The Phonecall That Won Me The Grand National

My career as a jockey started off with Jessica Harrington who was a good friend of my parents and I got to know her through the pony club.

When I decided that I wanted to become a jockey, Jessie was my first port of call. Thankfully I got my foot in the door and I was just going in with my eyes open to give it a go to see if I had a chance of making it.

My first ride was in a bumper at Naas.

It was on a mare that my mother owned called Younevertoldme which turned out to be my first winner when she ran over hurdles.

Going Pro
I was riding out at Jessie’s yard a couple of times a week and then Paddy Mullins offered me the job as conditional jockey. I signed up with Paddy for one full season and it was a great boost for my confidence to be offered a full-time job.

Paddy was a man of few words but whenever he did say something it was always correct. I got so many good opportunities there and Bob What was the horse who got me going at the start.

I won a couple of good handicap hurdles on him and he won a big one on Hennessy day at Leopardstown.

That was my first win as a professional, it was live on RTE and it was a great way to start off.

In Demand
The next win that really put me on the map was on a horse called Nearly A Moose.

He was a talented horse but he had his jumping issues and one day he was in a big handicap chase at Naas. Paddy Mullins gave me the ride and for some unknown reason he jumped well that day!

I rode him at Cork over three miles and he won and then it was on to the Galway Plate. His jumping problems returned and he made a mistake four out but he came back and won well. To win a Galway Plate as a young 5lb claimer was a great boost.

I was champion conditional at the end of that season and at that time I was back riding for Jessie Harrington and getting more good opportunities, I had two great stables behind me. I was still only about 23 and because of the Galway Plate win I found myself in demand.


Making The Grade
The next season I had a good chance for my first Grade One in the Dr PJ Moriarty.

Jessica was running two horses that day, Well Presented and Carrigeen Victor. I’d won on both before and I’d been hoping Jessie would only be running the one, but instead I was left with my first real decision to make as a jockey.

Thankfully I made the right choice on Carrigeen Victor. It was great to have a Grade One on my CV but Racing is a fickle sport and working at both yards kept my feet firmly on the ground, every young jockey needs that.

How I Won The National
2007 had been a terrible year for me.

I’d had a few injuries and it was all stop-start. In November that season, Gordon Elliott rang me to ride Silver Birch in the cross country race at Punchestown. My agent had wanted me to ride three horses in Cork but I said no and told Gordon I’d ride his. He warned me that I’d only get the one ride at Punchestown but I didn’t care and went on to ride Silver Birch to 2nd in the cross country.

Jason Maguire was due to ride him in the Grand National but I got a phonecall from Gordon saying Jason couldn’t do it.

I wasn’t coming down with offers having been in and out of action through injury so I went to work with him. I couldn’t believe how good he was going compared to November when I’d rode him at Punchestown.

Over The Last
I went to Aintree quietly confident that he could run a good race. He had course experience and I didn’t think getting round would be an issue so I hoped he could run into a place with some luck. It wasn’t until I jumped the last that I thought I might actually win it.

Horse Racing - The John Smith's Grand National Meeting - Aintree

I’d been going well and three out I had a look around me and realised I would get a place with only 6 or 7 around me. But over the last I had another look and thought to myself, ‘I’ll never be in this position too often so let’s make the most of it.’

It was Gordon’s first runner in the National and only my second ride in the race so there was no pressure on us and thankfully it worked out well.

Cheltenham Breakthrough
It took me a bit longer to get my first Cheltenham winner.

Going into the 2011 Festival I thought I was going to break my duck with Oscars Well. He cleared the last really well in the Novices’ Hurdle but just took a bad step and buckled on landing. He lost valuable ground and ended up finishing fourth.

Half an hour later I came out for the RSA on Bostons Angel. He’d already won two Grade Ones that winter, he was an ideal horse for an RSA Chase but he was a 16/1 shot and I wasn’t sure he was good enough to win it. But toughness and heart got him through and I picked up the win.

Horse Racing - 2011 Cheltenham Festival - Day Two

Choose Wisely
If I was to advise any young conditionals now I’d say you need to base yourself in the right yard.

I wouldn’t necessarily take a job at a small yard where you’d be top jockey, just pick the right yard, even if it’s bigger. There will be plenty of opportunities with the top trainers and other yards who are unable to attract the likes of Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty will notice you.