Donn's Articles » Barry Geraghty

Barry Geraghty

Monday morning, the day before the 2009 Cheltenham Festival, Barry Geraghty awakens and looks at his watch. Five o’clock, an hour before his alarm is due to go off. He turns over and tries to go back to sleep, but no. Too much on his mind. Thoughts fly, not thoughts of his rides at Plumpton that day, nor of the book of rides that he has at Cheltenham that week, Forpadydeplasterer and Punjabi and Zaynar and others, dripping with quality, but of his intention to propose to his long-term girlfriend, Paula Heaphy.

Nobody could ever accuse Barry Geraghty of being a hopeless romantic, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and he wanted to get it right. All morning he thought of little else, in the shower, on the way to the airport, on the flight to Gatwick, on the way to Plumpton. By 11 o’clock, he had concocted his plan. All week it played on his mind, nerves more frayed about this than they were about riding Barbers Shop in the Gold Cup, or about meeting his owner The Queen in the parade ring beforehand.

At half past six on Gold Cup evening, just after the last race and just before the annual post-Cheltenham party in the weigh room got going, he phoned Paula’s mother, just to make sure that he had the all-clear. At seven o’clock he recruited Ruby Walsh. At eight o’clock, Ruby got up on a table in the weigh room and asked for a bit of hush, Barry Geraghty had something to say.

A giggly hush descended. He’s not going to, is he?

The hopeless romantic dropped down onto one knee and asked the question. Tears everywhere. Not just Paula, but just about every female in the weigh room that evening, and a couple of males as well, although they probably won’t admit it. Paddy Flood, who had been out having a smoke, came back in and thought that war had been declared, such was the carnage in the room.

“So what’s your answer?” Barry had to be certain.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

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If you had told Barry Geraghty this time last year that he would have the season that he has just had, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. Over 100 winners already, three winners at Cheltenham, and a host of other big-race successes. No more than 48 winners in Ireland last season was some come-down from a total of 110 and the jockeys’ championship just four years previously. A broken wrist at the start of last season meant that he found it difficult to get going. Injuries are part of the National Hunt jockey’s bailiwick, and it had never been a problem for Geraghty in the past to pick up the momentum when he came back from injury, but last year he struggled.

The Henderson job came up during the summer. Long-term incumbent Mick Fitzgerald was lucky to be able to peel himself off his spinal board after L’Ami spear-tackled him at the second fence in last year’s Grand National, but it was always long odds against that he would ever ride again. Geraghty had ridden a lot for Henderson in the past. He rode Punjabi to finish third in last year’s Champion Hurdle when Fitzgerald chose to ride Afsoun instead, and with Fitzgerald on the sidelines, Geraghty teamed up with Punjabi again at Punchestown last year, and rode his rivals to sleep in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. Still obviously at the top of his game, he was always the front-runner to land the Henderson job, which he duly did.

Once when asked about the pressure that he was under as a National Hunt rider, Geraghty famously remarked that pressure was for tyres. Even so, there is nothing like success to cement a relationship. The Geraghty/Henderson partnership got off to a flyer with a winner at Towcester in October, and it hasn’t looked back. Horses like Punchestowns, Zaynar, Punjabi, Sentry Duty, Chomba Womba, Jack The Giant and My Petra saw Geraghty break through the 100-winner barrier in Ireland and the UK for the first time in four years. Henderson broke through the same barrier for the first time ever this year. Punjabi was Henderson’s first Cheltenham Festival winner in three years and his first Champion Hurdle winner since See You Then in 1987. Punjabi was also Geraghty’s first Champion Hurdle winner ever, and completed the set for the jockey – Grand National, Gold Cup, Champion Chase, King George and now Champion Hurdle. It has been a season of ups and ups for the rider.

“It works really well,” says Geraghty. “Nicky is a great man to ride for. You’re getting up on really good horses every week. They are all really well schooled, they all know what is required of them. It’s a great job.”

There was never really any doubt that Barry Geraghty’s life would be among horses. It was Barry’s grandfather who bred the marvel that was Golden Miller, five-time Gold Cup winner and still the only horse to win the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year. If you stand at the kitchen window in Barry’s mother and father’s house in Drumree in County Meath and look across the yard, you can actually see the box in which the National Hunt racing legend was foaled in 1928.

Tucker and Bea Geraghty ran an equestrian school when Barry was a lad, and they had no problem taking Barry and his two brothers, Ross and Norman, out of school every Tuesday to bring them hunting. There was as much education in the banks and ditches of County Meath as there was between the four school walls.

Of course, every aspiring rider needs a break, and Barry got one when he rode Miss Orchestra for Jessica Harrington to win the Midlands National at Uttoxeter in 1998. There were other good Harrington horses around at the time, like Ferbet Junior and Slaney Native, with whom Geraghty struck up good relationships, but it was Moscow Flyer who catapulted him into the stratosphere.

Some of Geraghty’s finest moments at the Punchestown Festival have been on Moscow Flyer. The pair won the Champion Novice Hurdle there in 2000, they won the Swordlestown Cup in 2002 and they won the Champion Chase in 2004, but they also threw away the 2003 Champion Chase at the second last, and they lost out by a whisker to Rathgar Beau in the 2005 renewal.

“Punchestown is a great meeting,” says Barry. “It’s developing into a mini Cheltenham now, but without the microscope that you are under at Cheltenham. It’s important to win at Punchestown, but it won’t be talked about all year if you get beaten.”

Geraghty’s book of rides this week is at least as strong as his book of rides going into Cheltenham, possibly even stronger. Punjabi will be a warm order to land the Rabobank Champion Hurdle again on Friday, Punchestowns will be favourite for Thursday’s Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle, and Forpadydeplasterer will be favourite for the Cathal Ryan Memorial Swordlestown Cup on the same day, as long as he runs in that race. Throw in Barbers Shop in the Guinness Gold Cup on Wednesday and Big Zeb, who will have another crack at Master Minded in the Kerrygold Champion Chase on Tuesday, and you could be looking at a winner a day.

“Big Zeb schooled well this morning,” says the jockey. “He was going to win when he fell at Punchestown, he was still going well when he fell at Cheltenham, and he won his hurdle race well at Fairyhouse. He’s a good ride, Master Minded or no Master Minded.”

Here is a man who rarely lacks confidence either in his own talent or in the ability of the horses that he rides. That is half the battle, half the journey to success. No pressure, then, just performance. Pressure is for tyres. And hopeless romantics.

© The Sunday Times, 26th April 2009