Monday 18 February 2019

'I blew a million quid on drink, drugs and women' - Irish jockey eyeing remarkable comeback

Former jockey Paddy Merrigan has lived an eventful life.
Former jockey Paddy Merrigan has lived an eventful life.
Ger Keville

Ger Keville

It was sometime in 2007 when Paddy Merrigan drove a brand new €100k BMW to Birmingham airport and only remembered to collect it three months later when a sizeable parking fee bill landed on his desk.

It was to be the talented jockey's epiphany moment but so turbulent and chaotic was his life that this was just another barstool story in a life filled with them.

He admits his life has been peppered with intermittent bouts of an "insane lifestyle". Drink, drugs, women. All at a cost of close to a million quid and a rollercoaster ride that left him sitting in a room in a mental health facility in Roscommon.

"This is not the place for you. You don't need to be tied to a bed and drugged," he was told but that did not halt the spiralling madness that so often took over his life.

Madness that saw him spend a week at the Galway Races in the same suit and white shirt, a shirt that was "yellow" by the final day.

Madness that saw him become a "shit dad".

But something changed about two-and-a-half years ago and now he is back and eyeing a "good eight years" as a top jockey.

Merrigan is a modern-day trailblazer looking for another shot at redemption and a chance to finally bring some sort of calmness to his life. A lot done, so much more to do.

But where did it all go so wrong for a man who had ambitions of being a greater jockey than Ruby Walsh?

"The minute I got off the boat in England my career took off very quick. I had lots of money and lots of sponsorship deals," Merrigan told Will Faulkner of Midlands Radio in a powerful and in-depth interview.

"Social scene was insane, to be honest. I was very wild. I was a very emotional jockey and I always craved something bigger than I have today.

"When I finished racing I began drinking very heavy.

"When I became successful lots of things came my way. Things like endorsements and lots of beautiful women and I craved all that.

"I was wild. I would meet up with lots of girls in the racing industry and have random...nothing meaningful for those few years. I was too emotionally attached to racing to have anything meaningful throughout that period."

Model Son, left, with Pat Merrigan up
Model Son, left, with Pat Merrigan up

But the peaks and troughs have been a constant in Merrgian's career, professionally and personally, and soon the good times came to a shuddering halt.

"It was the best week of my life racing. I had a double in Aintree. I had winners all that week, wherever I was, finishing up in Newbury.

"Previous to that week I had ridden a couple of horses and one was a high-profile fall at the last in Haydock. It was a big race and I come to the last in first place and the horse fell.

"A lot of people mistakingly thought this was the reason I had left. Now that I'm here to be honest, that hadn't a whole lot to do with it at all because that owner, Guy Walter, supported me.

"I had lost on one horse the previous week. I was so passionate about my job then and I was told I wasn't riding the horses – that horse to me was worth more than I was to myself – unfortunately, I was heartbroken and to be honest I walked away – I said to myself I never want to be a jockey again.

"People say Paddy gave up because he was drinking and taking drugs but that's all bullshit. Paddy Merrigan gave up horseracing because I was too passionate for my own good.

"I lost the rides on a couple of horses and, as I explained to a fella before, I have the greatest mother in the world. I said if you lined that horse up against a wall with my mother and told me to shoot one of them, my mother would have been dead that day and my mother is the most important person to me on the planet. That's what that horse meant to me.

"When I was told I was not riding I thought it was a prank. It didn't matter why I wasn't riding the horse, nothing mattered. I wasn't riding. So I said to the doctor that day, I said 'I'm standing myself down, I am not riding'. I threw my racing gear and said 'I'm done, I am out of here'.

"I got in my car and went from Kempton race course to Birmingham. I drove that car 150 mph straight to the short stay carpark, threw it in and said 'get me the first flight out of here'.

"I left the car there for a few months or whatever."

Merrigan was back in Ireland and while there were days working with horses in Athlone, the highs of racing had to be replaced with something.

"I was riding out and going hunting a lot," continues the 32-year-old.

"I was enjoying that but I would be there a few days showing horses to sales people and I would be gone three days later partying with women and blowing money, living an insane lifestyle. Down the line I started drinking a lot. Since I gave up racing I would say I definitely, between everything, I could have blown nearly a million pound."

Merrigan decided a return to racing was necessary to break the fall but, not for the first time, he was to learn that this was easier said than done.

"I landed back in England but I had no passion. I had no drive. Nothing in me. I wasn't the same jockey. I rode a winner in Sandown and I remember driving out the gate thinking 'I am so done with this'. I wasn't happy.

"I remember seeing a picture of me in the winners' enclosure and I was like a dead man, pale white. There was nothing in me. Same thing again, I left a car up with my friend who used to have the halfway house up in Cheltenham. Another new BMW, just left it where I used to live above the restaurant and bar and went home for another six or seven months.

"Abandoned a car, abandoned everything and that's when I started drinking, gambling and taking drugs. 

"It got bad for a while and then levelled out. It was bad for a couple of years and I met an ex-partner, who became the mother of my first child and I mellowed out for a little while. I was back in Gordon Elliott's riding out."

But while working for the renowned trainer, the demons were slowly edging their way back.

Cocaine and drink engulfed a life that spiralled so out of control and even if he won a Gold Cup it would "not mean a thing to him". Relationships suffered and numerous interventions from family and friends failed to materialise.

"It got so bad for so long that I just became distant. I lost family relationships...was always a shit dad and things like that. I remember going to the Galway Races for one week with one suit on me and drinking for the full week and taking cocaine. I went down with a real nice black suit and real nice white shirt and by the end of the week that shirt was yellow. That's the kind of lifestyle I was living.

"There was one incident where a friend of mine, I was best man at his wedding. I remember that week up to the wedding. Oh, I was in bad shape. I was in bad bad shape. He was trying to get me to do stuff for the wedding but I was nowhere to be got. Was probably drinking and taking drugs and whatever.

"He came to me and said 'what's wrong with you?' I just broke down and for the first time I came clean. I thought I was going to do away with myself then, yeah."

For the first time in his life, Merrigan had some sort of plan on how to tackle his problems. After the wedding two days later, (friend and groom) Michael would accompany him to the doctor who referred Merrigan to Roscommon Hospital.

"Michael and his wife brought me down. I walked into that hospital and that was an eye-opener for me. I was five minutes sitting in a room with all the patients that were there and that's a scary, scary, scary place I can tell you.

"This is not the place for you. You don't need to be tied to a bed and drugged."

Merrigan doesn't pinpoint that brush with being housed in a hospital in such a bleak environment as a turning point. He did go on to set up a business selling horses in Northern Ireland, met another woman and went on to have one more daughter.

But the urge to reignite old flames was never far away. He separated from his partner but cocaine but drink were always there. It soon dawned on Merrigan that only one drug could save him and that was the drug of racing.

He needed to bring back the passion, the thought process that would make him choose a horse over his own mother!

"A friend of mine rang me about two-and-a-half years ago and asked what I was doing. He told me he was in America and to go out to him. I went out an visited him, Darren Egan, He is like a brother to me," says Merrigan.

"I have been over and back visiting since. I had a girlfriend out there but broke up recently enough and my life has been fine the last two-and-a-half years. It hasn't been successful or anything, but it has been fine.

"I have help of a good friend, Anthony Connell, who is a personal trainer. He gave me a programme about 12 weeks ago and my mindset is getting better and better.

"I am 32 and have eight good years left racing again."

The weight is shifting and the drink and drugs have been replaced by that burning passion for horseracing, a passion that deserted him all those years ago to cause so much misery.

"Absolutely (The passion is back).

"I was watching the racing recently and this emotion came over me. I broke down. I knew I wasn't done yet. It's in me.

"Now is the right time for me to go and inspire this nation about mental health."

Listen to the full interview here and you can visit Paddy Merrigan's blog here.

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