Every opportunity has to count on the swings and roundabouts
Davy Condon knows the value of patience when dealing with the vagaries of racing, writes John O'Brien
T here is a certain view of jump jockeys that seems to be welded into the national psyche. The general public sees them maybe twice a year, lunging over the steepest fences in the most gruelling races and concludes that some streak of madness runs through them. When not on the track they are enjoying liquid lunches or haring down motorways ever seeking the burst of speed and danger that is their regular fix.
Davy Condon, for one, fits awkwardly into the cliché. It is dinnertime and his plate is filled with the day's roast with all the trimmings on top, a blessing of a light frame for which he daily gives thanks. Condon could have starved himself and attempted to carve out a more lucrative career on the Flat, but making that sacrifice was never a palatable option. Without enjoyment, the rewards would not have seemed worthwhile.
A couple of years ago, he moved from Carlow to Trim to be closer to the yards of Noel Meade and Gordon Elliott where he rides out most mornings. He'll plough the lonely road miles when he has to but why waste so much energy, he reasons, when there is an easier way? Tomorrow he'll ride out in the morning and then have a few spare hours before he ambles down to Fairyhouse around noon. Refreshed and ready for work.
It helps, he imagines, that he has learned at the hands of some of racing's shrewdest practitioners: Meade, Elliott, Joanna Morgan, his first boss Willie Mullins. In 2008, Condon rode as first jockey to Nicky Richards and, although they endured a frustratingly punctuated season, the trainer's Zen-like calm in the face of repeated setbacks was a lesson Condon knew would stay with him for life.
"When you've been in the game a while," he says, "you begin to understand the highs and lows. That's just racing. Nicky had this phrase he'd often use. We'd be in the car coming home from the races and maybe things haven't worked out and he'd just say: 'Davy, racing's a game of swings and roundabouts. We'll be grand. Tomorrow's another day'."
Condon's worldview is partially a consequence of his status. At Mullins' he had to wait in line behind Ruby Walsh and David Casey. With Meade and Elliott he knows that Paul Carberry will always be first choice when available. You just accept your position, he says. Be patient and diligent and the opportunities will eventually arrive. He peppers his conversation with little mottos he has picked up along the way: "A shut mouth catches no flies."
For jockeys like Condon racing is foremost a numbers game. He has ridden 33 winners this season and even though the majority of them have come on the country's second- and even third-tier tracks, it is a stand-out and impressive haul. "Every season my goal is to ride more winners than the season before. Last year I had 20 plus three in England. So this year is above average. If I manage a big winner along the way, it's a bonus."
The bonuses have arrived intermittently. Ebaziyan in the 2007 Supreme Novices Hurdle, Go Native in the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles in 2009, Pandorama in the Drinmore Novices Chase the same year. For Richards, he rode Monet's Garden to win the Peterborough Chase in 2008 and Noble Alan to land the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr the following year. Enough to suggest that when the chance comes, Condon has the temperament to make it count.
In the tight-knit confines of Irish racing, he has forged a comfortable position. From an early stage most Irish jockeys are confronted with the tricky dilemma of staying at home and fighting for a place at the table or branching out across the water where the grind is relentless but opportunities far greater. Conlon was never of a mind to make the journey until the invitation to ride for Richards was extended. All things considered, the offer was too enticing to resist.
From the start he found the transition tough. The pressure of riding as a No 1 was bearable, but the harshness of the Cumbrian winter was another thing entirely. Richards' yard in Greystoke was located in scenic Cumbrian countryside but it was remote terrain and the idle hours were hard to fill. On days off he would drive to Middleham to see his friend, Barry Keniry, a winding route that entailed a three-hour round trip.
"We actually got off to a pretty good start," he says. "Hit the ground running. But in the middle of the season we got appalling weather. The snow was terrible. We couldn't work the horses and some of them got a bit backward. When we got going again it was a bit too late. The recession kind of kicked in at the same time. Owners were getting a bit itchy, wanting to have McCoy or Choc Thornton up. Me and Nicky never had a fall-out. We'd still be good friends. When Go Native won at Newcastle he was one of the first to come over and congratulate me."
When he returned home in the spring of 2009, Condon knew he was effectively starting from scratch again. He pounded the roads that summer, booted home the odd winner here and there, until a broken ankle set him back even further. By the time he'd recovered, Carberry had been handed a ban after failing an alcohol breath test and his misfortune was to become Condon's golden opportunity.
"I was just keeping my head down at the time, trying to get going. Then Paul got banned and Noel said he'd use me more. I remember he was thinking of sending me to Newbury to ride Casey Jones in the Hennessy. Go Native was running at Newcastle that day so he decided to send me there instead. I didn't really mind which. As it turned out, Go Native won while Casey Jones got injured in his box on the way over and didn't run. That's the kind of luck you need sometimes."
By the end of the season he had ridden five Grade One winners for Meade and another -- the Mike Smith-trained Orsippus -- in a novice hurdle at Aintree. Riches he could scarcely have dreamed about. "From thinking I was going nowhere after breaking my ankle and just grafting away to riding six Grade One winners. It was brilliant. I was blessed to get going again like that."
After Go Native's victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, he was installed as favourite for the Champion Hurdle and Condon couldn't help imagining what it would be like to be on board. But he understood that Carberry would be back by then and that Meade would almost certainly remain faithful to his stable jockey. That's just how the game worked, Condon knew. You didn't take such things to heart.
Even good riders get jocked off now and again. He understood how Paul Townend felt when Mullins decided Walsh would ride Hurricane Fly in this year's Champion Hurdle even though Townend had ridden the horse to most of his victories. Condon and Townend are first cousins. As a kid, Townend would spend his holidays visiting Condon in Carlow and it wouldn't be long before he, too, would pitch up at Mullins'.
"I'd be telling Paul sometimes that in this game you have to block out the frustrations and keep all the positives. It was hard for him not to get the ride on Hurricane Fly. It's the same with me and Paul Carberry. But they're the No 1 jockeys. The trainers stay loyal to them because they're loyal to the trainers. Willie will be looking for a jockey for the next 10 or 15 years and Paul knows that. He'll be at Willie's for a long time to come. I'd be very proud of him. He's only 20 and there's a lot to come yet."
Condon is six years older. Still young but time for another leap forward perhaps? It would help, of course, if the 37-year-old Carberry decided to give his ageing bones a permanent rest, but it doesn't quite work like that. "I'd be slagging him, 'you're getting too old now, time to hang up the boots'. He'd be saying 'I can't afford it, need to pay the bills'. Ach, look he's no intention of giving up any time soon. He rode two winners for Gordon at Aintree. He's riding as good now as he was at 16. He'll keep going until his body gives out."
He proceeds the only way he knows how: grimly focused and eyes only on his own patch. He sees talented young jockeys heading off in droves for Australia now and knows he is lucky to have a future here. And if Meade's string has been cut to almost half what it was, how convenient that Elliott is nearby to pick up a lot of the slack. He sees the quantity and quality Elliott has at his disposal and imagines he will be challenging Mullins for the title sometime soon. A yard that can win a Grand National in its first season isn't a bad place to be.
Elliott will have the favourite for tomorrow's Irish Grand National in Beautiful Sound -- assuming Michael O'Leary's lightly-raced gelding makes the cut -- and for one day, at least, Condon will be hoping to put one over on his main employer. He has ridden Prince Erik on his last three racecourse appearances and knows that, when it comes to jump racing, Dermot Weld isn't inclined to get involved simply to make up the numbers.
Condon has several reasons to be excited. It is just a month since he rode Prince Erik to land a novice chase at Naas and, although the Irish National represents a huge leap, seven-year-olds have a decent record in the race. Prince Erik is a safe jumper which is easy to settle and comfortable on all types of ground. And being grey, of course, will also enhance his appeal to the thousands of once-a-year-racegoers who will flock to the course.
"I was fifth one year but this is my best chance to win it," says Condon. "But it's a very open race. You need everything to go right for you. Dermot is very good at planning out races for his horses. He's had the Irish National in mind for this fella since the start of the season. He thinks he has a good chance anyway. I'll be hoping to get a good position early on and try to get him travelling. You just need a bit of luck in running."
At the end of the season, of course, tomorrow's big race will be just another number on the stats' table. But some winners mean more than others. For Condon this would mean most of all.
Sunday Indo Sport