Bumper at Punchestown in April taking centre stage.


It isn’t exactly Auteuil on the dressing table in the corner either. More testaments to success abound. If you weren't aware initially, you would know within seconds of walking into the sitting room that Jamie Codd is prime-time in his field, a man that crossed the 600-winner mark in point-to-points just over three months ago.


Pride of place goes to the big silver cup festooned with purple and gold ribbons. Codd was presented with The Irish Field Riders’ Trophy in Kilkenny’s Lyrath Hotel last Saturday. Being a proud son of Wexford, a “mad GAA man”, the sight of the colours on the silverware he has pursued for so long, widened the beam of a smile that was already wrinkle-inducing. All that was missing was a cherry on top.


They partied well but now, it’s Tuesday morning, and the 32-year-old is fresh. He will be going to Goffs when this conversation is done, to view some potential superstars ahead of the Land Rover Sale. After that it will be a game of golf.


Little wonder he is cutting a contented figure. As he takes a sip of his coffee, you notice the wristband – mandatory Wexford livery – with the motto ‘Never Give Up’ embossed on it. You would have to say that Jamie Codd is a poster boy for the virtues of perseverance.


Having finished second to Derek O’Connor seven times, the Mayglass man had earned the nickname Dickie, as in Dickie Johnson, the perennial runner-up to AP McCoy in the British jump jockeys’ championship.


Winning the title had become an obsession and there were times he wondered if it was ever going to be for him. The worst was when he broke his wrist last March, while leading. Instead, O’Connor cruised to a 10th consecutive title. As Codd lay in the hospital bed, he felt lower than whale dirt.


But he dusted himself down. Never gave up. And here we are.


The story is in the journey though. It was pretty much an idyllic upbringing as far as Codd is concerned, on a farm with cows, machinery and a couple of point-to-pointers. Aidan O’Brien rode one to victory in Waterford. Billy Codd and neighbour Fintan Codd (no relation) hosted the Lingstown Point-To-Points on their land.


Three years boarding at St Peter’s College were heavenly, with hurling, football, handball and tennis getting all the attention. The books got none, so after the Leaving, his options were limited. The way he describes it, he fell into a job with Willie Mullins. As luck goes, landing on your arse in Closutton must be right up there.


In five years, he received a rounded education on horses and life. Mullins was “a hard man but a fair man”. As a kid, Codd had no interest in the trainer’s modus operandi. He just wanted to ride horses. It is only in recent years, riding work around the country, that he has tended to take trainers’ methods on board. Yet it is no surprise to him that his former boss has become the dominant force in Irish jump racing.


“Willie was… about the little details. I think the big thing is he knows his horses very, very well. He knows when to back off or to do more. And I do think his heavy gallop is a big factor as well.”


Codd rode future Grand National winner, Hedgehunter at Cheltenham; won a hurdle on Rule Supreme, who was a Sun Alliance Chase victor by then. He still considers Missed That, on which he won two bumpers, as “probably the best horse I ever sat on”.


There were a lot of good days and he learned oceans. Not just from the gaffer either. Early on, Ruby Walsh looked at videos with him. James Nash was a guiding light too. Gradually, the man who looked up to Richard Dunwoody initially but grew to idolise the likes of his brother Willie (a former Leinster champion who was “the bomb”) and John Berry (the last Wexford man to be leading point-to-point rider before him in 1993 and also the only other jockey apart from Codd to go through a card with six races or more), developed his own style.


He maintained the links with point-to-pointing and rode his first winner (Eyse) between the flags at Bramblestown in 2001. Kilultagh Thunder was his first on the track that Christmas. For a few years, he was a regular in the winner’s enclosure. Until gradually, he wasn’t resident there so often and Katie Walsh began to fire.


“When I left Willie’s I was like a little child. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I packed up the car and went over to Aidan Fitzgerald’s place and I was nearly crying. It was a big change. What am I gonna do now?


“I went back home and William was starting to take off training and he looked after me there for a while.


“I don’t think I was doing a terrible amount wrong but it’s a game where if you’re not riding winners… I had lost my claim, Katie was coming in and riding well and it just took off. It was like me when I started. I had the seven-pound claim and James Nash didn’t. It just happens.”


That was eight years ago but there was no fallout, no hard feelings. The tenure with Mullins “made a man of me” and Codd has ridden numerous winners for his former boss since. They include Shaneshill in the aforementioned Champion Bumper – his first Grade 1 win – as well as some important point-to-point victories in the past campaign.


And as for Katie? Well, they’re very good friends. After all, his girlfriend, Robyn O’Sullivan is Katie’s sister-in-law. “I’ve no choice” he laughs.


Robyn has been a key stabilising force. He was 28 when they met up, having enjoyed life until then. He considers it no coincidence that his riding better since as he became more serious about how he prepared and went about building contacts.


He thinks of the likes of Cecil Ross, Philip Dempsey, Trevor Horgan, Denis Murphy, Liam Kenny, Gordon Elliott, Jim Dreaper, his brother Willie of course, and many more (“the know who they are”) who have shown him loyalty, which he likes to think he has returned. There is Robert Patton and the team at Old Mill Saddlery, who have been long-standing sponsors. His parents. Robyn’s parents. Her brother, Ross. But Robyn has been the rock.


“Lads are seeing you on the good days and it’s brilliant but the bad days, when you’re lying in the hospital. They’re seeing your bad moods and all. It’s not about the one person that’s doing it. It’s definitely about the whole thing.


“You see the tennis, Andy Murray. See the entourage he has. It is (a team), that network that’s gonna stand by you. I have it, Derek has it. A lot of other lads have it but maybe they don’t’ use it to the same degree we have. But I’m very fortunate to have it.”


In 2008, he actually brple the record for winners in a season with 81 but O’Connor finished on 94. He knew what was possible then. Three years later, he broke the 100 barrier (104) but again, O’Connor bettered his tally, by just six. His confidence was only bolstered though. It was the two broken legs and fractured wrist that made him wonder if he would ever get over the line.


“The first one wasn’t too bad because I’ve been very lucky. I was able to take that on board, got back good and was still able to retain the Leinster, which was a big thing for me.


“Last year was fairly bad. Just the fact I was in front and pushing hard. I wasn’t right from the previous year, my leg was sore. I was still riding winners. When I broke the wrist then, I was on the ground. It took a while to get over that.”


He broke his leg a second time competing in a charity event for Jonjo Bright. His spirit might have shattered too but in truth, it couldn’t have happened at a better place. Knowing why he was there in the first place gave him perspective.


The timing wasn’t bad either. It was last June and he had time to rehab. He felt better starting the last campaign than he had in some time and rode “a fraction better” as a result.


“The key days were back in November. I got a good run in Tatts and Lisronagh… I rode eight or nine winners that weekend and pushed on and got a bit of a lead. Closer, in Ballindenisk back in May, Derek got to within one winner and I got two down there and that was as close as he got.”


When he finished in Ballingarry on Sunday, with a six-winner lead and only six races to go on Monday, he knew he was champion. After all the near-misses, the desire, media spotlight and pressure, there was no exultation though.


“It was just pure relief. The interest that was in it this year was fantastic, fantastic for everybody looking in. Lads have been saying to me for the last three months ‘you have to enjoy it’ and they’re right, you’ should be enjoying it but it’s hard to enjoy it when you’re in the melting pot like that.


“Red Barry is lining up for Wexford in a Leinster final at Croke Park against Dublin, with 60 or 70,000 people. Do you enjoy it? I don’t think you do. Maybe you’ll enjoy it after. But when it’s happening, I don’t think you enjoy these things. I know I will look back on it fondly and say ‘yeah, they were savage days’. But at the time, no.”


He believes that there is another chapter or two in his rivalry with O’Connor, who he praises for the manner in which he took defeat on the chin. Using another GAA analogy, he wonders if his colleague will be like Kilkenny hurlers, coming back even stronger after having a lengthy spell of dominance broken. And maybe the pressure is off O’Connor now that no-one is going to be talking about 11-in-a-row.


“If he’s gonna ride to a better standard next year, I’ll tell you one thing… we’re all in trouble!” smiles Codd.


“He’s a great man. I’ve said it all along. He was a great winner but by God he was a good loser. Very, very gracious in defeat. He hung around there on the Monday in Ballingarry for the celebrations, which is a hard thing to do. I’ve done it a couple of years. I had a beer with him after. It’s a measure of the man.”


Meanwhile, he is enjoying helping his brother build a serious reputation for producing good, young horses. The point-to-point scene was always a nursery but nothing like the extent it is now.


“There’s a lot more money involved. I think in the years back, it was only the few, the Costellos and that, that were selling horses. It’s big business now and big pressure because serious men are taking the chance buying these horses and trying to get the results, selling them on.


“(My brother) finished riding pretty early. He has built up a real good band of owners that are willing to spend a few quid at the sales in the hope of getting a return out of it, as in winning a four-year-old maiden or a five-year-old maiden, and getting paid that way.


“He’s done a great job at home and that has helped me too. It has given me something to look forward to. It makes you work a bit harder because it’s for home as well. I like to be down there schooling, doing little things. It’s coming back to where it started, getting winners, selling horses at the sales. Getting our name up there and that’s what it’s all about. Making those contacts.”


When he tweets about another young prospect, he invariably refers to the Codd Academy. Brand recognition.


That brand is fairly well known now. Tranquil Sea has been the flag-bearer, with two of his 14 wins coming in Grade 1s, four more in Grade 2s. Hopes are high for graduates Tell Us More and Alisier D’Irlande, after they sold for £290,000 and £300,000 respectively at the Brightwell Sales in December and April. The former is now a Gigginstown/Mullins charge that has already won a bumper, while the latter was purchased by Roger Brookhouse.


“It’s nice to be involved with the good horses. A few years ago, I used to love winning, let it be a seven-year-old up mares’ maiden, I didn’t care. It was just winning, winning, winning. But now, it’s the quality.


“I push myself fairly hard, and I push myself during the winter, to be sitting on as many young horses as I can, ‘cos I wanna win those races. They’re so important. You’re going riding a four-year-old or five-year-old for Gordon, Gigginstown, William or Denis Murphy, they’re worth money and you’ve a job to do. I get a great kick out of that. The pressure is on, you want to perform and you want the horse to perform.”


That is reflected in the fact that 75 of his 95 winners were maidens. Apart from his brother’s duo, he likes Denis Murphy’s pair Jeweloftheocean and Corner Creek, while Gordon Elliott’s Stone Hard “could be a really good one”.


So the last week was spent in Goffs, as an extra pair of eyes for his brother and the Doyles, Ross and Peter. After that, he has more golf planned, a few stag parties and the Derby Sale to take in. Then 16 days in Thailand with Robyn. He’ll barely sit on a horse.


When he gets back from his travels, that will be a five-week break. Then it’s back to work, doing the mileage, educating the future stars.


“I get a great kick out of it. I like the involvement, progressing them from breaking them, schooling them to actually winning on them. And then following their careers after they’ve moved on.”


He is in no doubt that one man has played a significant part in creating an environment that has given more people the opportunity to make money from the game.


“Richard Pugh has played a massive role, from where it was 10 years ago, bringing the whole thing forward. With the entries, being able to watch videos on the computer, the publicity, pushing the profile… it’s a passion for him. He loves it. He likes to see everything being right. He’s a big man for the Hunts that are running the point-to-points.


“He just wants to see it going forward and without him, I don’t think we’d be where we are with the young horses selling. The English lads can watch the videos of the horses winning, the results are there straight away. It’s come, so far, so quick and it’s mainly down to him.”


All he needs now is some GAA glory for Wexford. He will be in Wexford Park tonight to watch the hurlers take on Dublin. He thinks they could dethrone the Leinster champions.


The way his year has gone, you couldn’t rule it out.


This article appeared in The Irish Field in June 2014.

 

For rugby, how big is too big?

Posted on 17 March, 2017 at 5:10

IT WAS notable how even former Ireland and Lions skipper Paul O’Connell was remarking on the shudderingly physical nature of the exchanges in the first half of the Wales-Ireland Six Nations Test at the Millennium Stadium last Friday night.


O’Connell is only recently departed from the professional scene and lived through the increasing emphasis on power that has seen the size of players increase to such an extent that many consider rugby to be a collision sport rather than a contact one.


He would be accustomed to what occurs in the tackle and breakdown zones but remarked time and again on the actual noise emanating from each jarring crash of huge, motivated bodies. You just know Jonathan Davies and Jerry Guscott are thankful to be in the studio.


There is some debate surrounding the aesthetic and health aspects of this trend, while it was interesting to hear another Ireland captain Keith Wood express his belief that this emphasis in softening up the opposition early on before attempting a more expansive approach had actually affected the ability of Joe Schmidt’s men to implement phase two of the game plan.


It is certain that Saturday’s encounter with England will be over a similar nature however and it was interesting to encounter a study compiled by a research team on behalf of Digital Marketing and PR in conjunction with Maxinutrition (www.maxinutrion.com) that has illustrated the extent of the increase in size of players over the years, how it has happened and why.


In the 30 years from 1985 to 2015, the average size of the international rugby player has increased by 10kgs.


Nutritional education has been central to this development, as increased conditioning requires more and better refuelling. That sees the top-tier rugby player clocking up a protein intake of 220-300g, while the average male civilian would consume about 55g.


The study finds that international players cover between 7,000-9,000m during a Test and have 29 bouts of high-intensity effort, where they achieve a speed of 6.7m per second at any given time. Those figures reduce to 6,000-8000m and 24 bouts of high-intensity effort for what was then the Heineken Cup and continue to drop down through domestic and semi-pro leagues.


The study shows that the size, weight, speed and power of players is leading to increased tackling and alarmingly, significantly more injuries.


Rugby has been slow to catch up in terms of concussion and this has been exposed by the increase in incidents from 2.5 from 1,000 hours of rugby in 2002 to 10.5 in 2015. That compares with 17.5 for boxing that year.


The study concludes by asking the question ‘How big is too big?’ as it links just a 20% increase in the height of players to a 73% increase in inertia, which is a key aspect in sustaining concussion.


But still the hits keep coming.



Sell pity somewhere else - the inspirational JT McNamara

Posted on 14 March, 2017 at 20:00

"This wasn’t meant to be no sad song. We’ve heard too much of that before."

- Paul Brady, The Island

 


“I’d be a lot worse if it happened to me in a car crash” (Photos are stills from an ITV Racing video, which used some of the conversation from this interview)


YOU know about Galaxy Rock’s fall in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup at Cheltenham on March 14, 2013; the kick from a following horse that shattered John Thomas McNamara’s helmet and changed his life forever.


Earlier that month, McNamara had suffered significant shoulder damage after a tumble in Askeaton, so he was taken to Limerick hospital to have the shoulder popped back into its socket. This is a brutally painful process, as ligaments, tendons and bone squeeze, stretch and twist. Yet he was back in the saddle the next day, working the horses in his yard.


Here is a man that doesn’t go down easy. So it’s no surprise to see him figuratively standing tall, even if that will never happen in a literal sense.


Jump jockeys are a breed apart. They possess traits that are absolutely essential to catapulting horses over fences regularly. When you are one of the best amateur pilots racing has ever seen, you have these attributes in spades… attributes, it turns out, that are just as helpful when suddenly, you are paralysed from the neck down.


Caroline McNamara: “I think the absence of a fear factor definitely.” She looks at her husband. “You go in that chair… I think actually that’s where you don’t… what am I trying to say?


John Thomas: “More shite. Go on.”


Caroline: “There are people that would take their time about trying something and would start at it slowly…”


(JT rolls his eyes and makes faces, like the kid at the back of the class while a teacher is trying to explain calculus or algebra. I snigger like his 12-year-old sidekick. Caroline smiles at JT being JT and carries on undeterred.)


Caroline: “… and gradually get the pace up. John just goes at it full belt. If there was a type of a jump or hurdle that the chair could go over, he would go over it. Am I right John?


JT: “Yeah.”


Caroline: “I can’t stand behind the chair anymore watching. ‘He’s gonna fall over!’ That is a huge aspect of you going forward. You don’t have that fear.”


JT: “Sure they can’t do too much more damage to me.”


Matter-of-fact analysis of the situation, acceptance and refusal to dwell on the past are other vital tools. The little touch of madness and the ability to laugh. Cutting through to the reality of a situation.


Caroline: “You’re living life. And what happen, happens.”

 

****

 

YOU can get consumed by the injuries, the sadness, the dice with death, the sacrifices, the loss of independence, the invasion of privacy... the astronomical cost of the 24-hour-a-day care that is covered by Irish Injured Jockeys and the Turf Club, and without which, JT would not be at home.


But you have to look beyond the chair. You have to look beyond the tube in the man’s throat and the whirring of the ventilator.


Look at the face and the life in those mischievous eyes. Hear the clarity of thought, the quick-wittedness. John Thomas McNamara doesn’t ride horses anymore but that wasn’t all of him. This is just another phase of his life. His knowledge, experience and expertise are all still there. So is the joy and the fun.


He turned 40 on April 8 and make no mistake, it was a celebration. It has been difficult in the past two years and it is still difficult. But this is the new normal. What are you going to do? Wallow in self-pity? Not if you’re John Thomas and Caroline McNamara.


They know the realities but are comforted beyond measure by the human reaction, the kindnesses. How people rallied around to raise €800,000 for the Jockeys’ Emergency Fund on behalf of JT and Jonjo Bright at Limerick Racecourse the October after the accident will never be forgotten. The myriad of fundraisers since and not just those of a large scale for the Emergency Fund, the IIJ and McNamara’s own trust fund. Locals rallying around. People they don’t even know organising coffee mornings. That sort of stuff touches your soul. It’s a life-giver and a life-saver.


Then there are the visits that continue to this day. JP and Noreen McManus, Jonjo and Jacqui O’Neill, AP McCoy, Michael Hourigan, Gordon Elliott, Dr Adrian McGoldrick, Liam and Pat Healy, Mikey Joe Cregan, Danny O’Connell… too many to mention but all welcome and held dear.


Jonjo O’Neill’s positivity and gentle smile is better than any drug. Liam Healy abuses JT verbally and gets abused back. It’s the normal routine if you’re spending any time around the Croom native and those two have been friends for more than 20 years.


“AP was very good to me in England. You could see him morning, noon or night. He could appear at any time. He’s great craic. He called in Dublin too.”


McGoldrick with the “heart of gold”, whose role as Turf Club medical officer is “not just a job”. He would visit just to help kill the time, bringing The Irish Field with him so JT could catch up on all the point-to-point news especially.


McNamara and Elliott go back a long way. “The year I was champion novice rider, it was Gordon that was challenging. For a long time we were neck-and-neck, winner-for-winner. Then I went to Ballysteen – I think it was the first year pointing there – and I rode four winners. That was it then.”


Again, people were so moved that they called in, even if they didn’t know him.


“There was a lady used to go into see you in Southport” recounts Caroline. “Eithne. She used to call in every now and then with dinner or a tin of biscuits. Her father was in the hospital and she’d call in after seeing him.”


These visits were invaluable as the boredom was the worst about his existence in the hospital, be it Frenchay, Dublin or Southport was torturous. Caroline would stay with JT for three or four days, return home for 10 to tend to the children and keep an eye on the yard.


JT: “It’s unbelievable the amount of people that came to see me. Unbelievable. Jockeys, trainers, owners. Everyone.”


Caroline: “Locals.”


JT: “You name it, they came to see me. And they’re still coming.”


Caroline: “The afternoons and the evenings can be long so it’s great, to kill a couple of hours.”


So now I know why I have been invited.


JT: “Talking shite.”

 

****



 

“I guess I had to go to that place to get to this one.”

- Eminem, Not Afraid

 

The McNamaras were well matched. Tough cookies. If you’re peddling pity, go somewhere else. They’ll see the humour in anything. Even the poor man who by reflex, put a hand out when greeting JT.


“John said ‘If you’re waiting for me to shake your hand, you’ll be waiting a long time’” says Caroline with a chuckle.


They met in Aunty Lena’s, the local bar in Adare where the likes of Hourigan’s staff, and people working at Clonshire Equestrian Centre tended to congregate. Caroline Maxwell liked horses but wasn’t a racing nut. She’d go to the local point-to-points alright and became a regular when going out with JT. They got married in 2003 and have three children: Dylan (8 ), Harry (6), Olivia (3).


He was never one for mushy words, not in public anyway but she gives as good as she gets. They’re the greatest tag team since The Road Warriors.


DÓC: “You’re always slagging Caroline but she is very important to you.”


JT: “At times.”


Caroline: “Would you like to say something nice?”


JT: “Nah. I’m fine.”


What a gift it is to see those twinkling eyes, the raised eyebrows, the feigned look of world-weariness. It’s all there. And Caroline smiling at the good of it all.


They’re here but it’s been a long and difficult journey. And it remains difficult. JT had a number of brushes with death and nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.


There have been so many issues, so much despair. Forget about the obvious fact that McNamara can only move his head and has to surrender himself completely. He is reliant on other people to wash, feed, clothe him. There isn’t a thing about him that he can keep to himself.


For Caroline, dealing with the spotlight was hard. A private person – they both are – suddenly there were articles and photographs everywhere, even if they didn’t make any public proclamations themselves. This is only their second interview.


With two carers living in the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is tough for the family to have their own space. At present, they are using the home of Caroline’s mother Phil, because it is more accessible. Plans on the redevelopment of their own place in Croom are scheduled to be submitted soon. Apart from making it wheelchair friendly, designs will provide living space for the carers separate to the family areas. These things are important and will make it all a little easier.


The only time he gets visibly emotional is when the discussion turns to the kids. And that’s not just because Liam Healy has Dylan wearing a Kerry jersey. It has been a lot for them to deal with and it as the conversation goes on about how events have impacted on them that you see his eyes moisten. He can take never getting up on a horse again no problem. He would love to be able to play with his children.


Caroline: “I’m sure it has affected them. It can’t have but affected them. Especially Dylan. But at the same time, they’re resilient, and when they ask the questions you give them a straight answer. They’re just happy he’s at home and as far as they’re concerned, that’s all they want.”


Is that the hardest?


JT: “Yeah. Yeah.”


You look at his chair, with bits of what seem like gaffer tape stuck around the side of it.


JT: “It’s a ball of shite.”


When it arrived at first in Southport from Ireland, it didn’t even have a reverse gear.


JT: “I couldn’t go into the lift down there because I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t reverse it.”


It was exasperating, maddening. For a man who had lost his independence, this was something so vital. Something he could do by himself, giving him a little bit of control back. And yet by the time he could go backwards and a number of other tweaks were made, it was only last February – 12 months after getting the chair and eight months after arriving at home - that he was able to drive it his own. What an indictment on the health system.


JT: “Everything is eight weeks. A screw missing it’s eight weeks.”


Caroline: “There’s plenty screws missing in it now.”


JT: “I’ll keep driving it. I’ll drive it into the ground.”


He has taken delivery of a new chair and has taken it for a test drive.


JT: “The new one is fast. I went down the road in it the other night and it was fairly good. It’s faster than this.”


Caroline: “We have to have a proper sense of reality. Life isn’t easy. But you get on with it. You have to take each day as it comes. We can’t look too far ahead either because of the nature of the injury.


“We were hoping if he could get off the ventilator but unfortunately that didn’t come. It is what it is. It just puts more of an obstacle in the way. You’ve so many different kinds of spinal cord injuries. Everybody’s different. It’s just that one little part of the injury, if he didn’t have the ventilator, then the picture would be very different. Wouldn’t it?


JT: “Yeah. But sure I’m stuck with it now.”


There’s no self-pity in that statement. Just fact.

 

****

 


The greatest cause for celebration of all when he had his birthday was the fact that he was home. In the bosom of those he loved and who loved him. Not independent but with a form of it, especially once the chair was fixed and he could start going to work without having to be pushed around everywhere.


He had set up the yard while still riding, planning for retirement. It was going well when the world caved in but Caroline, Kari Mohan, Brian Lenihan and Aidan O’Leary kept the show on the road for when he returned.


“I’d be so bored otherwise. You need something to get up and go to. It would be a very long day otherwise, sitting at home.”


A little momentum was inevitably lost but he is adamant about kicking on now, becoming more visible, having been at Limerick racecourse a couple of times and at the Lemonfield and Kilmallock point-to-points. He intends going to Goffs, Land Rover and Derby sales too, looking to pick up a bargain and letting people know that he is active. If you buy a store horse and want it prepared for racing before going to its trainer, John Thomas McNamara is your man.


This is a guy described by Davy Russell as the best horseman of all the jockeys he had ever ridden against. He was champion point-to-point rider five times before Derek O’Connor began his domination but continued to lord the western area, bringing his number of titles in the region to 10 when annexing a fifth in a row in 2008.


The following season, he qualified for senior status and farmed that category every year, including in 2013, when his career ended on Cheltenham turf. In all, he rode 602 winners between the flags. Only  O’Connor and Jamie Codd, who he admires for changing the face of point-to-point riding, have surpassed him.


Carlingford Lough is just one example of his prowess in preparing future stars.


“I had him as a young horse, pre-training. He was a lovely horse back then. I’d say there would be plenty more races in him. He’ll miss AP.”


On The Fringe is another who has the McNamara stamp on him, with JT having won a couple of hunter chases on him for Enda Bolger. He told the trainer that he had a really good horse on his hands. He told everyone else while he was at it.


“He always let me down the fucker. But this year he seems a lot better altogether. He won with his head in his chest in Cheltenham. I knew he’d win in Liverpool, I’d been saying it for a while. I knew it would suit him.


“They rang me when he won in both places. They were just going into the parade ring. It was nice that they were thinking of me.”


Nina Carberry cried during her post-race interview. They had always been close.


JT: “I was glad to see her winning on him more than anyone else.”


Caroline: “Enda’s duo.”


It’s the same JT except he cannot physically get up on the horses. That doesn’t bother him and with the calibre of rider he can call in, it isn’t necessary. The mind is razor-sharp. The eye, the know-how, the ability to spot a kink, to sense the answer, the years of experience. They are all still there. It will be a case of ticking over during the summer but you would expect his Croom property to be buzzing with activity next September.


At present, he has 29 boxes in three barns, and about 14 horses in. He has a couple of his own and would like to build up a small team of point-to-pointers, given that his roots are in this sphere. As well as that, the industry has been revolutionised and if you can find a few nice ones, there’s money to be made.


“One nice one would do, not to mind a few.”


He does have a Kalanisi gelding called It Has To Be, who ran in Kilmallock recently but was badly interfered with and ran poorly as a result.


“I thought he was going to win. Them things happen. There’d be no sport if they won all the time. If we’re lucky we’ll be back in the autumn and hopefully we’ll win then.”


It Has To Be is a half-brother of the JP McManus-owned, Enda Bolger-trained My Hometown. Bolger is renowned as a Bruce Springsteen acolyte – JT is fan too but not on the Bolger scale. The trainer has named many of his horses after songs penned by The Boss but this one came at the suggestion of McManus, after Springsteen dedicated the song to McNamara at his concert in Thomond Park in July 2013.


He is highly promising too and after winning his four-year-old maiden at Dromahane last December, made a successful debut on the track in Limerick three weeks later, with JT in attendance on his first racecourse appearance since leaving Cheltenham in a helicopter. That was wonderful.


He goes to work every morning apart from Sunday, getting into his van at 7.45am. He loves the stimulation of the work, the fresh air, the wind brushing against his face and through his hair, the smell of the horses. His instinct kicks in as he interacts with his riders.


There is no sadness here. This is peace. McNamara has lost so much but has a lot more than when he was lying in a bed staring at the ceiling. He has more than when his chair could only go forward. Now he sees the good and the bad in the horses, works out how to fix them, make them jump, settle or lie upsides if they’re not straightforward. He revels in the puzzle, working that brain, using his genius.


On the way home, he might drop into the deli for a roll and will watch the racing in the afternoon and evening, making sure he is up to date with everything that’s going on. He can use his laptop too, by blowing on the keys and takes phone calls from anyone and everyone. He is a businessman now.


Caroline: “People can treat you as somebody who’s sick rather than treat you as someone who’s in a chair and can go out there and do something. It might be a different way of doing it but you can do it. It’s a different quality of life. It mightn’t be the quality of life you want or wanted. But this is what it is and you have to make the most of it.”


He is open for business.


JT: “Send them on.”

 

****


You don't always have a choice about what happens to you in life but you always have a choice about how you deal with it. It is a blessing to be focussing on John Thomas McNamara’s face because of how he and Caroline have dealt with their grievous misfortune, and the hurdles they have encountered in the past couple of years. You see the character. You see life.


He is out there now. Lemonfield and Kilmallock were a challenge as the terrain isn’t ideal of a chair. “I’m like Noddy” he smirks, doing a re-enactment of his head bobbing up on down.


If he decides he wants to go, he says he’s going. Caroline then works out if it’s practical, not in health terms, but when it comes to accessibility. Being at the Dunraven Arms Cheltenham preview night was enjoyable. He is really looking forward to Limerick today, where a charity race is being run raising funds for Irish Injured Jockeys. Sheikh Fahad Al Thani is taking part along with Johnny Murtagh, Kevin Darley, Kevin O’Ryan, Peter Molony and many others. JT might even try to stick the Sheikh for a horse, if the chance arises!


It is important to the McNamaras that they support the event but what is really has JT buzzing is the impending trip to Punchestown. It is no surprise, given the stamp he left on the festival, what he is looking forward to most.


“I’ve no interest in the Grade 1s although there’ll be some great horses. I’ll be there for the banks races, the La Touche and the Ladies Cup.”


Is there a knack to riding the banks?


“Have a good trainer behind you. I was mad for it. I loved it. I used to do a load of hunter trials. My favourite day was Bolger’s 10th La Touche on Spot (Spot Thedifference). He was an unbelievable horse. You’d never beat him if he was there at the bottom of the hill. Whatever it was, he changed gears and flew.”


Watching Carlingford Lough and On The Fringe compete will be a thrill too. He loves horses and that is why there is no regret or recrimination about what happened him and how. No one is to blame.


JT: “I’d be a lot worse if it happened to me in a car crash.”


Caroline: “You wouldn’t accept it I think.”


JT: “No. No way. I loved doing the racing and ‘twas always a risk.”


Caroline: “I think sporting people, who are so competitive, that’s why they are competitive. They can get their head outside of that picture. You wouldn’t do it. Us normal people that don’t have that streak wouldn’t be able to necessarily go out there every day knowing what might happen.”


So he is going to live life as hard and fast as he can. What tomorrow brings, let it bring.


Caroline: “You’ve had your medical trials and tribulations but you’re home, you’re out. You’re able to go racing. You’re able to go to work. So life is moving on. Whereas up ‘til you came home, it was at a standstill. Now, off with you.”


JT: “I need to drive on.”


This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Field, April 2016.

Renaissance Roger

Posted on 13 March, 2017 at 0:10

“Do you think you’ll ever get outta here?”

“Me?”

Red sighs.

“Yeah. One day, when I’ve got a long, white beard and two or three marbles rolling around upstairs, they’ll let me out.”

“Tell you where I’d go. Zihuatanejo.”

“Ze-what?”

“Zihuatanejo. It’s in Mexico. A little place on the Pacific Ocean. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?”

“No.”

“They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory. Open up a little hotel right on the beach, buy some worthless old boat and fix it up new, take my guests out charter fishing.”

“Zihuatanejo.”

“In a place like that I could use a man who knows how to get things.”

“I don’t think I could make it on the outside Andy. I’ve been in here most of my life. I’m an institutional man now, just like Brooks was.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

“I don’t think so. In here I’m the guy who can get things for you, sure, but outside, all you need is the Yellow Pages. Hell I wouldn’t even know where to being. Pacific Ocean? Shit, that would scare me to death, something that big.”

“Not me. I didn’t shoot my wife and I didn’t shoot her lover. Whatever mistakes I made I paid for them and then some. That hotel, that boat? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“I don’t think you outta’ be doing this to yourself Andy. This is a shitty pipedream. I mean Mexico is way the hell down there and you’re in here and that’s the way it is.”

“Yeah right, that’s the way it is. It’s down there and I’m in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice you know. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

- Conversation between Andy Dufresne and Red in The Shawshank Redemption

 

****

 

TWITTER is the refuge of crackpots and freaks, which is why Roger Loughran has never been on it and his inquisitor resides in that world too often. It isn’t all armchair jockeys that never sat on a steed in their lives but lost a few quid questioning the morals/ability of a rider however. Sometimes there is a knowing reaction that gives testament to an individual’s popularity, an understanding of his journey, his standing in the racing sphere.


When Loughran calmly guided Peregrine Run around Cheltenham, held onto the Peter Fahey-trained gelding until after the last in the Neptune Investment Management Hyde Novices’ Hurdle, and then drove him up the hill to finally peak inside the doors of Valhalla, the blue bird lit up.


What a ride by Roger Loughran #legend – Mark Enright


Delighted for Roger Loughran @cheltenhamraces. Great rider who works hard #thewheelskeepturning – Colman Sweeney


Absolutely delighted for Roger Loughran, one of the understated gents of the game, to have a winner at Cheltenham – Johnny Ward


Good man Rog – Niall Cronin


There was more where that came from, almost universal pleasure for the 36-year-old, who knows all about slings and arrows.


It wasn’t that he didn’t know big-time success. There was a time when he had plenty of it. Schindlers Hunt provided a couple of Grade 1s in the space of two weeks almost 10 years ago, but it had been seven and a half years since he had bagged a graded race of any nature, the Bobbyjo Chase on Black Apalachi. And he had never enjoyed a big one across the water.


With rides on Saturday and Sunday, celebrations were confined to a steak and a couple of drinks on Sunday night, but there was a time when finding time in his schedule to fit in a party would not have been a problem, so he was hardly complaining.


It was a victory for Loughran’s mental strength, his zealous work ethic, his willingness to knuckle down.


It was a day too for his girlfriend Karen, his parents Brigid and James, Sandra Hughes, Tom Foley, Mick O’Dowd and Tim O’Driscoll, who were forever loyal; for Ruaidhri Tierney, the agent who guided him out of the backwater that was his career, and has had him riding for 44 different trainers this season already.


And the late Dessie Hughes, the man he adores and misses, like so many; the man who guided him through good times and bad.


They never lost faith so neither did Loughran.


“Keep the head down” he told himself “and something will come around.”

 

****

 

IT IS a mantra that sustained him even as the number of rides reduced from 390 in Ireland in 2007-08 season, to 92 just five campaigns later. Yet it was what Dessie told him to do and if you had a head on your shoulders at all, you listened to that man.


“He was some man to make riders” says Loughran now, with a mixture of awe and wistfulness. “Whatever way he shapes them, they never look back, whether that be riding or in life. Once you go through that school... I suppose there were plenty went through it and went the other way but if you listened to him, you’d get on in life.”


Loughran took a circuitous enough route to Hughes’ door but it was like finding home and 16 years later, he is still there.


From Cortown in Meath originally, he was a tidy enough Gaelic footballer who won a few county titles underage with St Cuthberts but by then, he had already been consumed by horses. He’s not quite sure where the obsession came from but when his father finally relented to the constant browbeating about buying a horse, it was deal done for the then 12-year-old.


James taught the young fella to ride and he took to it quickly. At 16, he went to RACE and was placed with the late Pat O’Leary. After a stint there, and with O’Leary’s son Ger, Loughran moved to Christy Roche’s on The Curragh.


He loved it. The horses were top class and he was getting a few spins but the likes of Paul Moloney, Alan Crowe and Adrian Lane were all ahead of him in the pecking order. So when Kieran Kelly had a whisper in his ear that there was a vacancy for an amateur back at Hughes’s, he took note.


“I’d do anything around the yard, I’d cut grass or anything, so Christy sent me over on the tractor with a few bales of hay for Dessie. So I went over and when I got the chance, I asked for a job.”


In time, he established himself as No 1 rider in the yard despite still being an amateur and after guiding Central House to victory over Moscow Flyer in the Fortria Chase in November 2005, he was summoned for a one-on-one.


“Dessie brought me into the kitchen one day and said ‘If you want to have a go at this, we’ll have a go at it. And if you do you’ll have to do two things. You’ll have to make 10 stone and you’ll have to work hard.’”


So he turned professional, principally because Central House was a real star. It is ironic, given what was to occur.


They resumed their partnership to bag the Hilly Way a matter of weeks later. It was a wonderful start to life in the paid ranks but the earth-shattering thud was just around the corner.


He refers to it as “the accident” now, and it’s a pretty good description of what happened, as Loughran almost rode the perfect race, timing the run on Central House to come between Fota Island and Hi Cloy jumping the last in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase. Somehow, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he had passed the winning post when he had only reached the end of the running rail. Exultant at the thought of nabbing his first Grade 1, he stood up in his irons to salute the crowd.


The only problem was that the lollypop was still ahead. Hi Cloy and Fota Island drove past him and it wasn’t long before realisation dawned, followed by that awful sensation in the pit of the stomach.


The punters didn’t spare him as he made his way back to the parade ring and after dismounting, Hughes put his arm around him in a gesture of protection, as well as a tangible one of consolation and empathy, that was appreciated more than anything else Loughran can remember apart from maybe his father buying him that horse 13 years previously.


“It meant everything and Daragh, from that day to the day he died, that man never mentioned that again. Never mentioned that once.”


No private bollocking? Or censure of some kind?


“I promise you, no. ‘These things happen’ he says, ‘forget about it now.’ You expect a trainer to say ‘What the fuck was that?’ What a gentleman. Once he accepted that, I was able to. He was a great man.


“I have any amount of respect for that man. It wasn’t his choice jocking me off the horses. It was owners. It goes back to racing being fashion. Thank God, Peregrine Run’s owners didn’t do that.”


It’s funny how the mind plays tricks. People presume the incident precipitated his fall from grace but it didn’t, or not immediately anyway. He and Central House – whose owners John Kenny and Joe Doyle remained supportive - claimed the Tied Cottage Chase six weeks later to a resounding ovation, with his parents in attendance and his weigh-room colleagues coming out to greet him after.


His old guvnor Roche reached out and gave him the ride on Far From Trouble to win the Galway Plate that summer, after AP McCoy had broken his wrist in the previous race.


That Christmas, 12 months after the Paddy Power, he rode a slew of winners including three at Leopardstown on Grangeclare Lark, First Row and Schindlers Hunt. The latter was the maiden Grade 1 at last, in what is now the Racing Post Novice Chase. It was perfect.


But suddenly, it was gone. Owners deserted him. They had formed an impression and when horses didn’t win were click to blame the pilot who had made such a grievous error, no matter how long ago it was.


He could have done with the Pacific Ocean. A place where nobody remembered. A place where the past was consigned there and you weren’t continuously punished out of all proportion.


“I won’t lie. It’s hard to swallow looking at someone else riding the good horses you should be on. It’s hard. But like everything else, you have to live with it. Grind it out and ride the storm. That’s how I dealt with it, was work. Keep working and something will show up.”


Get busy living, or get busy dying.


Loughran went into work at Osborne Lodge every day. With the mounts drying up, he bought a little cottage outside Kildare, converted it to a house and built a barn out the back to begin pre-training some horses for O’Driscoll. He now has a walker, lunge ring and paddock and is busy there, while trainers are taking Tierney’s calls at a rate he had forgotten about.


“‘It’s as well to be looking at it than looking for it” he grins.


So he found a way to survive.


“I never stopped believing. I knew I was good enough, it was just to get on the right one… There are plenty lads in the weight room like me. It’s the dream that keeps you going. The last couple of years, as anyone can see, weren’t great for me. It’s the dream and you have you to grind it out.”


The arrival of Hannah in February 2015 only hardened his resolve but it lightened his mood on the bad days.


“She’s the apple of my eye. When you see her when you walk in the door with the arms up delighted to see ya, you’ll forget about anything else that happened… instead of sitting on the couch and your mind going 90 about the yoke you gave a stones of a ride to, d’ya know what I mean?”

 

****

 

SANDRA Hughes has had to take her own body blows. People talk about how much they wish Dessie was still around but who misses him more than his family? Perhaps in that context, losing the Gigginstown House Stud horses despite winning the Irish Grand National and the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle for them wasn’t the worst. But it wasn’t good.


Still though, Loughran says the atmosphere is positive and they are looking to the future. It was a pity Acapella Bourgeois tipped up at Naas last Saturday but he emerged unscathed and has the stamp of a chaser, which is impressive having won two Grade 2s over hurdles.


“Sandra works hard and she deserves everything that she can get. It wasn’t nice when Gigginstown took their horses away, of course it was going to hurt but it’s not the end of the world either.”


He knows Peter Fahey from their amateur riding days, when they used to share lifts with Aidan Fitzgerald and Crowe. Fahey only lived over the rode in Monasterevin and when he went training, Loughran did some schooling for him on The Curragh.


Fortunately, he happened to sit on Peregrine Run’s back one day and rode him a few times before winning at Down Royal. They’ve been inseparable and unconquerable since. Cheltenham was a different level. They knew the gelding would appreciate the good ground but the track and step up in class was what they were here to find out.


“I jumped off and they were good and quick over the first two hurdles. I was going as fast as I could really but when they slowed up going around the bend to the third hurdle, he locked on and I was able to take him back on the bridle again.


“I was able to hold onto him up by the stands, got a good jump there. Did the same up the hill and when we hit the hurdle up the back I set him alight at it and sure he put his head down over them two hurdles and I was where I wanted to be then.


“I was able to hold onto him around the top of the hill and I had a look going over the third last and the boys were getting busy. I was flat out but just holding onto him, freewheeling. He got tight to the third last but landed quick and down to the second last then. He met that lovely, really hurdled it.


“I said to myself then ‘We’re a winner here, just hold onto him.’


“When I turned the bend to go to the last, I was rowing away on him and I knew I was spot on and the horse just locked onto the bit again with me and I was able to hold onto him, not to put him in underneath it. I knew once I’d get a crack or two into him at the back of the last we’d do it.


“The other lad (Wholestone) came at me half-way up the hill but there was only one winner. I didn’t have to be hard, hard. I know he got a couple of belts but I always felt he was going to win. He had plenty. He’s a nice horse.”


His reaction?


“When I went by the line I left out a roar to myself. I couldn’t believe I could roar that hard.”


So now the dreams have gotten bigger once more, of the stature they used to be. Grade 1s. Cheltenham.


Whatever mistakes I made I paid for them and then some. That hotel, that boat? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.


If ever a man deserved it.



This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Field in November 2016.

Ruby on the rise

Posted on 12 March, 2017 at 11:30

HE WELCOMES you at the front door, the smoke he exhales more vivid in the zero-degree night.




You not given those up yet?


“For Lent” comes the reply. “So the girls tell me anyway.”


He smiles broadly and ushers you in.


If there is an expectation that Ruby Walsh might be feeling low as a result of the 30-hour-old news that Faugheen and Min are out of the Cheltenham picture, it disperses quickly. Of course he wishes they were making the trip, along with Annie Power and the ill-fated Vautour. He’s not a robot. Mention Annie Power’s fall at the last in the Mares’ Hurdle in 2015 and his hands go to his head, which then drops to the table. There is a rueful smile but it galls him.


The thing is, he has context. He learned very quickly growing up in a yard that didn’t have many superstars that the good days were rare, and every corner was more likely to have a setback around it than a joy unconfined.


Isabelle, Elsa and Gemma have only added to the sense of perspective. Walsh and his wife Gillian have supervised the completion of school homework and the trio are in bed when the visitor arrives.


“They all have their own rooms now. It’s like a dormitory up there.”


His features crease every time he mentions the girls. The broad smile is much in evidence over the next 90 minutes or so.


There are those that would say it is easy to have context when he still has access to the cream of the crop and he knows how fortunate he is. At the time of this conversation, he has 109 winners. He is now on 112 and that gives him a shot at beating his best ever total – the 131 he needed to keep Davy Russell at bay to be champion in the 2007/2008 season. Charlie Swan’s record of 150 from 95/96 isn’t completely out of reach, though he would need an extremely bountiful last 10 weeks.


The strike rate of 37% is noteworthy too, compared to the average of 31% from the previous five campaigns in this country. Remarkably, he still has his detractors, while the last-fence blues re-emerged as a source of debate recently.


Are you sick of hearing about it?


“No.”


Is it something you think about?


“No.”


Have you thought about why it’s happening?


“No. I’ve got 30… what did you say I have?”


A 37% strike rate.


“I’m doing an awful lot wrong, amn’t I?”


But you would or could have had more winners.


“Of course you would. I can’t explain what Royal Caviar did and I’ve looked at it a good few times. I have no idea what he did. I’m full sure if he’d a blindfold on him he’d have made more of an effort. It was completely out of the blue. I wouldn’t even consider Nichols Canyon because he was just out on his feet. Augusta Kate clipped the top bar – novice, second run over hurdles, flat to the boards, those things can happen. What else?”


There was that run of them last year. Valseur Lido?


“I fell off him.”


The Yanks would always like the way he ‘owns’ his mistakes and wrong decisions. The Irish Gold Cup is one he’d like to have back but this is race-riding over jumps, not marbles. So he doesn’t fret too much.


Nor is he bothered by people on social media libelling him because they were stupid enough to risk €100 to win €40. But he is concerned by how Twitter in particular brings out the worst in people and worries about what lies ahead for his children when they’re teenagers.


“What did I hear on the radio this morning? Something like one in 10 kids experience cyber-bullying? 10 in 10 kids should (learn about) cyber-bullying before they even approach social media ‘cos that’s what’s going to happen.


“I’m 37. It has no real bearing on my life whether they’re saying I’m brilliant or horrific. I’d be more worried about my three kids and what they’re gonna face when they’re 17 or 18, or 15, 14, when they go on Twitter, what bullying goes on and how that will emotionally affect them. That would worry me much more, what might happen to them, than what any fucker is saying about me.


“Twitter is bullying. You see the awareness of it in schools, with the kids. They’re trying to stamp it out big time, make them aware of it. I’d be flicking through it. I have more lads blocked than I probably do following me. But you would have to wonder about the younger lads in the Weigh Room, and to me personally, I just worry about my kids and how it will be for them.”


Would it not rile you to have a guy saying you’re knocking the horses?


“How do you knock…? How does 10 stone knock…?”


He’s exasperated.


“I’m 64 kilos. Right? Give or take. And now I’m physically strong enough to knock 450 kilos? I can barely lift 110 or 115 kilos in a dead lift but I’m able to knock over 450? And who wants something eight times heavier than them falling on them at 30-odd miles an hour? Come on!”


There were those willing to say you knocked Annie Power.


“I could have ridden a four-timer at Cheltenham” comes the bemused and anguished response. “No-one has ever ridden four winners in one day at Cheltenham.


“A fucking four-timer. Would you stop? It’s fucking killing me.”


Context isn’t a fool-proof mechanism.


“I’d love to be able to figure it out. I’d love to never again have a fall. But that’s not going to happen, is it?”



 “I can barely lift 110 or 115 kilos in a dead lift but I’m able to knock over 450? And who wants something eight times heavier than them falling on them at 30-odd miles an hour? Come on!” (Photos: Caroline Norris)


****

 

IT SEEMS that ever since the Gigginstown contingent decamped for pastures new, Camp Closutton has endured its toughest period since making Everest its home – albeit while accumulating more than €2.9m in prizemoney in Ireland alone and sending out 142 winners as of Thursday morning.


“I still say Vautour was the biggest blow. That was freakish. He had had such a funny year last year. He won in Ascot but was only alright. I don’t think you saw a true performance in the King George. He only got beat a head but he never really sparked. He went to Cheltenham and yeah, he won well but to me he didn’t win as well as when he won the novice chase the year before. He beat the same horses but there was just no comparison.


“Then coming back in, looking so well, he seemed fresh and strong. He was just untapped potential. Faugheen is an injury. With a bit of luck you’ll have him back. Annie Power got to Cheltenham three times, won a Champion Hurdle. If she runs again, great. If she doesn’t, she’s gonna retire to stud. You’d love another go on her and I hope to God she runs again… but it’s different.


“That was the biggest blow.”


It was striking how in an interview with Donn McClean in Irish Racing Yearbook 2017, Walsh pinpointed Vautour as the one who might have been his next Kauto Star. Rather than, let’s say, Douvan.


“Maybe (it’s because) Douvan is so consistent. He never seems to have had an off-day. Vautour did. He scraped home in a novice hurdle one day at Punchestown and we had to put the squeezers on him in Leopardstown to win the Deloitte. Then he went to Cheltenham and bolted in and you’re thinking ‘My God!’


“Then you’re looking at him at home and he doesn’t work well. Then he works worse. Then he goes to Cheltenham and I’m thinking to myself ‘How is Willie Mullins even putting him on the horsebox?’ ‘Willie, come on, you’re having a laugh.’ At Cheltenham he comes alive and he’s prancing around the place but he’s a bit of a showboat anyway so it could just be that. Then he bolts in and you’re thinking ‘How good is this? He’s not even sparking and he does this?’


“Whereas Douvan is just Douvan. He’s never had an off-day. Bolted in at Gowran, bolted in at Punchestown, went to Cheltenham and hosed up. I don’t ever even remember Douvan working bad. Maybe you just expected it with him, whereas with Vautour, you never really knew what you had. There was the bad side but then there was that brilliance.”


Douvan was flawless once more at Punchestown, in his final prep run for Cheltenham, never touching a twig.


“He doesn’t. And you could go faster but…. I always look for the longevity in them, so I’m always trying to win doing as little as they can. It’s not a case of ticking the races off but you’re always keeping a bit if you can. Try and make these last as long as they possibly can because they’re so hard to find.


“I think I turned the screw once on Faugheen.”


He pauses.


“He didn’t run since.”


Longevity isn’t just the key to a horse’s greatness. That applies to riders too. Walsh stumbled across weights when rehabbing his reconstructed shoulder two years ago and works weekly with Enda King at the Santry Sports Surgery Clinic. He also has a routine at home.


“I am definitely stronger, and fitter a different way. When I was riding for Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins and riding seven days a week I was as fit as a flea. But... having to rebuild that shoulder to make it work again, I realised what rehab was. I started in Santry with Enda King and I remember coming back thinking I was almost a different shape.


“But I had all those things in my head. You hear stories. ‘Don’t lift weights, muscle is weight.’ It’s a load of shite. You’re not lifting huge, heavy weights. It’s lighter weights, higher repetition and understanding then how all the muscles in your body work, and why you get pains in different places is because you’re compensating with one muscle is doing a job another muscle should be doing. Instead of using your shoulder blades, you’re using the muscles below it. And all of a sudden you realise, if I stick at this, things might happen.


“I definitely feel...” He searches for the word. “Harder.”


He likes the idea of the jockey pathway that Turf Club duo Dr Adrian McGoldrick and Dr SarahJane Cullen have established for apprentices and conditionals, in a bid to make them think of themselves as elite athletes, but admits that a young Ruby Walsh would have been too immature to listen. Not even the grown-up Walsh will listen to anyone attempting to change his diet however, because what he does works for him.


“I eat twice a day and I only eat twice a day, apart from holidays, when I might eat a third time, but I’ll see it on the scales when I come home… And every dietitian in the world will tell you, you have to have breakfast to get the metabolism going, you should eat little and often. Maybe you should. But I know my weight doesn’t budge a pound one way or the other… I’ll either be 10 stone or 10-1 when I get up in the morning. On a bad day I’ll be 10-2, on a good day I’ll be 9-13. So that’s the extent of the variation.”


When his great mate AP McCoy retired, the Ulsterman said that he had run out of goals. Walsh doesn’t set targets, doesn’t look to the future. He says he doesn’t know his numbers and was surprised to learn that he had 195 Grade 1 victories to his name. Just to put that into context, an admittedly perfunctory search has failed to find anyone else on the planet with more than Barry Geraghty’s 105. McCoy had 84, Paul Carberry 58. Richard Johnson has 36. Reaching 200 would, he admits, be nice, particularly if it were to happen in Cheltenham. Last week’s blank at Leopardstown has made the task a little more difficult.


“I was a trainer’s son before I was ever a jockey. I can go back as far as Barney Burnett getting a leg. From a superstar novice in 1985, getting a touch of a leg in ’86… he came back and won a Leopardstown Chase and was placed in an Irish National after but he never came back the same horse.


“Since I was seven, I’m looking at this. ‘What can go wrong?’ Rince Ri, Commanche Court… I know what can go wrong. I’ve seen it all my life. All the highs I’ve had in racing, I know how lucky am. Because racing is a culmination of lows, with a few highs.”


He’s smiling as he speaks because racing has ever been thus. And he knows that most of his weigh room colleagues would like to have his problems.


“We have Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag, Djakadam, Un De Sceaux, Yorkhill, Bellshill, Let’s Dance, Limini… there’s loads of good horses.


“Now, whatever way you look at it, a couple of your champions aren’t there. Annie, Faugheen, Vautour – right, Min is a novice who would have had to take on Altior but you would have like to have gone to Cheltenham with your gun loaded to take on Altior.


“But what probably comes then with success is greed” he emphasises the word with a grin. “You want more. Alright, the Supreme, we have one for that. The Arkle? Fucking hell. Alright, the Champion Hurdle. Ah fucking hell, Cheltenham’s over!”


Scrap the whole thing! If you didn’t have the hunger still, you would be retire, wouldn’t you?


“Would I? I don’t know.”


Could you see yourself tipping along?


“Tipping along on bad horses?”


I couldn’t see that.


“No!”


What I’m trying to say is that champions have a drive and they pack it in when they don’t feel it anymore.


RUBY WALSH - THE WINNERS

Total: 2643

Ireland NH – 1850

Ireland Flat – 14

GB NH – 766

France – 10

Japan, US, Australia – 1 each

Grade 1s: 195 (a world record for NH jockeys)

(correct as of Friday, February 17, 2017)


DOUVAN

“Poor old Douvan doesn’t realise the pressure he is under! He looks great.”



 

YORKHILL (above)

“I wouldn’t get off him for anything else. (The last day was) typical Yorkhill. Take out his beginners’ chase and I don’t know how he ended up winning so far… probably ‘cos they were just an ordinary bunch of horses. He won a bumper two and a quarter lengths with Patrick at Punchestown; he’s down the straight flogging him and he couldn’t pull him up. That’s just him.”


“I think the JLT is the obvious race… I’d say he has the pace but could I see him dropping back (in trip)? I don’t know. It’ll all depends…. As true as God I’ll say he’ll run in the JLT and he’ll run in the Arkle. At this stage I’m used to being wrong!”


What about jumping left?


“Ah he’ll be grand. He’ll be fine.”

 

UN DE SCEAUX

“He doesn’t probably get the real testing ground that he likes in England and it’s his ability to go good-ground speed on soft ground that sets him apart. Horses can’t keep up. They can’t keep coming at him. And he keeps going. He’s a wonderful little horse.


“He does have the option at Cheltenham on drier ground to go up in trip. Drier ground doesn’t affect his jumping but he just doesn’t go much quicker, whereas unfortunately a horse like Sprinter Sacre, Douvan, they just have too many gears. In fairness, he was gaining ground on Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham last year but he just couldn’t go. You just think if you’re going a little further, you won’t be getting off the bridle as early and he’ll still be going the same speed.”

 

DJAKADAM

“I gave him a bollix of a ride the last day. I should have made more use of him. He was keen and I allowed slow horses to dictate the race to me. He was too free and then when he spat it out, it was too late. Then you’re trying to give him a chance when I should have been getting into the race. I did everything back to front. But it was coming off a quick turnaround for a big, staying horse like him.


“His two Gold Cup runs are rock solid. When you think last year at the end of January he got a bad fall and a bad cut on his chest. It didn’t hold him up, we didn’t think but you’d be hoping with a clearer run you could get him a bit better… you have to think as an eight-year-old he has to be better than he was as a six-year-old but does he have to improve that much?”

 

VROUM VROUM MAG

“She fell in at Doncaster. I don’t think she sparked in Fairyhouse either. People say I was too far back on her. I think she was just a bit keen but she got there to win. Now Apple’s Jade was hard fit and she’s a very good mare. I thought going to the last I was gonna win. I knew when I landed I was up and down a bit. She didn’t spark. With a bit of luck we’ll get her back into the same form she was in last spring. Then she’ll be hard to beat. The Mares’ Hurdle would look the obvious race.”

 

MELON

“Melon only won a maiden but couldn’t have been any more impressive. He’s skimpy enough mind at 3/1. What price was Vautour when he won the Supreme?”


He looks it up. 7/2.


“You mean to tell me a horse with one run over hurdles is gonna be 3/1 in the first race on the first day at Cheltenham? Now maybe they have massive liabilities at 25/1, I don’t know. Vautour had won a maiden hurdle at Navan, the hurdle race that Crack Mome got beat in at Punchestown, and then he won the Deloitte. He had three wins and a Grade 1 and he went off 7/2 joint favourite with Irving. Now, you explain to me how Melon can be 3/1 after winning a maiden?”

 

THE TINGLE CREEK FURORE

“To me the point was, before there was entries, someone thought Douvan wasn’t gonna run, so they priced him at 5/1. Now that person, to me, is committing fraud, because he’s trying to lay a horse he thinks is not gonna run. That’s how I looked at it.


“So now, all of a sudden, Willie Mullins enters Douvan. Billy Big Balls, who has tried to rob a few quid…


… is bricking it.


“Yeah, and has to try and lay it back off. Now he doesn’t have a clue but he doesn’t want to be laying Douvan at 5/1 because he’s a 2/1 shot as an entry; he’s a 1/3 shot if he’s declared… Then you had bookmakers coming along saying ‘the right people’ were on. Will someone tell me who the right people are?


“Maybe someone within the bookmaking game can tell me… before entries, do you multiply the price by the probability by something else? Maybe it ends up at 5/1… I can’t see it does, 1/3 multiplied by whatever. I think whoever was laying him was laying him thinking he was a non-runner. Now he ended up a non-runner so ultimately they were right, but regardless of whether they were right or wrong, they were laying a horse they thought wasn’t going to run and I think that’s wrong. If they thought he wasn’t going to run he shouldn’t have been in the betting. That’s having your cake and eating it, with ice cream and whipped cream and all the rest on top of it.”

 

WILLIE MULLINS’S PROCESS

“It’s just what he sees. Sometimes he’ll say ‘That’s a Supreme horse’ and then one morning he’ll see something and say ‘That’s a stayer’ or ‘He wants to be going a bit slower jumping, step him up in trip’ or he might think ‘Bring that back in trip, that can jump at speed.’ That’s what he did with Black Hercules, even though he fell in Navan. He knew the way he attacked a fence coming back to 2m 5f for the JLT would suit. He looks at different things.


“And he’s not afraid, which is important for any sportsperson. He’s not afraid of being wrong. He’ll leave it to the last minute, weight it up, weigh it down, put himself under unbelievable pressure but when he makes the decision, the decision is made.


“He does the declarations at 10 to 10. There’s no point in doing them at half nine because he could change his mind again at 10 to 10. He does them late because as he says, it doesn’t give him time to change his mind. He makes the decision and that’s it.


“‘When do we have to decide that?’ is the most common question. He plays it over, mulls it around and kicks it about until he has to decide.”


This article appeared in The Irish Field on February 18, 2017.

Cooper's Choice

Posted on 9 March, 2017 at 11:10

BRYAN Cooper seems to have been around a long time but one look at the cherubic face and you are reminded that he is only 23, giving the greater part of 15 years to the best of his contemporaries on both sides of the Irish Sea, Paul Townend excepted.



(Photos: Caroline Norris)


He has packed a remarkable amount into a very short period since riding Rossdara, trained by his father Tom, to record his first win on October 29, 2009. Cliché merchants (Heaven forbid) might describe it as a rollercoaster, given the polar extremities of his fortunes.


The three Cheltenham Festival successes on board Benefficient, Our Conor and Ted Veale in 2013 catapulted him into public consciousness, with the pair of triumphs via First Lieutenant and Special Tiara at Aintree the following month confirming the arrival of a new star.


The Tralee native quickly became the punters’ darling and the O’Learys took notice, offering him the job as retained rider for all Gigginstown House Stud horses at the beginning of 2014.


The knives invariably came out as apart from riding plenty of winners, Cooper inevitably got it wrong at times as he learned his trade in the shiniest of glares – a trade where it is impossible to make the correct split-second call all the time anyway. Choosing the wrong Gigginstown horse incorrectly also brought some negative press, ironically so, given that he was the beneficiary on a number of occasions when his predecessor, Davy Russell suffered a similar fate.


Worse was to come though, as he suffered what Turf Club chief medical officer Dr Adrian McGoldrick described as “the worst fracture I have ever seen in a lower limb.” When his long-time mentor Dessie Hughes died, he was at a low ebb and the paralysis suffered by his housemate and great friend Robbie McNamara in a fall at Wexford did nothing to help drag himself out of the mental mire.


But a combination of good advice, surrounding himself with good people, growing maturity and some belated good luck on the injury front has sparked the best run of his career, where after Sunday’s racing, he was already just one shy of his best seasonal tally of 61.


When No More Heroes bolted up in the Drinmore Chase, he was providing his young navigator with a 21st Grade 1 success. Consider that it took AP McCoy an entire career to tally 84 and it puts such an achievement into particular perspective.


Ironically, McCoy’s last top-flight success came in the Melling Chase last April on none other than Don Cossack. Gordon Elliott’s charge is a probably the most jewel-encrusted of the treasure trove at Cooper’s disposal, although there are three other major Gold Cup prospects too.



Don Cossack winning the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal in November 2015


Certainly, Don Cossack is the highest profile of the quartet and while Valseur Lido also looks bound for the King George VI Chase at Kempton, there is absolutely no doubting which conveyance Cooper will be legged up on. With the absence of Coneygree – whose performance in last year’s Gold Cup Cooper considers the best he has seen – the eight-year-old is the one to beat.


“Three miles around Kempton looks tailormade for him” says Cooper. “I think he’s very special. Bar Cheltenham, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. I think Gordon is doing the right thing in going to Kempton and he’s the one they all have to beat. Vautour has questions about going that way and will he stay that trip. (Don Cossack) is the only one who’s done everything asked of him. He stays, he jumps.


“If you look back to his first run this year at Punchestown, what I was trying to do was not set him alight. When you get him into a jumping mode, he’s very good and gains lengths. He’s got speed but he’s proven he does stay as well. Whether he’ll stay the 3m 2f at Cheltenham is another thing, as it turns into a slog, but he’s done it everywhere else. He ticks all the right boxes.”


Cooper admits that he had lost some faith in the Sholokhov gelding and lays the credit for how fortunes have improved since at the door of the trainer, who’s been proven “dead right” in his long-voiced enthusiasm about the horse.


Don Cossack is nowhere near as hard on himself now as he used to and Cooper reveals that that they have learned how to ride him now. There are no concerns either about the suitability of Cheltenham despite a fall on his first outing and the third last March in the Ryanair Chase when favourite.


“He made a bad mistake at a wrong point. Things were just starting to pick up and I went from having the best possible position in the race, in third down the inner, to fifth on the wide outside. It was just one split-second thing.


“Richie McLernon squeezed me out of it in second last – it wouldn’t have cost me the win, I wouldn’t have got there in time, but I would have been second. I probably should have came around him but you learn from your mistakes.


“Bar that, he fell the year before but every horse is entitled to fall once. I remember before Cheltenham people were saying he was different going left-handed but then he won by 23 lengths at Aintree.”


The manner in which he flew up the hill after the last “didn’t look great from my point of view” but suggested plenty of determination as well as staying power. Who would he ride if the Gold Cup were tomorrow though?


“It’s hard. People keep asking me can you compare any of them but every single one of them is different. Don (Cossack) is classy. Don Poli is lazy, never impresses you, looks like he’ll get beat every day. Sir Des Champs was quite impressive in his first run back (after 692 days on the sidelines) and Road To Riches is a relentless galloper and jumper. They’re four completely different types of horses.


“There isn’t many horses that have done what (Road To Riches) has done. I’d imagine he’ll go for the Lexus maybe. If he comes out, he’s gonna run a good race. If the Gold Cup was run on Thursday before the rain came he would have beat them all. I still genuinely believe that. He was the one that would have handled the good ground. Djakadam would have ran but mightn’t have been as good on it and Coneygree mightn’t even have ran.


“I’ve built a lot of confidence riding (Don Poli). I learnt a lot about him in Aintree. You can’t get to the front too soon on him because he’ll pull up. Once you can keep on tabs with another horse, you know that he’s gonna keep finding. He jumps, he stays really well. He’s not slow. He’s just more lazy than anything else. But again, he will have to be on top of his game if he shows up for the Gold Cup.


“It’s exciting times.”


Certainly, the outlook is more positive than when he suffered that horrible compound fracture in his right leg in Cheltenham 21 months ago. His tibia and fibula were broken, bone punctured the skin and there were multiple fragments of bone floating around as well. Having already fractured his left femur, it was incredible bad luck.


“The first time I came back, I flew straight away. I’d 50-odd winners ridden, I got the Gigginstown job in the New Year and I only had it (less than) three months when I broke my leg in Cheltenham.


“That was a bit worse. Lying in hospital, I wasn’t sure… at the end of the day, it’s a business to Gigginstown. They had no reason to hold onto me. They could have moved on and got someone else because they knew it would be a long time before I was back.


“The hardest part was when I came out of the theatre. I’d an eight-hour operation on the Friday. I looked at the results and saw I’d missed three winners. Even through the pain. You get over the physical pain but it’s more the mental pain you have to deal with is harder. A lot of thoughts went through the head then. ‘What am I going to do? I’m gonna be out for so long?’ It wasn’t a fun time to be honest with you.”


Michael O’Leary was quick to assuage those fears, promising that the job would be there even if it took a year to return. From that point on, it was about being patient and working hard to be ready.


“My third or fourth ride back was Don Cossack in Punchestown. That wouldn’t be long bringing you back into the swing of it again. At that stage, he was kind of forgotten about having had a lot to prove. He bolted up that day. I came back on the 14th of October and absolutely flew. I was riding winners every day of the week. I went from the bottom of the table to third in the space of a month. That’s where I was very lucky to have the job.”


It is noticeable how Cooper, like all the top pilots, is his own worst critic and readily admits to situations where he could have done better. Unfortunately, too many armchair riders that frequent forums and Twitter demand omnipotence. This is an era unfortunately, where one well known jockey had a death threat delivered to his home via a phone call after a very high profile defeat. Little wonder Cooper, once a regular interactor with the public on Twitter, now uses it merely to catch up on the news.


“From last January onwards, when I started picking a few of the wrong horses, had one or two bad rides, getting beaten on Don Cossack in Cheltenham… I got a lot of abuse but I basically laughed it off. At the end of the day, to me they’re people sitting on a bar stool probably drinking and punting their dole money.


“I wrote back to one lad one day with a bit of a rant and said something like that to them. Ruby (Walsh) said to block them, you’re better off not engaging them. That was good advice that stood to me. There isn’t a day go by where you wouldn’t have the odd eejit say something.


“There were times when it would get you down a bit. But the way I looked at it is I was getting beat on one but I was going out and winning on the next one. You just have to put it behind you.”


Initially, he didn’t feel the weight of having to pick between two or three quality animals. That pressure grew though, particularly when he watched one of his discards flying away from him to the winning post. He admits that there are still “days you go home and just throw stuff around the place” but insists that the O’Learys, Elliott and especially his agent Kevin O’Ryan provide important equilibrium.


O’Ryan came on board as his agent last August but he fulfils a broader role, taking on the position of chief adviser left vacant by the man who had taught Cooper almost everything he knew about race-riding and been his counsellor throughout that development.


“He was a rider himself, he knows everyone and he’s very good with the form which is a big help. If you did something wrong he’d be the first one (to tell you). I remember a maiden hurdle in Downpatrick and Ruby outrode me. I rode a horse called John Monash and I should have won. I got caught in a pocket and left myself open. Ruby kept me in, good riding by him. Kevin was the first one to text me.


“You need someone like that. Before Dessie passed away I had him and then you were left on your own. Obviously Dad is very good to me but you can hang up the phone on Dad if he starts roaring and shouting. You need someone there to keep you on your toes the whole time. Every day you go out you need to improve on something.


“It was hard enough (when Dessie died). If you gave a horse a bad ride, you could go back to him and he’d give you confidence. Even when I got the Gigginstown job, he stayed supporting me and gave me first choice of all his horses, which was unbelievable. I probably wouldn’t have got the job only for him.


“It was just a big loss not having him there. It was hard enough to deal with because I was there since I was 16. He was like a second father. It probably only really hit me after Christmas as things flew until then, I’d a great Christmas, and then when things got hard, you’d come back home and think ‘Jesus, who do I go talk to here?’ But you have to get on with it.”


McNamara’s injury also hit hard.


“It was a shock because he was a good help to me always. I was telling myself he’d be grand, he’d be fine, he’d come around but it hit me then after Punchestown. We still keep in contact. He’s only living five minutes over the road so we still have the craic. Obviously I still treat him the same. You don’t want to be moping around him. He’d tell you get out fairly quick if you were.”


Cooper has written a lot of headlines but was the focus of attention for an unusual reason when he came to Robbie Power’s rescue at Gowran Park last month following an incident that could have gone nastily for his weighing room comrade. He was embarrassed by the fuss.


“It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a jockey. His foot was screwed… I was trying to get his leg out. I remember trying to lift him up and saying ‘Jeez, you’re as fat as fuck!’ When people came, I was able to get it out but if I didn’t catch him he was gone because his foot wasn’t just stuck in the iron, it was twisted around the leather. He would have been in a spot of bother. He was very lucky.”


Interestingly, with his father struggling for winners, Cooper has a bird’s eye view of both sides of the equation when it comes to the debate on the dominance of the few. His father is working on building a new team with a band of young horses but the days of Forpadydeplasterer and Total Enjoyment, who Cooper led up after winning the Champion Bumper seem a distant memory.


He is extremely thankful and not complaining, given that he is employed so gainfully by Gigginstown, but the competitiveness of the game will more than likely put him off training. What he describes a few times as “the job” has given him a real crack at the jockeys’ championship, even though Walsh has his own war chest.


“At the start of the year it was an aim to go for the championship. Well first it was to stay injury-free, get a clear run and get through the summer. But it is always in the back of the head because I have that big, high profile job. I’ve got the best horses in Ireland and England to ride. Look, I won’t start thinking about it properly until we get closer to Punchestown but at the same time, it’s still in the back of my mind. If you can stay within seven or eight or 10 of him the whole time, anything can happen. But I would love to be champion jockey.”


PANEL

Identity Thief

“We were going into unknown territory (in the Fighting Fifth). I rode him in the Deloitte last year after he won his maiden hurdle at Christmas in Leopardstown and I thought he’d win. I always had it in my mind that he was a very good horse. He’s probably still going to have to improve another good bit to be good enough to beat the likes of Nichols Canyon and Faugheen but there is a spot there to fill in the places. Besides them two, it doesn’t look as strong. Our lad is only five, so he’s going to improve. He’s definitely worth taking his chance in the race.”


No More Heroes

“He’s been very impressive. We always thought he was gonna be a chaser. What he did in Fairyhouse was very good. He jumped really well. He stays forever so the step up to three miles won’t be a problem but I think we saw a horse last week who could really trouble him. That’s Pont Alexandre. I think he looked really special and if he comes back as good the next day, he could be the one to put it up to him.”


Novice hurdlers

“Tombstone looks pretty smart from the time he won his bumper. Tycoon Prince will be fine. He’s a big, big horse. A chaser. Whatever we see him do this year, it’ll be a bonus. He won’t be knocked about. But I think Tombstone has a big future and looked very smart in his maiden hurdle. He might go for the two mile at Christmas and see if he is a two-miler. If not, we can step him up as he stays as well. Petit Mouchoir was quite impressive as well but of course they can all be impressive in maiden hurdles. They have to step up because the novices are so strong.”


Alpha Des Obeaux

“He’s gonna stay over hurdles so I’d say the three mile race at Christmas will be right up his alley. He’ll improve a lot from his first run when he was second (to Arctic Fire) in Fairyhouse. He ran a cracker. We left him open to plenty of improvement. There’s a big opening for a nice horse in that division ‘cos there’s nothing that stands out. If you look back at Alpha’s form, it’s probably as good as any novice around. He was second to Douvan, second to Black Hercules and second to Nichols Canyon over two miles, two-and-a-half and three. He was a horse form Day One when I sat on him in Gordon’s as a four-year-old that I felt had a big future.”


This article was commissioned by and appeared in The Irish Field in December 2015.

Johnny Martyn: "I want to finish on my own terms"

Posted on 9 March, 2017 at 10:55

“OH FOR fuck’s sake. Not again.”


When you are a 34-year-old inter-county footballer recognising the symptoms of a stroke, having suffered another 18 months previously and had heart surgery on a small hole in your heart to prevent a recurrence, you are bound to be a tad peeved.


Annoyed is the word Johnny Martyn uses now, with delicious understatement.


The Sligo defender is matter-of-fact about the chain of events looking back but in the hours after that second stroke, he wondered what the future might hold for him. Was he a busted flush?


What is fascinating, as much as anything else though, is that the adjective ‘former’ cannot be employed to describe him as a player. Not yet. This is despite the fact that while is isn’t noticeable, he says he is aware that his speech can still slur at times.


He has friends that think he is certifiable but if the medics give him the all-clear, he will have no qualms about putting on the boots again and pushing himself to the brink of physical exhaustion, pressuring the major organs once more.


Two strokes and a stint in his heart be damned. If Professor Peter Kelly says he can go, he won’t think twice. That might even be with Sligo again. It might not but choosing the terms and conditions of retirement would be nice.


It isn’t always possible of course. So if he’s kicked his last ball in anger, and in joy, he won’t curl up in a ball. He will move on with his life. There is plenty to do.


And sure isn’t he lucky enough to be walking around at all?


 

****


 

MARTYN was feeling good. He had missed the guts of the past two seasons with Sligo due to the stroke that buckled him like a bolder to the back of the head one night in training before a qualifier against Cork in July 2014, the subsequent operation and the ankle ligaments that ruptured the following year.


He looked on as his teammates stunned Roscommon to reach the Connacht final and if Mayo and the occasion proved too much in the decider, he was delighted that they showed their true mettle by asking serious questions of Tyrone in the last round of qualifiers.


There was no way he was going to be forced out of the game if he could help it and having inspired St Mary’s to their first county championship in 14 years, wasn’t about to turn down Sligo manager, Niall Carew’s invitation to return.


Carew and his backroom staff stepped up the level of training in what was their second year of management and he loved it. It was the fittest he had ever been, despite being at an age when most players had packed in the county scene. Having seen it all since getting his first call-up in 2003, he was excited about what the next 12 months held for him and Sligo.


So when Carew gave him the nod to start warming up during an FBD League game against Leitrim last January, he bounced out of the dugout. The enthusiasm quickly waned when after a couple of gentle jogs up and down the sideline in Ballinamore, lightning struck once more.


“Oh for fuck’s sake. Not again.”


Horrified, he knew he was in trouble but in a strange way, suspecting what was occuring helped. Initially anyway.


“I had the same symptoms” recalls Martyn. “I couldn’t believe it was happening again. I dunno did I start bringing myself around? I sat back in the dugout and the doctor came over and I came around a lot quicker. I don’t know if me knowing what was going on made any difference or not. Just that it was a smaller one really.


“I think at the time, the fact I knew what was happening calmed me a bit more. But later on that night and down the line it worried me a lot more. ‘How is this happening again?’ ‘Why?’


“It was over quick and there wasn’t time to think about it but when I was being brought to the hospital things were going through my head. ‘Would I have to have another operation?’ ‘Would I be able to play football again?’”


He speaks of feeling embarrassed as the disorientation set in and his mouth began to droop. There weren’t many people around but he didn’t want them to see his discomfort, which is why he made his way to the dugout. Having been down this road, he was expecting the symptoms to deteriorate and was desperate to find some cover.


“It’s kind of hard to explain. Even the doctors were asking me. It’s a weird feeling and hard to describe. It’s like a rush through your body and face. You know something’s not right. It gradually gets worse and worse.


“The first time, one of the lads came up to me to ask me about a drill we were doing and I couldn’t get the words out. I started panicking then. One of the lads came with me and took me to the side. All the lads were looking at me and that nearly made it worse. I got pins and needles then.


“The second time, my whole jaw got pins and needles, like you were at the dentist but I could still talk to the doctor. The first time the speech was gone completely.”


No cause has been unearthed as yet for the latest event. The stint inserted in his heart is in perfect working order and that has been ruled out as a problem.


MRIs taken after each stroke revealed a huge difference in their severity. The first one left a large scarring on the brain. The latest, was minimal and that tallies with how Martyn felt at the time. But, it still happened.


“The doctor said the procedure I got to get it fixed the last time, there was a one per cent chance of it happening again through that. So obviously it’s not because of the hole in the heart. It’s a different reason why it happened.


“In one way it’s good to know that that’s not the problem and it’s grand. But the annoying thing now is why? Why did it happen again?

“I thought it was meant to be fixed, you know?”


Professor Kelly is one of leading consultants in the country, who has worked with rugby and NFL players, but so far he hasn’t been able to find an answer to the conundrum.


“He hasn’t seen a case like this so he’s eager to find out.”


As Johnny is himself but he places his trust firmly in the hands of the medical people.


Meanwhile, he has recently returned to work as an advertising salesman with The Sligo Champion and was glad to get back into the routine. The minute glitch in his speech bothers him but other than that, it represents another step on the road back to normality.


 

****


 

WHEN Carew called him up a couple of weeks later to come back in, he was delighted. The Kildare native had been close by when Martyn began feeling unwell and was shaken by it. Once he knew the full-back was okay, he wanted to keep him involved. It would go down well with the panel, of course, and the supporters. But ultimately, it was the right thing to do and it has proven a far more meaningful involvement than any charitable gesture.


Martyn appreciates it and the arrangement has worked out wonderfully. He had always anticipated moving into coaching/management once his playing days were over, at whatever level possible, and is emboldened by his involvement of the past month or so.


“It was huge” he acknowledges. “I hadn’t chatted to (Carew) since it happened. He was actually the first person to see me the second time it happened. He got an awful shock; he told me he thought I was having a heart attack. I could see it in his face, he was worried.


“So I met him and he said he’d love to see me getting involved. I thought it would be great because I didn’t want to step away. I got on well with the lads and Niall, Roli (Ronan Sweeney) and the rest of the management are great fellas.


“To be fair, I didn’t know what to expect, what they wanted me to do. I thought it would be to do the water or something like that but he’s got me hands-on, watching videos of teams. I’d be giving the defenders advice, telling them about the opposition forwards.


“For the Clare game I was up in the stand with the earpiece. Then I was down on the sideline with Roli and Niall was up in the stand. It’s good. It’s a real, proper involvement.”


The players have responded to last year’s progress and flourished under an even more testing regime. The League is difficult though, with the enforced absences of the likes of Adrian Marren, Mark Breheny and of course himself, while David Kelly and Ross Donovan have stepped away due to personal commitments.


With one win from three, relegation is an unwanted spectre. It is a fate they are desperate to avoid but it might have been an even worse prospect if the GAA’s central council had somehow managed to get the B Championship on the calendar.


Martyn, like most players, wasn’t in favour of the proposal. He was around when the Tommy Murphy Cup was introduced. In that inaugural campaign of 2004, the response was lukewarm at best.


Sligo reached the final under the stewardship of midfielder Paul Durcan despite the manager James Kerins and a number of players, including Martyn, making themselves unavailable. He argues that it would have been more of the same had central council not heeded the warnings.


“I’d be in favour of keeping provincial structure in place and I’d be selfish in a way. For Sligo to win a Connacht title is like winning the All-Ireland and we’ve more chance of winning that. To take that away…”


He pauses.


“I know it’s hard at the moment with Mayo so strong but we’re still only one game away from playing in a Connacht final. That’s selfish as a man from Sligo. If you look at the likes of Antrim, or a team in Leinster, it’s different but that’s my view on things.”


A Connacht championship winner in 2007, Martyn’s views neatly encapsulate the inequitable nature of the system of course, and why it should be dispensed with as a qualification process to an All-Ireland series. He doesn’t hide from the fact that geography makes it easier for some counties than others but as he benefits, he wants the status quo to remain.


That’s the problem in solving the problem.


“Exactly.”


Would the provincial championships be devalued if they were retained as separate entities, with no connection to the All-Ireland series? Again, Martyn doesn’t pretend to have a solution.


“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. My view on it is that the more games you play the better, however they’re going to do that. When you’re playing for Sligo, you’ve only three or four home games a year. You could have three home games in the League and one in the Championship and that’s it. That’s not enough.”


Whatever about the structure, Sligo are doing a lot to help themselves now. Last year was good but it is coming as a result of investment and good structures at county, club and schools levels. The development squads are competing well, the minors only lost last year’s Connacht final to Galway after a replay, while Summerhill College and St Attracta’s will become the first team from the county to win the Connacht senior A schools’ title in 31 years when they compete in the colleges’ championship final at Markievicz Park today.


Added to that, the centre of excellence at Scarden is a facility that screams high performance and ambition.


“They’ve just gotten a new gym in there as well and it’s top of the range. It’s just a pity is coming around now and not three or four years ago! But it’s great to see and it’s only going to bring on Sligo football.”


 

****


 

BEING single probably makes it easier to consider playing again. Some friends are telling him to cop on, while his parents are keeping their opinions to themselves. Ironically, his mother was visiting his granny in Sligo General Hospital when he arrived in. At one stage, his aunt was also in a ward and it was like a reunion.


“I’d have friends outside football and friends in football. The friends not involved in football would say it’s time to hang up the boots but to be fair, my mum and dad would be big GAA people so they’re kind of on the fence. Mum goes to every game. She’d prefer to see me not playing but at the same time, she knows how involved I am. She gets it. She hasn’t said much on it.”


He is not going to be foolish though. He will only do it if given a clean bill of health. It’s in the hands of the experts.


“It’s a tough one. I suppose it all depends on what the doctor says. I was in Dublin there a couple of weeks ago just to chat to him. He said that that the moment I couldn’t do anything because of the medication I was on and that he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He didn’t rule out that I would ever play again so that gave me hope. I was going up to Dublin thinking ‘If he says I can’t play again, that’s it, I’ll have to deal with it.’


“But I’d missed most of last year through injury, which was a bit annoying. So I said I’d go back and give it one last year. Niall was keen to get me back in so I said I’d give it a go. I was flying. I was fitter than I ever was at this time of the year.


“If the doctor said, ‘You’ll have to take it easy for a while’ and I can’t play for Sligo, so be it. But if I could play for the club that would be great. You can play with the club ‘til you’re 38 or 39.”


He will stay in the game regardless but if that thumbs up comes, there will be no hesitation. No second-guessing.


“Not one bit. I’d be mad to go back playing.”


This article was commissioned by and appeared in the Irish Examiner in June 2016

 


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