How do you know when it’s over? In sport, every sportsperson has to keep trying to improve.
Someone sets a standard - for me that was AP McCoy - and that was the level you had to try to achieve. When he retired, all of a sudden you realise you had to try to stay ahead of the younger jockeys coming up behind you.
But injuries catch up, and you find yourself working your socks off to maintain where you are.
That isn’t how you survive in sport. I realised I couldn’t improve much more, that I could only struggle to stay where I was. That’s the way I saw it.
To have surgeons phone numbers virtually on speed dial is where I was. I had to have an Ilizarov Frame on my leg after I smashed it in Down Royal and I knew if I broke it again, trying to fix it was going to be impossible. I suppose you could say I was lucky I knew so many good people in the medical profession and physios as without them the last five years of my career would not have happened.
I knew when I was coming back from breaking my leg on Al Boum Photo at last year’s Cheltenham Festival how hard I was going to have to work to get back to the level I was at, and how hard it was going to be to stay at that level. And it was only going to get harder. I suppose that’s when I realised my career was coming to an end.
With ground and age, I probably couldn’t ride as often as I needed to stay where I was. So, before you start to go backwards, you get off the pitch, and that’s what I did.
But I’ve had a brilliant time and how I got there in the first place was through the backing of brilliant people. My parents were incredible.
Dad was always there as a mentor - I had a free coach all my life. They’ve invented jockeys’ coaches since, but I had it all my life.
And Jennifer was a brilliant agent. She managed my career impeccably. We didn’t fall out with anybody, and that’s a tribute to her. And Katie and Ted were always there for me.
A huge support.
And Gillian has always been in my life, since I was 19 or 20. Everyone needs a sounding board, someone who will always be honest with you. Behind every great man is an even better woman, and that’s Gillian. I marvel at how she manages everything. She’s incredible, and I’m incredibly lucky.
And I’ve had two brilliant bosses in Willie and Paul. Two gifted trainers.
To better myself I always looked at other sports, to other players, to see how they did it. Take Brian Whelahan as an example.
When he played hurling for Offaly, he started off in centre half back, moved to midfield, and then to full forward. And Brian O’Driscoll could drift from centre to extra flanker if necessary because he was reading the game, not just playing his position.
I watched David Rudisha running 800m and watched how he changed the whole style of 800m running because he realised he could run faster by doing that. I’d watch any sport and always look for something I could pick up and apply to my situation. You take it out, break it down and you look at it.
And I’ve had great friends in James Nash and David Casey. I never had a wide expanse of friends, I always had a bunch I could trust, and they always had my back. It was only their opinion and that of my family which ever mattered to me.
What everybody else thought of me didn’t matter. I never rode for the fame or the glory, I rode to achieve the most I could achieve. It wasn’t a popularity contest.
And I’m very proud of what I have achieved. When I started, I wanted to ride at Cheltenham, I wanted to ride at Aintree, and to have won two Grand Nationals and to have had all the success I had at Cheltenham, and at home, I loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t change any of it. Of course, I’d have loved not to have got any injuries, but that’s the reality of being a jockey.
If I was to advise and young lads or girls coming into the sport, I’d say that if you’re not prepared to make riding your life, if you have any interest in anything else, don’t even start. You have to give 110 percent.
What was the highlight? The victory on Papillon in the Grand National, not just because it was for Dad, but because it came at a time when my career could have gone any way. I had already been champion jockey, but I had broken my leg and it can become a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Then Papillon turned up at Aintree, and Commanche Court at Fairyhouse and back at Punchestown for the Heineken Gold Cup. I was so lucky Dad had those two horses at that time, and my career hasn’t looked back since.
Azertyuiop, Kauto, Big Buck’s, Denman and Master Minded were the standout horses at Paul’s. At Willie’s there was Vautour, Faugheen, Annie Power, Hurricane Fly – without doubt the standout – and so many more.
And the experiences I had at Willie’s were brilliant. Bringing Blackstairmountain to Japan and winning was amazing. That was thanks to Rich Ricci having the bravery and Willie having the foresight to bring the horse there. And Willie pushed me to do other things. He brought us all to France, and we had amazing times there.
But it’s not just Willie. I’ve ridden for many brilliant trainers in this country and if I start naming them out, I’ll only forget some. People ask me why I won’t go training. It’s not because of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Joseph O’Brien. It’s easy to say it is, but I look at the smaller trainers I rode winners for, and I don’t want to compete with them either.
Looking back, do I think I could I have had a different career? Perhaps, but studying was not for me. My idea of studying was studying form, watching races, watching people, listening to what people told you. I think you can learn more in life by listening than you can by talking.
When I started riding, I remember Norman Williamson would always buy a broadsheet as well as a Racing Post. He wanted to know what was going on in the world so that when he stood with any owner or trainer, he could have a conversation.
I tried to pick up something from every person I admired. I was always questioning how these people got on, what made them so good. Why did AP have a driver? Why did Norman buy that broadsheet? Small little things that I knew they weren’t doing for no reason. They could make a difference.
And I made great contacts through my career. I’ve always loved working with the Irish Examiner and with Racing TV, and I got great fun out of the devilment with Paddy Power.
It’s a huge company but there’s great craic there. I’ve had very few jobs and very few sponsors throughout my career - when I was on your team I was on your team.
Since I announced my retirement, I’ve been humbled by the comments AP made about me. Without him and Chanelle, I wouldn’t have lasted three weeks in England. They opened the door of their house and let me treat it like it was my own house. They were so good to me.
AP was my idol and I was competing with him. I didn’t know him that well at first and we were fierce competitors on the track. We never gave each other an inch, we tried to sell each other dummies every day of the week, but then we would get back into the car and slag each other to death. I loved it, and I missed it when he retired. I missed not having him to compete with.
His first reaction to me retiring was to tell me I’m nuts. He told me I should have kept going, and I probably told him the same when he retired.
But I know my time has come. Retirement is still new to me and, as I knew, it wouldn’t be without some tinges of regret. I got a pang when Chacun Pour Soi won – he’s a superstar – but I didn’t miss My Sister Sarah despite the fact she won, and I most certainly didn’t miss getting the fall off Cool Colonnade.
There’s a time when you’ve had enough of the pressure too. I drove in here on Thursday not thinking ‘will I ride Bapaume forward or back?’, ‘how fast will Davy go on Ornua, and will I go inside or outside on Chacun Pour Soi?’ It’s a relief not having that pressure.
If I could sum up my career in one word it would be ‘fairytale’. I set out chasing a dream that never turned into a nightmare.
And now it’s time to look forward. I hope the future is working with the Irish Examiner, working with Racing TV and working with Paddy Power, expanding that part of my life.
And I hope to keep my finger in the pie at Willie Mullins’s, which has been part of my life since I left school and I hope will be part of it for a long time to come. I owe Willie, Jackie and Patrick an awful lot.
Likewise, fellow jockeys, valets, surgeons, doctors on and off-course, drivers, people in airports, in car rental, in the car parks. Even ex-pats I met in the UK who would pick you up at race meetings and bring you back to the airport. Salt-of-the-earth people.
All the little things they did along the way to help me, to make my life easier so I could concentrate on being a jockey. They did things that mattered to me but may have been simple things to them.
And I intend to continue as chair of the Irish Injured Jockeys’ Fund. I haven’t yet accomplished what I want to accomplish with that, but I will.