LAST Friday night was one I will never forget as I rode my first career winner under rules. Having gone close a few times prior to Christmas, I was hopeful that my turn would come before too long.
It was great to make the breakthrough so early in the new year, as it definitely gives me that bit of added confidence. With the senior riders on an extended break, it gives us younger jockeys a real chance of getting amongst the winners.
With both my parents having a keen interest in horses, it was perhaps no great surprise that I became a jockey. My mother, Sinead, rode ponies when she was younger, while my father, Ian competed in the Corinthian Challenge a couple of years ago.
He had always wanted to ride under rules but never had the opportunity before then. Gaelic Football played a huge part in his life; he was on the Meath senior panel from 1989 to 1993.
After retiring from the playing fields, he finally made the switch to the racecourse for the three-race series in 2018.
By that time, I was already well on my way to doing likewise, having started with Pat Martin at the age of 10. I learned to ride when I was no more than three or four, then did pony club, mounted games, hunting and some cross country.
From the ages of 12 to 15, I picked up invaluable experience on the pony racing circuit. You learn so much competing in those races and it certainly prepares you for the track.
Taking that route to becoming a jockey also meant that I stayed in school, so I have my Leaving Certificate in just under a year and a half. All being well, I hope to pursue a full-time career as a jockey, but it’s also important to have the education to fall back on.
Two years ago, I moved from Pat Martin to Noel Meade, as I continued my journey to becoming an apprentice. Like Pat before him, Noel has been very good to me in terms of opportunities and advice.
Aside from riding work at home, I have been away for racecourse gallops and schooling races. With so many experienced riders working in the yard, I have had every chance to improve under their guidance. I also ride out a bit for Liam McAteer, another man who has been very good to me recently.
Through contacts of my father, I managed to spend a month in Ballydoyle last summer. Seamie Heffernan very kindly took me under his wing and put me up for the time I was down in Tipperary.
It was an incredible experience to ride out every day alongside top jockeys on some of the best horses in the sport. It’s a different world down there; something I’d love to experience more of.
The experience left me well prepared for my initial racecourse rides last August; or so I thought! It definitely took me a few races before I found my feet. Breaking from stalls, how fast the races were run – I had to get to know the game.
In all, I had 19 rides during the period from August to December. After reaching the first three on Effernock Fizz (twice), Macaban City and Stamp of Authority, I could see that my riding was improving as I gained more experience.
HRI’s new initiative which introduced the extended break for senior jockeys was a welcome opportunity for young lads like me to have a real chance early in January. While I was very hopeful that I could ride a winner, it was still an incredible feeling when it finally arrived.
Maccliff went off at 40/1, so I’d be lying if I said I expected it. Prior to declarations, I knew that I would be riding both herself and Stamp Of Authority if they were drawn in different divisions.
I had been third on Stamp Of Authority just before Christmas, so could see him running a big race. A slight niggle ruled him out on the morning of declarations, so we’ll never know if I would have had to pick between the two!
Gerard Michael Hussey, trainer of Maccliff, has been very good to me since I started. He put me up on Macaban City one night and gave me the ride on the horse again a few weeks later.
I was delighted to ride the winner for him last weekend, as young apprentices like me need that kind of support in order to get going. It is only when you have ridden a winner that other trainers take notice and book you for their runners.
The mare herself was very straightforward throughout the race. As she was dropping back in trip, we decided to make the running and she proved a willing partner.
My phone hasn’t stopped with calls and texts since the race. Friends and neighbours, teammates at Castletown GAA club, school mates and fellow jockeys have all offered their congratulations.
My school has been very accommodating in terms of allowing me work around the Friday night meetings at Dundalk. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Colm O’Rourke, a well-known racing man, as school principal!
Once the holidays arrive at the end of May, I will be able to give my full attention to race-riding over the summer months. Similar to last year, I will be based with Noel Meade throughout the period before returning to school in September.
Jack Kearney was in conversation with John O’Riordan