Y ou know you're getting old when jockeys start looking young. But however youthful Davy Condon appears as he starts into a light lunch after morning work at Joanna Morgan's on Good Friday, he feels old when compared with his first cousin Paul Townend.
"I remember when I was like that," Condon reveals, apropos of nothing in particular, but I suppose when you're 25 you're not as carefree as when you were 19.
Two days away from riding the favourite in a Grade One on the opening day of the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, we are a stone's throw from the racecourse where the rain is coming down faster than they can clear it. It is 5/6 racing going ahead, according to the bookmakers, but sitting where we are in the window you'd be betting the other way. The jockey -- in keeping with tradition -- is staying clear of meat this Friday and is reflective as he prepares for Zaarito in today's featured Powers Gold Cup.
Condon was certainly bred for the job. A native of Conna, Co Cork "near Jimmy Mangan's, next door to Liam Burke", his father Michael was a leading point-to-point and amateur rider; his grandfather Gerry Townend was another top amateur; uncle Bob Townend rode first jockey for Mick O'Toole for years while uncle Timmy is sire to aforementioned first cousin Paul who until last Monday lodged with Davy down in Carlow.
There was only ever a brief time when horses were off the Condon radar. "It was when I was 10 or 11 that I had nothing to do with horses. It was all hurling with a bit of soccer. Then as I was getting older the sliotars started coming a bit faster -- and I was the goalie. As the age groups went up and we were getting a bit bigger, I got a bit cowardly."
"Cowardly," we agree is a curious choice of expression in the light of his subsequent chosen career path.
Paul Townend has followed ably in his elder cousin's pathfinder footsteps thus far. "When he was starting pony-riding I was starting hunting," says Condon. "And when I went on to the track he was just starting hunting. The same at Willie's (Mullins) -- when I moved on, then he moved in. Since he started with Willie he's lived with me -- until Monday."
Davy Condon had worked as understudy to Ruby Walsh at Mullins' until an offer came in spring 2008 of number one job at Greystokes with Nicky Richards after Tony Dobbin's retirement. He deliberated before accepting. "I was riding 15-20 winners here a year and Tony Dobbin said I should be riding 30 plus over there. More winners enticed me and then thinking about Ruby -- sure he could be around for God knows how long. And I always wanted to be first jockey to a trainer, not play second fiddle all my life. We're only in this life once so I didn't want to end my days wondering 'What if?' Some say I should never have left Willie's, saying 'Look at all the winners Paul (Townend) has now' but I actually had a chat with Willie. He told me there were good, high-profile owners over there -- which meant good horses and told me he was going to be using Paul a fair bit anyway because he was good value for his claim. It was that information that finally made my decision and I was happy I went. I never made the front page of the Racing Post before Monet's Garden won the Peterborough."
The season started well but extreme weather sent it into a tail-spin. "With the bad weather in mid-season we couldn't work the horses so they were unfit and were only getting fit by the end of the season." Poor results made for unhappy owners and while Condon was never officially blamed, the decision was made to forfeit a retainer and use the "best available" the following season.
And so, a return to the native sod beckoned to rebuild a career having forfeited a solid position with a top yard. Condon remained philosophical even when a broken ankle last June at Kilbeggan meant he had to miss most of the summer. "I had a plan to get riding out for Noel Meade and Gordon Elliott and get a base going. I was riding second jockey to Paul (Carberry) and with two claimers in the yard as well, I was mad to get a winner. I was getting frustrated that I wasn't riding a winner as it would have got my foot in the door a bit more."
And then all of a sudden, the wheel turned. Carberry's ban for failing a breathalyser at Naas on October 31, and Condon rides his first winner for Meade -- 25/1 Go Native in the Grade One Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. This is followed two days later with another Grade One -- the Drinmore at Fairyhouse on Pandorama. Before the month of December is out, Condon has notched a further three Grade Ones -- Go Native at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle and two more at Leopardstown on the 28th. Before December, Davy Condon had only ever ridden one Grade One winner (Ebaziyan in Cheltenham's 2007 Supreme Novice). Suddenly, like the 46A, along come five together in a month. Condon shows an attitude to the severity of the unpredictable highs and lows that would do Kipling proud.
What was gratifying however was how he was treated in victory by his recent employer. "Nicky (Richards) is a gentleman -- he was the first to come and congratulate me in the parade ring when Go Native won at Newcastle."
As with all professional sport, winners are magnetic and Condon's run of success was instrumental in him getting the plum saddle on Zaarito this afternoon. "I never had any luck for Colm (Murphy). How I got the ride was through my agent and my riding style is similar to Denis O'Regan who got broken up. He's a horse you need to stay quiet on -- not move a muscle. We'll never know whether he'd have won the PJ Moriarty at Leopardstown, but he was going to go close. He's definitely not a bridle horse. I just schooled him around for the first circuit. I had 10 lengths to make up turning in and I made up the ground very quickly. That's what knocked him at the last, that I came from so far back he was going very fast into the fence. Too fast, and the speed knocked him."
That first acquaintance taught Condon a lot about his subject Zaarito. "The next day at Naas I knew him better and wanted to be handy so I wouldn't have to make up ground. So I bounced out second and he never came off the bridle the whole way. I'd say I'll do similar on Sunday. You wouldn't say he's the best jumper you've ever thrown your leg across but what I like about him is he has such a big engine. You know he has the ability to win. He could have carried a Grade One winner (Whatuthink) up the straight at Naas he won so easy."
In spite of acknowledging the Mullins duo in this afternoon's contest (Condon still does a day a week at Willie's), he looks elsewhere for his main danger. "The one that jumps out is Jagoes Mills who seems to be on the upgrade. He was beaten by Kempes at Thurles the last day but Davy Russell was riding the race to beat An Cathaoir Mor. Kempes came fast and late and done him for a bit of toe. He handles the heavy ground very well and he jumps -- so he's definitely one to watch."
Unfortunately for Condon, he misses out on the opportunity to ride in tomorrow's National owing to a high-profile ban incurred in the Ryanair at Cheltenham on J'y Vole. He explains: "The stewards saw it that I was barging. Over here we'd just call it race-riding. I should have appealed the severity (of the four-day ban) but I didn't. There was definitely room to go there. Of course Ruby was just race-riding and he has every right to keep me in. But I had to go there. Because she's a tricky filly (J'y Vole) who jumps right and hangs right and the track was riding very tight on the Thursday. There's a very sharp bend when we turn in and if I'd opted to come around Ruby into the straight I'd have ended up in the stands. Literally."
The jockey isn't that cut up about missing tomorrow and Tuesday but he is "bitterly disappointed not to be able to ride in the National." Examining the field, he is not immune to a view. "I'd love to ride Tony Martin's horse (Saddlers Storm). He looks like he handles the soft ground well. Tony seems to be playing it down a bit saying that he wouldn't want it too heavy but all he's won on is heavy or testing and he has a light weight. He looks like he'll stay all day and David Casey is a rider who likes to drop in so I'd say he's the one."
Then his thoughts turn closer to home. "I won a few on Ballytrim and he's a lovely horse. Stays, stays, stays. He goes on soft but he wouldn't want bottomless. I'd say the ground we have now is gone for him."
If he has forfeited the opportunity to ride in the Irish National, he is certainly looking forward to the Aintree version next Saturday where he partners Backstage for Gordon Elliott in an attempt to at least complete for the first time. "I got around in the Bechers Chase in third on Oulart and that was some thrill. But never the National. It's like no other race. You jump the fences like you're in slow motion. Sometimes you think you'll never land!"
Many forget that Condon was a successful Flat rider before transitioning (he finished second to Tadhg O'Shea in the apprentice championship of 2002 and has ridden Holy Orders in a Melbourne Cup) and of his 230 winners almost half came under the summer code. As someone in a fairly unique situation, Condon has an interesting take on the juxtaposition of codes. "Flat boys don't talk to the jumps boys and the jumps boys don't talk to the Flat boys. I get on grand with both sides but the Flat lads . . . they just seem to whinge a lot. With the Flat lads there's always a problem with the ground too soft or too hard or the showers being cold -- while the jumps lads have no problem going out to jump a ditch on a lad that's maybe never even seen a ditch."
He has taken the best of the Flat riding style and imported it into his jumps execution. Consequently, he rides with just the ball of the foot in the iron and by his own admission likes "cocking my arse in the air when I know I'm winning easy". This afternoon on Zaarito there will be no fear of the fences and the resurgent young jockey will hope his mount can accommodate him in providing the most stylish finish of the Easter Festival. If not, he'll get over it. He's done it before.