Donn's Articles » Barry Geraghty

Barry Geraghty

On September 2nd 1997, a 17-year-old Barry Geraghty went to Clonmel to ride a couple of horses for his boss Noel Meade. In The Evening had a chance in the maiden hurdle, while Sigma Comms wasn’t a completely forlorn hope in the handicap hurdle.

In The Evening gave the young rider a good spin. She travelled well in third place for most of the way and moved into second at the fourth last, but she had no more to give in the home straight, and she was a tired horse when she fell at the final flight. When Barry picked himself up off the ground, he could feel a fairly severe pain in his back. He thought nothing of it, got back up and rode Sigma Comms to finish fifth in the handicap hurdle a half an hour later.

In the back of the car on the way home from Clonmel that evening with Noel Meade, the pain in Barry’s back seemed to deteriorate, adrenaline gone. He hardly slept that night. The following morning, he rode out at Noel’s in the morning, then went to Navan hospital to get his back checked out. The x-ray revealed that he had crushed vertebrae – he had been riding with a broken back.

It’s a tough game and it’s for tough people – there aren’t many jobs in which an ambulance follows you as you work – and Geraghty is made of stern stuff. When Brave Betsy decanted him at the third flight in a mares’ hurdle at Fairyhouse in March 2008, and kicked him in the face as she ran off, kicking a hole in his gumshield and leaving him requiring 40 stitches in his face, he was back riding the following day.

The scars are well heeled now, and there is an air of contentment about Barry Geraghty as he makes the tea in his kitchen. Life is good, he is riding well, he is riding good horses, he has one of the best jobs in racing with Nicky Henderson, he married long-term girlfriend Paula Heaphy earlier this year – she didn’t run scared after he proposed to her in the weigh room after racing on Cheltenham Gold Cup day last year – and their daughter Siofra is four, going 24 and intent on ruling the world.

“Things are great,” he says. “Especially given the times we’re in, it’s important to be working, you wouldn’t be complaining when things are going well, you wouldn’t be afraid of working hard or getting up early in the morning. I could be riding at Ludlow on a Wednesday when there is racing at Fairyhouse, getting up in the middle of the night to get a flight when the front gate to Fairyhouse is two miles down the road, but I love it. I have always wanted to ride good horses, and that’s what I’m doing. It couldn’t be better.”

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, however. There was a worrying period a couple of seasons ago when Geraghty seemed to be struggling. He hadn’t changed anything, he wasn’t taking it any easier, he was never afraid of putting in the hours, and he wasn’t riding any worse, but he wasn’t getting on good horses. As well as being a tough game, racing is a fickle game, fashion is king. If you are not fashionable, if, as a freelance, you somehow fall down one rung of the ladder, you can spin into freefall. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. You ride good horses, you ride in good races, you win good races, you are high profile and you are in demand. The reverse is also the case, however: the spiral is downwards.

In 2003 he rode five winners at Cheltenham, he rode Monty’s Pass to win the Grand National and he was voted Sports Personality of the Year in Ireland. Incredible, a mere jockey among mainstream sports stars. In what was a fantastic year for Irish sport and for Irish sports people, he received more votes than Keith Wood and Damian Duff and Henry Shefflin and Sonia O’Sullivan. In the 2003/04 season, he rode 110 winners in Ireland and 13 in the UK, he was champion jockey and on top of the world.

In the 2007/08 season, a mere four years later, he rode just 48 winners in Ireland and one in the UK. How did that happen? He’s not sure. He had a couple of injuries, he was freelance, he wasn’t riding for a retained yard, and he struggled. Success breeds success. The more you struggle, the more you struggle.

“I was doing all I could do,” he says thoughtfully. Whether sitting in his sitting room with a tape recorder whirring, or sitting on a Cheltenham Preview panel, Geraghty almost always speaks thoughtfully. “I suppose it was demoralising at the time, you have plenty of self-belief and you’re not getting the opportunities that you would have got before, it’s hard, it was hard. That’s why I am enjoying it so much now. You’re getting every opportunity now.”

When Nicky Henderson was looking for a replacement for Mick Fitzgerald at the beginning of last season, Geraghty was top of the list. Suddenly he is back in vogue. Same man, same jockey, same talent, same work ethic, same riding style, same natural ability, but different horses, better horses, and that’s the key. When people tell him that he is riding better now than he was a couple of years ago, he chuckles to himself. Of course, there is the confidence that comes with riding good horses, there is the confidence that comes with success, but Geraghty has never doubted his ability as a rider. The only difference is, he is fashionable now, and perception is reality.

“You know,” he says slowly, “it’s quite amazing. Two summers ago, when it was announced that I had the job with Nicky, lads actually said to me, ‘Jesus you’re riding great since you got that job’. I hadn’t even started the job and immediately people were thinking I was riding better.”

Last season, he rode 65 winners in the UK and 39 in Ireland. It was the first time that he had ridden more than 100 winners in a season since his championship year. This year already, he has surpassed last season’s total in Ireland and he has ridden 60 winners in the UK.

Remarkably, in the eight years since he rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner on Moscow Flyer in the 2002 Arkle, Geraghty has never come away from the Festival empty-handed. Of course, there was the 2003 Klondike, when he won almost one-third of the races that were open to professionals at the meeting, but even through the leaner times, he has always managed to filch out a winner during Cheltenham week.

A setback to Punchestowns on Thursday, when he was found to be lame on his near-fore, looked like weakening Geraghty’s book of rides a little this year, but the horse pleased Nicky Henderson in a gallop yesterday, and he is reportedly right back on track. Even besides the RSA Chase favourite, the jockey has a mouth-watering book of rides. Punjabi or Zaynar in the Champion Hurdle:

“I got an unbelievable feel off Punjabi at Kempton last time,” he says. “Zaynar was disappointing at Kelso, but the winner is a good horse and Zaynar will come on a lot for it. That said, I won the Champion Hurdle on Punjabi last year, and it will probably be hard to get off him.”

Oscar Whisky in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Riverside Theatre in the Arkle, Voler La Vedette in the Mares’ Hurdle, Finian’s Rainbow in the Neptune: “I like Finian’s Rainbow. I really like him as a horse for the future. He wouldn’t have been fully cooked when he got beaten in the Challow Hurdle, he travelled by far the best in the race, he just got tired on the ground. I’d say he’s one of my best chances at the meeting.”

Big Zeb in the Champion Chase, Barbers Shop in the Ryanair, Sentry Duty in the World Hurdle, maybe Spirit River in the Coral Cup, Soldatino in the Triumph Hurdle, French Opera and probably a decent mount in most of the handicaps, and if it wasn’t for Ruby Walsh, Gearghty would be a warm favourite to be leading rider next week.

Ask him what his goals are for the week, and he is circumspect.

“I wouldn’t look at it like that,” he says. “You could do everything right, you could do everything perfectly, and ride no winner. You wouldn’t want to be coming out of there scratching your head but, sure hopefully I will ride a winner or two.”

Still thoughtful.

© The Sunday Times, 7th March 2010