A man on a mission
Little did Mary and Hugh Gethings from Coolboy know the journey that lay before their 10-year-old son Ciarán when they sat him up on a horse in Phillip Rothwell's yard just outside Tinahely nine years ago.
Little did they know where that simple action would take their son, how it would unleash an incredible drive and passion from within him, how it would shape his life to an incredible degree, bring him unbridled satisfaction and happiness, and set him off on a road to independence and a sporting dream that he is well on the way to achieving.
From that simple action during the Christmas holidays has come a great story of perseverance, courage, effort, and luck and has led Ciarán Gethings to Somerset in the beautiful English countryside, to the yard of Phillip Hobbs, and to the pursuit of an amateur jockey title over the coming season and the dream of professional success over the coming years.
But back to that day nine years ago in Phillip Rothwell's yard, back to the beginning of the dream.
"I was 10 and we were over in Rothwell's during the Christmas holidays and I sat up on a horse for the first time," said Ciarán.
"And from that I was over there every few days and during every holiday, learning a bit more all the time. Phillip (Rothwell) bought me a pony to learn on and it just went from there then. He got me going, got me started off. I started riding out when I was 11, up the gallops. I was five stone weight, riding thoroughbreds. I remember the first horse I rode out was a very fit mare called Hannah's Joy and she ran away with me. But then I was riding out five or six a day by the time I was 15. I always wanted to be there after school and on holidays. After school all I was thinking about was changing the uniform and getting over to Rothwell's," he added.
"It's such a rush of blood up on a horse," he said. "When you're up on a horse you're in your own little world," said Ciarán.
While school was something Ciarán enjoyed to a certain degree it didn't come close to occupying his mind like riding horses did, but one huge advantage for the Coolboy native was the fact that his secondary school, Coláiste Bhride in Carnew can boast a strong tradition in equestrian and Ciarán thrived in this environment.
"I did a lot of showjumping before the racing, I did a lot in Carnew and with them I jumped in England several times. Linda Dunne, the Principal there, was very good to me, she's really passionate about horses herself. Jim Donoghue did all the lessons with the school and he was a great help to me," said Ciarán.
But after the Junior Certificate the horses really took over. At 15, an innocent and hopeful Ciarán set off for the jockey training school in the Curragh in Kildare. From the comfort and security of the family home he set off into a world of horse racing and living that he was forced to adapt to and learn from very quickly.
"I went to the Curragh for 10 months and worked in Conor O'Dwyer's yard. He was a small trainer when I was there but he had been a good jockey and I learnt a lot from him. I was gone all week to the Curragh. Was it exciting? Not exciting, I hadn't a clue how to even turn on a washing machine or an oven. It was scary. At 15, and older, you expect your mother to do everything for you. It's a reality check and it's a bit scary. It was a massive step up as well.
In Rothwell's I was minded. Mick Jordan, the head lad there, he looked after me and I didn't have much hardship but when I went up to the Curragh there's more of that and you're out on your own. That toughened me up a lot I think. The first 10 weeks in the school is riding out and fitness which was torture. There was two army men taking the fitness training and that was tough," said Ciarán.
After thriving in the Curragh under the guidance of Conor O'Dwyer and the trainers at the school there the time came for a major decision for the young Ciarán. Stay in Ireland to pursue his dream or take a punt on England where his mentor Conor O'Dwyer saw better opportunities lying in wait.
"The way it is in Ireland, if you're not with a Mullins or a Walsh or a Carbery it can be tough so Conor advised me to give it a go in England and he got in touch with Phillip Hobbs and at 16 I moved over to Somerset, cider country. I had a week at home first getting bits and pieces together and going to the Tinahely Show, I hadn't missed one in 16 years, and then I moved over. My mother and father stayed with me for the first three days and I was wondering 'how will I do this?' and the first year was hard enough with homesickness. You kind of get used to it but it's tough enough. It's always at the back of your mind. But some have it worse. There was a lad here from Wexford for a year and he just couldn't settle and he went home. I won't be home until June of next year. That's hard enough.
"The land over here is just like at home. The first day we arrived up to Phillip's massive yard and we went in and met the man himself and that was a bit scary. You look at him on TV for so long and then you're standing in front of him. He said to me "you won't get anything easy here. You'll work hard for 18 months, do the hard grafting first, work hard and it will work out'.
"You know where you stand with Phillip Hobbs. A lot of places will promise you everything and give you nothing and I kind of worked quicker over here. I started in August and had my first ride in March, so I got a ride after six months. I was only 17 and I was a bit weak and I didn't know much about the game when it came to races," he said.
Looking back now Ciarán can see the logic of waiting those 18 months that Phillip Hobbs had advised and learning the game and building the physical strength because disaster would strike in that first race that would hit the Coolboy rider hard.
"I fell off a schoolmaster so that wasn't great," he says while laughing heartily. "A schoolmaster is an experienced horse and all you usually have to do is sit on him and he knows what to do and I fell off him. He was gone a bit old by the time I got him though, I got him at a bad time but I wasn't very happy. I was just starting out and I was nearly ready to give up. That hit me hard," he said.
The eager Ciarán waited another year for the next ride but this time the outcome would be very different.
"Waited a year and got a winner on a little chestnut mare called Just Hettie. It was her maiden, first time over fences and she won down in Black Forest Lodge. The following Friday I finished in third for another trainer and I had four rides on the one day and it sort of took off from there. It was a sort of snowball effect. A lot of this game is luck," he said.
As we're talking, Ciarán is making his way back to Somerset from Newmarket where he has spent the last week striving for his license to ride horse against professional jockeys. For the coming season Phillip Hobbs is directing him towards the pursuit of the amateur jockey title which he feels would be a wonderful accolade as he sets out on the road to succeeding as a professional jockey.
"The last week was about fitness and getting the license to ride against the pros. I'm going for the novice rider of the year this year. I had three winners last year at Point to Points and then Phillip stopped me riding to let me go for that. If you have more than three wins in the one year you can't go for that but it would be good to get that," he said.
Recently Ciarán has enjoyed his best experience to date. In with a real chance for a win at a meeting at Cheltenham he came to the last on Oscar Davy a month ago but the horse fell. It's a taste of exactly what he wants and what he has dreamed about since he was a 10-year-old child in Rothwell's yard outside of Tinahely.
"It was the best experience ever for me but the horse fell at the last. He had no stride at all coming in and then you're just waiting for that to happen. Some horses are clever with that but not this time," he said.
Thankfully he sustained no injuries and he has also been quite fortunate when it comes to falls and knocks with a chipped bone in his shoulder the worst to date. But jockeys live with that possibility day in and day out. Ciarán remarks how one jockey he lived with in Somerset broke both his legs in a fall from a horse and the racing world is littered with tales of injury and the likes but that's not something any jockey, including Ciarán Gethings, dwells on. For him there's an aim, a dream, a savage desire to make it to the top.
"I dream about the top, getting to the top of the game, I can't think about anything else. You shouldn't be in the game if you're not dreaming about that. I want to go professional. One of the aims this year is to get over and ride in Punchestown. I've never rode in Ireland," he said.
For now though it's the start of the Point to Point season in England and this coming weekend he has rides down in Black Forest Lodge where he won his first race and he is teaming up with his little chestnut mare Just Hettie as he goes in search of the amateur jockey title. And he'll have some home support too.
"My father is coming over with some of the boys for the first Point to Point. He has started back riding horses now as well, it's an addiction," he said.
So what would the promising jockey say to any youngster who possesses a savage desire to ride horses, to exist in, as Ciarán describes it, "your own little world" up on top of a horse.
"The main thing is to be patient in the game, your luck will follow. I can't complain anyway. I don't think I would do anything differently," he said.