Danger, dieting and donning women's tights: all in a day's work for a jockey
Michael O’Leary of Ryanair was nearly right when, at the start of Jump Boys (TG4, Wednesday), he said you’d want to be mad to hurtle around a track at 40mph on a tonne of horse. Horse racing looks savagely dangerous even from a distance, but up close, over the jumps, it’s nearly too hard to watch. But, as we saw in this sharply observed, intimate and entertaining documentary, jockeys aren’t mad, just obsessed.
Its director, Luke McManus, followed the 2011-12 National Hunt season, focusing on the jockeys Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell. For all their talk about dieting and the women’s tights they wear under their racing trousers, they are the hardest of men. The film began with the three nonchalantly listing their injuries: bust spleen, broken hip, rebuilt eye socket, leg broken three times in a year, broken wrist. On it went like an AE log book. Each time they got back on the horse. A doctor talked of their unusually high pain thresholds, saying it’s the only sport in which an ambulance follows the participants.
It’s a long season, from October to April, and the jockeys divide their time between British and Irish tracks, so it’s punishing for their young families at home. Walsh’s wife, Gillian, and Geraghty’s wife, Paula, are as resigned to the absences as they are to the risks.
And only supermodels could be as obsessed with their weight. McManus had rare access to the dressing rooms and the sauna where the jockeys sweat off the last few kilos before weigh-in. They’re not small men, and they need to be about 13kg lighter than their natural weight, so it’s a constant battle, although as they have been professional sportsmen since they were 18 they’ve got it down. They can lose three of four kilos in a day, a kilo or two in the hours before a race, even though it means they work while seriously dehydrated.
The film captured the deep off-track camaraderie between the men, and the fierce competition on it, and rounded out the story with access to their families and to the trainers. All top sportspeople are obsessives – and this film captured that – but jockeys need to be physically brave, too, or maybe a little mad, for the standard fee of €169 per race plus 8 per cent of the purse.
Watching WB Yeats: No Country for Old Men (RTÉ One, Tuesday) was a little like finding out that de Valera ran a speakeasy in the basement of the Áras: it turns out that the distant, patrician-looking bard of the nation was a randy old goat. In his later years Yeats became obsessed with death and sex – he was a virgin until 30 – so in his 60s he had an operation believed at the time to give men a little lead in their pencil. After that he had several affairs. It was all to release “the creative spirit” trapped in his old man’s body – one of his big poetic themes and a line that his wife, the amazing-sounding Georgie, bought into.
Something worked, though, because it’s generally agreed that his later work – and he was writing on his deathbed – was his best. In his 50s, he became enthralled with magic and the occult, and when his astrological chart predicted he’d marry in 1917, he didn’t let a rebuff by Iseult Gonne, daughter of his long-time friend and occasional lover Maud Gonne, put him off. He proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman also half his age, whom he hardly knew. Annoyed at discovering he had written to Iseult and Maud on their as yet unconsummated honeymoon, Georgie got out the Ouija board. The spirits apparently told Yeats to get on with it.