Wednesday 24 May 2017

From hero to zero and back again

Cosgrave hunger the key to saving career from abyss, writes Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

There was a time when it seemed as though Pat Cosgrave's career might never get this far. After landing the Irish apprentices' championship while indentured to Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle in 2003, the then 21-year-old Co Down native's fortunes quickly went into decline.

The following year, in one crude incision, his seasonal haul plummeted to 18, down from a commendable 31. Over the five years that culminated in Cosgrave's title-winning campaign, his year-on-year totals had grown each time. Sadly, there was no great mystery to the situation in which he ultimately found himself.

As so often happens, once he had scaled the heights of the apprentices' title, his novelty status diminished. Cosgrave's claim was gone by early July in 2004, others became more fashionable, and he was soon staring down the barrel of banal anonymity in a business that demands instant brand recognition.

Opportunity

For the cheery northern boy who had steadily progressed from his days on the pony racing circuit, it was sad to see the threat of the scrap heap looming. Cosgrave, despite his tender years, knew as much.

"I would have hated to see myself just going racing for moderate rides, slowly getting pushed out of the game," he ventures now in that soft Ulster lilt that became ubiquitous in the run up to last week's football decider.

So, he decided to do something about it. He got on the boat, headed for Newmarket and began the daily grind of trying to re-establish himself. Britain offered a fresh start, more racing on a daily basis and the kind of opportunities that simply don't exist here.

But there was to be no quick fix. Somewhat bizarrely, former Irish champion apprentices are more plentiful in England than in Ireland. Cosgrave was just the latest in a long line of 'next big things.' The challenge was to stand out -- all over again.

His first season did little to mend broken dreams. Despite the array of racing and the reputation that went before him, Cosgrave couldn't stop the rot. His predicament would get worse before it would get better.

"Things were very slow when I moved to Newmarket," he says simply of 2005. "I just didn't get the rub of the green, and I struggled big time. I only rode 13 winners."

Apparently condemned to a life of unfulfilled potential that is the lot of the archetypal prodigy, Cosgrave still refused to accept his fate. With Newmarket not working out, he made for the bleak, thankless racing terrain of northern England. A last throw of the dice.

If his early rise was characterised by the type of easy and uninhibited swagger that so defined his footballing brethren this summer, Cosgrave now had to demonstrate his resolve in equal measure. There is no glamour to be found at the likes of Catterick, Musselburgh or Pontefract, but he knew he needed to get his hands dirty.

The move prompted the desired effect. He formed a lucrative association with Karl Burke, among others, and rode over 100 winners in two seasons.

A bit like a misfiring striker put out on loan in the lower leagues, Cosgrave thrived, recapturing his form with a scoring spree that couldn't but get him noticed by those he had left behind. One goal, in particular, highlighted his new-found zest.

In August 2008, he made a glorious return to Newmarket. Partnering the unconsidered Borderlescott, he stormed to victory in the Group One Nunthorpe Stakes for the Yorkshire handler Robin Bastiman.

Finally, the errant striker was showcasing the full extent of his capabilities. And with his reputation restored, Cosgrave duly concluded his two-year northern exile to again try and cement a place in the first team at Newmarket.

"I was starting to ride a lot for (southern-based) Jim Boyle anyway," Cosgrave relays, "and I prefer living down south. It's better racing -- and it's a bit warmer as well.

"I remember riding out in the north one day and it was minus 10, like. That's cold!"

Cosgrave is now positively hot. Apart from Boyle, over the past couple of years he has ridden regularly for James Fanshawe, Richard Hannon, John Gosden, Henry Cecil and Mark Tompkins. As a collective to draw from, you'd struggle to do much better.

Then there is his select association with Henry Candy, for whom he rides Markab. Cosgrave had won three handicaps on the horse when it was trained by Kevin Morgan in 2008, and retained the ride when it was switched to Candy last year.

A valuable handicap came their way in 2009, but the seven-year-old has been a revelation this term. Showing remarkable improvement for a horse of his age, Markab followed a triumph over most of our better sprinters in a Group Three at the Curragh in May with a second to Equiano in the King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Earlier this month, his trajectory culminated in a devastating success in the Sprint Cup at Haydock. Among Markab's victims that day was Starspangledbanner, no less.

With other quality mounts these days, such as James Fanshawe's three-year-old Society Rock, which chased home 'Star' in the Golden Jubilee at Royal Ascot, Cosgrave could scarcely be in a better place.

As unassuming and quietly spoken as the freckled apprentice that first endeared himself to the Irish racing public a full decade ago, he is anxious to deflect some of the credit for his rejuvenation.

He explains: "A few nice trainers are using me at the moment and the better trainers always seem to have the better horses. I'm getting to the stage now where it's grand to be riding day in, day out, but you need to be getting on the better horses if you want your career to move on. And that's what it's all about, being honest with you.

"You do the Monday to Friday job to try and find horses like Markab to ride at the weekend. It has been a tougher year for a lot of jockeys because owners are dropping out of the game, but I'm riding better horses in better races and winning bigger prizes, and that's where I always wanted to be."

He continues, with similar diffidence: "Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was that I struggled when I first came over to Newmarket.

"If you look back now, all that made me hungrier, and it makes you appreciate it more when you do get the opportunities to ride good horses. If it all comes too easy, maybe you'd take it for granted.

"I know that's easy for me to say now, but it has all worked out in the end, hasn't it?"

Judging by a career tally that now reads a wholesome 413, you could certainly say that much.

Today, Pat Cosgrave seeks to accrue further numbers at both Haydock and Wolverhampton.

Tomorrow he heads for Ascot, where he will continue his fruitful association with Jim Boyle. Onwards and upwards.

Irish Independent

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