Barry Geraghty: What the queen taught me about horse racing

Barry Geraghty. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
The recently retired jockey, second only to Ruby Walsh as the most successful in Cheltenham history, looks back on a fabulous career and the wise words that helped him through it

On some mornings, Barry Geraghty sat in Nicky Henderson’s kitchen eating an early breakfast while the trainer sat amid the tea and marmalade and breakfast paraphernalia, chatting on the phone with the queen. Those morning conversations were further proof of what the Meath man has always known: that the allure of horses is impervious to both palace protocols and meal times. Horses are an obsession.

And he’ll always clearly hear the small nugget of advice the queen gave him at Cheltenham. This was in 2009 and he was riding her horse Barbers Shop in the Gold Cup. She came down to the parade ring and they talked about the course and race forecast, and then she wished him luck.

“But as I was walking away to get legged up,” he remembers, “she just said: ‘If his chance is gone, don’t be hard on him.’”

Eleven years later, Geraghty repeats her words as he sits in his kitchen in deepest Meath. The rain falls relentlessly outside and the narrow winding roads that characterise this part of the country are leaf-strewn.

Barry Geraghty meets the queen prior to riding her horse Barbers Shop in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham on March 13th, 2009. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Barry Geraghty meets the queen prior to riding her horse Barbers Shop in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham on March 13th, 2009. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage
If his chance is gone, don’t be hard on him. Which is what you want to hear. She is proper horse person. Very knowledgeable

The Monday morning news has been grim: a national lockdown forecast. He’s wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt; two slender scars on each upper arm are the only visible marks on a body that has been battered by two decades of hunt racing.

Geraghty officially retired in July, bowing out with a fabulous record: 1,920 career wins and, with 43 festival winners, second only to Ruby Walsh as the most successful jockey in Cheltenham history. At 41, his face bears a few slender scars but he is still boyish; usually the stresses and physical toll are imprinted on the faces of retired jockeys.

“‘If his chance is gone, don’t be hard on him,’” he says again with a smile. “Which is what you want to hear. She is proper horse person. Very knowledgeable. And that is my riding . . . if a horse is beaten, he is beaten. He doesn’t need me making it any harder. And that is how connected she is. She loves the horse. And she has grown up with that love.”

There’s a similar note of engagement – warmth, fascination, respect – in Geraghty’s voice when he talks about horses. His career is littered with big moments of festival jubilation: Monty’s Pass at the Aintree national in 2003, Kicking King in the Gold Cup two years later, and even his last-ever race at Cheltenham just last March. But his name will forever be tied up with two immortals in racing lore: Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre.

If you half-heard him rhapsodise about the pair now, Geraghty could be talking about two old friends he hasn’t seen for too long and still misses. They were perfect contrasts as physical specimens: he has previously likened Flyer to the England footballer Wayne Rooney – brilliant in a flinty, tenacious way – while Sprinter was a daunting, powerful beauty.

“Like, Moscow wasn’t bred to be a superstar,” he marvels. “He was an ordinary pedigree. He is not overly big. I think a lot of it was that he is so willing; he makes lengths in the air. And when he leaves the ground he fills his lungs, so it is what he is saving in energy. It’s the fact that he is so relaxed doing it.”

Moscow Flyer died in 2016; Geraghty brought his family to visit him in his retirement stables just a year before that. But if he still refers to him in the present, it’s because he transports himself back to those races as he speaks.

“Like, Sprinter was all flash,” he laughs. “Moscow’s Moscow – like Wayne Rooney. That was his style. But this fella? He was nearly 17 hands, which is a big horse. He was just . . . grace. Everything he oozed was class. Over fences he just . . . ooomph. If you watch the replay, winning the Arkle at Cheltenham, Sprinter is back a yard further, he is picking up before them, he is going 8 or 10 inches higher and is landing further out on the far side than them. It was ridiculous how easy it was for him.”

Barry Geraghty. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Barry Geraghty. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

And it’s true: the footage of that festival eight years ago shows Geraghty and Sprinter approaching the fourth-last fence, and it’s as though the pair unleash a magical turbo boost as they clear the fence. Instantly, the voltage changes – in the stands, in the excitement of the commentator’s voice.

The horse was 8/11 favourite and Geraghty had been uncharacteristically vocal about him during the festival. How could he not be? He was smitten. To him, the horse felt supernatural beneath him and was breathtaking to ride in full flight.

The main trick as jockey was to hold him back from ripping up the field too early. He let him blitz through the last three fences that day in Cheltenham and the whoops come from the big, dark stand. “With disdain he wins the Arkle,” the commentator says.

That’s just one race in thousands in Barry Geraghty’s life. He can remember another day too, in 2013 when he had just ridden Bobs Worth to a Gold Cup win. Michael Steele from Getty Images clicked a haunting snap of Geraghty minutes later, completely alone in front of tens of thousands faces and backlit by a sombre sky. His face is mud-spattered and he looks lost in thought.

It’s the day after his friend John Thomas “JT” McNamara, the Limerick jockey who had a glittering amateur career, suffered life-changing injuries in the Kim Muir steeplechase. Tragically, McNamara would pass away three years later from complications arising from those injuries. All they knew that day was that his fall had been truly terrible. And apart from the minutes when he was concentrating on the race, it’s all Geraghty could think about.

“Yeah. You are in Cheltenham at Gold Cup day. And it doesn’t matter. I met John Francome before the race. JT was such a respected and admired fella. Brilliant rider, straight talker. No fluff. He was someone I admired as a jockey and a person. He was rock solid.

“That day was brutal. And it didn’t matter who won the Gold Cup. Bobs Worth won. It was the fairytale story. But it didn’t matter and it still to a degree doesn’t matter because there was no joy to it.”

Barry Geraghty on board Bobs Worth after victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 15th, 2013. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Barry Geraghty on board Bobs Worth after victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 15th, 2013. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
As you are going to the ground, you are picking your spot. You are scanning. It is instinct and reflex

Falling is part of the game. Geraghty was with his friend Kieran Kelly on the day in 2003 that he suffered the fall that cost him his life. The danger and possibility of the worst outcome is always there for jockeys.

“But you don’t think about it. It is all instinct. As you are going to the ground, you are picking your spot. You are scanning. It is instinct and reflex. So you hit the ground. And you rotate to break the impact. As soon as you feel your shoulder hit the ground, you roll. And you are rolling to get away from the back of the fence and to get away from your horse. You need to get out of his path. But you can’t control what is coming over the fence on top of you. You can’t control that.”

The reason for all of this reflection is that Geraghty’s autobiography, True Colours, is released this weekend. He spent more than a year collaborating with journalist Niall Kelly and together they’ve produced a superior story: an honest and self-searching account of the glories and thrills but also the doubt and barren spells that visit even rampantly successful jockeys.

The sport of racing is at once sweepingly romantic and ruthlessly money-oriented. Riders such as Geraghty are feted at the glamour meets, but the pressure to keep producing results is relentless. There was a two-year period, between 2006 and 2008, after Moscow Flyer, when it felt like he was forgotten.

“I broke my wrist that summer. I didn’t see it coming but it crept in. Suddenly you weren’t being used as much by big trainers and there is a question mark over you. I was very much on the ropes.”

In 2008 the trainer Paddy Monaghan told him a week before Cheltenham that he had been dropped as jockey for Catch Me for the Champions Hurdle.

“You’re just not lucky for me,” Monaghan said apologetically.

The words chilled Geraghty. He’s always felt that luck and fate play a big part of it. Only through happenstance, including a series of injuries suffered by his friend and rival Mick Fitzgerald, did he come out of that freefall, fluking his way into Punjabi’s saddle later in the week at Cheltenham, making the very most of that chance, riding a winner that Friday and then surprising his girlfriend Paula with a marriage proposal in a crowded weigh-in room. He finished the summer by signing up to Nicky Henderson’s stable, his freelancing days over.

Coincidently, the family love of horses has dominated the morning in the Geraghty home. They’ve lived here for about four years, building a gorgeous home with a small farm just a few miles away from where Geraghty grew up.

But they woke up this morning to the saddest development: Robbie, a beloved family pony, died overnight. Their children, Síofra, Órla and Rían, all doted on him. But Órla, the middle child, inherited her father’s intense love of the breed and was truly heartbroken heading out the door to school.

Paula Geraghty comes in to say hello. She was heading out to get some photos of Robbie printed so they could celebrate his life and try to put context on what, for the children, is a bewildering event.

The one consolation for Barry is that he was at home that morning rather than hearing the news on the phone in England.

“I was a part-time dad for 12 years,” he says. (He moved to work for Nicky Henderson when Síofra was three.) “There is a void there to fill. I was aware of that. Not that I had neglected the role. But I was away. So it is great to be at home now. If what happened here this morning had happened then, ahh, I would have hated it. So there was a balance in life waiting for me after racing and I’m enjoying that.”

From the moment he signed up to Henderson’s stable, his schedule was hectic, cramming a week of schooling and racing across England into four days and often rushing straight from Saturday afternoon wins to the nearest airport for a teatime flight home.

He first met Paula at race meets in Listowel and again in Galway. She enjoyed a day at the races but isn’t of that world. Their life has been an escape from racing. But in the book it is clear she gave him several invaluable moments of career direction.

In Geraghty’s first year at Seven Barrows, he was living with two assistant trainers. Cooking was not high on their priority. There was a choice of classic English pubs in which to have dinner in the locality. On some nights, the three were sensible. “But yeah, other nights were bigger than planned,” he says with a sheepish grin.

“So I’m on TV one day after winning a good chase at Newbury and I am there chewing the gum. And Paula sees me and she knows the signs. I had gotten complacent. And she told me I needed to rein it in. She was right. Old habits were creeping in. And I could have blown it.”

And in 2018, he turned to her again in a moment of acute doubt. He was riding for JP McManus then. It’s an April day in Punchestown. The two men are standing on the balcony of his box. There are loose rumours that this will be Geraghty’s last season and McManus bluntly gives him the lay of the land: “Some of the trainers aren’t happy with how you are riding.”

It feels to Geraghty as if the solid world is collapsing around him. He reveres McManus – “he just sees the little things that aren’t obvious and when he says them they become screamingly obvious” – but he is shocked.

“Prove them wrong,” McManus told him. Geraghty was reeling.

“I don’t know where to look or what to think. So I rang Paula up and wondered should I pull the plug and walk away. Hang on to my dignity, if you like. The funny thing is: Paula hates the thought of skiing. And I would always say, well, when I retire we are going skiing. So maybe me racing was the lesser of two evils!

“But no, she could have, and it would have suited her perfectly to say, you know what, walk away. Enough is enough. But she didn’t. She had the clarity to say: pick your time. And it was the perfect advice at that moment. Because leaving like that would never have sat comfortably with me.”

Barry Geraghty. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Barry Geraghty. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Yeah, there is a bubble. When you are in it, there is nothing outside it.  When you have a love for racing it is very easy to get into that bubble

As it turns out, the pandemic has saved Paula from the terrors of skiing, at least for now. And the advice gave Geraghty the chance to recover his customary optimism and confidence and engineer a kind of dream exit from the elite tier, riding five winners at Cheltenham in March.

Now that he has stepped away from it he can see for the first time just how much of an enclosed, adrenalised world racing can be. “Yeah, there is a bubble. When you are in it, there is nothing outside it. But when you are outside it, you can not even notice it exists. When you have a love for racing it is very easy to get into that bubble. And it is consuming.”

That all started for him before he could walk. His grandfather Laurence Geraghty had foaled Golden Miller in 1927, a horse who travelled from Pelletstown and into Cheltenham folklore with five successive gold cups. In the 1980s the Geraghty farm was, like most in Ireland, cash-strapped. For a while his father, Tucker, headed to Boston for work. But they were always a horse family and that familial link to racing royalty captured his imagination.

“It gave us the connection to Cheltenham and Aintree because they are obviously very distant places as a child. You have the book at home and you see the photos.”

Geraghty has gone on a fabulous journey since then. There were several interludes when he could have become swallowed up in the cold-eyed judgment and appraisal of elite racing. Many talented young jockeys fall away. There was a period when he was an apprentice with Noel Meade when he simply couldn’t stay in the saddle. He had to drop the length. “Not like John Wayne but whatever would help me stay on board.”

A family friend gave him a bit of advice that transformed his life.

“Terry Mitchell,” he says brightly. “Terry’s from Navan. I’ve never even told him this so he’ll enjoy it. But he just said one day: you’re just not helping the horse and taking a bit of contact. Nobody else noticed it. It is literally . . . you are talking about putting a pound or two of pressure on the reins. It is only the slightest contact.

“And when Terry said that, it was like a lightbulb. I rode this horse Lord Heavens,” he says as, in the calm of his kitchen, over a second coffee, he sifts through the smells and sounds of that long-finished race.

“And he would bust fences and I was doing all the right things, instantly. The levels were back up in the saddle.

“And that was it,” Geraghty remembers happily. “I was gone.”

True Colours, by Barry Geraghty with Niall Kelly, is published by Gill Books