On Saturday I travelled over to see Paul Nicholls at his Ditcheat base to have the final conversation on a subject we’ve been discussing for several weeks.
What we agreed on was that my days as his first jockey had come to an end. I started as Paul’s stable jockey in October 2002, but when I chose to live in Ireland, this was always going to be a job that involved an awful lot of travelling.
Paul has never been anything but fair and honest since our association began and has been responsible for some of the most amazing days in my racing life. From King Georges and Tingle Creeks to Champion Chases, World Hurdles and Gold Cups, he has been behind them all. With horses like Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded, Azertuiop, Strong Flow and Twist Magic to the current stars Big Bucks, Silvianco Conti and Al Ferof, great horses were and still are a staple diet in Ditcheat.
Being stable jockey there has enabled me to ride in and win the biggest races in our sport, so walking away from my position as stable jockey was never going to be easy.
However, I felt towards the end of last season that the travelling was starting to take its toll; my family and I were like passing ships in the night. So I went and spoke to Paul and his reaction was as I expected — proactive and understanding. We have discussed who will take over, how they might get on and what help I might be to my successor. There will be more rides for me at Ditcheat going forward, only I won’t be picking the wrong horse — I might be the one on the lucky spare instead!
In my eyes there was never going to be an easy or right time to make the decision to leave Paul’s yard, and all it entails, behind me. Ditcheat is a much bigger place now than when I started there. While Kauto and Denman are gone, the rebuilding process is well advanced and Conti, Al Ferof, Big Bucks and Zarkander are hard horses to give away the ride on. I know it will be difficult to watch them and emerging talent run next season but there are only so many times one can walk into Dublin airport before 6 o’clock in the morning.
I have brought the weekly travel grind close to perfection. Up at 4.50am, out the door at 5 to be in Dublin Airport at 5.45am for a 6.30am flight. But in the best case scenario that means me walking back in the front door at 8.15 or 8.30 that evening. The two girls are gone to bed. If I’m in England for two days that means getting back Wednesday night late and up and away to Willie and Irish racing on Thursday. By the time the week’s done, I may have seen my children for a couple of hours.
Paul has a family himself and we are more than work associates, we’re good friends. He knows that if I’m not committed 100% to the project, it’s no good to either of us.
The future for me will be Naas instead of Newbury and Navan instead of Haydock, but it will also be home for dinner with Gillian and the girls rather than a quick coffee at breakfast. I have loved each and every one of the last 11 seasons, working hard to fulfil my commitments as first jockey to two big stables in Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins. I am hugely grateful that I have got so much success and enjoyment out of it. However, at 34 years of age, I no longer feel that I can give 100% to two yards — and being a bit-part player will only hinder both. I also hope this decision will enable me to prolong the career I love for years to come. My future will be very different and probably a bit strange but I think it is still bright as Willie Mullins’ yard is well stocked with talent and hopefully some future stars.
I would like to thank the Barber and Nicholls families who, along with all the owners at Ditcheat, have given me great support for the last 11 years. I would also like to thank the huge team of staff, led by Clifford Baker, who have worked incredibly hard to make us so successful.
And so, an arrangement that started between two strangers with a handshake and a gentleman’s agreement, that scaled massive heights on the track, has ended with a handshake between two friends. What I have left behind is a powerful yard headed up by a gentleman and friendships made for life.