IN the end, it was a lap of honour. A victory run. Naas on Sunday, the final day of the 2021 flat season, Dylan Browne McMonagle went there with the apprentices’ championship tucked into the bottom of his swag bag. Even so, he thought, it would be nice to finish on a winner.
That’s the young rider’s nature. A competitive spirit. A winning habit.
He settled Joe Masseria back into midfield early on in the two-year-olds’ maiden, and allowed his horse find his racing rhythm on the heavy ground. No better than ninth or 10th as they rounded the home turn, the young rider didn’t burrow his way to the outside and try to make his ground quickly. Instead, he charted a path through traffic towards the far side and he moved up nicely in behind the leaders as they passed the two-furlong marker.
A gap appeared to the right of Ruler Legend on the run to the furlong pole, and he gave his horse a squeeze, but it was only when he got into the clear that he asked his horse to pick up. He joined Ruler Legend and Impero in the front rank just inside the furlong marker and went for home. Joe Masseria responded willingly, stretched his neck out, grabbed the ground, and raced on to win by daylight.
“It was great to ride a winner on the day,” recalls the young rider. “To ride a winner for Noel (Meade) too. It was a great day, it was brilliant to win the title, and riding a winner on the day just crowned it. Everybody was there, the whole family, my mother and father, my uncles and aunts, my sister, my uncle Adrian.”
Uncle Adrian is Adrian Browne, prolific trainer of ponies, with whom Dylan started off on the pony racing circuit. A native of Letterkenny in Co Donegal, from the time that young Dylan started riding ponies, all he wanted to do was work with horses.
“I have always loved horses. There were always horses around at home, and Adrian was very good to me.”
He was in good company. Rossa Ryan and Emmet Butterly both rode ponies for Adrian Browne. Also, Oisin and Conor Orr hail from Rathmullan, about 20 miles up the road from Letterkenny.
“I rode my first winner for Rachel Carton, Oisin and Conor’s stepmother,” he says. “The pony was called Kipper. He was a great pony, such a good ride. Oisin and Conor used to ride him too, we all started off riding Kipper.”
Nine-year-old Dylan Browne McMonagle made his first ride in pony racing a winning one as he took the local pony race on Kipper at Finn Valley Ballybofey, Donegal
Browne McMonagle was nine years old at the time – Kipper had years on him – and it was the start of a prolific pony-racing career. He was champion twice, riding a total of 218 winners, and he won just about every race at Dingle, pony racing’s Cheltenham Festival, including the Dingle Derby in 2015 on a pony named Let’s Go, trained by his uncle Adrian and owned by Garry O’Boyle.
“Let’s Go was some pony. All I had to do was steer him. I won the Derby Trial on him on the Friday, and he had a 12lb penalty to carry in the Derby itself. He had to carry 9st 12lb, but it was no bother to him.”
Browne McMonagle weighed about half that at the time, which is from where the short documentary ‘Five Stone of Lead’ was derived. That documentary was seen by Sir Anthony McCoy, and it was the catalyst for an invitation that the 20-time champion extended to the young Letterkenny lad to go over and stay with him for a few days.
“That was unbelievable. My mother knew about the invitation for a while, but she kept it from me, she kept it as a Christmas present for me. That was some Christmas present! It was an amazing opportunity for me, to get to spend that time with Sir Anthony McCoy.”
It’s one thing getting the opportunities. When you are as prolific on the pony racing circuit as Dylan Browne McMonagle was, it is probable that you are going to be presented with opportunities as a 10lb claimer, as a 7lb claimer, when you move into the Premier League. It’s quite another, though, taking those opportunities and exploiting them. For that, you need the talent of course, but you also need the attitude, the discipline, the work ethic.
Dylan Browne McMonagle winning the Dingle Derby at the age of 12 on Let's Go \ Healy Racing
The clues were there. The reputation Dylan Browne McMonagle had from pony racing, the opinions of people who have a deep understanding of these things, AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Clare Balding, Joseph O’Brien. The boxing: five Ulster titles and one national title. You don’t win them without attitude, without a work ethic.
He enjoys being fit, he tells you. He enjoyed the training and the discipline.
His apprenticeship with Joseph O’Brien was one such opportunity, and Browne McMonagle grabbed it and ran. He rode Jumellea to win a fillies’ handicap at Navan in October 2019, and he kicked on. Four winners at the back-end of the 2019 season was followed by 34 in a truncated 2020 campaign, and 54 so far this year.
In April at Navan, he was presented with the opportunity to ride in a group race for the first time, Baron Samedi in the Group 3 Vintage Crop Stakes, and the opportunity wasn’t lost on the youngster. On one hand, it made sense. He knew Baron Samedi well. He had ridden Joseph O’Brien’s horse to three of his victories in 2020, steered him home at Down Royal, at Navan and at Listowel, three wins from three runs in September 2020, improving by two stone in the eyes of the official handicapper in the process.
On the other hand, however, it made no sense at all. In April this year, he could claim 5lb. Every horse that he rode in a race could carry 5lb less than his or her allotted weight, the theory being that the reduction in weight compensates for the rider’s relative lack of experience, encouraging owners and trainers to put up young riders, give them the oxygen of said opportunity.
But in group races, apprentices can’t claim. These are the top-class races, the ‘blacktype’ races, the lucrative races, the pedigree-making races. You can use an apprentice in a group race if you want but, if you do, they can’t utilise their claim.
So, in effect, Baron Samedi was carrying 5lb more than he should have been carrying in the Vintage Crop Stakes at Navan in April. As well as that, he had to carry a 5lb penalty for his Group 2 win in France the previous October. It wasn’t hugely surprising, then, that he was allowed go off at 20/1.
But the odds were irrelevant to his rider. He wheeled his horse towards the outside early in the home straight and asked him to go forward, and Baron Samedi stayed on strongly to get home by a half a length from his better-fancied stable companion Master Of Reality.
“That was incredible,” says the rider. “To win a group race, on my first ride in a group race. I was so grateful to Joseph, and to the owners LECH Racing, for sticking with me, for giving me the chance. And Baron Samedi is an unbelievable horse. He has improved so much. He has been a big part of my career so far.”
Baron Samedi is also the horse that Dylan Browne McMonagle rode in the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day at Ascot last month, when his ride drew criticism from Frankie Dettori. When Dettori went to move up on the outside on Stradivarius about five furlongs out, Browne McMonagle made a move on his horse in order to hold his position.
It was race-riding, in the heat of a Group 2 race on British Champions Day, and the young rider was up for it. In the end, it wasn’t to be, Baron Samedi faded to finish sixth, but his rider did what he needed to do in order to maximise his horse’s chance.
“We’ve moved on,” he says now. “And it was very good of Frankie Dettori to call me afterwards to apologise. That’s racing, that’s the way it goes sometimes, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Obviously, I’d look up to him a lot as a jockey, and I really appreciated that.”
He rode at Royal Ascot this year as well, he finished third on Messidor in the Sandringham Handicap, and he has been over in Britain a few more times this year too to ride at Lingfield as part of the Racing League, and at Doncaster, where he won a six-furlong handicap in August on Night Of Romance.
“They ride a little differently in Britain compared to in Ireland. They usually go a really good gallop in Britain, and you seem to get more room. But it’s great to experience that, and to get the opportunity to ride at different tracks. The more experience you can get, the better you are able to deal with different situations.”
He is lapping it all up, gaining experience and progressing. He went to Laytown on Monday and won the maiden on Thaleeq for Dermot Weld, a first winner at Laytown on his first visit to Laytown, on the beach but still different to pony racing on Rossbeigh beach.
“So many people have been so good to me, giving me the opportunities that I have been given,” he says thoughtfully. “Joseph, my agent Kevin O’Ryan, the other trainers who have put me up, the owners, too many to name. I’m so grateful to them.
“I just want to keep going forward, continue to gain experience, keep improving as a rider.”
His win on Thaleeq at Laytown was the 92nd win of his career. Just three more before he loses his 3lb claim and has to swim in the deep waters of open competition. No bother to him though. He has the talent, he has the people around him, and he has the attitude, a well-grounded young man with a head on his shoulders.
More opportunities ahead.