The concept of jockey coaching is very new in racing, even if riders have invariably had someone they trusted for feedback.
For Warren O’Connor it was Tommy Carmody but now, the former Classic-winning pilot is one of just two qualified jockey coaches in Ireland along with Gordon Power, the duo having attained their qualifications in England thanks to the Irish Jockeys’ Trust.
O’Connor’s life experiences serve only to augment those credentials and it’s little wonder so many young jockeys seek his tuition and counsel. Now, he has taken out a licence to be an agent, taking his service to the next level.
“There’s a few lads I’m coaching and they’re not getting enough rides,” says O’Connor.
“I started a month and a half ago and I swear to God I’d trainers saying to me about Liam McKenna and Eoin O’Connell: ‘Who are they?’ Liam hadn’t ridden a winner for over two years. It was the same with young Shane Mulcahy. It’s so competitive.
It complements his coaching role, which has a number of strands. The first is to work on the skills in the saddle.
Technique, tidiness, working with the horse rather than hindering it. Pushing from the shoulder rather than the backside, changing hands regularly to elicit a greater response from the horse. And then, if it’s time to use the whip, to do so properly.
“The most important thing is to know when a horse is taking to the whip. Young kids, when they see the winning post, they fire the kitchen sink at it. It’s like driving a car. You’ve first gear, which is pushing, your second gear is the slap down the shoulder, your third gear is the back-hander, the fourth gear is an ordinary strike and the fifth is the big one.
“That’s five gears but what do we do as young lads? We see the winning post and we go into fifth gear straight away but then you tire coming up to the winning post because you’ve gone too soon.
“I remember Mick Kinane riding beside me and he’d be just pushing away. Ryan Moore now is deadly at it, Colm O’Donoghue. The stick is the last resort. That’s having confidence as well to wait. That comes with riding winners, as I see now with Cathal Landers and Eoin O’Connell.
“A big one for jump jockeys is they land over the last and they don’t pick the horse back up into the bridle. They just start pushing straight away and I’m drilling it into my youngsters, the minute you land over the second last and the last, you pick up the reins in your hands and then go. Get back in contact, get balanced. Paul Townend is deadly at it.
“If we were having a piggyback race and you’re running and I start leaning to one side on your back, how would you feel? Imagine a horse doing 35 miles per hour and eight or 10 stone is gone shifting to one side? His head is down and trying to gallop and if the jockey is unbalanced the horse is unbalanced. I’m always talking about rhythm and balance, you must have both.”
He works on communication skills too because giving good feedback on a horse’s performance and creating a positive impression with owners is part of the package in such a competitive environment. That includes owning up to mistakes and not reaching for excuses.
Then there is dealing with the pitfalls that come with success and failure, and the demands of being a jockey.
A gifted rider, O’Connor enjoyed a wonderful association with the Michael Kauntze-trained filly Kooyonga in his early 20s, winning five Group 1s including the Irish 1000 Guineas.
He had a long battle with the weighing scales however, that left him battling bulimia and developing osteoporosis and Crohn’s Disease. He turned to alcohol and cocaine as he struggled to cope, battling depression brought on by an obsessive nature.
In 2006, he became the first Irish-based jockey to test positive for drugs. By his own telling, he became impossible to live with and his marriage broke up.
Finally, he took ownership of his issues and is now attempting to pass on every lesson he learned. Right now, his services are used primarily by young hopefuls rather than established riders.
“Lads come and go. You teach them and they don’t come back. I would prefer if it was continuous. In this game, you can never get too cocky. I even find it from coaching, I’m learning and improving all the time.
“There’s a lot of young lads think they know it all, they get the big cars early… we all know the ups and downs of this game. You’re only as good as your last winner.”
Nowadays, he counts a number of pony riders among his clientele, and that enthuses him because the earlier good habits are formed, the better. He’s impressed too that Shane Foley is looking to him to provide an edge.
The 30-year-old has 20 Group triumphs on his CV including two Classics, the most recent of which came on Romanised, trained by Ballyhea, Co Cork native Ken Condon, in the Irish 2000 Guineas.
“Shane is willing to work. He’s an absolute true professional. He wants to get better. He’s so clued in, so dedicated. He wants to get on the world stage. The true professional will always want to get better.”
The fact remains, of course, that there isn’t enough racing for the number of licenced jockeys in Ireland.
However, it’s notable that the trend of female jockeys progressing in the jumps scene and in both codes in England, is not mirrored on the Flat in Ireland. Julie Burke (USA), Samantha Wynne (New Zealand) and Emily Finnegan (Australia) are just three advertising their abilities abroad.
“Little Amy O’Hanlon is a class little rider, strong as an ox. She has natural talent but she’ll find it hard to get a chance. I have some good girls and they are going to struggle. I have Siobhán Rutledge, Amy O’Hanlon and Nikita Kane. You wanna see these. These little kids can ride but they’re not gonna get the breaks.”
O’Connor will do his best for them all and derives tremendous satisfaction from doing so. He turned 50 last June and is still so good in the saddle that he rides work twice a week for Jessica Harrington during the Flat season.
But moulding the riders rather than the horses will always be his priority.
“I rode winners for Jessie. I love riding work, it keeps me fit and it keeps the head right too and that’s the most important thing. I’m as happy as Larry today.
“Jessie offered me a full-time job and I really appreciated it but I love what I do working with the jockeys. To see the smile on these little kids when they perform well, is great.”