Jockeys in lockdown

Sky Sports Racing’s Zoey Bird spoke to six of the best riders from both codes to find out how they are keeping busy in the absence of racing.

  • Wednesday 29 April
  • Blog
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Jockeys are normally extremely busy people. Up early to ride out, driving hundreds of miles to one, or even two meetings a day, back late in the evening, sleep, and then repeat for the next seven days a week, for months, sometimes even for years without a break. 

 With no racing on; they’ve been forced to take a break, like most of us, it’s been a chance to slow down and catch up on the important things in life like family time, whilst also getting on with the jobs they’ve been meaning to do. 

I caught up with some familiar names to find out what they’ve been up to and how they are staying motivated and positive and, I must admit, I found chatting to them very inspiring and uplifting.

 The jumps guys and girls had to call time on their season early; at the time, GAVIN SHEEHAN was riding high, having bagged another Cheltenham Festival success this time aboard Simply the Betts and he was very much looking forward to riding him again at Aintree or Punchestown, along with a whole host of other stars like of Saint Calvados, Itchy Feet and Emitom.

 When did you find out that racing was going to stop and how did you feel about it?

 “I was told on the way to Wetherby.  It started to sink in a bit there as that was behind closed doors.  Two days later though I remember feeling a bit shocked that was going to be it ….. no racing…. nothing”.

 What have you been up to?

“I schooled a couple early on but then I turned my hand to getting the garden all fixed up.  I did loads of gardening, then dug down 14 inches or so to put in railway sleepers and decking and some artificial grass.  I wanted to get it all tidied up so Emily, my girlfriend, and I can have BBQs with our friends when this is all over. It’s nice to be able to say I did that, made that myself. The hardest part has been getting the materials!”

So, is this a new skill for you?

“I did a spot of DIY when I was a younger. When I was a kid, I was good at woodwork and I actually wanted to be a carpenter. I liked to make things with wood and put it all together myself; it’s very satisfying. And the gardening; I used to do a bit when I was at Charlie Mann’s”.

How are you keeping focused and motivated mentally?

“I accepted it very early on; which I think helps. I’m just soaking it all up now, as I know how hard I’ve worked and how hard I’m going to work so I’m making the most of it. Me and Emily went cycling last

weekend and had a picnic in the park; we’d never done that before”.

Who do you think will miss out most in racing?

“I do feel sorry for the flat boys and the ones who will be impacted the most in this are the breeze-ups guys.  It’s not good for them.”

What are you looking forward to the most when racing resumes?

“Winners. That’s what I miss most, that, and the routine.”

Gavin Sheehan
Gavin Sheehan in the garden

JONJO O’NEILL JR is another jockey who’d been having a terrific season and was later crowned Champion Conditional.

Do you remember where you were when you found out?

Jonjo O'Neill Jr
Jonjo O'Neill Jr

 “I’d just arrived at Wetherby and was walking in when one of the valets Charlie said it’s off. I was very disappointed, the season had been going well, I was on 61 and looking forward to trying to get to 75.  It could be worse, even though the National went we got most of the season done. I quickly accepted it’s out of our control.”

What have you been up to?

“I’ve been getting big into cycling.  I’ve just bought a new bike.  I go off for as long as I can. I love whizzing down the hills and looking at the scenery.  It’s the closest thing I have at the moment to the buzz of riding in races.  I’ve been helping Dad out at the yard too, so I’ve been structuring my day around that. I’ve been topping and mowing the grass on the tractor up at Jackdaws; we’ve just fertilised so we’re looking forward to the rain. I feel more like a farmer than a jockey. I’m learning lots about taking care of the place and there’s a lot to look after, 500 acres.”

Who do you think will struggle the most in racing because of the pandemic?

“I think smaller trainers will struggle. I hope they don’t but say they lose half of the horses in their yards.  Hopefully something can be done to support them.”

What are you most looking forward to?

“Getting back into the routine.  I really miss that.”

Jonjo O'Neill Jr.
Jonjo O'Neill Jr helping out at Jackdaws Castle.

Grand National-winning rider DARYL JACOB would have had the choice of a few challengers in the 2020 Aintree showpiece but of course racing ceased a couple of weeks before. He’d also just had a very impressive winner at the Cheltenham Festival in the form of Concertista and would have had her to look forward to at Aintree or Punchestown along with Top Notch and Bristol De Mai.

When did you first hear?

“I’d been riding out at Lucy Wadham’s and then found out when I was on my way to Wetherby which was to be run behind closed doors. That’s when it really hit me. I’d been chatting to Nico about it the week before at Cheltenham, and he said it was going to be bad, he loves current affairs, but I was just caught up with the Festival and thought it would all blow over.”

What have you been up to?

Daryl Jacobs's family
The Jacobs

 “Trying to make a positive out of a very negative situation.  I’ve been spending lots of time with Kelly and the kids. She is pretty much a single parent all winter long, and now we have had time, time to do things altogether. I’ve been teaching Harry football skills and we’ve all been cycling. We’re trying to do up the office and I’ve just finished painting it this morning, which is great. I rode Kelly’s ex-racehorse the other day and went out for a long hack around Badminton.  It’s the first time I’ve ridden in a while actually. Apart from that I enjoy running five or six miles a time in the countryside. We are so lucky where we live.  Imagine lockdown in a high rise flat with no outside space, we are very fortunate!”

Who do you think will miss out the most?

“It’s the smaller guys I’m worried about, the smaller trainers and owners who have syndicated horses.  It’ll be very tough for them!”

What are you most looking forward to? 

“Getting back racing. Getting back into the routine”. 

Having had an amazing season on the all-weather including breaking records, Sky Sports Racing ambassador HOLLIE DOYLE was looking forward to some top rides at Lingfield on Finals Day.

“I had my sights on it all winter long. At the time I would have possibly had Maystar and Rainbow Dreamer and others on the day.” 

How did you feel when you first heard?

“I remember feeling very disappointed and worried about what’s going to happen. Nothing is permanent in racing and I had so much momentum behind me I was worried about where I could pick up again but now I’ve just accepted it and I’m much more chilled. I’ve hardly had a break in four years apart from the odd week’s holiday.”

What have you been up to?

“I’ve been trying to find different fitness things to do.  I used to just do all strengthening exercises and conditioning but now I’m doing lots of cardio like running and cycling too.”

Hollie Doyle
Hollie Doyle cycling during the downtime

Is it easier now Tom’s (Marquand) back from Australia?

“Well when he was there I would look up all his rides and watch so that kept me entertained. But now he’s back; it’s great as we’ve spent the longest time we’ve ever spent together, actually doing things together. We both love cooking. Tom’s very creative so he does a lot of the meals and I’ve been baking a bit too.”

Are you worried about having missed the first part of the season?

“If we get back in mid-late May then we won’t have missed that much.  April is a transition period for both codes so actually we haven’t missed masses we just need to get on with it.”

What are you most looking forward to?

“Just getting back racing and seeing my family.”

Flat jockey BEN CURTIS, was coming to the end of a potentially record-breaking season on the all-weather, where he was on the verge of beating Luke Morris’s record. He was in Dubai with his wife Shauna, when the news of racing shutting down came through.

“I had 16 rides booked for the next couple of days. I only needed one winner to break the record but hey… what can you do….? My first priority was to get us back home and to collect our little boy from his Grandma’s. Look we’ve been asked to do one thing, lockdown, and I’m happy to do it.”  

What have you been up to?

“Riding out at Karl Burke’s in the mornings. Then spending lots with Brodie my son, he’s nearly two. He’s a really cool little guy. I just wouldn’t have had this time. I’m in a routine now of riding out, running, and caring for Brodie.”

Have you done anything different during lockdown?

“Built a vegetable patch and painted the front fence. We’ve only just bought this house so it’s good to catch up on all the jobs that needed doing. I’ve been cutting up wood and building it myself, which is really satisfying. I’ve also been hanging out with my mates online once a week. We play poker, have a few beers and just have a laugh. I speak to them more now more than ever. I’ve never had time like this before and I’m making the most of it.”

Who do you think will miss out the most in racing?

“I’d be worried that the very precocious two-year-olds may not get enough opportunities and the lower grade horses I think may struggle as they’re going to have to cut everything right back”.

What are you most looking forward to?

“I just want to get back on the racecourse. Karl Burke and Roger Fell have lots of lovely horses this season; they look and feel fantastic and I can’t wait to get going and get them on a racecourse. I’ve been riding four lots a day and getting to know them all really well. We never had time to do that before and I’m enjoying that.”

JAMES DOYLE was at his home on the outskirts of Newmarket when the news filtered through having just got back from Dubai.

“I was expecting the news actually. I knew it would have to stop altogether”.

What have you been up to?

James Doyle
James Doyle

 “I’m very lucky; I’ve got a few acres and a ménage at my place and my girlfriend and I have a few animals to keep us busy. We’ve got a couple of Dutch warmbloods who we’ve been taking out for hacks. I’m not mad about doing all the mucking out but hey it’s not that bad.  We’ve got two Pigmy goats and two lambs as well, so there’s plenty to do.  Obviously, I ride out most morning’s too at William Haggas’s and Charlie Appleby’s.” 

What have you been doing to stay fit and motivated?

“I run a fair bit and I work out in the gym in my garage and I have a spin bike.  I’ve always been pretty motivated fitness wise and I find it easy to just get on with it myself. There’s a few of us who use Pelaton; Hugo Palmer, Tim Gredley and George Scott. We all get quite competitive and swap times, they often beat me but I think that’s just a power thing nothing to do with fitness. The hardest part for me, is not having a routine and specific goals.”

Who do you feel are the real losers in racing in this lockdown?

“Everyone’s missing out; the owners paying all the fees and the Jockeys agents they are completely at a standstill with no money coming in.”

What are you most looking forward to?

“Charlie has a big team, and William the same. I’m just looking forward to getting on with it!” 

I think we all are! My thanks to all the jocks for contributing their time and giving us a little insight into their lives during lockdown and for the photos too. As I promised them, below is a photo of me painting my eldest son’s bedroom, having fixed all the cracks in the ceiling and one of my baking triumphs over the past month. Stay safe everyone, healthy and of course happy. Zoey.

Zoey Bird
Zoey painting her eldest son’s bedroom and one of her baking triumphs.
Jockeys in lockdown
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