JUST over a month ago, I rode my first winner under rules when Blossom De Mai won at Tramore.

Given that I only started race-riding within the last year, having never even sat on a horse until three years ago, I was delighted to make that significant breakthrough. Now that I have managed to achieve that ambition, I am hoping to build on it and add to my tally over the coming year.

My dad was always big into racing but I never had any direct involvement with horses during my childhood. I can remember going to the likes of Gowran Park, Punchestown and Fairyhouse while still in primary school. Indeed, one of my earliest memories is of seeing a horse owned by J.P. McManus win a hunter chase at the latter venue.

During my school years, I was played a lot of GAA and soccer, so perhaps as a result, I never learned how to ride despite the keen interest in racing. Towards the end of my secondary education, I got a weekend job working on the ground at Jim Bolger’s farm in Rathvilly. Having caught the bug for working with horses, I started there full-time straight after doing my Leaving Certificate.

From scratch

With no experience of any description, I literally had to learn everything from scratch. Mucking out and bedding down came early on but I even had to be taught how to approach a horse in the stable.

Later, I advanced to lunging, driving and breaking the horses before they moved on to the main yard. However, even then, all of that work was done from the ground. In all, I spent three and a half years on the farm; three prior to a period in Australia and a further six months after returning home.

Initially, I had intended to work with horses during my time in Australia but subsequently decided against it. I had even applied for and succeeded in obtaining a job with Coolmore over there but in the end, I didn’t take it up.

By that point, I had decided that I wanted to ride horses and would wait to learn when I came back to Ireland. Instead, I worked on a regular farm before later driving machinery on a construction job that was located 17 stories underground!


From that very first day I started in Jim Bolger’s as a school kid I had thought about becoming a jockey. However, given my background, or rather lack of when it came to horses, I just never really believed it was possible.

After Australia, I went back to the farm for a short period but now I was set on achieving the goal of race-riding. I had three or four lessons at a local equestrian centre; the first time I sat on a horse.

Even at that early stage, I felt totally comfortable on horseback and knew I had a chance. Perhaps as someone who had always been an athlete and passionate about sport, I was just able to make that transition.

Having seen an advert that Willie Mullins was looking for work riders, I applied despite my lack of experience. Despite getting run away with first lot, I recovered my composure and stayed on subsequent mounts.

As my confidence grew, I also rode out for Barry Fitzgerald and Liam Treacy in the evening after I finished in work. Both men were very helpful to me and I can’t thank them enough.

It was actually Liam who encouraged me to take out an amateur licence, although I never rode under it in the end.

Jack Foley, who also rode out in Willie’s and Anna McGrath, a childhood friend who works for Jessica Harrington both recommended me to trainer Philip Rothwell.

Initial ride

Philip was looking for a 7lb claimer and had seen me ride work. He was willing to take me on, once I switched from the amateur ranks and turned conditional. I had my first ride under rules on November 29th last year; almost a year to the day before that first winner. Ricky Langford was the first horse I rode on the track and to be honest, I found everything happened much quicker than I anticipated.

Thankfully, Philip put me up on a second runner that same afternoon, so I was a bit more polished on the latter ride. In all, I had 21 rides under rules last season and a further 30 this term before making the breakthrough at Tramore.

By the time I was legged up on Blossom De Mai for a mares handicap hurdle, I had acquired sufficient experience to be able to do both the horse and myself justice. Philip has been a fantastic boss and without him none of this would have been possible.


He appreciates when you keep your head down and work hard; if you do that, he will reward you. To come home in front on the day was incredible, especially where I have come from in just over three years. I have worked very hard to get to this point, so I am determined to press on now, not just sit on my laurels.

Hopefully that initial success will help kick start my race-riding career, helping me to press on next year. If I continue to improve and get the opportunities, I’m confident the rest will follow.

Right now, I am delighted with how everything has worked out; the main ambition going forward would be to stay injury free and pick up as many rides as possible so that I can gain further experience.

Conor Owens was in conversation with John O’Riordan