Twomey sets his sights on Olympic glory in London
Published 02/08/2011 | 05:00
BILLY TWOMEY is a horseman to his finger tips. His late father, also Billy, used to commentate at point-to-points throughout Munster, while his uncle Kelvin trained Brittany Boy to win the Irish Grand National in 1987.
But it was his aunt Avril who guided her clearly talented nephew as he blazed a trail through the pony show jumping scene. Avril and Billy's mother, Jill, ran a business in training and producing ponies for sale from their mother's well-known riding school, Hitchmoughs, in Monkstown, Cork. Jill did most of the work at home, with Avril taking the show on the road.
Most people remember Avril as a savvy, charming, smiling blonde woman but Twomey grins as he describes her as "very black and white, tough as nails -- someone you wouldn't want to cross."
He tells a story about riding a pony called Eartha Kitt in a 128cm competition -- the smallest on the circuit -- when he was about 10 years of age.
"I stayed on the ground after being jumped off going through a combination fence and acted like I was hurt, but Avril roared at me, 'Get up you little fecker, there's nothing wrong with you, get back on that pony.'
"I did so pretty quick. She wouldn't be slow about giving me a clip on the ear if I needed one and I often did."
It was Avril who persuaded Billy to train with Albert Voorn, Olympic silver medallist in Sydney, at his base in the Netherlands.
"I was 17, completely green and a bit spoiled," Twomey says. "I got a serious shock when I arrived. Albert was extremely disciplined and I spent the first few weeks being put back in my box, polishing brass door-handles and scrubbing concrete yards. It was a while before he let me on a horse.
"It was a lonely place and it suddenly dawned on me how much the family had done for me at home."
But Twomey never lost sight of where he was trying to go. "I'd been going to the RDS since I was 10 or 11. I used to sit in the trees at the corner of the arena and watch Eddie Macken and Gerry Mullins. I swore to myself that some day it would be me in there, and that I would ride in the Aga Khan Cup. I always thought I would get there in the end."
Twomey moved on to work in England for trainers Jason and Katrina Moore but his big ambition was to train with Michael Whitaker, who was world No 1 at the time.
Yorkshireman Whitaker, who like his legendary brother John is not the most communicative person on the planet, wasn't that keen.
"I begged him to take me on," Twomey explains. "I didn't care what I got paid. I just wanted to learn everything I could from him.
He soon found out that "Michael was not a natural trainer". Some people would go to him and it wouldn't work out, but it was the making of Twomey.
As horses like Huntingtown and Conquest came his way, his career began to blossom. "Conquest was the one which catapulted me up to the next level," he says.
He competed in his first Nations Cup in Modena, Italy with the little chestnut stallion alongside Paul Darragh, Jessica Kuerten and Peter Charles. He had arrived, but he still had plenty more learning to do.
"In the first round of the Nations Cup, I had the second-last fence down, but I thought I'd done really well," he says.
Chef d'Equipe, the notoriously tough Tommy Wade, didn't agree, however. "He gave me a right bollocking when I came out of the ring -- I jumped clear the second time I can tell you!"
Twomey spent almost six years with Whitaker "getting the education you need to become a proper horseman". He says the Whitakers are "the ultimate horse people. They can figure things out naturally, even though they may not be able to put it into words very well. They just know horses and they are unbelievably competitive."
The years he spent with Whitaker were "very influential in my working life. One of the most important things I learned was to keep my mouth shut and to listen before offering an opinion on anything".
After almost six years he branched out for himself, riding horses owned by Simon Paul, Shirley Kernan and Sue and Ed Davies. He rented stables in Saxby, Leicestershire and lived with girlfriend Joanne in a nearby flat belonging to her mother.
The mare Anastasia came his way and then he persuaded the Davies to buy Luidam, "the horse that everyone was chasing at the time". They obliged but Eddie Davies, owner of Bolton Wanderers, was determined it should be a proper business arrangement.
"Eddie is a numbers man, so he wanted a return -- I was expected to deliver results," Twomey says. That business arrangement has evolved into a 10-year friendship.
Twomey moved to the Davies' yard in Cheshire for the next five years as his career really took off thanks to a great team of horses.
However, his progress came to a sudden halt following a life-threatening fall from the talented young stallion Pikap, which Davies had bought with the 2012 Olympic Games in mind.
In a freak accident at a show in Holland in April 2008, the horse broke a leg on take-off over a small fence and landed on top of Twomey, who lay unconscious for quite some time. Pikap had to be destroyed on the spot and Twomey was left with multiple injuries, including a broken leg and ribs, and a nasty head injury. It was six months before he was recovered enough from dizzy spells and sickness to venture into the show jumping ring again.
Twomey returned to action with a Grand Prix victory at the Horse of the Year Show and then at Belfast International with Je T'Aime Flamenco. He hasn't looked back since.
Something flickers across his face as he talks about his ambition of winning a medal at the Olympic games in London next year.
Having lived in England for so long, would Billy ever consider changing nationality and riding for Britain?
"No, I'm unbelievably patriotic and I'd never consider riding for any other country, not even if I was offered a fortune," he says. "This is who I am: I am an Irish rider with Irish roots.
"There's a statue in Cork of Christy Ring -- phenomenal athlete and a great man. Imagine being good enough at what you do for your own people to raise a statue for you. Now that's something."