Riding for Willie Mullins a far cry from life in Pakistan

Citizens: Syed Qasim Raza first got on a horse aged 19, now he works for champion trainer

Syed Qasim Raza from Pakistan, with Cheltenham winner Vroum Vroum Mag. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Syed Qasim Raza from Pakistan, with Cheltenham winner Vroum Vroum Mag. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

 

Syed Qasim Raza knew nothing about horses growing up. He was almost as surprised as his family when he suddenly developed a keen interest in horse riding in his late teens.

Raza began to study finance when he finished school but knew he wasn’t a strong student. When his uncle visited the family home one day with photographs of horses on a racecourse in Pakistan an idea passed through Raza’s mind. ‘What if I could become a jockey,’ he thought to himself.

“I liked horses a lot and thought ‘Why don’t I go and work with horses?’. Everyone was surprised; no one in my life was involved in horses. I’m from Lahore, I didn’t grow up with horses. My dad worked in the airport, my older brother worked in a software company.”

“My family asked me, ‘how are you going to learn’? I was a very soft person and didn’t like being outside when the weather was bad. My family asked, ‘how could someone like you want to go outside with horses? You want air conditioning every day’. I said ‘let me go and I’ll try my best’. I did do my best, my dad is very proud of me now.”

A lack of air-conditioning is no longer an issue in Raza’s daily life, which involves working with and riding horses in Co Carlow. After 13 years of horse-riding in Ireland, this Pakistani jockey has grown accustomed to training in the changeable Irish rain, sun, wind and snow.

Back in 2003 a fellow jockey in Pakistan suggested he meet racehorse trainer and former Irish jockey Willie Mullins. Raza had only been riding in races since 1999 but was a fast learner and had quickly developed a passion for the sport.

Gaining ground

“When I started I’d just walk around the yard with the guys leading the horse, just walking and walking. Then I started going to riding school and working in the stable yard. I was working so hard and never had a day off. In fact, I never had a day off in my life in Pakistan.”

In order to become a professional jockey, Raza knew he also needed to lose weight.

“I was 71 kilos in weight and lost nearly 20 kilos for the horse riding. I started running in all types of weather: people thought I was a madman.”

In 2001 the young jockey won his first championship. Soon afterwards, he was introduced to Mullins and received an offer to move to Ireland and work in the champion trainer’s stables. He arrived in Ireland in 2003 and two years later began riding for Mullins.

Raza spoke little English when he arrived and admits he struggled at first to settle into his new home. “Even though I didn’t speak much English the guys in the yard were very good to me. Willie put me straight into a language school and being around the yard helped me speak English.”

In 2008 Raza received a call from his father telling him the time had come for his son to marry and that he and Raza’s grandmother had chosen his bride. He travelled to Pakistan to finalise the engagement details but never met his wife until the day of the wedding.

“The first time I saw her was on my wedding day. My dad had been pushing me to get married the year before but I did feel ready for it when I went back to Pakistan. I would never say no to my dad.”

New bride

“She tells me ‘sportsmen are always fit and if you sat at home you’d be fat’. She’s happy I work hard outside.”

Living so far from home has been a challenge for the young couple. When his father had a heart attack in 2010, Raza wanted to return home and help care for his dad. “My brother only told me about the heart attack two days after it happened. I spoke to my dad on the phone and he told me he was okay and that I should stay in Ireland. He said he would get well soon.”

The couple have also missed countless family events and celebrations. “Whenever anything happens with my family, whether it’s sickness or a celebration, my wife and I can’t really travel out there and we do miss them.” Raza says his boss is very generous with holiday time but that he feels an obligation to work hard in the stables and support his co-workers.

“A couple of years ago both my brother and my sister got married in the same year but I couldn’t go because our season was just starting and it was very busy. I didn’t ask to go because everyone was working so hard: it wouldn’t be fair for me to take time off.”

The couple now have four young children. The eldest, who is six years old, is already learning English and often corrects his father’s vocabulary. Raza speaks Urdu with his children but was pleasantly surprised to discover recently that his son has started learning Irish.

“My older boy, he really likes horses and he’s always pushing me to bring him riding at the riding school. He’s too young for now but some day.”

“We like this country and it’s quieter and safer for my children. We’re happy to stay here for now. My wife doesn’t want us to move. We lead a happy life here.”

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