Talent? Dungarvan’s Houlihan is a man of plenty

Seán Houlihan. Photo: Healy Racing.

Some people travel a lifetime without acquiring patience and foresight so it was quite something for 17-year-old Seán Houlihan to adopt The Beatles’ longer and more winding road with no promise of a fairytale reward.

Now, six years later, the Dungarvan, Co Waterford jockey is reaping the dividends of his long-term planning as a polished and capable pilot that is in demand and riding winners.

Racing always consumed him. His mother Annmarie is a Phelan and her own father was a renowned producer of racehorses. Her brothers Pat and Maurice train in England and Athy and Seán has ridden winners for both.

Another of his uncles, Eamon bred future Gold Cup winner Jodami and became stallion manager at Coolmore Stud.

On the paternal branch, his late uncle Johnny rode for Francis Flood, Phonsie O’Brien and the Hassetts.

The trainer David Kiely is married to his Aunt Breda and is a neighbour, as is David’s legendary brother John.

The Kielys’ facilities offered ample opportunities for riding out to Seán and his brothers, Conor and Niall. Cheltenham Festival-winning-jockey-turned-trainer Emmet Mullins is a first cousin.

Houlihan cut his teeth on the pony-racing circuit but despite a number of potential contacts, felt sure that it would be difficult to progress in Ireland.

So, in the summer of 2012, a fortnight after sitting his Leaving Cert and with just a handful of spins to his name between the flags and under Rules, the by now 18-year-old decamped for Somerset and the Philip Hobbs yard. He has been there since.

“I had to bide my time because I didn’t have the experience,” explains the articulate Houlihan.

“I’m glad it happened as it did because I wasn’t good enough then and I might be after giving up and going back to Ireland already.

"I was starting at low-grade point-to-points and I’m very grateful to the people who put me up. I think I had around 300 rides in point-to-points, near 30 winners is all, but I got lots of miles behind me and learned a lot.”

He turned conditional last season, recording 20 winners from 205 assignments.

He has already had 213 rides this term and with 13 successes, is on target to improve on that tally too. That debut term was quite impressive, given that Hobbs’ yard was under a cloud.

We didn’t have the best of years and there’s no getting away from that. The guvnor was very good to give me a bit of rein and a couple of mornings off a week to go out and get my name about.

"He could have easily said he wanted to look after my claim to use on his horses. I suppose it was good for him to let me ride for numerous other trainers and get experience but on the other side of that, he didn’t get as much use of my claim (at seven pounds) as much as he’d like to.”

Hobbs got him going and Sue Gardner was another to back him early on. Claiming the prestigious Midlands National on the Bob Buckler-trained Regal Flow on St Patrick’s Day was a dream come true.

“I was slow to start off last year, which can be expected in your first season as a conditional after point-to-pointing over here. I was trying to get my name out and to win the Midlands National really helped.

"And it was great to get it for Bob Buckler, who supported me from my amateur days and continued to support me so. And the same for Mrs Dunn, the owner.”

Key to the Houlihan mindset is giving himself the best possible opportunity to succeed and accept whatever unfolds thereafter. A significant work ethic and grounded nature that has him at pains to thank as many people as he can remember are core elements too.

“It wouldn’t be possible” without agent Dave Roberts, who secures rides for champion jockey Richard Johnson and was the man who kept AP McCoy busy as he accumulated 20 consecutive titles.

Being based with Hobbs, Johnson is accessible and has been very helpful.

Jockey coach Rodi Greene ensures the learning never ends but is there to provide some positive affirmation too on the bad days.

“Racing is not a team sport. As a jockey, you’re out there on your own and sometimes if you’ve had a bad day, it’s great to give him a phone call on the way home.

"He’s able to put things in perspective and say ‘Yeah, it went wrong today but tomorrow’s another day.’”

The swings and roundabouts that inhabit racing presented themselves to him last Saturday week when he was ineligible to ride Regal Flow in the Becher Chase over the Grand National fences at Aintree, having not registered a sufficient number of triumphs over the larger obstacles.

So instead, he went to Sandown and won a listed hurdle.

Man Of Plenty and Sean Houlihan winning The Jumeirah Hotels And Resorts December Handicap Hurdle at Sandown. Photo: Healy Racing.

“I got a fair kick out of that because Man Of Plenty is nine rising 10 and I’ve ridden him 11 times.

“He’s been a good horse to me because I’ve got plenty of experience off him in all the big handicaps, which has been invaluable going forward.

“So it was great to get his head up in that kind of race because he deserved it as much as any horse running in the race. He doesn’t miss a dance.

"He runs every couple of weeks and he thrives on his racing. Nearly his best run last year was when he was second in Punchestown and that was his 12th run of the season.

“I owe a massive thanks to the Leeches and their team because like Bob Buckler, they’ve supported me as an amateur and they continue to support me as a conditional. So it was nice to get a big pot for them too.”

Of the younger siblings, Conor is combining college with riding in point-to-points at home.

Niall has opted to trace Seán’s steps and after moving to Gary Moore’s, bagged his first winner last month, within a week of getting his licence. He was on two from nine prior to yesterday.

“He was a bit like me, caught between a rock and a stone wall. I got speaking to Josh and Jamie (Moore) at the races, and my uncle Pat Phelan would have been friendly with Gary from racing.

"I sort of mentioned maybe he should go to Gary after the lads mentioned they were looking for someone and Pat organised it from there.

He’s riding every week and that’s all he needs to do at the moment. He needs to get the miles behind him before he can really go flat out but that will come.

Looking ahead, Houlihan has some enticing engagements but as ever, is playing a longer game.

“Man Of Plenty is entered in the Betfair Exchange Hurdle on Saturday. He was fifth in it last year.

"He’s gone up seven or eight pounds for his last run and is entitled to because he did win well. It’ll be a different ball game but he’ll take his chance and deserves to be there.

“With a bit of luck Regal Flow goes for the Welsh National in Chepstow on the 27th and I can’t wait for that.

“Stay in one piece is the main thing now, work hard from there and hopefully it’ll all fall into place.”

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