From hard knocks to Hollywood
Tom Foley has rediscovered his passion for horses after surviving his mental prison and his cynical surroundings
SPAGHETTI is a big no-no. Anything hard or crunchy? Avoid that. And be sure to guzzle plenty of soft drinks, you're going to need the bubbles to help send all that food back where it came from.
Then find a stall in a quiet corner, crouch over, fingers down the throat and up comes your dinner. Eyes watering? Stomach acid lapping your throat? Job done.
Before long, jockey Tom Foley had become so proficient at flipping (vomiting) to help him make racing weight, he didn't even have to pull the trigger.
“You wouldn't think twice about it, you'd get so good at it that you wouldn't even have to put your fingers down your throat, you'd just lean over the toilet and up it would come,” he says.
From wide-eyed apprentice, to big fish in the small pond of US jump racing, to burnt-out wreck teetering on physical and mental ledges, Foley reflects on a life lived fast and often heedless in his memoir, ‘A Simple Game', out in a few weeks.
In it he frankly recounts everything, from the emotional turmoil that sent him down the path to bulimia to the tragicomic circumstances of his confrontation of the problem. This, remarkably, came on the set of a Hollywood movie, with John Malkovich, about the great Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
Foley (30) was brought up in Nenagh and Lorrha in North Tipperary, and is a graduate of the school of hard knocks that is the Racing Academy and Centre of Education (RACE) in the Curragh.
A disastrous first placement at Dermot Weld's lasted three days before he was sent back to RACE with “he'll never make it” ringing in his ears.
A period of nurturing at trainer Mickey Flynn's stable, however, made him believe he would make it, but in the shadow of the talented and ill-fated Kieran Kelly, opportunities for rides were nonexistent.
So, aged just 17, he hugged his dad goodbye at the airport and got on a plane for the first time, bound for the USA on a promise of some rides for a trainer in the American jumping game.
It was probably too much too soon and one false start followed another. However, not even a crushing fall and a stopped heart in one of his first races, which was followed by a week-long coma, put him off. He hauled himself up, worked hard and success came: winners, money, Grade One victories.
The women came, too; aged 22, a turbulent relationship with a girl called Kati was cemented with marriage when she became pregnant with twins.
Another son followed and while Foley tried to limit his mileage by settling down to train a few horses, the lure of rides, however far from the family home, proved irresistible.
He justified the selfish pursuit of winners with his need to provide for his family, reasoning that, at their age, kids needed their mother more.
He was wrong, and by the time he was 25, the couple were acrimoniously divorced. Messed up and alone with alimony and child support to pay, he switched to the far more lucrative Flat game, and the purging he had briefly flirted with as he had come of age soon took over his life.
“I suppose I was 20 when I did it first, because I was doing a little bit of Flat riding here and there in the summer and I was always borderline with the weight. I'd be nine or nine and a half stone and if I worked at it I'd get down to around 8st 10lb or something, so I could ride an auld heavy horse on the Flat,” he says. “I got the weight down a lot with just normal dieting, but when you're around a lot of other lads making lots of money and they'd eat all they want then get rid of it, you'd think, ‘well I could do that too'. So I was in my mid-20s when it got serious. “When you start doing it, it takes over your body and your mind, it's very, very addictive, it's very hard to kick.
“You'd be doing it six or seven times a day, but it's catered for, too, over here, they have special toilets for it and everything. It's very strange when you look back, but when you're doing it, it's nothing to you.”
Getting to 8st 10lb is just the start for American racing. In order to get the rides with winning chances he had a long way to go – another stone to be precise.
He complemented the bulimia with laxatives, six or seven a day, and diet pills. He found himself going to bed with his heart pumping and wondering if he was going to wake up in the morning. It got worse. One day, after his latest fistful of laxatives, he rose to flush the toilet and saw so much blood that he would have vomited had there been anything left in his stomach.
His valet, an old hand called Danny, sensed his shock and got the story out of him. They both agreed he should see a doctor straight away. He never did. The physical ravages were there to see, but the mental edge was invisible. Who knew when he would just fall over it.
Foley became soured on the game. The cynical nature of US racing, where horses are patched up with Lasix and Bute and other drugs to get them to the track, started to get to him. No doubt the parallels between these poor beasts and his self abuse were too obvious to miss.
Galled, too, by his own skeletal appearance, he shied from seeing his sons and deceived himself into thinking the financial support was all that was needed.
Revelations came to him, like when one of them responded to his question “Do you miss your dad?” with, “My dad's Charlie, and he's right here.” Or the time he was riding some benighted horse held together with painkillers and Bute and its leg cracked underneath him. The horse stayed on its feet, saving him a disastrous fall, and the trainer just came over and said: “Never mind kid, we needed to make room for better ones anyway.”
“I was sitting there thinking, I'm killing myself for these people? What the f*** am I doing? This isn't meant to be it anyway. If you're doing it for people who don't care if you or the horse live, then what's the point?”
Strange as it may seem, it was Hollywood, of all things, that brought the reality of his situation home to him.
Having auditioned for a part in ‘Secretariat’ and landed the role of work rider Jimmy Gaffney, he flew to Louisiana to shoot the movie. “First thing they do on set is put your make-up on you and they have so many to do that they can't keep coming back to you, touching you up.
“So they say, ‘you'll be fine, you can talk and eat and all, just don't cry’ and they'd laugh. I was thinking, ‘f***, if I eat I'll have to get rid of it and my eyes will water up and streak my make-up’.”
Lunch time duly arrived and Foley was due to be sitting at the table with Malkovich and co-star Diane Lane. “I was riding the night before I went out to Louisiana to shoot the film and was due to be riding again soon after. I could have flipped and sat alone in my trailer, but I was starting to see this had to stop.”
Moral support was needed, however, so he called his father who said: “Are you stupid? Do you want me to tell you the answer or do you know the answer? It's time you weren't doing what you're doing to yourself.”
This was in October 2009. “After I came back from the movie I put on eight or 10lbs and it was a case of, do I want to lose a stone and a half to go back riding or do I want to look into doing other things, you know. And I didn't want to go back down the road I was going.”
With the help of his partner Krissy, he says he has rediscovered his passion for horses and doesn't view them merely as a means to an end any more. He has reverted to training and riding the odd jumper, but not chasing rides, though he has been booked to partner last year's leading American chaser in a big race this month. He's working on another book and is set to appear in another movie, about polo.
“You think when you knock out one book, you might be able to do another and I've one or two other ideas too. But the flipping and bulimia, it kind of cuts you off from people. It's all about flipping and riding and sleeping and that's it and once you switch the brain back on it kind of opens up doors to other things.”
For a man just out of his own mental prison, it's enough to feel alive again.
‘A Simple Game’ is available to pre-order on Amazon and from Caballo Press. ‘Secretariat’ will be in Irish cinemas in December.