We sat down with Musley Bank’s Head Lad to learn more about the man from Sligo.
How did you become to be interested in racing?
My Mum and Dad were proper townies, so there wasn’t any involvement in that sense, but my Mum’s best friend’s son is Derek Fox (Grand National and Grade 1 winning jockey). I started going to Sligo races with them on the weekends from the age of about eight or nine. I remember how normal people would just sit in the bar or go to the betting ring, but I’d just sit in the paddock and watch the horses going round and around. I got the bug from there, and from then on all I’ve wanted to do is work in racing.
Mrs Fox’s brother (Mark McNiff) trains by Sligo beach, so I then started to go and help out at his yard whenever I could. I got chucked up onto one of his horses one day and told to ‘figure it out for yourself!’ You’d ride out along the beach at Mark’s and bring the horses back through the water when you were finished cantering; so it was quite cool.
Where else have you worked before ending up at Musley Bank?
When I was about 14 or 15, I went down to the Curragh one summer holiday and spent two and a half months on the yards of Dermot Weld, James Nash and Aidan Howard. I was at their places seven days a week trying to take in as much as I possibly could. Based on a bit of advice from Robbie McNamara (who was riding out for Aidan Howard at the time) I always tried to find the ‘don’ts’ rather than the ‘dos’. It was his belief that you don’t want to learn what to do, but what not to do.
After school, I funnily enough went to college to study Business Management. I did three months, at the end of which, sitting in one of the exams, I just put my name on the sheet of paper, put the pen down and walked out of the hall. I told my mum that night that it wasn’t for me, and I left for England the next day, leaving everything behind. And I’ve been here ever since!
You then spent five and a half years with Alex Hales in Oxfordshire, where you ended your time as Assistant Trainer. Did you go straight in as Alex’s assistant?
I’m a firm believer in starting at the bottom and working your way up. I was just a normal stable lad when I first started. Then after two and half years, when I was potentially looking to move on, Alex put me on the Assistant Trainer’s course at Doncaster and started having me do the entries, and declarations. Then came more office work, race planning and greater interaction with owners and vets – the whole shebang. I owe Alex a great deal.
Do you have any particular goals or ambitions for you racing career?
Train winners. Some people will call me grumpy for this, but I’d always rather finish last than second. In everything, I just want to win – I hate finishing second. If people come up to me and say ‘the horse ran well’, after finishing second, all I can think is, ‘he didn’t win’. Nobody remembers second place.
You played a key role in breaking in all of Musley Bank’s now two-year-olds last winter. What is it that you enjoy about the breaking process?
I like the unpredictability of it. More so than with jumps horses – you never quite know how these flat horses are going to react to things. A gust of wind, and they’re gone! The more dangerous things are, the more I enjoy it.
With the breaking in – you start them, stick a roller on them, and then within ten days you have a rider going round the lunge ring on it. I think that watching and managing those first steps will always give me a greater buzz than seeing horses up the gallops. John Carr (breaking-in partner) and I would always be smiling after legging a rider up on something for the first time, or have one of them say, ‘this one’s alright’ or ‘this lad feels good’. It makes you happy because you then know you’ve done the job right. It’s that self-satisfaction that’s the thing, because, without meaning to be rude – the breaking-in process isn’t a team game. It was myself, John and a few riders that had total control and responsibility. Whatever happened, good or bad, it was on us.
Richard and Robin were class as well. They let you do it all at your own pace and trust you to do whatever is best for the horse. If one needed an extra day of driving or whatever – they would always just let you go and do it.
Recent Beverley winner Rousing Encore was among that crop. Can you tell us why you chose to look after him for this year?
He was always a bit quirky; he wasn’t the easiest to break in, but the good horses do tend to have a bit about them. I do remember though, after myself and John saw him take his first strides around the lunge pit, that we both thought he’d be alright. Some of them, when they step in that pit, just ooze class – and he did that. From lunging, to driving, to being ridden, he just got better and better. To be at the point now where he’s won a race – it really is pleasing.
Finally, if you were to give any young person starting off in racing one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never let anyone tell you, ‘you can’t do it’. To turn around to someone after ten, twenty, forty years and say ‘I told you so’ should be a great motivation to anyone. I personally love proving people wrong. The more people tell me not to do something, the more I want to do it – that’s what drives me. If you fail, that’s fine – all the successful people you look at have failed once. Ultimately, you don’t want to be sat at home in fifty years thinking about all the ‘ifs’ ‘buts’ and ‘why nots’. At least go out a give something a rattle and see how you get on.