Donn's Articles » Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes came back into Epsom’s weigh room after walking the track.  Cup of tea, chat with Colin Keane, then he sat down, put on his headphones, turned on Netflix and dozed off.  He thinks he was dozing for 15 or 20 minutes.  Relaxed, calm, comfortable in anticipation of the job that lay ahead.

“I used to get caught up in the race,” says the rider now.  “I used to be too into tactics.  I’d analyse the form of a race, I’d know my horse, I’d have a plan in my head and I’d want to stick to that plan.  I used to try to ride the race.  Now I try to ride the horse.”

Epsom Oaks day, big day.  Important race.  One of the five Classics.  Ezeliya’s trainer Dermot Weld hadn’t won the Oaks since 1981 when he won it with Blue Wind.  That was the year that Ezeliya’s owner HH The Aga Khan won the Derby for the first time with Shergar but, until Friday, the owner’s name was conspicuous by its absence from the Oaks roll of honour.

Chris Hayes knew Ezeliya well.  A grand two-year-old, he tells you.  Wouldn’t blow you away physically, but she gave you a lovely feel when she worked.  She was beaten on her racecourse debut at Leopardstown, but she missed the break that day, she jumped to her right, she was always playing catch-up after that and her rider set about teaching her as much as he could.  She showed the benefit of those learnings next time when she won her maiden at Cork.

Oaks filly at the start of this season?  Definitely possibly.  By Dubawi and out of the Aga Khan’s filly Eziyra, a Group race winner over 10 and 12 furlongs, Ezeliya kept on well to win the Group 3 Salsabil Stakes on her debut this season.

“She was good in the Salsabil Stakes,” says her rider, “and that brought her forward again.  I remember, the first half-speed she did after the Salsabil, I thought that she had improved no end, and I was thinking that she might have a chance in the Oaks.  I was looking at all the Oaks trials, and I couldn’t find any filly that I was afraid of.”

He knew what he wanted to do in the Oaks: get her settled, get her travelling.  Position was secondary.  Get her comfortable in her race, see where she lands, ride your race from there.

“She was a bit fresh at Navan.  I was thinking that I might ride her forward there, but she was a little fresh with me going to the start, so I said that I would drop her in, and we learned there that she liked to be ridden like that.  I chatted to the boss (Dermot Weld) before the Oaks, I told him what I was thinking of doing, and he said that he was thinking exactly the same.  That’s always a good sign.  Ride her with loads of confidence, he said to me.” 

The race unfolded as Hayes had envisaged.  Good pace on up front, Ezeliya settled and travelling in his hands, seventh or eighth as they raced to the top of the hill.  She travelled well down around Tattenham Corner, and he angled her out a little as they rounded the home turn.  Still travelling as they straightened up, and victory in the Oaks just three furlongs away.

“I couldn’t believe that the plan was happening as it was supposed to,” says the rider.  “Jump, slot, into your position, get your breather, pick up, come clear, win.  I was waiting for Ryan (Moore, on Ylang Ylang) or Wayne (Lordan, on Rubies Are Red) to come at me, but they never did.  To be honest, the way my filly picked up, I was thinking that, if someone was going to catch me, they’d want to be going very fast.”

He talked about the race with his wife during the build-up.  

“I just want to get the filly settled early on,” he told Rachel.  “And if we do win, I won’t celebrate in the saddle.  It’s about time I grew up.  I need to be more like Ryan Moore or Mick Kinane.”

Up in the saddle and punching the air as he crossed the winning line.

“I couldn’t help it!  It was just an explosion, relief, ecstasy.  All of that.  And because the way the race panned out, exactly as I hoped it would.  Honestly, if you could have designed the perfect race for me, that was it.”

But the ride that you give a horse is a key ingredient in how a race pans out for you.  Of course, you need things to slot into place around you but, fundamentally, you need to put yourself in the position to benefit when they do.  Dermot Weld was fulsome in his praise of his rider in media interviews afterwards.  The perfect ride, he said. 

“The boss didn’t say much to me afterwards.  He just said, well done, that was great.”

Chris Hayes rode his first big winner for Dermot Weld when he picked up the spare ride in Voleuse De Coeurs in the 2013 Irish St Leger after the late Pat Smullen had chosen to ride Pale Mimosa instead.  Hayes had only ridden the first Group 1 win of his career the previous week.  He rode for Dermot Weld again in 2019, when he rode Tarnawa to victory in three Group races, and he rode Search For A Song to win the Irish St Leger.

“Pat (Smullen) was sick at the time,” says Chris.  “He was a brilliant help to me then.  He was like a mentor.  Helping me understand what the boss was thinking, how he wanted his horses to be ridden.  We had a lot of success then, but, to be honest, I wasn’t ready for such a big job then.  I wasn’t really able for it.  I wasn’t good enough to step into Pat’s shoes.”

He resumed his relationship with Dermot Weld in 2022, and they have thrived together since.  Big race wins are important.  Homeless Songs won the Irish 1000 Guineas that year, Tahiyra won the Moyglare Stud Stakes and, last year, she won the Irish 1000 Guineas and the Coronation Stakes and the Matron Stakes.

“I’m in a very privileged position,” says the rider.  “The boss expects you to have an opinion, and he expects you to back up your opinion, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Comfortable in anticipation of the job that he has to do.

© The Sunday Times, 9th June 2024