It’s not contradictory that Séamus Heffernan is both racing’s most enduring understudy and one of the most successful Irish jockeys of all time.
The latter statement comes from Horse Racing Ireland’s official profile of Aidan O’Brien’s long-time No 2. It is as accurate as acknowledging how this has been a career carved out in the shadow of others.
For almost quarter of a century, Heffernan has been O’Brien’s Mr Dependable, the trusted ‘domestique’ doing what needs to be done as first the Ballydoyle empire got resurrected and then transformed into an unparalleled success story.
Michael Kinane, Kieren Fallon and Johnny Murtagh, some of the finest riders in the history of the game, are among those to have filled the No 1 hot seat in that time.
They’ve come and gone yet Heffernan has persevered throughout, riding back-up, cutting out pacemaker duties, doing the morning slog on the gallops, and regularly making the most out of how even the greatest rider can’t be on more than one horse at a time.
The strength of numbers O’Brien throws at the great races, combined with cast-iron trust in his lieutenant, has meant a long list of second-strings have produced a litany of first-rate victories.
Heffernan already has three wins in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby to his name, part of an international big race CV the envy of most every other jockey in the country.
It even includes the ultimate prize, last year's Epsom Derby, on board Anthony Van Dyck.
Saturday’s Irish Derby will be Heffernan’s 26th consecutive ride in the race but also crucially different. This time the No 2 has had the No 1 pick.
The coronavirus pandemic, and in particular the 14 days self-isolating restriction that applies to anyone entering Ireland, means the current Ballydoyle top dog, Ryan Moore, has stayed in England since racing resumed here earlier this month.
So once again O’Brien has turned to Heffernan. And once more the 47-year old has stepped up.
Given the first choice of Ballydoyle’s runners in Ireland, Heffernan has enjoyed a streak of success this month that already includes another Classic on Peaceful in the Curragh 1,000 Guineas two weeks ago.
Should travel restrictions remain in place for some time to come, and force Moore to stay in Britain, a first jockeys’ championship could be his this season.
The veteran who has thrived in the wings is finally centre-stage and continues to cut an enigmatic figure to much of the racing public.
A preference for not using one word when none will do characterises public utterances usually more cryptic than revelatory, something that probably chimes with the Trappist instincts of Coolmore Stud's supremo, John Magnier.
It is a habit that has been honed since Magnier installed O’Brien at Ballydoyle in 1996, making it the racing powerhouse behind the world’s most powerful bloodstock operation.
O’Brien is the public face, determinedly humble in victory, the political savvy required to survive and thrive in such a pressure-cooker environment hidden behind inscrutable modesty. But always with Heffernan as his lieutenant.
The two met as teenagers when briefly working for trainer PJ Finn on the Curragh. Since then their professional lives have been inextricably linked.
Neither comes from a racing background. From Donore in Co Kildare, Heffernan's initial contact with racing was to ask Arthur Moore for a summer job as a 13-year-old. He quickly got the bug for riding racehorses.
Heffernan rode his first winner for Finn but quickly followed O'Brien to Jim Bolger, becoming a champion apprentice in 1994. By then O'Brien was training himself. Initial meteoric success led to Magnier calling. One of O'Brien's own first calls was to his old pal.
The first of 20 Group One success in Ireland came 20 years ago on Beckett in the National Stakes. Eleven others are spread around England, France and the US including at the Breeders’ Cup. Yet Heffernan still remains under no illusion about his role.
“My job is to ride work and give my opinion when asked and ride races when asked,” he said recently. “I don’t get disheartened with my job because I knew I was not going to be first jockey and I’m okay with that.”
It was Christy Roche who initially took the reins at Ballydoyle. Then Kinane took over for five years. Jamie Spencer lasted a single year. Fallon and Murtagh were there for less than three each before O'Brien's son Joseph was top dog. Moore has been No 1 since 2015.
None however can touch their former subordinate for durability, or maybe even political adroitness.
“Séamie has stood the test of time with Aidan. Many have come and gone,” Kinane said this week. Asked how, he replied: “He understands the definition of his job very well!”
Murtagh, now a successful trainer, is a big admirer of his former colleague, describing Heffernan as a “huge, huge help” during his time in racing’s most coveted role.
“I remember when I went to Ballydoyle he said to me ‘Johnny, maybe; that’s a word you should use a lot. Rather than shooting your mouth off, just say maybe’.
“He says it as it is usually and if they don’t agree he just says, ‘yeah, maybe you’re right’.
“He’s very unassuming, quiet, doesn’t say much, but is very witty. He worked with Aidan in Bolger’s, knows what makes Aidan tick and he probably says ‘maybe’ more than other lads to Aidan.
“He’s got something about him. He’s one of those likeable roguey kind of fellahs. But a good fellah deep down and a huge team player, a huge part of the team down there.
“He has been second in the background for a lot, [but] he knows deep down there will always be chances there for him and there’s no better man to take them,” Murtagh said.
The last two decades are littered with evidence of that capacity to rise to the occasion when given the opportunity.
Anthony Van Dyck’s Derby success was due to his rider’s split-second decision to go for the inside rail at Epsom. He also won the Oaks around Epsom’s famously difficult track on Was in 2012. Four years later he grabbed the initiative from the start of the Breeders’ Cup Turf to win on Highland Reel around Santa Anita.
“I always had great time for Séamie,” said Kinane. “He’s honest, a good worker and unflappable. You could depend on him. If he said something was good you could take it as solid.
“He knows his horses well. He’s in Ballydoyle morning, noon and night. He’s one of the few that would have that opportunity there.
“He’s a quiet guy. He’s not looking for adulation, just happy to do his own thing.
A father of two grown-up sons, Heffernan’s preference for the low-key doesn’t prevent him being a popular figure with colleagues.
“Sometimes you ride the wrong one in a race and you’d be sick,”said Murtagh. “I never felt when Séamie won. I was happy for him.
“He goes under the radar and he’s not a stylist. But he gets the job done. He deserves a chance at it [winning the jockeys’ title).”
First there’s the job of guiding Santiago to Classic glory just eight days after winning at Royal Ascot.
That he’s Heffernan’s choice will be enough for many to believe the colt can win again. Over the years one thing that’s never been subordinate is the jockey’s judgment.
Name: James Anthony Heffernan.
Born: July 23, 1972 (aged 47).
Job: No 2 jockey to Aidan O'Brien.
First winner: Annsfield Lady, Dundalk, August 10th, 1988.
Champion Apprentice: 1994
Irish Classic wins Irish Derby (3): Soldier Of Fortune (2007); Frozen Fire (2008); Capri (2017).
Irish 1,000 Guineas (4): Imagine (2001); Halfway To Heaven (2008); Misty For Me (2011); Peaceful (2020).
Irish Oaks (1): Seventh Heaven (2016).
Irish St Leger (1): Septimus (2008).
English Classic wins Epsom Derby (1): Anthony Van Dyck (2019).
Epsom Oaks (1): Was (2012).
Other Major wins include
Irish Champion Stakes (2): Cape Blanco (2010); So You Think (2011).
Eclipse Stakes (1): So You Think (2011).
Breeders' Cup Turf (1): Highland Reel (2016).
Prix de l'Opera (1): Rhododendron (2017).