Donn's Articles » Ronan Whelan

Ronan Whelan

Last March, before Skitter Scatter ever raced, Ronan Whelan rode the filly in a piece of work at Dundalk.  She wasn’t overly big, but she was well bred, a daughter of Scat Daddy out of the Street Cry mare Dane Street, and she had been going fairly well at home.  The season was about to get under way at Dundalk, and trainer Patrick Prendergast wanted to see how Skitter Scatter would handle the Polytrack surface there.

“She worked horrendously!” recalls Ronan Whelan.  “Absolutely horrendously.  She couldn’t even lie up with her work companion.  I was disappointed.  I thought that maybe she hadn’t handled the surface.  I was wrong.  The following month she went back to Dundalk and won her maiden.”

Whelan rode Skitter Scatter in that maiden, when she got home by a short head from the highly-regarded Aidan O’Brien-trained debutant Sergei Prokofiev, a $1.1 million yearling.  It was early in the season, the analysts said.  The Ballydoyle horses always come on significantly for a run at that stage of the year.  But Aidan O’Brien made a point of telling Patrick Prendergast afterwards that his colt was forward enough, that the filly had put up a good performance to beat him.

“It was as much the way that she did it as the fact that she won,” says Whelan.  “If that makes sense.  He came up beside her, towering over her, and she could have given in, but she didn’t.  She battled back, and she was actually going away again at the line.” 

The Skitter Scatter journey so far has been some journey, and Whelan has been on board since the start.  Anthony and Sonia Rogers’ filly has run seven races, and the young Kildare man has ridden her in all seven.  

She has improved with every run as she has stepped through the grades: the Group 3 Silver Flash Stakes in July, the Group 2 Debutante Stakes in August.  Then last Sunday, on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend, she went to The Curragh and won the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes.  Patrick Prendergast’s first Group 1 winner, Ronan Whelan’s first Group 1 winner.  Dreamland.

Before last Sunday’s race, as the jockey was giving the trainer the saddle after he had weighed out, the conversation went something like this.

Prendergast: ‘How many times have you gone through this race in your mind?’

Whelan: ‘About a million times.  All the different possible scenarios.  And we have won a good few times.’

Prendergast: “Well, there’s no point in me giving you any instructions.  You know what you’re going to do.’

“It’s brilliant to ride for somebody like Patrick,” says Whelan now.  “The confidence that gives you.  That he has faith in you.  That you know the filly, and that you know what’s best for her.  And the Rogers’ have been brilliant too.  They said, well we haven’t ridden her in any races.  You have ridden her in them all.  Go out and do what you’re going to do.”

They went quickly in the Moyglare Stud Stakes from early.  Whelan bounced his filly out of the gate and let her find her racing rhythm.  They went so fast so early that he found himself drifting back a little in the field, but he didn’t mind.  He was happy that his filly was going at a speed at which she was comfortable.  You force a filly to go too fast too early, and she won’t get home.

“I knew that they would go fast, but maybe not as fast as they went.  I thought I would be third or fourth, not sixth or seventh.  She hit a bit of a flat spot, but then she picked up.  She won going away in the end.”

Whelan didn’t punch the air or do a cartwheel in the saddle.  He just rode all the way to the line, all the way through the line.  Then he eased the filly down and he smiled, as the enormity of a first Group 1 win washed over him. 

“My over-riding feeling initially was one of relief really.  Relief that we had got the job done.  Then you’re buzzing.  A couple of the lads were out on the track.  Then you can’t wait to get back into the winner’s enclosure to see everyone.  Patrick and the Rogers’ and everyone.  It was the stuff of dreams.  It was a win for everyone who had helped me in my career.  Lots of people.  To make them proud.”

It is a career that is flourishing.  Whelan has always been good at sports, soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, anything with a ball.  He played for Kildare under age.  But horses got him, and he got horses.  His dad Trevor is a highly respected consignor at the bloodstock sales, his uncles and cousins all hunted, and young Ronan started off on the pony racing circuit.  He rode 95 winners and he was crowned leading rider in 2008, before taking out his apprenticeship with Jim Bolger.

“I liked school,” he says.  “And I wasn’t bad at it.  I got all honours in my Junior Cert, and I would like at some point to go back and do my Leaving Cert.  But choosing between school and riding horses when I was 15, that was no contest.  My dad said that I was only allowed to leave school if I took out my apprenticeship with the boss.”

The boss is Jim Bolger, and Whelan has, like so many top horsepeople before him, thrived under the famed Bolger tutelage.  He rode his first winner on just his second ride, Seachantach in a handicap at Navan in June 2009, and he kicked on, claiming the apprentices’ championship in 2012.

He rode his first listed race winner on Lady Wingshot at Leopardstown in November 2012.  He rode Custom Cut for George Kent to win the Group 3 Gladness Stakes at The Curragh in April 2013, and he was brilliant on the Jarlath Fahey-trained Jennies Jewel at Royal Ascot in 2016, kicking her off in front in the Ascot Stakes and setting the fractions that would see her get home by a neck. 

He had gone close too in Group 1 races before Sunday.  He finished second in the 2012 Moyglare Stud Stakes on Scintillula for Jim Bolger, and he finished second in the 2012 Dewhurst Stakes on Leitir Mor, completing a 1-2 for Bolger, as Kevin Manning rode Dawn Approach to victory in the race.  

“The boss is brilliant.  I’ve learned so much there, and I’m still learning.  I’m in there every morning except for Wednesday, when I can come up to The Curragh and ride out for Patrick and for Tracey Collins and others.  It’s going well.  I’m getting plenty of outside rides too.  My agent Dave Keena does a great job.”

Skitter Scatter will not race again this season.  There was talk of going to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup, but that talk has stopped, and she will now be put away for the winter with an eye on next year’s 1000 Guineas. 

The dream continues.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd September 2018