Donn's Articles » Alain Cawley

Alain Cawley

Alain Cawley is sitting at his kitchen table, talking about Joncol.

“The plan was to ride him aggressively in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last time,” he is saying. “Everything was going well, we were upsides Notre Pere going down the back straight, but we made a mistake at the third last, and I probably should have sat and given him a chance to recover, but I didn’t. I rushed him back up again straight away.”

His actions actually weren’t that noticeable from the grandstand. The horse made a slight error, surrendered the lead, the jockey gave him a little squeeze and he was back in front again by the time they reached the second last. Even so, Cawley winces at the recollection, beats himself up. He should have given the horse a chance to fill his lungs.

“I got a good jump at the second last, we landed a length and a half in front. Going to the last, I couldn’t hear anything coming, I thought if I got a good jump they’d struggle to get by me. But he got in a bit close, it wasn’t really a mistake, he was just a little close, he was getting kind of weary, he had been in front for a long time, and the other two horses caught me on the run-in. But I don’t think my fellow didn’t stay. He was two lengths behind them half way up the run-in and he was only beaten a length and a half. I think, the people who say he doesn’t stay, we’ll answer them on Sunday.”

Paul Nolan blames himself. That’s Paul Nolan for you. It would be easy for the trainer to blame his jockey, to pin the blame for Joncol’s defeat in the Lexus Chase on the 22-year-old rider who has no real right of reply, but that wouldn’t be Nolan’s style. “We got the tactics wrong,” the trainer said after the race. “I blame myself. We’ll do things a bit differently in the Hennessy.”

It is probable that the postponement of the Lexus Chase for a day due to fog didn’t affect Joncol’s performance, but it may have. All the Irish horses had to travel home from Leopardstown that evening and then go back up the road the following day, whereas the British horses stayed and rested easy at Foxrock. It may be just a coincidence, then, that two of the three British horses in the race filled the first two places, but it may not be.

It was a strange scenario. They were down at the start on the Thursday, circling, girths done, goggles down, the starter said right lads, white flag raised, hearts beating, all set, then the starter said no, not yet, relax for a moment. It was misty, but when Cawley looked down the back straight, he could just about see four fences. A couple of minutes later, he couldn’t see the first fence. Not today boys, come back in the morning.

“Joncol has been great since,” says the jockey. “I sat on him last Sunday morning, and he was good, he seemed to be on good terms with himself. Mick Doran rides him out at home nearly all the time, he knows him better than anyone, and he says he’s in great form, so that’s good enough for me.”

Alain Cawley was nine years old when he started hunting. The local hunt, the Galway Blazers, would gather at his family’s pub in Craughwell in County Galway, and his aunt and uncle used to bring him along on a pony with a lead when he was so young that he can barely remember.

He and his older brother Brian used to go up from school to ride out the hunters whenever they could. Then Brian went to RACE and started working for Willie Mullins, while Alain worked initially for Ger Lynch and then for Paul Gilligan, both local trainers, when he could manage to escape the confines of the school walls.

“I was mad to get out of school,” smiles Alain now. “So when I got my summer holidays in 2004, I rang Brian and asked him if there were any jobs going up around Willie Mullins’s. He was living with Aidan Fitzgerald, Paul Nolan’s amateur rider at the time, and Paul was looking for people. Two weeks later I arrived at Paul’s.”

His dad thought that he wouldn’t last. When Alain got out of the car in Enniscorthy, his dad said that he would see him in two weeks. The youngster thought, no chance. He had left Craughwell behind, he had left school behind, he had even left his nickname, Squeaky, behind (“The old voice took a little while to break!”), or at least he did until one evening, when he was on the phone to his brother and one of the lads overheard the conversation.

“I don’t mind it,” he laughs. “Sure if you let on you were annoyed about something with the lads at Paul’s, they’d just annoy you about it even more!”

He learned as he went, a 16-year-old in a man’s world, without even a rider’s licence, just a desperate desire to ride. Aidan Fitzgerald and John Cullen, Nolan’s stable jockey at the time, were particularly good to him, teaching him the nuances of riding, and he improved exponentially.

“We were on the way home from Galway that September,” he recalls. “We stopped off for a Chinese, and Paul just told me that I should take out a flat licence, an apprentice licence, I was only eight stone or so at the time. So that was great, I had about four rides between then and the end of the season. I had about 40 rides the following year. It got me going, but I always wanted to be a jump jockey. I never had any interest in riding on the flat. It’s probably an easier life on the flat, but there is no comparison for me, I get such a buzz out of jumping. If I had wanted to be a flat jockey, I would have tried to get into a flat yard. And I still haven’t ridden a winner on the flat!”

Even so, he has come some distance in six years, from 16-year-old with no licence to top rider with one of the strongest yards in the country, a car sponsored by Jimmy Houlihan, breeches and gear sponsored by Moran Refuse, and sharing a house in Ballon just outside Carlow with weigh room colleagues Matt O’Connor and Emmet Mullins. Sparsely decorated.

“I just put up some pictures there,” he says for his landlord’s ears. “I’m the only one who does any DIY around here.”

“You’re the only one who is vain enough to put up pictures of himself,” retorts O’Connor.

Last season Cawley was champion conditional rider, this season he has kicked on again. In a golden four-week period in December, he rode Joncol to win the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown, he rode Shinrock Paddy to win a Grade 1 hurdle at Navan, he rode Chicago Grey to win a listed hurdle at Thurles, and he rode Quiamo Malta to win his maiden at Limerick.

That said, he is taking nothing for granted. He is still kicking himself over his ride on Noble Prince in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown (“I still think that he will stay three miles, but I didn’t give him a chance”) and, even as late as last Wednesday, he wasn’t certain that he would be riding Joncol this afternoon, despite the fact that he has ridden him in his last three races. He hadn’t heard that he wasn’t riding him, so he was hoping for the best. And today, his best might just be good enough.

© The Sunday Times, 7th February 2010