I only turned conditional after the Punchestown Festival last year, so have to be happy with the past 12 months. Aside from riding nine winners in Ireland last season, I added a further four during an eight month stay in Britain with trainer Jonjo O’Neill.

My father trains, so I have always been around horses. I remember Gretzky and Rawnaq when they came. They were the first horses my father trained for the track. He had worked for a different trainers before that but took out the restricted licence to train them.

When I was still very young, we also had Shalaman, a horse rated not far off 100 on the flat. I used to ride him out at home all the time. He was a real gent. Green Energy was another one that I learned how to ride on. I rode the racehorses from the age of seven or eight, before I ever got a pony. I basically learned as I went along but my father taught me a lot. I never did any pony club or show jumping but was hunting and tricking around with ponies from nine or 10.

No looking back

I was riding out whenever I wasn’t in school really. I finished school in third year. It wasn’t the intention to finish, I just never went back. One Cool Poet winning three times during the week at Galway in 2019 was something I will never forget. I used to ride him out at home all the time and led him up in those races. Ronald Pump was another good horse my father had here at the time as well.

I rode him in most of his work from the time I was 14 or 15. He was second in the Stayers’ Hurdle one year. At 16, I got my amateur licence but because of my age, I could only ride in bumpers. I had my first ride at the Punchestown Festival in April 2022 on Sekifi for my father. After finishing second on my next ride, I then had another 10 or 12 before Cassarina Gold won at Cork in August. The next month, I rode another winner, on Moonovercloon, also for my father.

By the time I was 17, I didn’t see the point in going point-to-pointing as I had no contacts. After Christmas 2022, I thought to myself that my opportunities as an amateur would be limited. My father had been very good to me but he just didn’t have that many bumper horses for me to ride. I knew that I would have to go find something else other than being a jockey, or work on my weight and turn conditional.

Jackdaws calling

After Punchestown last year, around the end of May or early June, I went conditional. On just my third ride as a conditional, I won a claiming hurdle at Sligo on Bigz Belief for my father. Two or three weeks later, Dartan won at Bellewstown and it just took off from there. I got plenty of rides on some very nice horses. Dartan is definitely the best I have ridden, or won on anyway.

Just before Listowel, Jonjo (O’Neill) Jnr rang to offer me the job of stable conditional with himself and his father. We had a few really nice horses going down to Listowel, so I asked if I could wait until after the Festival. Cozone and Ragin Cajun both won, while Moonovercloon fell at the last when holding every chance. I moved over to England on the following Monday. Jackdaws Castle is a great place to work. The facilities are the best I’ve seen in any National Hunt yard. Jonjo (O’Neill) was very good to me and gave me lots of opportunities.

I rode three winners for him and one for Noel Kelly. I gained so much experience through riding work and schooling horses alongside Richie McLernon, Jonjo Jnr and Kevin Brogan. After eight months, I decided to return home, as I knew that I would have more opportunities in Ireland for the summer. Jonjo wouldn’t have that many in over the summer, and while my father wouldn’t be at his busiest, I wanted to get back good and early, as Dad will start to run horses from now on. He has a few nice novices to go chasing this season, as well as hurdling.

Family affair

I rode the first double of my career last Friday at Downpatrick. It was great to get one for my father (Another Choice), while my grandad owned Son Of Hypnos who I rode for Kevin (Smith, uncle). It was the first winner I had ridden for my grandad so that was a really nice one to get. I rode 13 winners the season just ended, so my main ambition is to try and better it next year.

I have a bit more confidence now I’ve ridden a few winners, so I want to try and get myself around more this summer. I want to get into a couple of different yards and start to build up contacts. I’ll continue to base myself at home, as my father has been a huge influence on my whole career. I can’t thank both him and his owners enough for having the faith to let me ride their horses.

James was in conversation with John O’Riordan