ARE you retiring?” J.P. asks me as we step out onto the balcony of his box.

There’s still a few hours to go before the first race of the day and Punchestown is quiet, starting to come to life.

I can understand why he’s asking. I’ve heard the rumours too. Punchestown is the final fixture of the Irish racing season every year. I’m 38 years old, rising 39, and I’ve been at this a long time. The end of a campaign is a natural full stop and people have started to put two and two together on my behalf.

Just the other day, Warren Ewing, a good friend of mine who I own a few horses with, heard someone mention it and called me to see if there was any truth to the rumour, slagging that he’d be the last to know.

I tell J.P. exactly what I told Warren – absolutely not, I have no intention of walking away just yet. “No, I’m not retiring,” I assure him.

“So what’s your plan for next season?” J.P. asks.

“Jesus, no plan.”

“Lot of talk you’re going to retire,” he says.

“No, not at all,” I assure him, and that’s when the bomb goes off and 26 April 2018 is drawn as a line in the story of my career.

“Some of the trainers aren’t happy with how you’re riding,” he tells me. “We’re not going to have a first jockey next season.” There’s only a couple of feet between us, and we’re out here alone, so there’s no fear of me mishearing him; as far as I’m concerned, I’m sacked.

J.P. doesn’t use that word – it’s a bit more vague than that – but whatever the words, it amounts to the same thing. From this point on, I’m no longer his first jockey.

“How do you feel you’re riding?” he asks me. How do I feel I’m riding? It’s only six weeks since I won the Champion Hurdle – that’s what I want to say, what I should say, but I’m too shocked to answer. I can’t make sense of this at all.

Fight my corner

With the exception of the two wins at Cheltenham, there’s no disguising the fact that we haven’t had the success that we might have liked this season. But if now’s the time to start dissecting what went right and what went wrong, or if certain trainers are hanging me out to dry, I’m ready to fight my corner.

I’ll either back the decisions I’ve made in a race and defend them to the hilt or, if I know I’m in the wrong, I’ll hold my hands up, apologise and move on. That’s always been my way. I ask J.P. if this has anything to do with the horses that I’ve pulled up but he assures me it doesn’t.

That’s the most obvious criticism that I’ve had to deal with from punters and pundits over the last few months. Every time I pull up a horse, it seems to become a talking point. The stewards called me in to explain one of my rides in Fairyhouse at Easter. It was noted again in the media during Aintree when I pulled up Le Prezien. It’s a stick that’s been used to beat me for as long as I’ve been riding – Geraghty pulls them up too easily – but I’ve no problem with that.

When we’re out there in the thick of it and it’s just the two of us, I know the horse I’m sitting on. Everybody else might think they know better, but they’re working from incomplete information. They’re only guessing. But I know. I’ve never been that insecure, that cold or uncaring, that I’d need to give a horse a hard race, beat him through the last half-mile, so that I can come back into the parade ring and wash my hands of it.

There has to be a duty of care there too; a horse deserves better than that. If we’re not going forward, if he’s not able to race competitively any more, I’ll pull him up.

Only yesterday, I pulled up Demi Sang, and nobody can tell me that it wasn’t the right thing to do. He got the life frightened out of him at Cheltenham and as soon as we jumped off yesterday, I knew that he still wasn’t over it.

He panicked at the first fence, dived out to the left, and my saddle slipped. After that, the best I could do was to forget about winning the race for the moment and concentrate on getting him back jumping to build up a bit of confidence. I got him back onto some kind of an even keel and then, rather than run the risk of undoing all the good work when he was tired late on, I pulled him up with three fences left.

We're not going to have a first jockey next season. I want to give the other ads a chance.

I ducked out before the bumper, the last race, to beat the traffic and I phoned J.P. from the car on the way home. It was a quick call. I only had a handful of rides, and only two for him, Demi Sang and one other. There wasn’t much to say so there wasn’t much said. I didn’t think anything of it as we finished our call and he asked me to call up to his box before racing for a chat.

Cup of tea

There’s certainly nothing unusual in the two of us having a cup of tea and a chat, but it’s obvious now that this isn’t one of those chats.

Some of the trainers aren’t happy with how you’re riding.

Those words hang in the air. That’s the crux of it. Whether I’m retiring or not is immaterial, it seems. “I want to give the other lads a chance next season,” J.P. explains, but my head is spinning. Where does all of this leave me?

He indicates that I can still ride some in England, keep going with Buveur D’Air and five or six others that Nicky trains for him, but beyond that, I don’t really know where I stand any more. I’m sure J.P. is expecting me to put up a bit more of an argument but I’m stunned and all I can manage is silence. I put down my cup and turn for the door.

“Prove them wrong,” he challenges me before I leave. “Prove them wrong.”

“I don’t know what to say to you,” I tell him. “A cup of tea at Punchestown is a dangerous thing.”

I don’t know where to go. If I go down to the weighroom, it won’t take a second for somebody to notice that my head is gone. I don’t want to speak to anyone. All I want is to be left alone, and the best way to do that is to hide in plain sight. I walk out onto the track and ring Paula.

I muddle my way through the story of what happened, try to make sense of what J.P. said by reconstructing it for her. I hit the key points: I’ve just been sacked and I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going.

In all the time we’ve known each other, she’s watched me glass-half-full my way through whatever problems came our way. This time, she can hear the hurt. I tell her what J.P. said about retirement, and that he seemed surprised to hear that they were rumours and nothing more.

“Maybe I should just retire, should I?” There’s a part of Paula that would love me to retire, but more than anyone, she understands that it has to be my decision, that I can only retire when the time comes and I’m happy to go and ready to embrace life after racing, uncertainties and all. It has to be on my terms; retiring like this would be anything but.

“If you’re happy riding, keep riding,” she tells me. “You can retire in a month’s time or you can retire in six months’ time, whenever you want.” She’s right. Instead of retiring, I go back into the weighroom and I do what I’ve done a thousand times and more over the last three years: I get dressed in the green and gold and I go to work.

Even today – especially today – I can’t ride an emotional race. I can’t ride the ride of an angry man. At least I’m thinking clearly enough to realise that, to know that it would hurt me rather than help me. All I want is to win and, by winning, to prove my doubters wrong.

Twice that afternoon I think I have the horse, sitting with plenty in hand as we go down the back straight only to come up short on both occasions. I finish third in the first race and again in the second and, as I dismount, I know that I couldn’t have done a thing differently in either case.

Mark Walsh and Fish – Mark Enright – are the only two people I tell about what’s after happening. I don’t really want to talk about it, but I’m shaken and I have to tell somebody. I know I can trust the two lads, but I don’t say a word to anyone else.

Word spreads

People talk; the story will filter out in time. Unless it’s already out there, that is. Before I can even get home on Thursday evening, someone shouts over to me that I’m wanted outside when I’m ready, that a couple of journalists are waiting outside the weighroom looking for a chat.

I haven’t had a winner yet this week so they’re definitely not looking for a few quotes on how well things are going. They must know. I can’t figure out why this has all kicked off so suddenly. It doesn’t make sense. I start to panic. I don’t want to do this now, but I can’t stay in here all night either. I’m going to have to go out there at some stage.

I ring Paula first and then I ring Frank Berry to see what he thinks I should do. Frank has always looked out for me. “Someone must have got wind of what’s going on,” I tell him. “There’s journalists outside looking to have a word with me. What the hell am I supposed to say to them?” “Just say nothing,” Frank advises me. “Say nothing, it’ll be grand.”

Frank’s right. I say nothing. Much as I’d like to, I can’t just want my way to a win. The following day, Friday, hammers home that point with no small measure of irony: a stride from the line in a race that I so badly want to win, Katie Walsh gets up to beat me by a short head and announces her retirement right there on the spot.

When Saturday comes, Paula and the three children are with me. It looks like they’re putting on the big show because it’s the last day of the season; only we know any different. As far as the outside world is concerned, there haven’t been any changes to J.P.’s riding arrangements. I haven’t said much over the last few days, so there hasn’t been much said to me.

The small circles of Irish racing don’t have space for too many secrets though, and Paula doesn’t have to read too much into the sympathetic looks and apologetic semi-smiles being offered in her direction the whole day.

That evening, I try to get dressed so quickly and get the hell out of there that I end up ripping my shirt. Tony O’Hehir from RTÉ catches me and asks for a quick word. “Have you any news, Barry? Have you anything to tell us?”

I try to play it cool. “No, no news, Tony. Nothing, sorry.”

I’m so wrapped up in the fear that this is spreading like wildfire that I completely misread the story that they’ve been looking for over the last few days. Last day of the season. The whole family here with me. They’re all outside the weighroom because they’re waiting for me to come out and announce my retirement.

I meet Paula and the kids outside, and we walk back to the car with Frank and Claire, his wife. Frank’s trying to reassure me that this might not need to be as catastrophic as it seems. “There’s plenty of horses there for you,” he says. “It’ll be okay, we’ll work something out. If anyone is asking questions, keep the head down and say nothing.”

Angry phonecall

Before we run off to Alicante to get away from everything and everyone, I ring J.P. again. It’s the lack of clarity that’s tormenting me. I can’t get my head round the situation I’m in when I don’t even know what that situation is.

I hate knowing that I stood there on Thursday and barely said a word; that all the imaginary arguments have been stacking up since but abandoned me when I had the chance and will only be heard now by the audience of one in my head; that I never made it hard for him.

I talk it through with Paula before I ring him, a rehearsal, her opportunity to screen the hurt and prevent me from saying something that I might regret. “What are you going to say?” she asks me. “I just need to find out exactly what the problem is. That’s all I want to know. I don’t think I’ve been riding badly, do you? I know they didn’t all come off for us at Cheltenham but we got some big results as well. I need to know what this issue is with the trainers so that I can sort it out. I’ll just ask him that straight out.”

But whatever script there is, I rip it up as soon as he answers the phone. I don’t mean to. It just happens, logic and reason replaced by the desperate, unthinking flailings of a wounded warrior. In a haze of ignorance, I speak my mind in a way that I never intended to. Before I can stop myself, I’m off the phone, and the shaken look on Paula’s face is enough to let me know that that wasn’t the approach we discussed.

I text J.P. quickly to apologise. “Sorry, I’ve had sleepless nights over this, but I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.” By the time we come back from Spain four days later, word is as good as out.

Eagle eyes have noticed that Mark Walsh is booked for a few of the horses that I’d normally be riding, and my phone is red with the glow of a thousand unanswered calls. I’m still none the wiser as to where I fit into the new plan. I’m not expecting a lifeline, but when Ciaran O’Toole, my agent, rings me with one, I don’t need a second invitation.

Killarney chance

J.P. gives me the chance to prove myself. I’m needed to ride a few of his horses in Killarney and my ears prick at mention of one of them, Ballyoisin. I’d been on him in Punchestown, starved myself to get my weight down to 10st 4lb, and we finished eighth.

I’m expecting to be jocked off him too and for Mark to get the call to replace me, but Ciaran tells me that I’m down to ride him. This fella is made for me. I know him and know what he’s capable of. If ever there’s going to be a chance to force the door open again and show what I can do before it’s too late, this is it.

I ride him like he’s stolen and I haven’t a care in the world. We rip around Killarney together, having the time of our lives as we ping every fence. There isn’t a horse out there that can lay a glove on us as we win by nine and a half lengths.

Frank is there to meet me in the parade ring and congratulate me. The phone is glowing again, except this time it’s with strings of ‘well dones’ and ‘attaboys’.

When I call out to the house to visit J.P. a few weeks later, the riding arrangements are still the same but the mood music feels very different. “There’s a good team of horses in England for you,” he says. “Hopefully we’ve a good year with them.”

Words like ‘we’ and ‘this year’ are all I need to hear.

True Colours by Barry Geraghty, with Niall Kelly, is published by Gill Books priced €22.99.