'The buzz was incredible. I'd have burned the place down if I'd won'
Ken Whelan, the Joker of the jumping pack, is retiring with many fond memories, writes John O'Brien
When Ken Whelan slipped out of the saddle and into retirement a couple of weeks back, the wider world barely stopped blinking to take notice. Even the racing pages were noticeably quiet. Whelan's exit from race-riding narrowly preceded the sad passing of Fergie Sutherland and the death of the larger-than-life ex-army man who trained Imperial Call to win the 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup understandably stole the headlines. A paragraph turned into a mere footnote.
And maybe that was alright. Whelan didn't take it personally anyway. After all, in more than 20 years as a jockey, he'd probably ridden fewer winners than AP McCoy would expect to accumulate in a single season. A good year was edging into double figures, snagging the odd decent pot here and there if possible and, above all, leaving the racecourse in one piece. He scraped a living and had a hell of a time in the process. For that he feels blessed.
Yet in the weigh room, his cherished home from home, the significance of Whelan's retirement couldn't be missed. In the hierarchical nature of the weigh room, Whelan was the most senior jockey by virtue of age, but it was an authority he never used in a vitriolic or condescending manner. He was the man jockeys approached when an issue needed sorting or the one most likely to break the tension when tempers flared. Not for nothing they called him Joker.
The best story? He tells one himself from Gold Cup day at Cheltenham two years ago. It was St Patrick's Day, an hour before racing began. He was due to ride Mr Pointment in the big race, his first ride in the Gold Cup, but the horse was a no-hoper and Whelan felt no sense of tension. Around him in the weigh room, though, he saw serious faces and glum expressions. Time, he thought, to lift the tension.
"I was wearing these green, white and gold boxers with a false arse and Póg mo Thón written across the back and green hunter wellies and a tweed cap. So I was wrecking Paddy Brennan's head and he says why don't you go outside? I says how much? Fifty quid, he says. So he looks up at the screen and there's three girls in the parade ring doing Irish dancing. Out there, he says.
"I got a few of the other lads in on it as well. McCoy, Timmy Murphy, Choc Thornton, six of them in all at 50 quid each. So I go outside and start dancing with the girls and the whole place is in stitches. I look up and the steps of the parade ring are jammed, everybody lookin' at this mad fella in the boxer shorts. McCoy said afterwards it was the best 50 quid he'd ever spent."
Everybody has a story. Davy Russell remembers the day Whelan fell while schooling a mare for his father, the sheer comedy of the situation as the horse galloped past them with one of Whelan's wellies dangling out of the stirrups. To this day, wearing waterproofs over his boots, they still can't figure out how the offending welly came loose without Whelan's foot attached to it.
Like Russell, Whelan served his apprenticeship on the point-to-point circuit, although racing wasn't in his blood. Riding, he says, was simply a way out of school. It wasn't that he hated school, more as he saw it, that school hated him. Even now he'll struggle to read in front of a group of people and, back then, a thumping seemed a fair price to be spared the torture of having to read in front of his classmates.
He set out with no conquering ambition or great sense of entitlement. He knew he would never be champion jockey or strut daily around one of racing's big yards. Early on he rode as an amateur for Ferdy Murphy when Paul Carberry was first jockey. Although several years younger, Carberry became his idol, possessing a natural talent Whelan could only dream about. "I knew I'd never be him, but if I could live with him on the racecourse, that's all I wanted," he says.
They were similar personalities yet very different too. The same madcap antics defined them, but the alcohol Carberry needed to combat his debilitating shyness wasn't to Whelan's liking. He had his last drink when he was 18 – "didn't like the taste," he says – and he figures he was already mad enough without it. "People would say if he's not on drink he's on drugs," he laughs. "He has to be on something anyway."
What he was on was the sheer drug of race-riding, the narcotic of living a life whose every element – the winning and the losing, the bruising falls and the harsh winter mornings – came as part of a package he willingly subscribed to. You could talk about the good horses he rode – Risk Of Thunder, Breyani, Stop The Waller, Buck Rogers – but that is to miss the point. Ask him about his best moment in racing and he talks not of riding in the 1998 Grand National, but of the night before.
"We were in the nightclub in the Adelphi Hotel on the Friday night. Dancing, acting the maggot, having a great time. I remember going up the stairs at around 4.0am and all the trainers are there having a drink. So Nigel Twiston Davies sees us and goes, 'ah there's my jockey'. Another trainer goes 'there's my jockey' and Eddie O'Grady sees me coming in my boxers. I'd lost my trousers doing the Full Monty. 'Will someone ever get that eejit to bed,' he roars. Great days."
The next day he gave O'Grady's Gimme Five a peach of a ride, sensing glory at one point before fading into a hugely honourable fifth which, in those days, carried the bonus of a place in the winners' enclosure. "The whole buzz of the day was incredible," he says. "Dad being there, ringing home and everyone so proud of me. I'd have burned the place down if I'd won."
It's easy to contemplate his antics, the mischievous spirit that courses through him and conclude that Whelan wasn't a serious jockey, that the craft of horsemanship largely eluded him, but that would do him a criminal disservice. His fellow riders always knew him as one of the hardest working jockeys in the weigh room and there was no-one more fearless too.
That was a condition of his circumstances. He talks of days riding out in the morning before heading to Thurles for a day of schooling bumpers, maybe 14 in all, and then stopping off in another yard on his way home. In a normal year he'd aim to ride at least 300 races, mostly horses with no chance of winning.
He recalls a day at Mallow when he rode two horses that had both fallen in their previous two races, horses few jockeys would touch. One of them had galloped over a gate at Naas and had to be caught careering down the main street. "Maybe I was stupid but I'm thinking if I get them around and win you're a hero, if he falls he's only a c*** of a horse anyway. The only thing is you get a name for riding difficult horses. Nine times out of 10 you'll lose."
He considers the kind of horses he rode and figures he has done well to emerge relatively unscathed. You mention Ruby Walsh and the succession of injuries he has suffered and Whelan concedes the point, but reminds you of the day Walsh returned at Listowel following injury recently and had two warm favourites to ease him back. For the likes of Whelan the road back was so much tougher. The journeyman jockey had to re-establish himself all over again.
The falls? A grim catalogue as you'd expect. He remembers listing his injuries while travelling in a car full of jockeys to Dundalk one day – broken coccyx, punctured lung, cheekbones, arms, collarbones, ribs, legs, ankles – and marvelling at the fact he'd never been on crutches or in plaster. That evening he fractured his pelvis and spent six weeks on crutches. He returned and broke his back and had to be plastered from hip to shoulder.
Ultimately, it was the repeated damage to his back and the toll it was reaping, vertebrae that were being twisted ever closer towards his spine, that spelled the end for him. When he fell at Wexford in April and hurt his back again, he thought recovery might take a little longer than usual – "an age thing," he smiles – but still he never doubted it for a moment. When the end finally came, he found himself mentally unprepared for it.
Two weeks on the struggle endures. The week he quit he travelled to the races in Thurles and spoke to his friends in the weigh room without telling them the grim news. He hadn't the heart to tell them. It seemed too final. That night he rang John Cullen, his best friend, and told him that his career was over. Then it felt final. Time to move on with the next stage of his life.
So he speaks about the future now. Trying to fill time as best he can. He's riding out for a few local trainers near his home in Cashel, helping a friend with the opening of a new pub in Thurles, speaking here and there at functions before and after racing. He makes it sound like life has been easy since retirement, but that's how they always knew him. Always putting the best possible spin on even the most gruesome events.
Still, there's consolation in looking back, 20 years of warm memories to cherish. Not the best jockey to grace our screens by a long stretch, but one of the happiest all the same. He could have been a soccer player at the same level and squirrelled away a million by now if he was careful or a journeyman golfer and done even better than that. But he was a jump jockey, deliriously happy to have been one and to have had the career he had.
"People call you a journeyman and that's what I was. I never minded going to Down Royal or Tipperary to ride two whether they were 5/1 or 50/1. My ambition when I started was, like any jockey, to ride in the Grand National, ride at Cheltenham and ride a winner around my local track which was Tallow.
"I rode twice in the National, was lucky enough to ride at winner at Cheltenham and I rode a winner at Tallow one day owned by two school friends of mine and trained by another friend. She was saddled up in her own stable across the road. The lads got weeks out of it. It was like winning a Gold Cup for them. You can't buy happiness like that."
He'll miss days like that now and they, assuredly, will miss him.
Sunday Indo Sport