How Irish jockeys saddled up and took a great leap forward to world-class level

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: Kings of the Saddle,By Brian O’Connor, Aurum 246pp, £18.99

THE SKILLS of horsemanship have been part of the Irish way of life for a very long time. Over the last 20 years or so, those skills have been honed to a particular excellence by the performance of jockeys who are now some of the elite in the riding of thoroughbred racehorses. Their skills are recognised not only in England but far further afield.

Thirty years ago in top class flat races, it was not unusual for even an Irish trainer, who had a horse good enough to run in an English classic, to employ a top-class jockey based in England. Indeed several of the Irish leading trainers employed Australians or Americans as their stable jockey. All that has changed and Ireland now produces jockeys well able to compete with the world’s best.

O’Connor traces this phenomenon by means of 20-page vignettes of 12 of the finest Irish jockeys riding. He has six individual portraits of “flat” jockeys and six for the “national hunt”.

The first subject is the doyen of flat racing jockeys, Michael Joseph Kinane. He gives credit to Kinane for being largely responsible for the upturn of riding skills among jockeys based in Ireland.

Throughout his career, which stretches over 30 years, Kinane has been based in Ireland. However, when he had established himself in the top level in Ireland, Kinane started to look elsewhere. He became a regular weekend visitor to Italy and a winter visitor to India.

As a result of those efforts in 1989, English trainer Michael Jarvis employed Kinane to ride his horse, Carroll House, in the Irish Champion Stakes. The horse was owned by an Italian so he was familiar with the skills of Kinane. The horse won.

The following year Henry Cecil, the English champion trainer, employed Kinane for his horse, Belmez, in the King George VI at Ascot. Again the horse won. A new order was being created by Kinane. His new international prominence revealed opportunities for the younger Irish jockeys who have followed in his trail.

The final vignette is of Rupert Walsh, known like his grandfather as “Ruby”. Dedication and skills have enabled him to become the number one jockey to Willie Mullins in Ireland and Paul Nichols in England, the respective champion trainers.

The ever-present prospect of injuries, coupled with the dangerous seduction of alcohol, has undone many a promising jockey.

O’Connor describes the traumas which several of these 12 have endured and conquered. On a brighter note, he includes in his 12 Nina Carberry.

To argue she is only included because she is a girl would be churlish. She competes against the boys and beats them. She, like Kinane before her, is changing a perception.

To compete internationally requires extraordinary commitment and self-discipline which is tried in extremis for jockeys by the necessity to control the body weight.

The incomparable Tony McCoy, umpteen times England’s Champion National Hunt jockey, describes the torture of lowering his whippet-thin body into a blistering-hot bath: “You test the temperature with your hand and the heat stings but you know you’ve got to lower the most tender parts of your body into it or it’s a waste of time.

“Once you’re in, the scalding hot tap maintains the temperature. The pain is mental and physical. My sympathy with lobsters is real.”

Exhilaration and pain are constant refrains in each of these stories.

John McBratney is a barrister and a director of Juddmonte Farms Ireland Ltd