Barry Geraghty: ‘Any winner at Cheltenham is like winning an All-Ireland final’
Twenty years on from festival debut, the veteran jockey is still at top of racing game
Barry Geraghty kisses the Champion Hurdle trophy after winning the race with Buveur D’air in 2018. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Barry Geraghty’s first Cheltenham festival ride was in 1999. Twenty years later he starts this week with what he describes as being as good as book of rides as he’s ever had. They include Buveur D’Air in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle. There’s plenty to look forward to – and look back on.
Two decades ago Geraghty pitched up to ride Fishin’ Joella in the Coral Cup. It’s the prelude rather than the race itself that’s stuck in his mind. The 19-year-old novice found himself sweating in the sauna next to a legend of the game he’d long idolised.
“Richard Dunwoody was in there. So was another jockey called Tom Jenks. I remember Dunwoody was talking about Viagra,” Geraghty laughs. “I was merely a witness to the conversation!”
It was heady stuff for a teenager, even one as precociously talented as the confident kid who within a year would be champion jockey and en-route to carving out one of the great careers in all of Irish sport.
There have been 36 festival winners since. Only his contemporary Ruby Walsh – backed up by the might of Willie Mullins – has ridden more. They include three Champion Hurdle victories, five in the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup twice.
Geraghty’s festival tally is double Dunwoody’s. In January he passed out his childhood hero when reaching 1,875 winners overall in Ireland and Britain. It puts him fourth on the all-time list, behind Walsh and the remorseless championship chasers, Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson.
Quality rather than quantity has usually been Geraghty’s priority. His capacity to deliver when it counts on the biggest stage is renowned. It’s why JP McManus turned to him in 2015 after McCoy’s retirement.
If it smacks of cliché to claim that Plumpton on a Monday holds limited appeal, the record illustrates how Cheltenham in March is where he thrives.
So he’s back again, more than three years older than Dunwoody was when he retired, and still relishing the prospect of competing on National Hunt racing’s greatest stage. He once dismissed pressure as being for tyres. The fact that, like Walsh, he’ll be 40 later this year is of little relevance to him either.
“When I started riding 35 was an old man of the weighroom – and he was retiring soon,” Geraghty concedes.
McCoy made it to 40 before retirement. Johnson is nearly 42 and still champion jockey. Noel Fehily is 43. The parameters have changed. Geraghty, Walsh and Davy Russell are all 39 but still going strong.
“I’m fitter now than I was 12 years ago. I do more for fitness now with diet and nutrition and all the rest of it. Every sport has changed in that respect; rugby, golf, you name it.
“Before I started riding in England more, I was on the treadmill and just running for weight. But I saw lads over here running for fitness. Andrew Thornton in particular, a big fella, battling his weight, and just running as a daily thing to get fitter.
“My diet now is better than it was when I was young. My lifestyle is calmer. And it all came at a good point in my life. When you hit 30 it’s good that things steady up – they mightn’t have been so steady through my 20s!” Geraghty adds.
The crack is typical of how he has always lightly worn the pressures and strains of his professional life. It’s backed up by total confidence in his own ability, although it has never come couched in the more extreme intensity of some of his contemporaries.
It helped him take over the McManus job from McCoy without missing a beat, as well as providing perspective when the focus of such a high-profile position results in inevitable criticism. Like Walsh, the age card gets thrown at him. Yet again this week though he is in prime position to succeed.
“It’s as strong a book or rides as I’ve ever had going into the festival. I’m very happy to be in a good position to get success,” he says.
McManus’s status as odds-on favourite to be leading owner this week makes Geraghty’s claims to land a third leading jockey award all the more convincing.
He won the first of them in 2003 with five winners, back in the days when the festival still ran only to three days.
It’s normal for sports stars to bemoan how they didn’t enjoy enough early career success but Geraghty doesn’t bite on the invitation to suggest that veteran status makes him appreciate Cheltenham more now.
“You hear a lot of fellas saying they didn’t appreciate it when they won a race before. But I appreciated everything when it happened. I knew in 2003 to savour the moment. Sure enough I was lucky to scrape out the following year with one winner.
“Any winner at Cheltenham is like winning an All-Ireland final. It always has been. It doesn’t get better with time. I fully appreciated it then and still love it now,” he says.
It’s no bad statement to be able to make after 20 years at the top.