Under starter's orders at horse-racing boot camp


The jockey course at the racing academy in Co Kildare is aimed at teenagers who dream of the racing life, but anyone joining up is warned that it’s no easy ride, writes RÓISÍN INGLE

IRELAND’S next top jockey could be among the group of young hopefuls gathered on the edge of the Curragh plains this afternoon. They have come to an open day at Race (Racing Academy and Centre of Education) in Co Kildare to find out if the challenging and competitive racing industry is for them. The jockey course attracts young people with a passion for horses and, often, an urge to leave school behind to follow their racing dream. But it’s not some kind of equine-themed holiday camp, says general manager Tony Denvir.

“It’s a very tough course,” he says of the 42-week programme held every year. “We have people who are just sick of school and are dying to get out of the classroom, but we have a strong emphasis on education. For the first 14 weeks they are riding out and mucking out in the morning, and then it’s classes in the afternoon; it’s school with a horsey twist, so you don’t escape the formal lessons.”

Race began as a social project in 1973 set up by locals to improve the lot of apprentice jockeys. Denvir, a former army member at the Curragh, says for “small young lads” living in the area then it was a case of “get down to the Curragh and get a job. They were treated appallingly. If they got injured or they got too big, it was a case of get the f*** out of the yard, so they would be let go with no education and no prospects.”

Since 1977, the course, which is free to all EU citizens, has been sponsored by Fás. Past pupils include Johnny Murtagh, Conor O’Dwyer and Cathy Gannon. Other graduates work as jockeys, trainers and assistant trainers from Australia to Dubai.

Applicants attend open days where Denvir and Race director Keith Rowe spell out that they have to be aged 15-18 and under nine stone (57kg) to have a chance of acceptance. Many people do the course during transition year to see if a career in racing is for them, or if the idea was more attractive than the reality. Around 60 people do one-week summer residential trials and are whittled down to about 30 for the course.

“You can’t be afraid of hard work. You will be doing yard work, mucking out, picking stones and pulling weeds. You will work in the trainers’ yards, looking after horses worth millions of euro. We want to see are you disciplined, can you take instruction, do you have to be chased around the place to work? It’s all down to attitude.”

In the canteen, the current trainee jockeys are just in from the trainers’ yards for lunch. They have been up since 5.30am and later it’s back to the stables. Last year, some Race students were on placement at trainer John Ox’s yard, checking the hooves and cleaning the stables of champion racehorse Sea the Stars.

Thomas Griffin, a promising 15-year-old jockey from Ballyfermot in Dublin, had only experienced riding horses bareback. “I’ve been on them since I was a baby,” he says with a grin. His time at Race has transformed how he thinks about and treats horses. “If a horse was sweating at home you just throw him in the field. Down here you can’t do that. You’ve to brush him, you’ve to wait until he stops sweating, you’ve to put a rug on him, you’ve to make sure his water’s clean, check his feed box.

“At home I would be bating him with a whip, out on the horse all day, flying around. Down here you only go on a horse for an hour, it’s a six-furlong [1,200m] gallop every day, and then you walk him back and let him cool off. In my area you were just out on the horse 24/7. Before I came here I didn’t have any respect for the horses, now I try to tell the young lads in Ballyfermot how to treat the horses better.”

He recently brought his father to the yard where he is on placement. “My Da loves me being here, he’s been with horses all his life,” he says. “When he came to the yard, he was just shocked. He thinks you can just walk behind these horses but it’s not like that. If you walk behind these horses you are going straight through the roof. It’s pure different.”

The Race careers officer, straight-talking former jockey Helen O’Sullivan, says Thomas has “improved beyond all recognition” and has prospects as a flat jockey. “Thomas hasn’t discovered yet why he is here but when he does, I think he could make it, if he keeps his weight right and keeps some kind of head on his shoulders.”

Thomas and fellow student Tori Gandia, a 16-year-old from Dublin who has a job in a stable in Newmarket for the summer, take part in a session on the gruelling horse-racing simulators. Tori started showjumping at six but was more out of the saddle than in it. “I had more of a jockey’s attitude. This course is not for the fainthearted and this is only the training, we are still not out in the real racing world.”

Dark-haired Katie Crawford from Co Longford is watching Thomas and Tori carefully. She desperately wants to be a jump jockey – “ever since I sat up on a horse, it’s my dream” – and longs to leave school.

Later, O’Sullivan doesn’t tell her what she wants to hear. Part of her job appears to be bursting the bubble of unrealistic expectations. “Would you not be better off going back to school and doing your Leaving and then trying again next year? It’s very tough. There is only one Nina Carberry and only one Katie Walsh.”

“I know all that,” says Katie. “But I am still determined.” She looks it too.

“Please God,” says O’Sullivan thoughtfully, “you are dedicated and determined enough.” And maybe she is. The trials later this summer will tell.