Heffernan hope springs eternal
Tomorrow at the Curragh Seamus Heffernan will have his 15th ride in an Irish Derby on Jan Vermeer. The Kildare native has an enviable record in the Dubai Duty Free-sponsored Classic, partnering one of Aidan O'Brien's runners every year since 1996, the year both men were first represented in the traditional centrepiece of the Irish Flat season.
On that occasion, Christy Roche rode the Charles O'Brien-trained Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial-winner Truth Or Dare instead of Rainbow Blues, which he had finished second on in the 2,000 Guineas. O'Brien turned to Heffernan, his trusty No 2, to fill the void. The rider was, and would continue to be, a safe pair of hands.
Over the next 14 years, whenever the marquee names were unavailable, Heffernan would be called on to step into the breach. When they were available, he'd quietly go about his duties as No 2 'skivvy'.
Then, in the 2007 and 2008 Irish Derbies, he finally struck gold, that understated diligence yielding spectacular results. Kieren Fallon and Johnny Murtagh were respectively denied on better-fancied stable-mates, as Soldier Of Fortune and Frozen Fire both scored under Heffernan. With second, third and fourth places to his name also, Heffernan's Irish Derby record is currently bettered only by Murtagh.
Tomorrow, then, should be a happy anniversary. When first asked for an interview, however, Heffernan is compelled to quip: "Any chance you could give me a few quid for it? I'm going horrid bad!"
He is joking, of course, but only half. The 37-year-old is enduring his worst season for well over a decade, with just seven winners on the board as the campaign reaches halfway. At the same point in 2007, his best ever season, he already had 34 up.
"I'm having a terrible season -- terrible," he continues. "But, sure, I'm healthy, and I've got a lot out of racing. There are plenty lads having a worse year than me."
Heffernan has always been one for the straight bat, so such candour is typical. For good or bad, he says, he is a realist, and he isn't about to go into denial now.
The pecking order at Ballydoyle is not as clearcut as it was, with Heffernan seemingly no longer the de facto second-choice rider in Ireland. Colm O'Donoghue and apprentices Sean Levey and Joseph O'Brien, the trainer's son, are coming in for an increased share of the Murtagh left-overs. Competition is hotting up on the bench.
On a wins-to-rides basis, Heffernan remains marginally to the fore behind Murtagh, but that doesn't tell the full story either. Over the past couple of weeks, O'Brien has saddled 54 runners. The 1994 champion apprentice has ridden just two of them, once when he was his usual dependable self in winning on Catchafallingstar in a Limerick maiden last week, the other last night's Curragh outsider Quest For Gold. Set to double that number today before getting the leg-up on Jan Vermeer tomorrow, Heffernan is adamant that things won't get him down.
"I'm too old to be getting frustrated," he reasons. "Some years the luck is with you and some years it's not. I ride out in Ballydoyle every morning and don't get a chance to ride work for any other trainer, so I'm only picking up what others reject and hoping they can run well.
"I'm a bit heavier than most Flat jockeys, too. If you're only being asked to ride very average horses, it doesn't entice you to get into the sauna and sweat to ride them. For a good one, I'd get down to 8st 10lb. I haven't done 8st 10lb in a while -- there are no good ones around for me at the moment."
There's no escaping the pathos in that, not when you consider how long-established and well-respected Heffernan is. The 12-year-old boy who turned up at Arthur Moore's door in 1984 looking for a summer job has come a long way.
Heffernan would first meet O'Brien at PJ Finn's Curragh yard a couple of years later and O'Brien subsequently helped him to secure an apprenticeship with Jim Bolger when he was assistant trainer there. Inevitably, after O'Brien took up the reins at Ballydoyle in 1994, Heffernan was on his wanted list. He made the switch in 1996.
Having played second fiddle to Roche, Mick Kinane, Jamie Spencer, Fallon and Murtagh, there were times through the years when it was felt that Heffernan's steady hand and even temper might earn him a cut in the hot-seat. The call never came, though, and the fight for crumbs has never been so hard as it is now.
Given how skilfully Heffernan has always taken the opportunities that do come his way, that struggle is surprising. He has ridden nine Group One winners, eight for O'Brien. Just two years ago, during the Ballydoyle annus mirabilis, he rode five in one season, including three of the five domestic Classics.
"You need a lot of luck in racing," Heffernan says now with the kind of mature acceptance that a lifetime in the game brings. "When you're flying, everybody wants you and when you're not, nobody wants you. That's just the way it is. It's not because you're riding any different, it's just because the horses are no good."
For the accuracy of this statement, consider his last two Epsom Derby mounts. In 2009, Heffernan pushed the mighty Sea The Stars hardest of all on the favourite Fame And Glory, which Murtagh had passed over. This year, he was reduced to pace-making duties on At First Sight, the clear third choice of the Ballydoyle trio.
Two furlongs out, Heffernan looked set to embarrass his peers, as At First Sight defied 100/1 odds to still hold the lead. Workforce, and nothing else, ultimately soared by him, but, as ever, Heffernan had done his job -- and then some.
Tomorrow, probably no more than usual, Heffernan will line up for the Irish Derby as much in hope as expectation, desperate to turn around this "terrible season". In a year when doubts still surround the three-year-old hierarchy at Ballydoyle, a third win in the €1.25m showpiece is quite possible, and would surely be sweet.
"I'll continue to be positive anyway," Heffernan concludes defiantly.
"Sometimes, when you're on the third or fourth string for Ballydoyle, they can be better than the first string. I've been on the right one twice before in the Derby, so you never know -- there's no real science to it. If you're not in, you can't win, and I'm happy enough to be in there with a chance again."