Donn's Articles » Paul Carberry

Paul Carberry

Paul Carberry was never in line to ride Heist in the inaugural running of the Cheltenham Festival Bumper in 1993. Even though the horse was trained by his boss Noel Meade, he couldn’t realistically have expected to have even been in the frame. Not a 19-year-old who had only just ridden out his 10lb claim and had never even ridden around Cheltenham before.

Charlie Swan had been champion jockey in Ireland for the previous four seasons and was well on his way to his fifth title. He had ridden Trapper John to win the Stayers’ Hurdle three years previously and would ride four winners at the 1993 Festival. Heist was clear favourite for the Bumper and one of the Irish bankers at the meeting. It made sense that he should have the best jockey in Ireland. He was always Charlie’s ride.

Homer Scott contacted Carberry in January to ask him if he would ride Rhythm Section in the race. Rhythm Section had been beaten four lengths by Heist at Leopardstown just after Christmas on his only racecourse appearance, but Homer still thought that he would go well. The trainer thought that Carberry was value for his 5lb claim. The youngster went down to Scott’s to ride the horse in a piece of work and came away counting the days to March 17th.

Carberry walked the track on the morning of the race, the same track on which his father Tommy had ridden L’Escargot to win the Gloucestershire Hurdle in 1968 and to win the Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971. The same one on which he had guided Tied Cottage to Sun Alliance Chase success in 1976, as far as the last fence, heart-breakingly, in the 1979 Gold Cup, and over the last and up the hill in 1980 only to lose the title on a technicality in another heart-breaker.

“It rides a lot quicker than it walks,” says Paul. “It actually rides quite tight. They go very quick, you are all the time turning and everything happens quite quickly.”

He remembers the race vividly. He always had a good position, always handy. At the bottom of the hill about three furlongs out he was travelling so well that he decided to kick on, get first run on his rivals. Ask him if that was the plan, and he shrugs his shoulders and laughs. It was his plan anyway when he got down to the bottom of the hill. He knew that his horse would stay well. He just did his own thing.

He could see Heist and Charlie bearing down on him from half way up the hill and, if he is being honest, he thought that, once Heist got near him, he would catch him and pass him. But he kept kicking and cajoling and Rhythm Section kept responding. At the line, they still had a half a length to spare over Heist. First Festival winner. Elation.

“It was an unreal feeling,” he says. “Even though the Irish banker, the Irish favourite, had been beaten, they still gave us a great reception when we came back to the winner’s enclosure.”

An Irish winner at Cheltenham on St Patrick’s Day in the early 1990s – given half a chance, they would have carried him in.


It is difficult to believe that Paul Carberry is now a veteran of his profession. Sitting in front of you in the weigh room at Punchestown in his polo neck and body protector, schoolboy hair and cheeky grin, you have to remind yourself that, at 33 years of age, even if everything goes well he only has about half as many years ahead of him as a jockey as he has behind him. “If I can go on for as long as Conor O’Dwyer,” he laughs, “I’ll be doing well.”

The bell rings and the jockeys file out for the fourth race, the first division of the maiden hurdle. Carberry doesn’t have a mount, so we can sit this one out. You observe the fresh faces, established names in the saddle these days. Robbie Colgan, Davy Condon, Philip Enright, Roger Loughran, Paddy Flood, even Andrew McNamara – most of them would have been in primary school when Carberry was booting Rhythm Section home.

Carberry himself didn’t really have that much time for primary school, nor for secondary school for that matter. He says that he was so clever, he did his leaving before he did his Inter Cert. Most of his early schooling was done on horseback down at McGowans’ with his dad. Actually, he can’t remember any time in his life before he was going down to McGowans’. It was fitting, then, that it was on the McGowans’ Joseph Knibb, trained by his dad, that Paul had his first ride over the Aintree fences as a 16-year-old amateur in the 1990 Foxhunters’ Chase. He only got as far as the seventh fence, however. It wasn’t far enough. All through his childhood, when he was playing at home, it was always the Grand National that he was winning, always Becher’s Brook that he was jumping. The seventh fence in the Foxhunters’ is the big open ditch, three fences before Becher’s. He would just have to go back and do it again for real.

Of course he did. The story of Bobbyjo’s win in the 1999 Grand National tied more fairytale endings together than the Complete Works of Hans Christian Andersen did. Not only was the horse trained by Tommy Carberry, but Bobbyjo was the first Irish-trained horse to win the Grand National since L’Escargot, ridden by Tommy and trained by Paul’s grandfather Dan Moore, beat Red Rum in the great race in 1975.

“I thought he had a fair chance beforehand,” he recalls, “but it was only when I cantered down to the start, and he felt so well, that I really felt hopeful. I was only 25 at the time, and I thought I was too young to win the Grand National. It was unbelievable. When you have won it once, though, you just want to go and win it again.”

He nearly didn’t get another chance to do too much again. A couple of weeks later, Carberry had a fall on the gallops and a horse coming from behind put his knee through his back. A couple of broken ribs was the diagnosis, not ideal but more than manageable and nothing out of the ordinary for a jump jockey. A couple of days later, however, the jockey began to feel weak and nauseous. Upon arrival at hospital he was told that one of his broken ribs had ruptured his spleen. No exaggerating, if he had arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later, they may not have been able to save him.

His tone is matter-of-fact, deadpan. No sensationalism. That was just the way it was. He could have been telling you that he was looking forward to Cheltenham. But it is nothing less than you would expect from a man who could have made a living riding on the flat. The three years that he spent at the academy that was Jim Bolger’s yard were fine, he learned plenty, but he just got bored. St Jovite, Topanoora and Jet Ski Lady were all there at the time, but Carberry was getting a greater kick out of his beloved hunting with the Ward Union than he was out of riding flat horses.

Even these days, when he isn’t race-riding, you will probably find Paul Carberry out hunting. His riding injuries are sustained as often jumping a gate in Co Meath as they are jumping an open ditch on a racecourse. His fellow hunters say that he is fearless. If you want a white-knuckle ride, follow Carberry.

Sometimes he can over-step the mark, not just while out hunting, but in life. The trouble that he got into on a flight from Malaga to Dublin in October 2005 has been well documented. He is contrite. Says it was a foolish thing to do and that he didn’t mean any harm to anything or anybody. As a result, he is required to help train a group of young people from south-west Dublin in riding techniques. He’s looking forward to that. Says it might be a bit of craic.

“It was kind of tough at Bolger’s all right,” he recalls, “but it didn’t bother me a whole lot.” There’s that cheeky grin again. “I’d just do my own thing anyway. I’d let him roar away.”

He shared a house with AP McCoy, Willie Supple and two other lads. Carberry and McCoy were different from the other riders at Bolger’s, he reckons, in that they both wanted to be jump jockeys. They were just filling in time, developing their respective riding styles among aspirant flat jockeys, but still intent on pursuing the more precarious career in the winter game.

“I never felt that I had a future there,” says Carberry. “I just wanted to jump. I wasn’t really getting on that well with Jim at the time, and I was sort of sick of it by the time I left. I get bored easily.”

On the day that he told Bolger that he was leaving, the trainer told him that nobody would ever hear of him if he left. What of it, thought the young Carberry. Nobody had heard of him before then anyway. His dad gave Noel Meade a call and asked him if he would take on the youngster. Meade had National Hunt horses as well as flat horses, and the mix appealed. Carberry won the apprentice title in 1993 with Meade. It wasn’t enough. The thrill was in the jumping. That is why, when you ask him about the horses that he has enjoyed riding the most, Morceli is at the very top of his list. Not because he was the best, but because he was one of the most exuberant jumpers ever to approach the take-off board of a birch fence.

Carberry’s time with Meade was interrupted by a three-year stint in the UK as retained rider for owner Robert Ogden from 1996 to 1998. It was a great opportunity, it was a good job, he was being paid a hefty retainer, and it was the right time for him. He won the Tote Gold Trophy on Squire Silk, he won the Great Yorkshire Chase on General Command, and he and Edelweiss Du Moulin racked up a string of wins in novice chases, but he wasn’t happy.

“I was spending a lot of time travelling,” he says thoughtfully. “I was going around the country riding Robert Ogden’s horses out at Gordon Richards’, Paul Nicholls’, Martin Todhunter’s, Ferdy Murphy’s. And there wasn’t a lot to do in Middleham when you weren’t riding. I was coming home when I could on Tuesdays and Fridays to hunt, and I was coming home to ride for Noel on Sundays.”

In May 1998 he decided that he would leave England and come back to work for Meade. The trainer had told him that there would always be a job for him at Tu Va. Two days before his decision was made public, Carberry broke his leg in a fall at Wetherby. Such are the vagaries of his chosen profession. His return to race-riding in Ireland would have to wait.

The talk inevitably turns to Cheltenhams past, and previous Carberry winners. Looks Like Trouble in the Sun Alliance Chase, Unguided Missile in the William Hill, Hairy Molly and Nicanor last year, and Sausalito Bay. Noel Meade’s first.

“That was brilliant,” he says. “The only thing was, I had injured my spine in a fall at Navan two weeks before Cheltenham that year, and a haematoma burst in my back half way up the run-in. I was dying with pain when I finished and I wasn’t able to enjoy it too much. It was as if someone had hit me with a sword across the back. I knew when I jumped the last, I was in that much pain, that I wouldn’t be able to ride for the rest of the day and maybe for the rest of the week, so this was my only chance of riding a winner. I just put my head down and pushed through the pain. I don’t think I was any weaker in the finish as a result, but I don’t think I looked too stylish either!”

He hasn’t managed to get Cheltenham right on Harchibald yet. In the 2004 County Hurdle he got there too soon. Meade just told him before he went out not to be too far back. “That’s what you get for listening to trainers – you should never do it!” In the 2005 Champion, he got there too late. Or too soon, depending on your perspective.

“He was sick a week before the race,” says the jockey. “I thought he did really well to get as close as he did. He’s a horse who does everything for you, gives everything he can on the bridle so that when you go for him, he just can’t give any more. Of course when you get beaten a neck you wonder if there’s something you could have done differently to make up that neck. He jumped the second last too good, Barry just ran off the bend and gave me a little bit of a gap, with the result that I got there a bit too soon. I still thought I’d get there, but Hardy Eustace just put his head down and out-battled us. A lot of people said, if I’d hit him three turning in he’d have gone clear, but we probably would have finished third or fourth if I had done that. I know the horse, what he can do. I know he did his best. And I did my best. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it now anyway.”

Harchibald’s participation in the Champion Hurdle in 16 days’ time depends on the ground. If it turns up soft, Carberry reckons, there’s not much point in going. In his absence, he will ride Iktitaf. He’s hopeful. But ask him about Aran Concerto, and hopeful doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“He’s a top class horse,” he says slowly. “You just hope that everything goes right between now and Cheltenham. He has a lot to live up to. Noel has blown him up so high, some people are just waiting for him to fall down. But he is a smashing horse. Whatever he does this year, I’d say it will only be next year or the year after when we will see the best of him. But he’s a very good horse. I’d say we had Catch Me beaten in the Deloitte Hurdle, the way he quickened around the home turn. He jumps hurdles well for a big horse, and I think he will take a lot of beating over there.”

Perhaps Mattock Ranger will go for the Sun Alliance Chase, although he hasn’t been firing recently. Maybe Orbit O’Gold in the Supreme Novices’. He needs to get his own way up front and that might be hard in the Supreme Novices’. Nothing in the Gold Cup yet.

“If you can’t get on one of the top six or seven, you’re better off waiting, not committing to something that has no chance, and hoping that you get a chance. You don’t wish any ill-luck on your colleagues, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen sometimes.”

Ask him what he will settle for out of the Cheltenham Festival this year, and he answers immediately. Just one winner. Just Aran Concerto. Anything else would be a bonus.
© The Sunday Times, 25th February 2007