When did you decide you wanted to be a National Hunt jockey?
It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I was riding finishes on the back of the sofa when I was six. My dad rode as an amateur and I was hooked on it. It’s a great buzz to finish in front, if only by an inch.
Aside from the racing, what do you actually do?
Nowadays I’m either racing, travelling or going into the trainer’s yard and doing a bit of schooling – teaching the horses to jump. When you’re starting out it’s different. If you’re attached to a stable, you’re there full-time, mucking out and grooming. In Ireland, we’d clean out the horse’s pool, which was never nice. They’d drain it, then you’d get down to it with brushes and shovels.
Shit. Literally. Still, at least the stable girls are randy…
Sadly not. Don’t believe what you read. In my yard not too much went on – aside from hard work.
Shame. Do you have to eat salad all week to keep your weight down?
I’m lucky because I’m not too wide. Some of the lads have to sweat off 3-4lbs every morning. You can do that by sitting in the bath for 40 minutes – just keep topping it up with hot water. That’s one of the better ways. The sauna is harder because there’s no fresh air.
Is there a rivalry between flat and jump jockeys?
Not as such. There’s a common feeling that the jumps boys have a harder job because the races are longer, the horses need more holding together and, of course, the falls. But then you have to appreciate that the flat guys are ‘doing light’ every day. Some are 3st under their natural body weight.
What’s the worst fall you’ve had?
I’ve broken my arm, ribs and collarbone. I’ve had concussions and I’ve dislocated my pelvis, knees and shoulders. The scariest one was in Tralee. I was lying there and couldn’t feel my legs. A nerve had got trapped or something. Unfortunately, I’ve been in races where friends have lost their lives or been paralysed. You try not to think about that.
What’s the scariest fence in racing?
Becher’s Brook in the National – there’s such a big drop and horses aren’t expecting it. Get too close and the landing is so steep it stumbles.
Was your win at the National the most lucrative day of your career?
By far. It was about £400,000 to the winner, and I got 8% [£32,000]. Day-to-day, we get a set fee of £140 for every ride, and then we get a percentage of the winnings.
What’s it like to win the National?
It’s a brilliant feeling and you’re etched in history, but you don’t get long to enjoy it. You’re only as good as your last ride and the next day I was riding at Southwell – one extreme to the other.
Is horse racing cruel?
The horses are bred to race and, at the yards I’ve been in, they’re well taken care of. A horse I fell off recently cracked a bone in his knee. He was X-rayed and bandaged before I was. There are a lot more cruel people keeping pets at home.
What about whipping? That’s cruel isn’t it?
The rules state the whip should be used as encouragement, not punishment, and I agree with that, but to be honest a lot of us can’t understand what the stewards and the people want. When I started, the horses wouldn’t do what I expected and I was too hard on them, so I got suspended. Now I can feel when a horse has no more to give, so I do what’s best, lay off it… and I get a 21-day suspension for making “insufficient effort”.
Have you ever been approached to throw a race?
No. Luckily, I only know what I’ve read in the papers. Racing is beating itself half the time, making front pages before the case is even heard. Kieron Fallon was an example. I don’t think he deserved to get his licence taken off him for something he was proved not guilty of.
What are the rules for jockeys on betting?
We’re not allowed to. But then I’ve no interest in it. When I was working in Ireland as a lad, I had my last 20 quid on something on a Sunday evening and it lost. I never forgot it. People think that we know what’s going to win but the only thing we could tell someone is if a horse likes the ground or not. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be riding, we’d be betting on everything.
What’s your favourite practical joke in the weighing room?
I put bananas in Andrew Thornton’s boots before a race – they were nice and squashed-up. And I went through a stage of sewing up his sleeves. Then I sewed his shirt to his trousers and his trousers to his boxer shorts, so he was there for a while after racing. His reaction can’t be repeated.
Who’d win: a crap jockey on a great horse or a great jockey on a crap horse?
If there was only a couple of lengths difference in the horses’ ability, a good jockey would make that up. But if a bad jockey was riding Best Mate [three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner] and the best jockey in the world was on a claiming horse, Best Mate would win.
What percentage of your rides are no-hopers?
I had 145 winners two seasons ago out of 500-600 rides; that was my best year.
Do you bond with the horses or are they just tools of the trade?
I’m not into crying when horses die, but yes, I have a relationship with every horse. There was one called Vodka Bleu – I won six or seven races on him – and we just clicked.
In your book you talk about your binge drinking – and how it landed you in prison in 2002 for 84 days…
It was fuelled by alcohol. I don’t like going over it – that’s the reason I wrote the book. I got on a plane half-drunk, then drank more and allegedly put my hand up a stewardess’s skirt. It was wrong and I paid the price.
Were you prepared for jail?
Nobody’s prepared for that. It’s a major shock. You know nobody. Then, the first night, people are banging on your door saying you’re a rapist and they’re going to stick a knife in you. It’s not pleasant, especially when you don’t know who to turn to. I just went into myself and minded my own business. But I’m a stronger person for the experience. My routine had consisted of working hard, then getting pissed at the weekend – it was the norm. It took prison to make me realise that wasn’t the road to be heading down.
Still: you say in your autobiography that jockeys are a wild bunch. What was the best party you went to?
We had loads when I started off. There were no Sunday races then so Saturday was a big night out. It’s more professional now. The Lester Awards for riders is a proper knees-up, though, with people hanging from chandeliers. If they can reach.
Finally: ever fancy a stab at rodeo?
No. I rode a cow when I was little and didn’t stay on long. We get a fall about one in ten rides but with rodeo you’re guaranteed to fall off. I think they’re very crazy people who do that.