You are enjoying a terrific season and riding out of your skin at present. What’s the secret?
I am really enjoying the job right now. When you have your fitness and health you can be very, very positive about everything. I am not doing anything different, but when the horses are running well you have the confidence to keep your foot on the gas; you know there’s plenty of petrol in the tank and the engine is not going to blow round the next bend. I suppose you just feel on top of your game.
Things are going well now but in July 2007, at the age of 31, you shocked the racing world with the sudden announcement of your retirement. What brought that about?
Summer is a quiet time for me – Lucy Wadham and Oliver Sherwood didn’t have much for me to ride and there wasn’t much racing. I was riding bad horses and wasn’t getting a kick out of it. On reflection I should have taken a break and come back in the autumn. I was a bit too hasty. I wasn’t happy where I was then and I had always harboured an interest in training and John Dunlop, who was nearby, offered me a job. So I thought I’d give it a go.
You returned to the saddle less than two years later. Why did you come to this decision?
After 12 months I started to feel that I had some unfinished business and after watching Cheltenham I realised how much I was missing it. That summer the trainers I’d been riding for were very positive, so I reapplied for my licence and was keen to have another go. Having said that, I was very conscious of the fact that I had a good job and was working for a good man in John Dunlop. But I had started to get hungry again and seeing jockeys who were forced into retirement through injury made me realise how lucky I was. I felt I must have another crack at it because I was one of the lucky ones, fit and raring to go.
What did you miss most, the weighing-room camaraderie, perhaps? And what did your 18-month absence enable you to understand about life as a professional jockey?
There is camaraderie in most work places but I suspect nothing quite like the competitive edge you find in the weighing-room and this makes for a great buzz and a lot of enjoyment. Whether you’re on an outsider or a favourite, anything can happen, and you’ve really got to be in the zone and switched on. It can get very tough and there can be a lot of pressure, even doing the ordinary day-to-day stuff. And after a number of years it can become addictive, but then I suppose the whole racing scene is an addiction. I realised how much of a privileged position I was in, getting regular good quality rides, and that’s something to cherish. I walked away from that and was lucky enough to walk back into it.
Did you expect to slot back in with your previous trainers so easily when you came back?
Definitely not, because they were employing Dominic Elsworth, who was doing very well. After I’d made my decision Dominic had a very bad head injury. I had spoken to Oliver and Lucy about schooling and they said by all means come in, but with no promises. I would have been happy riding second jockey to Dominic but he was out for 12 months and the job fell into my lap. Nobody ever said the job was mine and honestly I’d have been happy to share the rides with Dominic.
You are the only jockey with your own official fan club. Is this a source of embarrassment or pride?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. It started out as mickey-taking, a bit of fun and a laugh. Round about the time the racing channels were getting going some local lads in Sussex ran a naps table and the organiser John Fairbrother cleaned up with a 66-1 winner ridden by me. And I think that’s how the club started. Career-wise, it hasn’t helped me or hindered me, it’s just a bit of harmless fun.
How involved in Irish racing were you before you came to England?
My dad had a licence to train and I had ten rides on the Flat when I was 15 and still at school. But then I started to grow. I managed to convince my parents to let me leave school early and I came to England.
When you arrived in England you became apprenticed to that great trainer of jockeys, Reg Hollinshead. Were your initial designs on the Flat?
I always loved jumping but I wanted to have some experience on the Flat and joined Reg Hollinshead. I had ten winners from about 100 rides on the Flat while I was with him. The set-up there was quite regimental and you never got to know Reg very well. There was a long list of apprentices there, all trying to impress the boss and move up the queue for rides. You had to work hard to get noticed but it was a wonderful place to learn and a great school to be in. Reg Hollinshead laid the initial foundations that nurtured dedication and discipline. What he instilled into us gave us the knowledge and confidence to go on to other jobs. Of course you learn and pick up different things from different trainers, but the daily routine laid down at Reg’s was the launchpad for a career in racing. I was there about 18 months. Then I moved on to Josh Gifford’s stable, which was very different and a great place to work as well.
Which is your favourite course, and least favourite, and for what reasons?
I’d have to say Sandown, which is a really good jumping course providing a wonderful spectacle with all those fences down the far side. It’s such a good galloping course, a real test that provides plenty of close finishes up the hill. I have had very little luck at Cheltenham. You have got to be on a good horse to really appreciate the course because you are going faster than you would at an ordinary Monday to Friday meeting. It’s not much fun at the Festival when you are out of your comfort zone in the rear getting plenty of kickback. Hopefully this year I’ve got a handful of decent rides and I’m really looking forward to the Festival.
How do you control your weight? What kind of fitness regime do you have to stay in shape?
As you get older you understand your body better. I used to do a lot of long distance running, but in the last few years I started a pre-training business and I promise you that keeps me very busy and so I have very little spare time. Come the evening I know I’ve done a day’s work and being constantly on the go plays a big part in keeping my weight under control. I rent a barn from Amanda Perrett at Pulborough so I have some excellent facilities there for the ten or 12 horses I have in my care. I have three young daughters, aged six, four and two, so I have very little spare time between pony lessons and bike riding with them.
Do you have much input into the Professional Jockeys Association and does the organisation have enough political clout?
I personally don’t have much input but there are some very good lads on the committee and the PJA has really progressed these last ten years. The Association has been a tremendous support to all us jockeys through physios, racecourse doctors, nutrition, Oaksey House in Lambourn and the upcoming Jack Berry House in Malton. Paul Struthers, our Chief Executive, was ex-British Horseracing Authority (BHA) so he has a very good understanding of the rules. The biggest problem we have had in recent years is the changing of the whip rules, which caused a big stir in the weighing-room. For a couple of months the atmosphere between the stewards and the jockeys on a daily basis wasn’t very good. Paul and his predecessor, Kevin Darley, did an excellent job in liaising with the authorities and resolving the whip issue. Now the rules are working very well.
What would you like to see done to improve the jockey’s lot, apart from reducing all the travelling?
I would like to see jockeys receive 10% of prize-money across the board. At the moment we receive roughly 9% of first prize-money, 7% of second prize-money and 5% of third. And third prize-money on most courses is an absolute pittance. In Ireland and France jockeys get 10% of prize-money for the first three places, though their riding fee is not quite as much as ours, which is £161. But I do think 10% of all prize-money for jockeys would be a welcome improvement.
You were arrested but later cleared of race-fixing following your ride on the doped Lively Knight at Plumpton in 1997. How do you look back on that unsettling period of your life?
I had my licence taken away and it was so incredulous that nobody in racing could believe the situation. I look back with a small amount of anger, wondering how the Jockey Club’s security department could ever have thought it possible to hand the case over to the police who, with the Crown Prosecution Service, saw fit to make arrests. When they charged me with “conspiracy to steal by defraud” I thought it was a hoax. A couple of hours later, after the initial shock, I thought it was completely laughable. The whole episode beggars belief.
Rouble was an exciting novice hurdler trained by Josh Gifford who sadly lost his life at the Festival. How long does this kind of thing stay with you and how do you get over it?
You just have to pick yourself up and kick on. Rouble was a big raw horse and sadly never had the chance to fulfil his potential. Of course it gets you down but you’ve got to get back up because you have a job to do for the next trainer and owner. You’ve got to put it to the back of your mind, though inevitably you are inclined to have more time to think about it in the car on the way home.
The intention when you stopped riding in 2007 was to go down the route to becoming a trainer. Is this still the plan when you retire?
Possibly. Though I have to say I now regret having never finished school because I have no qualifications, and I am very much aware of how much my Mum wanted me to stay on at the time. When you’ve spent 21 years assessing horses’ fitness and ability I suppose training is the next step, if at all possible. I would hope having the pre-training yard will help me in that direction.
Racing is a 24/7 kind of existence. Do you spend as much time with your family as you would like?
No, I don’t. I’m based in Sussex and very often I miss the whole day with them when I’m travelling to and from far-off meetings. But I’m less busy in the summer so we can grab a bit of time and have a holiday together.
Dan can be main man at Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Festival has never been Leighton Aspell’s happiest hunting ground – he is yet to enter the hallowed winner’s enclosure at jump racing’s Olympics – but an excellent book of rides gives the jockey hope that his luck could change this year.
“This is the first year I have any winning chances,” he says. “At this stage there could be three of them; Deputy Dan, Many Clouds in the RSA Chase and Mischievous Milly in the mares’ race. Of course if Quevega turns up we might be racing for second place, but you can’t be frightened of one horse all the time.
“Oliver Sherwood’s Deputy Dan is a lovely prospect and has an entry in the Neptune Novices’ and the Albert Bartlett Hurdles. I think it will depend on the ground as to which race he goes for. At home he’s just an average animal, a real ordinary Joe, such a laid-back character. On the gallops or the schooling ground you wouldn’t see any of his ability or get the impression he is special. But he certainly keeps going on the track and I am really looking forward to him, wherever he runs.
“I have watched every Cheltenham since 1985, all the finishes, celebrations and post-race interviews with the owners, trainers and jockeys. And you just crave it. They are all your friends and while you are happy for them, underneath it all you are jealous because you’d love to be in their position.
“I’ve spent my life craving a winner at the Festival and I’m still hoping for a piece of the action.”