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Danny Gilligan

Danny Gilligan didn’t know that he had a ride in the Galway Plate until declarations were made on Monday morning.

He hoped all right.  He had ridden Ash Tree Meadow in a hurdle race at Punchestown in June, and the horse had run well.  That was Ash Tree Meadow’s first run back after a break and, you never know, if the ball hopped the right way, come Galway, if the horse was well and everything, and if he himself was well, and if trainer Gordon Elliott thought that he was up to the task.  

You never know.

It’s National Hunt racing, it’s a precarious business.  You fall, you get injured, it’s part of the deal.  It’s unpredictable.  The hop of the ball is more the hop of the oval ball than the hop of the round one.  A week after he had ridden Ash Tree Meadow in that hurdle race at Punchestown, Danny Gilligan broke his collarbone in a fall at Downpatrick, and he was in a race against time to get back for Galway.

“I thought that I would make it back in time at first,” says the young rider.  “Then it didn’t look good for a few days there, but thankfully I made it.”

Actually, he made it back before Galway, he rode in a flat race at Down Royal on the Friday beforehand.  That got his eye in, sharpened him up.  It was important that he was sharp going into Galway, because Galway is important, especially for a Galway lad.

“Our house is about 15 minutes over the road from the racecourse,” he says.  “Dad has always had runners there.  It has always been special for us.  I used to go over with Dad, and all my cousins, in the back of the horsebox.  To even have a ride at Galway, for me, it was unbelievable.”

On Monday morning, he learned that he was riding Ash Tree Meadow in Wednesday’s Plate.  On Monday evening, on the first day of the festival, he went out and won the handicap hurdle on Neveradullmoment.

“That was surreal.  To even be given the opportunity.  I thought that was it then, I thought that was all my luck used up for the week.”

Neveradullmoment’s win was the 25th win of Danny Gilligan’s career.  It was a landmark victory, it meant that his claim was reduced from 7lb to 5lb, the realisation of an early objective in every young jockey’s career.  Because declarations had already been made by then for Wednesday’s Guinness Galway Plate, however, he could still claim 7lb in Wednesday’s feature race.

There’s the bounce of the ball again.

Danny Gilligan always wanted to ride horses, always wanted to be a jockey.  He was only four years old when his dad Paul trained Berties Dream to win the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival, and when he sent Jadanli out to win the Grade 1 Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse a few weeks later.  He remembers Born By The Sea, though, winning the Galway Blazers two years ago, ridden by his brother Jack.  That was some day.

“I did a bit of hunting,” says the 17-year-old, “and I did a lot of pony racing.  I rode as an apprentice on the flat for one season, I signed on with Fozzy Stack, who was really good to me.  I learned an awful lot there, it sharpened me up, it was good for my weight too.  But it was always the plan that I would go jumping, and I joined Gordon Elliott as soon as I got my licence.  Gordon has been brilliant to me.  I’m so lucky, so grateful to him, the opportunities that he has given me.”

There is a little bit of right-place-right-time, he was at Cullentra at a time when some of the senior riders were recovering from injury.  But it’s one thing being presented with the opportunity, it’s another making the most of it.  That’s down to talent, ambition, attitude.  Danny Gilligan has all of that.

He didn’t go racing on Tuesday.  He prepared himself mentally for Wednesday’s race, went to the gym on Tuesday evening.

The plan was to be prominent on Ash Tree Meadow.  The Alymer Stud gelding had run well in the Plate last year, there were no real worries about his stamina for the trip.  And it can be difficult to come from a long way back in the Galway Plate.  Then there was a false start, and it was everybody back again and line up for the lottery that is the standing start.

“I was lucky that my fellow got away quickly,” says the rider.  “He was sharp at the first fence, and I found myself in front.  I didn’t mind.  He got into a nice rhythm.”

Ash Tree Meadow seemed to be enjoying himself, bowling along in front, ears pricked.  

“There were just two little scares, at the ditch on the far side the two times we jumped it.  There was the road on our left and a loose horse, and he had a look at both, both times! Apart from that though, he was great.”

They led into the dip, to the last two fences in the dip.  They popped the first of them, the penultimate fence and, six strides later, popped the second.  And still Danny Gilligan was able to sit.  Authorized Art and Danny Mullins arrived on his outside on the run around the home turn, but Danny Gilligan didn’t really have to ask his horse for maximum effort until they straightened up for home.  And when he did, Ash Tree Meadow picked up, bounded up the hill.

“After the last, I gave him a bit of a squeeze, and he came back on the bridle.  I didn’t really know that the two of us were clear of the rest, I didn’t want to look.  I just concentrated on my own horse.  He just kept going for me up the hill.  And when we hit the line, it was unreal.  The Galway Plate.  I still can’t really believe it.  And coming back into the winner’s enclosure, the reception that we got.  It was surreal.”

You could have heard the cheers at the Gilligans’ house, about 15 minutes over the road.

© The Sunday Times, 6th August 2023