Splaine finally getting the chance to fulfil his potential
After a childhood racing epiphany, the Cork jockey has travelled a long, hard road in his bid to make it to the top, writes Richard Forristal
David Splaine can trace his racing inspiration back to August 2, 1995, the day that his cousin Trevor Horgan guided Life Of A Lord to a sensational 20-length triumph in the Galway Plate.
He was still a month shy of his eighth birthday, but all of a sudden the world of show jumping that he had been immersed in since birth due to his legendary father Robert's exploits on an international stage wasn't the only game in town. His head had been turned.
Show jumping still had a touch of terrestrial television-inspired glamour about it then and Splaine competed into his early teens, but speed is like a drug. He finally got to sit on a racehorse at John Murphy's stable in Upton – just a 20-minute drive from his Riverstick home in south East Cork – when he was 14 years old. That was the end of the show jumping.
He abandoned its more sedate confines, and instead frequented Murphy's yard and Horgan's point-to-point facility in the shadow of Owning Hill in Co Kilkenny, on top of which Aidan O'Brien had trained Life Of A Lord. Now, Splaine heads for Ballybrit on the cusp of a wave. After the recent Killarney Festival concluded, a total of nine winners put him alongside Mark Enright in the conditional riders' table.
"We are only a couple of months into the season and there's a long way to go, but it's always great to have things going well heading into Galway," he admits. "There are decent handicaps there and what I have found the last couple of years is that, if you have a claim and are riding winners going there, people will put you up. So, hopefully, I will get a few nice spins."
The implication that Splaine's destiny was assured ever since Horgan's big day 18 years ago is misleading. There's many a slip 'tween cup and lip and the suggestion that it has been plain sailing does the character that he has shown in getting to where he is now no justice at all.
Remember, he will turn 26 when September comes, so he isn't exactly arriving before time. His pedigree might have given him a profile to begin with, but you are entitled to nothing as a jockey, and the path to success has been of the long and winding variety.
When Splaine first set out as an amateur, he didn't manage a single winner during four campaigns on the point-to-point circuit, finally getting off the mark on the track at Clonmel in 2007. Murphy – who, like Horgan also had a show jumping background – by now employed him on a full-time basis, and advised him to try his luck in the paid ranks.
In what should have been Splaine's first full season as a professional in 2008/2009, he rode five winners by January 1. Then he got a fall at home and broke his leg in three places. He didn't ride for eight months and when he came back the momentum was lost.
A full year passed between winners, and within months of his comeback and weeks of that overdue win, he broke the same leg again. This time he was sidelined for five months.
On his return, he rode through some severe discomfort that he attributed to the after-effects of the fractures. When the steel plate that had been inserted in his leg began to protrude through his ankle, the real reason for his agony became clear. Cue three more months off.
All of a sudden, it was March 2011, and Splaine had spent most of 18 months laid up, his momentum repeatedly stalled. He was 24-years-old, with eight winners and a mangled left leg all that he had to show for four years as a professional.
No one would have condemned him for throwing his hat at it, but he was clearly possessed of the sort of stubborn resolve that had helped his father to the top of his sport years earlier.
"There was never a time when I said that this wasn't for me," he reaffirms, "but it was hard going to get established again after the injuries."
With the help of his famously hardworking Kinsale-based agent Ruaidhri Tierney and Murphy's unyielding support, he regained some momentum. Between March and October 2011, he nearly doubled his professional tally by bagging seven winners, including a stunning Punchestown Festival triumph on Oneeightofamile.
More than any other horse, John Kiely's hurdler showcased Splaine's potential. They clocked a fine hat-trick together, Splaine looking both capable and composed on each occasion.
However, a couple of barren months followed. When 2012 rolled around, Splaine had already decided that doing nothing wasn't an option. "The time came when I knew I had to try something different," he explains, "and it was Trevor Horgan who suggested that I give Britain a go. I went over to Evan Williams in the New Year and was there for six months.
"I got great experience and was lucky enough to ride a winner, but Ruaidhri was on to me every week about coming back to ride one or two. In the end, I weighed things up and realised that I could get more rides at home, so I made the decision to come back."
He returned with renewed vigour, scoring on Ado McGuinness' Face Value at Ballinrobe within a month. Face Value followed up in the novice hurdle that begins Tuesday's Galway card and 24 hours later Splaine doubled his Festival haul on John O'Shea's Novarov.
Somewhat appropriately, the Galway brace had relit a fuse. "I couldn't put my finger on why exactly, but I felt as though I was riding much better when I came back from England," Splaine muses. "Maybe it's because they tend to race a shade quicker in England, but I was riding with far more confidence. I wasn't long back when I had the couple of winners at Galway, and things have been on an upward curve since. I ended up with 12 winners last term, which wouldn't be a whole pile, but it was still my best season by far."
In fact, it was twice as many as his previous best, and the buoyed self-belief that he speaks of has since blatantly manifested itself in his assured riding. Although now operating as a freelance out of the family home due to Murphy's switch in emphasis to the Flat, Splaine has attracted increasing support from the likes of McGuinness and Colm Murphy, on top of an array of loyal local Munster backing from Jim Culloty, Jimmy Mangan, John Ryan and more.
The standard of his steering demands as much. Strong, stylish and tactically astute, he has the precise eye for a stride that you would expect of someone who has Robert Splaine talking him through videos of his every ride and mentoring him on how to improve.
Dare we say it, in many respects Splaine reminds you of a certain Ruby Walsh, down to the slightly arched back in a finish and a noticeable lack of motion approaching an obstacle.
Time will ultimately tell if such a comparison can reap the long-term reward that it promises. Still, if attitude counts for anything, Splaine's, droll and modest in many ways, but also possessing of the required edge to impose his will on a race, could yet go right to the top.
"I'm enjoying my racing now, but I'm at it long enough not to be so naive as to think that this is the way it is going to be for the rest of my career," he concludes philosophically.
"After the breaks I have had, I know how close you are to another lay-off every day you go out. All I'm doing is working hard, trying to please as many people as I can and get myself about. If I keep doing that and manage to stay sound, then, hopefully, things will keep progressing."