Daragh Ó Conchúir
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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.

Categories: Flagged, Horse Racing

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