A stable job: The work riders of the Curragh

‘It’s addictive, it’s hard’ For the Curragh work riders, harsh weather, punishing hours and low pay do nothing to dent their passion

Work riders turn up at training yards and stables all over Ireland early every morning to exercise hundreds of thoroughbred horses out on the gallops. Harsh weather, punishing hours and low pay do nothing to dent their passion. Video: Bryan O'Brien  

 

On the Curragh plains, the wind gives no quarter. You see the rain coming for miles, great bitter sheets of it. For the army of work riders who turn up at the yards surrounding the Curragh at 7am every day to exercise hundreds of thoroughbred horses out on the gallops, the weather simply doesn’t matter. The life of a work rider is arduous and difficult, but they self-describe as addicts: under the spell of the world they inhabit and the horses they work with. They don’t care about the winter mornings where the cold rises from the rimed, frosted earth. Their unstinting graft is the opposite of the glory of the racetrack; they are supremely talented, dedicated sportspeople who have committed to being eternal substitutes.

No rugby player, no footballer is asked to do what is asked of them – to work incessantly, to prepare, but never getting to feel the pitch beneath your feet. In the snows of last March, they walked miles into work. They do it because the horses need them and probably because they need the horses. It’s a symbiotic relationship with no other comparison in sport. Every triumph an owner will ever have is underpinned by their careful, meticulous work.

The riders work the beautiful, valuable thoroughbreds seven days a week, often for 13 days in a row

Coming to work here from South Africa, India, Georgia, Russia, Argentina, the calibre of the Irish trainers, yards and horses cements them to the racing world. It’s hardly the quality of life; part-time rates amount to about €50 a day for riding five lots of horses; there’s a constant struggle to find accommodation with rental properties being in short supply; and for many of the female riders, balancing the demands of work and having a family is an unobtainable goal. The riders work the beautiful, valuable thoroughbreds seven days a week, often for 13 days in a row. Jockeys come out twice a week to do the fast work where the trainer assesses how fast the horse can go. Even when they have a powerful horse underneath them, the work riders can’t push it on the gallops – that’s the jockey’s job.

Marc Callear-Deveney (20) is an exception to this rule, working for Patrick Prendergast, a small yard on the edge of the Curragh. How does it feel, to be out on the gallops with a beautiful horse underneath you, flying at 40 miles an hour? “Unreal, it’s indescribable. There’s an energy between you and the horse, it’s a buzz.” Another thrill of the job for the riders is seeing the horse you work with win a race, no matter what type – they say nothing can compare to the satisfaction of knowing you were the first rider on its back.

Marc Callear-Deveney works for trainer Patrick Prendergast: “There’s an energy between you and the horse, it’s a buzz.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Marc Callear-Deveney works for trainer Patrick Prendergast: “There’s an energy between you and the horse, it’s a buzz.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Valerie Keatley, head girl at Johnny Murtagh’s yard: “You get a great buzz out of a winner.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Valerie Keatley, head girl at Johnny Murtagh’s yard: “You get a great buzz out of a winner.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘A great buzz’

“You get a great buzz out of a winner,” says Valerie Keatley (47), head girl for Johnny Murtagh. All the women insist there’s an equality of hardship in the work, but Keatley acknowledges how tough it is. “Especially for girls, it’s very, very tough, overall in Ireland it is – in England it’s easier, more tracks, more opportunities,” she says. “ But I do love them [the horses], very much so,” she laughs. When owners move the horses on, it can be devastating. “It’s absolutely horrible. There was a horse, we had him two years, Johnny let him go at lunchtime – when I came back he was gone. But I followed him up and three months ago I actually met him in England. As soon as I called him he came flying up to the door.”

The riders start at 7am and ride five lots (horses) for the trainer. As they finish the lot, they tell the trainer everything they noticed during their time together; if the horse sneezed, the trainer will know. After a couple of hours’ break it’s back at 3pm to muck out, water and feed the horses in the yard. Some of the riders like Paddy Kennedy (29) and his brother Jack (19) are also jockeys and their days are much longer.

From Dingle, the brothers have started a business at Kildangan Stud in south Kildare, breaking in young horses and pre-training. Paddy’s alarm goes off at 5.15am. By lunchtime he has ridden out nine horses for two trainers, including award-winning trainer Jessica Harrington. Jack rides out for Gordon Elliot, where he is one of 50 riders for about 200 horses. He lives in Monasterevin so has a huge amount of driving to do, especially in the summer when the jumps meetings are mostly on the tracks of the west coast.

Almost all the work riders started riding on ponies, either eventing or racing as children, then going on to RACE (Racing Academy and Centre of Education), the jockey apprentice school in Kildare town, after their Junior Cert; many are early school-leavers without a formal education.

From the minute you walk into a box, until you get off them and wash them down, you’re talking a good hour a day with a horse – you definitely build up a bond with them

“I couldn’t imagine anything else,” says Paddy Kennedy. “From the minute you walk into a box, until you get off them and wash them down, you’re talking a good hour a day with a horse – you definitely build up a bond with them.” Working with his brother is a clear bonus of the job: “I would probably says he is my best friend. If there was something on my mind, he’d be the first man I’d go to. We’re very, very lucky, it’s not often you get to do a job that’s not even a job and do it with your brother.”

Unlike Paddy, Jack bypassed RACE and went straight to work yard. Widely viewed throughout the industry as one of the bright stars of the future, he started pony racing when he was just nine. After spending the morning riding out for Gordon Elliot in Co Meath, he returns to Kildangan in Kildare to work with Paddy. “It’s seven days a week. I don’t get downtime, I always have to be somewhere, you never stop learning. It’s addictive, it’s hard.”

For the trainers, a good work rider means everything. “They’re a very important cog in the wheel, a good rider is all about feel,” says Jessica Harrington. Another trainer, Tracey Collins, says the riders “are the backbone of our industry”, while Dermot Weld says “a good rider is essential, to give the horse confidence and to teach the young horse the proper way to carry itself.” “Good riders make good horses,” says Johnny Murtagh, “the feel they get and the feedback they give me is

hugely important.”

Jockey and trainer Johnny Murtagh, standing centre, chatting with his team at Fox Covert Stables in Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Jockey and trainer Johnny Murtagh, standing centre, chatting with his team at Fox Covert Stables in Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Hazel Wallace, head girl at Tracey Collins yard: “You need to be tough, mentally tough.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Hazel Wallace, head girl at Tracey Collins yard: “You need to be tough, mentally tough.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Oleg Pereverezev (50) worked with sports horses in the Ukraine before coming to Ireland, where he started at Dermot Weld’s yard in the Curragh. Now travelling head lad for Johnny Murtagh, his day is different to the other riders as he takes the horses to the races. “I live in my work, I don’t separate my work and my life.”

Like Pereverezev, Hazel Wallace (37) sees little distinction between work and her life outside it. Head girl for Tracey Collins, she’s from a farming background and lives at home in Laois, commuting to work at the Curragh. She has little time for a relationship as she also travels with the horses and for her, it’s a huge bonus of the job, despite making her seven-day-a-week schedule even longer. Wallace believes both men and women have to possess the same levels of fitness and horse handling abilities.

‘A dangerous job’

“You need to be tough, mentally tough. You need to be able to take a bollocking – you need to be awake to what you’re doing. At the end of the day it’s a dangerous job, if you’re not on the ball, things happen, things go wrong.”

For a long time, work rider Dean Sinnott’s favourite horse was Harzand, who won the Epsom Derby in 2016. “Everything was such a routine to him, it was like if I wasn’t in, he’d do everything himself. He was just so straightforward, very little quirks, he gave you everything up the gallop every day.” A good relationship between the horse and the rider is everything, “being calm is the best approach, if you’re not things get a bit messy”. Like all the riders, he can’t imagine doing anything else: “you’re either an outdoor person or you’re not. And you probably need a little bit of madness too.”

When I come in here, I feel it’s like I’m where I’m meant to be. I get my head straight into it – when you’re riding out the same horses every day you get a great connection with them

Eadaoin Byrne (32) missed riding out so much when she went to UL, she quit her degree in equine science and returned to work in Jessica Harrington’s yard. She trains horses with her brother but wouldn’t give up riding out. Byrne is full of admiration for her boss. “In Harrington’s, the girl riders are as good as the lads.”

Emma Holden (19) also rides for Harrington, and started going to the yard with her mother, who works in the house. She began helping by mucking out until one day Harrington asked her if she wanted to ride out, putting her up on her own daughter’s pony. “This pony struggled to get up the gallops but I made him get up it. A couple of weeks later I got thrown up on my first racehorse, Jack Blue. When I come in here, I feel it’s like I’m where I’m meant to be. I get my head straight into it – when you’re riding out the same horses every day you get a great connection with them. I’m hoping to get out my licence and get out riding on the track.”

Like all the other riders, Holden rides every morning, seven days a week. The notion of a weekend off is merely speculative as that’s when everyone is racing.

If the horse wins, the rider often gets a groom’s prize, but they’re rarely to be seen on the podium with the owner, the trainer, the connections. They’ll already have taken the winning horse from the jockey and will have it back in the stable, feeding it, washing it, thinking about the long drive home. To a man and a woman, they say the sacrifices required are absolutely worth it. Boundaries between life and work blur, but they say it’s like a good marriage, the edges dissolve.

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