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Barry Geraghty

Barry Geraghty is talking about the Champion Hurdle in front of a hushed audience. He is talking about the race, the qualities that a horse requires if he is to win a Champion Hurdle, the speed, the stamina. He knows what he is talking about too; Geraghty is among an elite group of jockeys who have ridden the winner of the race twice on two different horses.

He is talking about Jezki, the horse on whom he won last year’s Champion Hurdle, about how he is a bigger price than he should be this year. Jezki is trained by Jessica Harrington, who is sitting to the rider’s immediate left, but he is owned by JP McManus, so AP McCoy will inevitably ride him in this year’s renewal. Geraghty is philosophical. That was always the way. He was delighted to have the lend of him last year for five minutes.

There is a question from the floor about the Willie Mullins-trained Champion Hurdle contingent, about which horse Ruby Walsh should ride, about how difficult it will be for him to ride Faugheen and pass over dual Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly.

“Surely Ruby wouldn’t be happy if he was sitting on Faugheen watching Hurricane Fly going into the winner’s enclosure?” goes the question.

“Well,” says Geraghty, “would he be any happier if he was sitting on Hurricane Fly watching Faugheen going into the winner’s enclosure?”

“Which one would you ride then?”

The jockey glances to his left at Jessie.

“I’d ride Jezki.”


Jessica Harrington and Barry Geraghty and the Cheltenham Festival go way back. It was in 2002 that Harrington gave the rider the leg up on Moscow Flyer in the parade ring before the second race on the first day of the Festival, and the pair of them went out and came back with the Arkle Trophy.

That was the rider’s first Cheltenham Festival winner. There have been 30 more since then, his remarkable total of 31 leaving him second behind only Ruby Walsh in the list of the most successful riders of all time at the Cheltenham Festival.

He could have ridden his first winner two years earlier. He rode a copybook race on the Noel Meade-trained Native Dara in the 2000 Coral Cup. He got his horse nicely settled through the early stages of the race, they made good ground down the hill, they hit the front over the second last flight and went five lengths clear on the run to the last. The horse pinged the final obstacle and Geraghty set about driving him home.

After years of heartache, Noel Meade had broken his Cheltenham Festival maiden the previous day, when Sausalito Bay had beaten Best Mate in the curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. They’re like busses, these Cheltenham Festival winners. Or not.

What’s Up Boys came from nowhere, 13th of the 25 remaining runners rounding the home turn, yet he finished like he had just joined in and got up to beat Native Dara by a neck. If they’re like busses, they’re like well-spaced busses. Meade had to wait a little while longer for his second, Geraghty had to wait a little while for his first.

“That taught me an awful lot about the Cheltenham Festival,” says the rider. “About the subtleties of the track, about pace. When you’re travelling well, time flies, but when you’re flat out, reaching for the line, it stands still.”

He talks about the subtleties of the track, about the intricacies of races run at Cheltenham. How important the little things are. Your position relative to the pace of the race, your position on the track, outside or inside, where and at what point in the race you make your ground. There is no hard and fast rule, it all depends on how a race is being run. It’s up to the rider to evaluate and decide and act, to ride his horse in the most efficient possible way, give it the best possible chance of winning.

“The margins are so slim at Cheltenham,” he says slowly. “What wins you a race one day will lose you a race the next day. And it’s full on, from flagfall. The time the pace is up, the time the pace is down. I’d say there are very few tracks at which so many things are so important at so many stages of a race. You can freewheel down the hill, but you can freewheel down it too hard. It all depends how fast the pace is.

“But there is no greater test of horse and rider. Cheltenham isn’t a graceful track to ride around. It’s sharp, climbing, turning. Hurdles and fences are not in a straight line. It’s not a comfy ride, but that’s the test. And little things that you do during the race can make a massive difference in the end.”

You can only learn these things from riding at the Cheltenham Festival. You can only gain an insight into them through experience. They really can’t be taught or explained. It’s action learning. But it is this understanding that makes Geraghty the rider that he is generally and as successful as he is at the Cheltenham Festival specifically. It is why he will be one of the most sought-after jockeys in the weigh room this week.

There have been fantastic days: Kicking King’s Gold Cup in 2005, Bobs Worth’s in 2013; Punjabi’s Champion Hurdle in 2009, Jezki’s last year; Moscow’s Arkle, his Champion Chase win in 2003, or in 2005, Big Zeb’s in 2010, Sprinter Sacre’s in 2013. It is impossible for the rider to pick one over the others. His five winners in 2003, when there were only 20 races at the meeting, not like the 27 we will have this week, and only 18 in which professionals could ride. That was some achievement.

Talk about the week ahead, and he lights up. He has a really strong book of rides, most of them for his boss Nicky Henderson. Ma Filleule has a big chance in the Ryanair Chase, he tells you. She should come on for her run in the Ascot Chase, she will be better on the better ground this week, and she loves Cheltenham. Peace And Co in the Triumph Hurdle, L’Ami Serge in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, The Young Master in the RSA Chase. These are all big rides with big chances. Josses Hill should jump better behind a fast pace in the Arkle.

Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase.

“I schooled Sprinter on Friday,” he says quietly. “We jumped 10 fences, and he was electric. I couldn’t have been happier with him.”

Hopefully number 32 isn’t far away.

© The Sunday Times, 8th March 2015