Paul Kimmage: 'What would I do if I stopped? I'd get bored as bloody hell'
Published 13/12/2015 | 17:00
Four men carrying a coffin through a shaded cemetery in December - at a glance it was easy to miss. And glance he did.
"Yesterday's paper, you said?"
"Yeah, the photo on the front page."
"The Irish Times?"
"Hang on, it should be here."
He placed the phone on his desk and reached for the stack of papers. "Okay, got it."
"Read the caption," I said.
"Champion's funeral: Pallbearers carry jockey Pat Eddery's coffin in Thame, Oxfordshire."
"Now, what do you notice?"
"Isn't it a month since he died?"
"The coffin! Jeeze!"
"Have you ever seen that before?"
A wet winter's morning in November 1992. To find Pat Eddery you take the red-eye to Heathrow, a hire car to Aylesbury and a tangle of Buckinghamshire's country lanes to two sets of ramps and the yard at Musk Hill Farm, where his wife, Carolyn, is wrestling with an umbrella and striding towards a car. "Is he expecting you?" she asks.
The world's leading jockey and Ireland's highest-paid sportstar has kicked off his shoes and is sitting in the kitchen. Forty years old and 5ft 2ins, he's wearing a soft wool sweater, slacks and green socks and looks different to the silk-clad giant of the saddle. "So, you found us," he smiles, extending a hand.
He makes coffee and invites you to a sitting room adorned with gilded portraits and mementoes of his legend: Grundy's defeat of Bustino in the Race of the Century and the unforgettable Dancing Brave in the Prix de L'Arc. I quote him a passage from that win in '86, and Brough Scott's memorable report in The Sunday Times: For a moment, you couldn't believe your eyes. He was giving the others a start and, spread eight wide across the track, they flattened quite furiously for the line. These were crack horses and now Dancing Brave had to move across behind them before even beginning his effort. By any ordinary criteria he had got the cards wrong. But this was no normal beast, no ordinary man. And, as with all greatness, what was seen next will never be forgotten.
"Great memories and great to look back," he smiles, "but it's the future you've got to look to. It's no use dreaming, you don't get anywhere by that."
His 25th season - 1,000 rides, 178 winners - has just ended with a trip to Rome and a fortnight in Japan and the talk is racing, racing, racing from the moment we sit down. But my mission is to steer him away from the winners' enclosure and to find the man.
His knowledge of other top-earning Irish sportsmen seems an interesting tease.
"Well, Mick Kinane must be doing all right, mustn't he? And Christy Roche - those guys are not short of a bob, are they? And then you've got your snooker players (he doesn't name them) and . . . I'm not into football, I watch a bit now and again but not much, so outside of racing . . ."
"What about Sean Kelly?"
"I've heard the name."
"A bike rider, the Tour de France."
"Naaah. You see, when you are flat out all summer, that's when all the big flat races are going on and when you are doing two meetings a day and getting home at ten or 11 o'clock at night, it's hard to take an interest in anything else. It's just non-stop and all you do is concentrate on your own profession."
I ask about his boyhood and am forced to interrupt when he returns almost immediately to the track: "Sorry Pat, but was there never a childhood outside of horses?"
"No," he replies, "nothing. Just those four-legged horses for all of my life from the day I was able to walk."
The rain is bouncing off the windows now and the room is suddenly quiet. He looks at me, expecting another question but his truth has taken out my stumps. I fiddle with my notes and try to find another angle. "Your accent is interesting: Do you still feel Irish?"
"Oh yeah, I've still got my Irish passport," he says. "I've brought my kids up as Catholics. I enjoyed it when I went and did the five years with Vincent (O'Brien) down in Tipperary and any opportunity I get to ride in Ireland I take."
It is pointless trying to steer him; everything comes back to his life and love for horses and we spend a very enjoyable hour talking about his time at Ballydoyle and his hopes for the season to come. The wealth and trappings of fame he has acquired - the farm, the Mercedes 560, the twin-engine Cessna - mean little to him. The only thing is racing and he has no plans on quitting soon.
"What would I do if I stopped?" he asks. "I'd get bored to bloody hell. I've been all my life riding horses. I don't know anything else."
"But what if you were to die tomorrow?" I ask. "Wouldn't it be futile to have worked so hard and not taken advantage?
"Well, I have taken advantage," he counters. "You can see where I live, I've got nice surroundings, a stud which I really enjoy up the road . . . I'm able to afford to buy the kids ponies so they can enjoy their childhood. And if I dropped off, well, hopefully my wife and kids are secure as they will get everything I possess. I've enjoyed it as I've gone through it, and I hope I can go on and enjoy it."
Eddery went on for 11 more seasons and retired in 2003 at the age of 51. But the hole in his life was impossible to fill. He was drinking more and more heavily, and five years later his marriage had broken down. In 2010 he returned home after a spell in rehab to his daughter, Natasha.
Last month she wrote movingly about his death.
"The last time I saw him face to face was when I brought him home from rehab and he drank straight away. I turned to him and said, 'Dad, if you choose to drink over health and family, I can't be part of that life for you'. Sadly his addiction was too strong and he couldn't overcome it."
Eddery was buried on Wednesday near his home in Oxfordshire. Brough Scott gave the eulogy. Frankie Dettori was one of the pallbearers. His coffin was decorated with images from his finest triumphs and a huge photo of the '86 Prix de L'Arc and his win on Dancing Brave.
And, as with all greatness, what was seen next will never be forgotten.
He will rest in peace.
Sunday Indo Sport