Donn's Articles » Sean Flanagan

Sean Flanagan

There were two graded races at Down Royal last Saturday, and Sean Flanagan had big chances in both. 

He was silk-smooth on Road To Respect in the Grade 1 Champion Chase.  The horse travelled well for him, moved nicely through his field and moved up on the outside of the leader Outlander on the run to the final fence.  Alas, they couldn’t force their way past.  They finished second, beaten a half a length.

Then he went out on Disko in the Grade 2 intermediate chase, and he booted him home.

Yet now, almost a week later and sipping a cup of coffee, all he wants to talk about is the one that got beaten.

“I was annoyed about Road To Respect,” he says.  “Not with the horse, not with myself, just with the fact that he didn’t win.  I thought all through the race that we would win.  It was still a big run from the horse, and he will be even better when he gets to go left-handed again.” 

Disko was great.  Owned, like Road To Respect, by Gigginstown House, and trained by Noel Meade, the grey Martaline gelding didn’t miss a beat.  Flanagan kicked him out of the gate with confidence, he led from flagfall, and he didn’t see another rival until his rider pulled him up after crossing the winning line.

“I love riding in these big races, in Grade 1 and Grade 2 races, on these big days. At one stage of my career, a low-grade handicap would have been like a Grade 1 for me.”

It is only six years ago that he had given it all up.  Genuinely, in his head the Wexford man had retired from riding and had gone off to pursue other interests.  And now look: 40 winners in the bag already this season, and third behind Davy Russell and Ruby Walsh in the jockeys’ championship.

“I wouldn’t have known anything about horses when I was a kid, until a lad came into the school one day and asked us if anyone wanted to help out in the local riding school, that we would get out of school two hours early on Friday if we did.  I was far more interested in getting two hours off school than in doing whatever it was that we would be doing, but I was the first man with my hand up.”

He loved the ponies from the start, he loved riding them, he loved being with them, and it wasn’t long before he had convinced his parents to get him a pony of his own.  He started working for a farmer at home who had a horse with local trainer Liz Doyle. 

“Liz only had about 10 horses at the time,” he says.  “Mainly point-to-pointers.  I used to go down there and ride out on a Saturday, and I used to nip away from school the odd day.  Then I heard about RACE, the racing academy.”

RACE was great for Flanagan.  He learned lots, he learned about riding, about racing.  He was assigned to Martin Brassil for his placement, and he ended up leading up Numbersixvalverde in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park in 2005.  That was massive.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a ride in the Thyestes, he thought.  Five years later, he won the Thyestes Chase on Whinstone Boy.

He rode Brave Right for Leonard Whitmore to win a big handicap hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in 2008, and he rode Penny’s Bill to win the Pierse Hurdle for Liz Doyle in 2009, and he rode Voler La Vedette for Colm Murphy to win a Grade 3 mares’ hurdle at Punchestown in May 2009, and to win a listed hurdle back at Punchestown the following October. 

Even so, by the time he won the Thyestes on Whinstone Boy for Jimmy Mangan in January 2010, the rides were starting to dry up.

“I had lost my claim and I had had a few injuries, I dislocated my shoulder, then I broke my elbow, and it wasn’t really happening for me.  And I probably wasn’t riding with a lot of confidence myself either.  I’m not going to just blame everybody else.  I got an opportunity to go to England, to Evan Williams, and Evan was brilliant to me, he gave me as many rides as he could, but he had a lot of lads in there, so it was difficult.” 

He came back to Leopardstown the following Christmas, Christmas 2011, to ride a horse for Liz Doyle in a Pertemps qualifier at Leopardstown, Gamede.  The horse was travelling well down the back straight when he broke his hind leg.  Flanagan was thrown clear, he emerged uninjured, but he decided there and then, on his hunkers on Leopardstown’s back straight, that he had had enough. 

“I gave up.  Genuinely, in my head I had given up.  I was just fluting around doing different things.  Then I got friendly with Jimmy Kelly, Harry’s brother, and he said sure come down to us when you get back going again.  They were building a yard at the time, they had a lot of young horses.”

He got an offer to go to America to ride for Jack Fisher, one of the top jumps trainers in the States, so he went there for three months.  He got his confidence back there, riding well, riding winners.  When he came back he rode a few winners for Harry Kelly and Liz Doyle, and it all started to build.

“When you start riding with confidence, you start to ride winners, and people give you good rides.  It’s a big circle.  When you get good rides you start riding winners, and that builds your own confidence in yourself, and other people’s confidence in you.”

When Davy Condon had his career-ending injury, Flanagan gave Noel Meade a call.  Six months later, Paul Carberry broke his leg.

“I just started going into Noel’s more then.  The rides were shared out between me and Ger Fox and Jonathan Moore at first.  Then one morning, after I had ridden out, I was on my way home in the car, and I got a call from David Jennings from the Racing Post, asking me for a quote on my new job as Noel Meade’s stable jockey!”

He shoulders the weight of responsibility that goes with such a job easily.  First jockey for one of the top trainers in the country.  Actually, he thrives under the responsibility.  It was notable that, when Gigginstown House announced in July this year that they would not have a first jockey, Sean Flanagan was named among just a handful of riders that they said they would be using.

There’s that confidence thing again.

© The Sunday Times, 12th November 2017