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Barry Geraghty

Barry Geraghty is pointing to a photograph on his office wall.

“You see that photo there?” he is saying. Spirit Leader winning the County Hurdle at the 2003 Cheltenham Festival, in case you didn’t recognise her. “I must get that enlarged. That’s about 30 yards before the line, and I’m busy celebrating. I have this fellow beaten,” points to a horse’s nose on the left, “but there’s a horse over here,” taps the wall to the right, “a horse of Oliver Brady’s on my inside, Balapour, who finishes like a train and almost gets up to do me. I didn’t see him until after we had crossed the line.”

It was one of those rare weeks, a Cheltenham Festival when everything went right, when all the holes lined up, square holes, round holes, rectangular holes, and all the pegs slotted into place. Youlneverwalkalone in the William Hill, Inching Closer in the Pertemps, Spectroscope in the Triumph Hurdle and, of course, the peerless Moscow Flyer in the Champion Chase had gone before Spirit Leader lined up in the County Hurdle.

“It was just one of those weeks,” recalls the rider. “But I appreciated it. Even at the time I appreciated it. I know how difficult it is to ride one winner at Cheltenham, so to have that many. Things don’t often go as well as that.”

Then three weeks later, he went and won the Grand National.

Actually, Geraghty thought Spirit Leader had little chance in that County Hurdle. A small mare, she was set to carry 11st 7lb, and that was just too much. He dropped her out, rode her with the confidence that goes with having four winners already in the bag, and trusted to fortune. As it turned out, fortune continued to smile. They went too fast up front in the early stages, the front-runners wilted up the home straight and he was able to deliver Jessica Harrington’s little mare with a withering run that saw her get home by a neck and a short head.

That’s confidence for you. If the week hadn’t gone as well as it had, if Geraghty had been looking for his first winner in the last race, Spirit Leader may have been given a different ride. She may have been handier, ridden more aggressively, perhaps she would have been one of those who had gone too fast early on and who had wilted up the home straight.

He smiles at the suggestion as he pours the coffee. Perhaps.

Confidence has never been an issue for Barry Geraghty. Confidence in his own ability. In his younger days it may have been mistaken for arrogance, but when confidence is justified, it is not arrogance. Have a look at the record books, have a look at him riding over a fence, his strength in a finish. This confidence is well grounded.

Even during the times when his star wasn’t shining so brightly, when his total number of winners in Ireland had fallen from 110 in 2003/04 to 48 just four years later, he didn’t stop believing in himself. He wasn’t doing anything differently, he was certain that he was still riding as well as he had ever ridden, but the river of opportunity was simply running shallow.

The trainers for whom he was riding, Jessica Harrington, Edward O’Grady, Tom Taaffe, were appointing their own stable jockeys. You could understand it from their point of view. The trainers needed consistency, they needed a rider who could commit to riding all their horses. Despite many opportunities, Geraghty resisted the temptation to commit to one yard. He preferred to remain free so that he could ride the best available, rely on his ability to ensure that he would be in demand. He was in demand, but the number of rides that were available to him as a freelancer was continually reducing. Then he rode Punjabi to win the ACC Bank Champion Hurdle at the 2008 Punchestown Festival for Nicky Henderson, Mick Fitzgerald retired, and the Henderson/Geraghty axis was born.

Nicky Henderson has been a leading trainer for decades, but in recent years he has gone stratospheric. Ask Geraghty if that has anything to do with his involvement and he laughs.

“Nicky is a top class trainer,” he says. “He has been at the top of his game for so long. And he has moved with the times. The way he trains, the methods he employs, the horses he buys, the owners he has. He runs a top class operation.”

It was a little inconsiderate of Henderson, however, to base himself in Seven Barrows in deepest Lambourn given that Geraghty lives in deepest Ratoath. It means that oftentimes Geraghty is driving past the gates of Fairyhouse racecourse, two miles from his front door, in the dark hours of a midweek morning on his way to the airport to ride at Ludlow or Taunton that day. That’s the way it is though. The rider doesn’t mind the travelling or the midweek graft, not when it means that you are riding top class horses in top class races every single week.

It is also a little inconsiderate for Henderson to have two potentially top class two-mile novice hurdlers, two real live contenders for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the race that will lift the curtain on the 2011 Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday, given that Geraghty – top class rider though he is – can only ride one of them. It is a decision that had played hard on the rider’s mind before he chose Spirit Son over Sprinter Sacre on Friday night.

“It was the toughest call between two horses that I have ever had to make,” he says. “Last year I had to choose between Big Zeb and Forpadydeplasterer in the Champion Chase, but I had a couple of years’ of form to go on. These horses haven’t run often and they have both been really impressive in all they have done. They both worked last Saturday and they both worked really well. I have been agonising over it all week, they are both exceptional talents, and I could easily have got this wrong, but in the end, I just feel that Spirit Son’s form is slightly stronger.”

That’s it, decision made. He won’t dwell on it. And he won’t be kicking himself if he has got it wrong, good luck to Nicky and to AP McCoy, who has come in for the ride on Sprinter Sacre, if he has. It is beyond his control now. He will be more concerned about making sure that he does everything right on Spirit Son in the race. That remains within his control.

He doesn’t dwell either on the fact that he won’t be riding two of Henderson’s main hopes at Cheltenham this week, Long Run (Sam Waley-Cohen’s ride) and Binocular (AP McCoy’s ride).

“It’s not an issue,” he says pragmatically. “They are not my rides, they never were my rides. It would be like if Jessie and Robert Power win the Neptune Hurdle with Oscars Well, I’d be delighted for them.”

Nor does he dwell on the absence of Burton Port – last year’s RSA Chase runner-up, this season’s Hennessy runner-up – from this year’s Cheltenham armoury, nor on the absence of Riverside Theatre, ante post second favourite for the Ryanair and a more recent scratching. He is more into looking forward, glass half-full, and he has a lot to look forward to.

Big Zeb in the Champion Chase for starters, Finian’s Rainbow in the Arkle, Grandouet in the Triumph Hurdle, Oscar Whisky in the Champion Hurdle, Bobs Worth in the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett, Ericht in the Bumper, Master Of The Hall in the RSA Chase, Mr Gardner in the Jewson, China Rock in the Gold Cup. There will hardly be a professional riders’ race that Geraghty will watch from Cheltenham’s weigh room this week, and best odds of 3/1 about him lifting the top jockey’s trophy at the end of the week gives an accurate indication of the strength of his book of rides.

Remarkably, he has ridden a winner at the Cheltenham Festival every year since that first glorious year, 2002, when he won the Arkle on Moscow Flyer. Nineteen in total. Last year he rode three, the same number as Ruby Walsh, but Ruby beat him to the top jockey’s title because he had more placed horses.

This year, he says he will be happy with one. Get one winner on the board and kick on from there. For now, it’s all about the anticipation, and Barry Geraghty’s glass remains half-full.

© The Sunday Times, 13th March 2011