If you don’t try, you don’t know. Next month I was due to throw my leg over two favourites at the Cheltenham Festival, a four-time Grade 1 winner in the Champion Hurdle, as well as a Cheltenham specialist in the Ryanair. Not a book of rides that comes around in most jockey’s career.
Then, probably most importantly, imagine that, due to the nature of the game, Paul Townend is unavailable for Chacun Pour Soi, Monkfish and/or Al Boum Photo. You begin to understand why I felt I didn’t want to be in Cheltenham. I needed to be.
There are two rules in the Rule Book about professionals returning to amateur status. Less than 25 winners as a pro and you can apply to the Licensing Committee, and it is for them to grant a licence, with whatever conditions they wish. And you may only revert once.
My offer to them was to ride as a professional until the end of the season and then take six months off in order to return to amateur. Six months is a long time. I’ve been riding 15 years (it feels shorter!) and only twice have I not raced for more than three weeks.
It would have cost me this year’s Championship, and next year’s too. It would have ruled me out of the Galway Festival, and the Listowel Festival. I was placing plenty of chips on the table.
Opinions differed on whether I was right or wrong to place so much on one bet. Cheltenham is not a place where a winner is guaranteed. I would be leaving behind many certain winners and possible Championships on the altar of perhaps one victory at Cheltenham.
But the chance to ride in, let alone win, the races at the pinnacle of the sport, such as the Champion Hurdle, was too good to give away softly or without a fight.
The easy thing was to curse the gods, and the bloody English, and take the sympathy of well-meaning friends. Six months of no racing is a long, long time. Several times in the process of applying I had to almost force myself to continue. While I knew which way I wanted to go, it was only a hair’s breadth in the balance.
When I thought of not going, then of course Sharjah would win, as he was second in Champion Hurdle last year. But when I thought of being able to go, he became a horse who is 0-3 at Cheltenham and six months is a long time. The mind can be a curious thing.
I set out my offer to the Licensing Committee through a Zoom call from my kitchen. Suit-and-tied up for the occasion, breeches on underneath as I had another horse to ride after.
Three stewards looked out of my laptop screen at me and started with a simple question. “Why is it you want to become a professional jockey, Mr Mullins?” I outlined that these are extraordinary times, that I find myself in an exceptional case with the rides involved, described what I wanted to do and what pound of flesh I was willing to pay in order to achieve that.
It was a frank, short and honest statement. Two faces nodded sagely, as if listening to a boy looking for a dog they knew wasn’t going to be found, while one sent me a stare that would scramble eggs.
The answer didn’t come the next day. A good sign? It was being debated then. The answer came late the day after that. A professional licence is only for those who wish to make a career out of being a professional jockey, and that if I wanted one I would have to hold it for 12 months. Sigh. It was not the answer I wanted to hear.
Curiously, the wave of disappointment crashed against a lighthouse of relief. Six months is a long time to be out. There’ll be other Cheltenhams but perhaps not other opportunities quite like these. I rolled the dice and came up short, but I had to try, didn’t I?
Now I can only curse the gods, the English and the Licensing Committee, and cheer on my rides with a scaffolded smile. They’re all certainties now, don’t you know.