Rising to trials of life in the saddle
Daryl Jacob is in hysterics at the other end of the telephone line. Sadly, it's not a piece of comedy genius from the Irish Independent's intrepid racing journalist that has him in knots.
Yours truly has just introduced himself, and Jacob's prank detection mechanism has gone into overdrive. "Go away out of that," he guffaws, "I know it's you, Eamonn!"
After a bit of sleuth-like probing and despite my firm denial of the charge, it is established that Jacob is convinced that Eamonn Fehily, younger brother of his buddy and fellow jockey Noel, has his wind-up hat on. The Fehily clan are, like myself, west Cork natives, and Jacob has got a sniff of the accent and sensed a ribbing.
After a bit of prolonged Father Ted-style "It is you!", "No, it's not, really", and with the deadline for copy looming ever closer, some bad service area intervenes and the line goes dead. Rather than go through it all again, I text him to suggest that he validate my number with either of the Fehilys, both of whom are old friends of mine.
Five minutes later, the phone rings. Jacob is mortified. If we could see his face, it would doubtless be ashen.
A gregarious and sincere fellow, his alert defence against the kind of leg-pulling that so colours the National Hunt weighing room has proved oversensitive. I compliment him on his ear for a lilt and console him by pointing out that it could have been worse, he could have been laughing at someone important, and we move on.
Although Jacob jumped the gun this time, his scepticism would be well founded. Practical jokes are a jockey's first port of call when it comes to keeping a colleague grounded, while the banter also keeps their minds from contemplating the exact nature of what it is they do for a living, not to mention the frailties of the profession.
Since moving to England in 2003 on the advice of the ill-fated Kieran Kelly, his then housemate at Dessie Hughes' yard, Jacob (26) has endured his share of ups and downs. After making a bright start as an amateur with Robert Alner, he was appointed stable jockey to the smaller but seemingly up-and-coming yard of Paul Keane.
That venture lasted less than a year, and in the summer of 2006 Jacob, having expressed himself sour on the game, considered returning to Ireland to learn a building trade. The experienced heads of Robert Alner and Noel Fehily calmed him, and by year's end he had secured the plum ride on Alner's The Listener.
On their first outing in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, the pair galloped clear of Beef Or Salmon and War Of Attrition to a first Grade One success. A John Durkan Chase and Hennessy Gold Cup would follow. However, when the horse attempted to defend his Hennessy crown last February -- now in the care of Alner's former assistant Nick Mitchell -- Jacob was replaced in the saddle by Andrew McNamara.
His season had only been spluttering along to that point -- four winners was his largest monthly haul -- and, with the Alner string not what it was owing to a car accident that left the Gold Cup-winning handler wheelchair-bound, the young rider's career seemed to have reached a crossroads. Cue a second lifeline.
Jacob formed an alliance with Nick Williams, another up-and-coming trainer. This time, he had picked a winner. Indeed, last month alone the resurgent Jacob amassed no less than 11 winners, which leaves him just six shy of his 2007 British tally of 40.
Unsurprisingly, Daryl Jacob is enjoying the game again. Although our exchange is now an altogether more sober affair, there is no disguising his genuine and infectious contentment. "Nick's horses are running well," he enthuses.
"Your strike-rate is always better when the stable's horses are doing their job, but I feel much better this year, too. I've got a lot more confidence in myself compared to last year when I had a lot of injuries, and obviously getting jocked off The Listener didn't help me either."
Rather than have his career defined by the demotion, Jacob has left the disappointment in his wake. Evidence of that was to be found on the Monday afternoon that the Lexus Chase was scheduled for a fortnight ago. For the first time in four years, Jacob missed the Leopardstown event (as did The Listener, incidentally, having picked up an injury when winning at Down Royal in November).
Instead, he was steering Me Voici, one of Williams' smart young hurdlers, in the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. As the Finale field negotiated its second obstacle, the commentary was interrupted by news of the fog's intervention at Leopardstown. Two and a half minutes later, Jacob was crossing the line 10 lengths to the good on Me Voici. Exactly 12 months after the pivotal second-fence fall in Dublin that ended his association with The Listener, he was back on track.
Aside from the symmetry, the afternoon's events offered a certain closure for Jacob. Twenty-four hours later, he went on to land the Challow Hurdle at Newbury for Williams on Reve De Sivola. Two days, two rides, two Grade Ones. Happy days.
"Going back to Ireland to ride The Listener was always special," Jacob declares. "He won three Grade Ones for me there and put my name on the board, but I've got other commitments now. It was nice to win those races, but life has moved on. Nick's horses have been doing really well and he deserved those big winners. It was a great couple of days, especially for Nick and his wife Jane, as she owned Me Voici and it was her first Grade One winner."
With the exception of Diamond Harry, which Timmy Murphy has retained the ride on so far, Jacob and Williams are proving a formidable outfit. As early as last March, the signs were there that they would.
The new coalition looked set for a first Cheltenham Festival winner when, approaching the last fence in the William Hill Chase, Jacob sailed into the lead on Maljimar. Unfortunately for them, the same race would subsequently see Tony McCoy lauded for what may have been the ride of the decade after he performed miracles to get Wichita Lineman home at the death.
In light of undue criticism from some quarters, Paul Nicholls, whom Jacob also rides out for, felt compelled to publicly defend the ride that the runner-up received.
Nicholls even pledged to honour that conviction by supporting the rider in future. When Timmy Murphy was stood down at Cheltenham last month and the ride on Nicholls' Chapoturgeon became available in the Boylesports.com Gold Cup, opportunity knocked.
The champion trainer was true to his word. But for a last-fence blunder, sweet redemption might have been Jacob's. "That was a nice spare ride to pick up," admits the rider, whose family relocated to Wexford from Donegal when he was two years old. "Chapoturgeon was still in with a fighting chance when he made the mistake, and things can change very quickly up that hill. Who knows what might have happened?"
While Nicholls' willingness to employ Jacob was an endorsement of the highest order, it is Jacob's own deeds lately that have confirmed him as a jockey of real substance. If that was already evident, then his reaction to the trials of life in the saddle demonstrates his strength of character. More than once he might have fallen through the cracks, but he never did. The son of a fisherman, he weathered the storms, and he prevailed.
"Horses are a great leveller," he says. "Some days will be good and some will be not so good, but you've just got to keep doing what you're doing. There's always something else around the corner, whether it's a winner or a fall. If you have a good day, it's more likely than not that it will be followed by a bad one. That's just the way it goes."
Although the only bad days for Daryl Jacob right now seem to be the ones that render racecourses frozen and thus stall his momentum, such a stark grasp of reality will be welcomed by the watchful Noel Fehily and his brother, who runs a reputable point-to-point outfit from their home place in Castletownkenneigh. Both men are clearly intent not to let Jacob get above his station in the wake of his recent triumphs. Now that he has gone public, you suspect their efforts might have to be redoubled.