Turning out future winners
Ireland's racing academy is about much more than training young jockeys, as Aisling Crowe discovers
Their portraits line the walls. Familiar faces, household names. They have walked these corridors before and they light the path for the current crop.
On Friday, 26 young trainee jockeys will face the future full of hope and promise when they graduate from RACE, Ireland's racing academy. Epsom Oaks-winning jockey Seamus Heffernan, French Oaks winner Johnny Murtagh, multiple Group One winners ridden at the world's most prestigious meetings. They are just two of the stellar performers in whose footsteps this year's graduates can aspire to follow.
RACE, an acronym for Racing Academy and Centre of Education, is not all about training the world's best jockeys. Not everyone can ride Group winners or even get the opportunity to ride on the track. International success at the highest levels sits alongside less publicised but equally cherished achievements. There is deep satisfaction taken in the fact that ten years after graduating, eight out of ten trainees are still working within the racing industry. In a sport with a global reach, it is no surprise to discover that past graduates are scattered across the globe, their talents and skills prized in Dubai, Australia, America and many other countries.
"Our aim is to produce top-class jockeys," explains Keith Rowe, the academy's director. "But our real goal is to ensure that people get the skills and the experience and the foundation that enables them to go on and make a career in the industry. If their riding isn't at a level where they can become a top-class jockey, in a lot of cases they will get some experience of riding on the track, they will get a licence of some description.
"They are getting the skills and experience that will help them make a career in the industry, if not as a jockey, as a work rider, as travelling head lads, assistant trainers and ultimately as trainers as well."
The academy will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year and it has developed significantly from its roots. It was originally set up by Stan Cosgrove, now the manager of Moyglare Stud, and the late Michael Osbourne, among others, in response to the appalling conditions that apprentice jockeys and stable staff were forced to endure and to help provide training and education for people entering the industry.
The academy started out in a derelict house on land donated by the National Stud and has developed into an internationally renowned training establishment for the racing industry. The academy is run by a charitable trust and its entire ethos is based on providing education and training for the racing industry.
The facilities on site now are far removed from the shell of a building where academy began. The campus has expanded to encompass accommodation for the trainees, lecture halls and theatres, classrooms, gym and an indoor riding school. A string of retired racehorses have also found a home here and a second career helping to educate the jockeys of the future. The Irish School of Farriery was opened in 2002 and it too is located here. The academy has access to the Curragh schooling grounds and gallops.
But there is more to RACE than the trainee jockeys' course. As Irish racing's national academy, it provides training for people taking out licences with the Turf Club for everything from amateur jockeys to trainers. There are courses aimed at helping jockeys to continue in their professional development, other
courses are offered to thoroughbred breeders, still more for stable staff to enhance their career development. Students come from all over the world to study at the academy and it has forged strong links with Japan thanks to the late Derek O'Sullivan, the first director of RACE.
RACE offers a route into a career that would otherwise be blocked to many young people with a passion for horses and a desire to work with them, but with no family background in racing or connections to the racing industry. Many of the students come from parts of the country where there is no tradition of racing, from places as diverse as Dublin and Donegal. Only two of this year's class are from Kildare, long thought of as racing's heartland.
"It's an access point for people who have no previous experience. Some of the most successful people that came out of the academy are people who never sat on a horse before they came here," Rowe adds.
One of those Kildare graduates is Steven Hanlon. Racing is a lifelong passion for this 17-year-old from Suncroft that was sparked by the gift of a pony from his father. He is hopeful for the bright future he can see spread out on the horizon after Friday. Hanlon's work placement was with Martin Brassil and he enjoyed it immensely and learned so much from working for the former jockey and Grand National-winning trainer. He hopes to become a conditional jumps jockey.
"It's unbelievable, one of the best racing schools in the world. All the help is there, you just have to take it. I enjoyed the whole experience here. It makes you such a good rider and it turns out so many good jockeys every year and I just wanted to be a part of that. I'm definitely in racing for life. I'm not here for the short term, I'm going to try and make a go of things," he says.
The framed portraits on the wall are not just a decorative choice, or a celebration of the achievements of those who pass through the academy's doors. They serve a greater purpose, to sustain the passion of trainees like Steven, that one day they too may be lining the walls, inspiring future generations who have a dream like the one they are beginning to follow.
"I think it's very important," adds Rowe, "as we approach our 40th anniversary next year, for the young people who are here this year or coming in next year, that they can see on the walls the pictures of the people who have gone before them and have done very well.
"It's really important to have good, positive role models for them and that they have things they can aspire to. And I think that's a huge part of it because you're conscious if you get onto the trainee jockey course that you're aiming to follow in the footsteps of people who have gone on ahead of you and done very well.
"You would hope that many of the graduates have been good role models, not just in terms of their success on the track but in terms of how they've carried themselves professionally."
With their exam results received and graduation preparations at an advanced stage, the majority of the class of 2012 have the next step in their career plan mapped out before they leave the environs of the academy.
Most of them have received job offers in racing yards already. Many will be retained by the trainers they completed their work placements with, while others have ambitions to move into the National Hunt sphere. All of the trainees hope to sign their apprentice papers when the appointed time comes, but like much of their chosen career, when this happens will depend not only on their stage of development but their weight. Whatever the divergent paths they are treading, they all share the same intended final destination -- a career in the racing industry.
"If the will is there, I think the future is always bright," Rowe says. "It may take a little longer and it may go a slightly different route and they may sometimes end up in places they weren't anticipating, but there are jobs with racehorses all around the world.
"The world is open to you and there are loads of opportunities in the racing world so the future is definitely bright for somebody who has come out of the programme here."
Sunday Indo Sport