Donn's Articles » Tom Queally

Tom Queally

Two years ago, before the 2008 flat season had started, when Tom Queally told long-time mentor Barney Curley that he was going to be riding a lot for Henry Cecil that season, Curley suggested that the young rider accompany him on one of his trips to Zambia with his charity Direct Aid For Africa.

“This year is a big year for you,” said Curley. “It’ll do you good to come to Zambia. Some day when you’re stuck in traffic, on the way home from Sandown after getting beaten on two favourites, maybe you’ll be doing light the following day and you’ll be feeling a bit sorry for yourself, you need to be able to appreciate how good things are for you, you need to be able to put things in perspective.”

Queally spent 10 days in Zambia, and Curley was right about helping you put things in perspective. Sitting in the plush surrounds of the Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket, multiple Group 1-winning jockey, one of the top jobs in British racing in his pocket and a lifestyle to die for, the contrast with Zambia could hardly be more stark.

“I think I dealt with it fairly well,” says the rider, “apart from the orphanages. The orphanages got to me. It wasn’t so much the little kids, you can humour them, you can make them laugh, but go further down the corridor and you get to the handicapped children. There’s nothing you can do. They don’t know who you are, they don’t know who they are themselves. Nobody wants them.

“One thing I noticed out there, though,” he says thoughtfully, brightening up. “You ask anyone how they are, and they say, “Great”. Everyone is great, everyone is smiling. Some of the kids walk 10 miles to school, there are 1700 kids going to the school that Barney set up. There’s hope there. It’s good, it was good to go there, makes you think about things.”

Tom Queally has always been a thinking man. You can see it when he is asked about a horse or a ride, you can see him thinking about the question. Not for him the banal, cliché-ridden answers that serve some top sportsmen so well.

Education has always been key. Bornin Dungarvan in October 1984, Declan and Bernie Queally always thought it important that their children would be well-educated.

“We always had point-to-pointers and a couple running on the track,” recalls Tom. “I was schooling horses when I was 10, although I didn’t tell my mother. I did a lot of drag hunting, I had a great pony, and I was pony racing for two years.”

Queally rode 40 winners during those two years and was champion rider on the southern circuit when he was 13. It didn’t take him long to ride his first winner on the track either, just two or three rides before he booted the John Roche-trained Larifaari home in a 10-furlong handicap at Clonmel on 13th April 2000.

He wasn’t yet 16. He had intended taking out an amateur licence when he was 16, but you could hold an apprentice licence when you were 15. He had started riding out for local trainer Pat Flynn the previous summer, and suddenly the winners started to flow. No less a judge of riders than Jim Bolger put him up on Tushna in the McDonogh Handicap at the Galway Festival that year, which he duly won, and his star shone brightly during that summer, so much so that he rode 28 winners, which meant that he finished ninth in the jockeys’ championship almost before he had turned 16, and which saw him run away with the apprentices’ title.

The plan was always for Queally to go back to school at the end of that summer. His parents knew that it was the best thing for their son and, despite his burning desire to ride racehorses and winners, deep in his 16-year-old bones, Tom knew it too.

“Everyone knew that I was going back to school,” says Queally. “That was always the arrangement. But when it came to the time, it just wasn’t so convenient for the trainer for me to go back. Pat Flynn was probably under pressure as well, he probably didn’t have a lot of staff, but it was all very difficult at the time.”

Declan Queally applied to have his son’s apprenticeship transferred back to his yard, but the Turf Club refused. The dispute between Queally and Flynn became public, and the Turf Club had to intervene in the end, shortening the rider’s apprenticeship with the trainer by one year.

“He stopped me from riding,” says Queally now. “I remember switching on the Minitel and I wasn’t there. It was as if I didn’t exist. It wasn’t a very nice thing to do.”

If the episode seemed like a black hole to the youngster at the time, looking back now, it is barely a pothole. Indeed, it may have been a positive.

“If I had kept going at the rate that I was going,” says the rider thoughtfully, “I could have ridden out my claim by the time I was 18. What use would I have been to anyone then? I’ve been very lucky, going through life that I have had people who have been so interested in me that they thought enough to look after my interests. My parents then, Barney later on, Henry now. You can’t do it on your own.”

A spell with Aidan O’Brien followed, during which time he rode Balestrini to beat Alamshar and his better-fancied stable companion Alberto Giacometti in the Group 3 Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown in 2003, before Queally decided that, if he was going to make his way in the world as a professional jockey, he needed to go to the UK.

“I could have stayed at Aidan’s,” he says. “And Aidan was very good to me. But I always had it in the back of my mind to try England. If I had never given it a go, I would have regretted it, I would have always wondered how I might have done.”

He hasn’t done too badly. He rode for David Elsworth and David Loder, was champion apprentice in Britain in 2004, and he started riding for Nick Littmoden and Barney Curley and Michael Quinlan and Jeremy Noseda.

“I used to ride out for Jeremy in Newmarket at 6.30 in the morning, and for Declan Daly at 7.00,” he recalls. “Henry also had a slot at 7.00, and he used to arrive along early, so I used to get chatting to him every morning. I had one ride for him that year, it didn’t finish anywhere, but I still wanted to ring him to thank him for the ride. He doesn’t use a mobile phone, he was difficult to contact, but I met him in the street in Newmarket one day, flagged him down, and just thanked him, and it has just gone from there.”

In 2008, Queally effectively became first jockey for the living legend that is Henry Cecil. He had 90 rides for Cecil in the UK that year, and 18 of them won. Last year he had 215 rides for the trainer, 42 winners. As importantly, he won the Champion Stakes on Twice Over, and he won the Nassau Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf on Midday. On top of that, Queally won the Golden Jubilee Stakes on Art Connoisseur for Michael Bell and the July Cup on Fleeting Spirit for Jeremy Noseda, which brought his Group 1 tally for the season and his career to five.

This year, he has already ridden the winners of 60 races, including the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse on Twice Over earlier this month. And with near-full book of rides lined up for Goodwood this week, highlighted by Midday’s bid for back-to-back wins in the Nassau Stakes on Saturday, things look set to get even better.

© The Sunday Times, 25th July 2010