Unfortunate circumstances have McDonogh preparing for ‘fiercely competitive’ festival
Former champion jockey will be firing bullets at Galway for the ‘King of Ballybrit’
Declan McDonogh celebrates with Riven Light after winning on day two of the Galway Festival in 2017. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In March, Pat Smullen, Weld’s No 1 rider for almost two decades and McDonogh’s close friend and colleague, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Smullen is fighting his illness with all the determination and style he showed when so successfully guiding Weld’s horses around Galway’s unique terrain. No one knows better, though, how the racing world keeps turning no matter what, and in his absence McDonogh has been entrusted with the majority of rides from Weld’s powerful yard this season.
The outcome is that the former champion jockey is enjoying one of his best campaigns since his championship winning season of 2007. Except “enjoy” doesn’t feel like the right word.
“It’s been great – but obviously not in the circumstances anyone would want,” says McDonogh. “We’re all thinking of Pat, and hopefully he can make a comeback.”
Ultimately, though, it is the 38-year-old rider who has the task of firing Weld’s festival bullets next week. Since Weld’s dominance of Galway is such that his unofficial moniker of “King of Ballybrit” is incontrovertible, it’s no light responsibility.
Weld has been top trainer at the festival for 30 years, including when saddling a record 17 winners in 2014. He has, however, had his crown rocked for the last two years by Willie Mullins. In 2017, Mullins had a dozen winners while a virus in the Weld camp resulted in a meagre couple of victories.
Smullen’s plight puts such things in context, but business is business and competition is competition: no king likes quitting his throne.
However McDonogh hasn’t noticed any extra eve-of-festival tension, and at this stage of his career he himself is pretty much immune to it anyway.
“Everyone knows the horses were under the weather last year, whereas this year they’re in full health and running well. And all anyone can do is ride the horses, ride the races, and do their best.
“I’m sure we’ll have horses for all the maidens – as will everybody else! Joseph [O’Brien] has serious firepower. Aidan [O’Brien] will too. It’s not like it was years ago at Galway. It was always competitive. Now it’s fiercely competitive.”
The same could be said for McDonogh. Stylish in the saddle and famously strong in a finish, he has a notable record around Galway, winning the Day Two feature on four occasions. Ironically he has also been a “go-to” man for Mullins on the flat around Galway.
His ties to Weld go deeper, though. McDonogh rode extensively for him as an apprentice. He recalls regularly riding work alongside Mick Kinane in the late 1990s before Kinane’s move to Ballydoyle and Smullen taking over at Rosewell House.
He himself became No 1 rider to Kevin Prendergast, winning a number of Group One races as well as the championship, and long established as one of the country’s top riders when spending a number of seasons as John Oxx’s stable jockey.
That link finished in 2017. McDonogh took the chance to spend three months of the winter riding in Australia. It was a successful spell, with a dozen winners on the famously competitive Sydney circuit.
A three-month visa meant he was always coming home. But the jockey has felt the benefit of that Australian experience. “Riding down there sharpens you up. I’ve seen James Doyle say the same thing recently. Peter Snowden, one of the main trainers there, told me it was unheard of for someone to ride 12 winners in Sydney like that, so it was a brilliant experience.”
He returned with a plan to kick-start his domestic career as a freelance. Unfortunate circumstance meant his availability was opportune for both Weld and himself.
“It’s gone well. I know how it works from my time there years ago. A lot of the staff are still there, which is testament to the operation and how it’s run.
“I’m riding for owner-breeders who know horses and understand the game. And I’m riding for a great man who knows about race-riding. That all helps. It’s not like coming back after a race and trying to explain to people who don’t understand.” .
Experience helps too, especially around Galway, and McDonogh has plenty of that. “It’s been lucky for me, but there are a lot of variables. You need a draw, you need to not miss the kick, then you need to travel in the race. But most of all you need a horse with a bit of class.”
No one knows Galway’s demands better than Weld so such class will be available. And while McDonogh would prefer if the context was much different there won’t be any shortage of class in the saddle either.