Donn's Articles » Davy Condon

Davy Condon

Davy Condon was up at 4.30am on St Stephen’s Day. It is only an hour’s drive from his family home just outside Fermoy in County Cork to Cork Airport, but the roads were so bad that he wanted to give himself plenty of time to get there for his 7.30 flight. He was right to do so. It took him two hours to make the journey. You know the roads are bad when a National Hunt jockey is taking it handy.

Condon felt the pressure. He would be lying if he said that he didn’t. He and Go Native had to go and do it all over again in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton that afternoon. Many people didn’t believe the form of the Fighting Fifth Hurdle that they won at Newcastle four weeks previously, when they quickened best of all off a slow early pace. The world of racing would be watching, it didn’t get much more high-profile than Kempton in St Stephen’s Day, King George day. There was also the bonus, £1 million for any horse who can win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle in the same season, all in his hands.

Despite a three-hour flight delay, Condon arrived at Kempton in time to have a walk around the track and go over his tactics. He had never ridden at Kempton before, so it was important that he familiarise himself with the terrain. Hold him up, Starluck would probably be out the back with him, Cape Tribulation would probably make it, Straw Bear was probably a pacemaker, and be sure to keep tabs on Binocular.

“I was sitting on Binocular’s tail the whole way,” recalls the rider now. “We turned in and I saw Timmy on Starluck on my outside, he wasn’t on a loose rein, and I thought: ‘Well I have him beat anyway.’ I saw a nice stride at the last, he winged it and we went three clear. He just kind of flattened on the run-in a bit then. Starluck came back at me, but I thought I’d held on. It was a great feeling when the result was announced. It was some relief. But the race couldn’t have gone better for me. It worked out almost exactly as Paul said it would.”

Paul is Paul Carberry, Noel Meade’s stable jockey and Go Native’s usual rider, but sitting on the sidelines these days because of a 30-day suspension imposed after he failed a breathalyser test before racing at Naas on 31st October. Even so, Carberry is still an integral member of the Meade outfit. It was he who saddled Go Native at Newcastle and at Kempton with Meade on duty at Leopardstown.

Strange the way this game works. In an interview with the Racing Post during the week, Richard Johnson said that his luckiest break in racing came when Adrian Maguire got injured and he got to ride the good horses at David Nicholson’s. So Davy Condon’s latest break arrived with Carberry’s suspension. The first he knew about the prospect of riding some of the Meade horses in Carberry’s absence was when he read about it in the newspapers. Barry Geraghty would be riding them when he was available, Davy Condon would also be riding them. He was thrilled to have been even considered, grateful to the trainer and the owners, and Geraghty’s commitments to Nicky Henderson meant that he was never going to be able to ride all the good horses.

He didn’t know until the 11th hour that he was going to be riding Go Native in the Fighting Fifth – he was actually originally scheduled to ride Casey Jones in the Hennessy at Newbury on the same day – but he rode him to perfection and the pair of them posted an impressive victory, just the second Grade 1 victory of Condon’s career, the first since he rode Ebaziyan to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March 2007. Four days later, he won the Drinmore Chase on Pandorama – another Grade 1. Like busses.

He didn’t know that he would ride Hollo Ladies or Pandorama in Grade 1 races at Leopardstown last week either until the declarations were made, but he suspected and hoped that he would, and he did. He won on both. Only one Grade 1 winner in 25 years, then five more in a month. Some month.

It would have been surprising if Davy Condon had escaped racing’s clutches: son of leading point-to-point and amateur rider Michael Condon, grandson of top amateur rider Gerry Townend, nephew of Bob Townend, who rode as first jockey to Mick O’Toole, nephew also of Timmy Townend, Paul Townend’s dad. The family tree’s roots are embedded in racing’s soil.

“I suppose it was always in the blood,” says Condon. “Dad used to train a few pointers as well, and he was breeding horses all the time. I just started hunting, and did pony racing, I stayed in school until after my Junior Cert and then Dad asked Willie Mullins if he would take me on, which was great. I just went straight to Willie’s after I finished school.”

He finished second to Tadhg O’Shea in the apprentice championship with 27 winners in 2002, and he had some good days, some good horses. Holy Orders was a horse with whom he got on particularly well. He won six races on him on the flat, and he went to Australia to ride him in the 2003 Melbourne Cup.

“He was quirky all right,” says the rider. “Sam Curling used to ride him out every day at home. He wouldn’t come out of his box unless you put the blinkers on him, but he had a great engine. You always had to drop him in. I had some good days on him, but I should have won a Cesarewitch on him, I kicked for home too early. Willie wouldn’t talk to me afterwards. ‘Just get out of my sight!’ was all he said.”

He didn’t know until the evening before the 2007 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle that he had the ride on Ebaziyan. He had ridden the horse in his first hurdle race, and Ruby Walsh was riding Granit Jack for Paul Nicholls in the race, but still he didn’t know.

“I was just sitting at home on the Monday evening and I got a call from Willie,” he recalls. “He just told me that I was going to Cheltenham in the morning, to give Caitriona in his office a call to sort out travel arrangements. That was amazing. I remember it well. I was travelling well in behind Ruby and Mick Fitz on Amaretto Rose going to the last. I had nowhere to go, but then a gap appeared between the two of them, and my fellow was able to go through it. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think many people could, including the owners. Ruby just grabbed my arm as we were pulling up and, through gritted teeth I’m sure, just said well done.”

He rode as second jockey to Willie Mullins until May 2008, when he was offered the job as first jockey to Nicky Richards in the north of England. Tony Dobbin had just retired, and Richards was looking for a rider. Condon wasn’t necessarily looking to move to the UK, but it was a good job, a good trainer with some good horses, so he made the move.

“We had a great start to the season,” says Davy. “Then we got snow and frost, lots of racing was called off and the horses got unfit. We went through a bad patch, and it took ages for them to come right. It was a bit of a stop-start season, Monet’s Garden and Noble Alan were highlights, but some of the owners weren’t very happy, they didn’t get results. I didn’t enjoy it that much, it was a bit dreary up there during the winter, and I missed home a bit, so I came home for Punchestown and for the summer. I don’t think Nicky was too happy about that. Then he rang me one day and said that a few of the owners weren’t happy, that we might have to leave it. I said grand. I didn’t speak to him again until I won the Fighting Fifth on Go Native. We didn’t fall out, it wasn’t Nicky’s fault, he was under pressure from the owners, and he was the first fellow over to congratulate me after Go Native won.”

It can’t have been easy for Condon, re-establishing himself in Ireland this season. His first cousin, Paul Townend, has usurped his position as under-study to Ruby Walsh at Willie Mullins’s, but Condon has always been confident in his own ability, confident that the breaks would come. And they have.

Success breeds success. He is more in demand now than ever before. He has been placed firmly in racing’s shop window and he has performed. Ask him what Fate might have in store for him when Paul Carberry returns to the saddle at the end of this month, and he shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

You just never know in this game.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd January 2010