Mid-October brought with it the start of the 2019/20 UAE racing season and consequently the return of Cork jockey Tadhg O’Shea to Dubai after a five-month hiatus in his homeland.
Upon touching down on Irish soil last May, he flicked the switch from airplane mode to holiday mode, yet horses were never far from the equation.
He explains: “My wife Debbie’s home place, Blackhall Stud (in Wexford), is a lovely place and her dad Andy (Priece) owns and runs the breeding side whereas her two brothers Paul and Andy Jr run the training side. It’s a real family run business and I have a couple of broodmares there which is a lovely interest to have.”
The proverbial switch has since been flicked back to work mode for the most successful jockey in UAE history.
That honour was secured at the tail end of last season upon surpassing Richard Hill’s record of 503 UAE victories, an achievement that fills O’Shea with pride.
“Obviously being numerically the most successful jockey is something I never imagined I could do when I first came here, but, I have been very fortunate, I have ridden for some great people along the way and I get great support from Debbie and the kids (nine-year-old Darragh and six-year-old Aaron.”
Dubai has afforded the 37-year-old many comforts and an illustrious career but the Dromahane native insists the principles of his profession remain as true in the UAE as they are in Ireland.
“I ride out every morning and normally start at 4.30am so, while many people think of the glamorous and social side of Dubai, plenty of hard work goes into it every day. Eating properly is very important too — Debbie would have made a fantastic dietitian, she makes sure I have a healthy diet.”
From a non-racing background, learning his craft at the renowned RACE academy on the Curragh plains represented O’Shea’s most straightforward route to a career on the track.
While there, the arduous and labour-intensive nature of the racing industry soon became abundantly clear, not least during his placement with Kildare-based trainer Mick Halford.
That education, the human values bestowed upon him by his parents Dee (Dennis) and Ann, along with the support received from his four sisters and two brothers ensured he had the tools and resilience necessary to succeed in the sport of kings.
His first champion apprentice title arrived in 2001 when a seasonal tally of 26 wins saw him clinch the title with three wins in hand of Colm O’Donoghue, his closest challenger.
A subplot to that year’s title provided the material for the opening chapter of O’Shea’s UAE story.
“I started wintering in Dubai in 2001 on the back of winning the championship and, in doing so, got an all-inclusive trip to Dubai sponsored by Sheikh Hamdan. I’ve come back every year bar one since then.
“I was very lucky to be champion apprentice twice in Ireland – I got a wonderful grounding from Mick Halford. Ireland is an ultra-competitive place, to succeed there you would need a good stable and most probably would need to be there all year round as in the racing game you get forgotten about very quickly.”
A further apprentice title followed on home soil before Dubai commanded his full attention. The move to the city of sand, sea, and surf ultimately paid dividends but it wasn’t without its challenges.
“The culture shock was huge when I first moved out, but Dubai is a fantastically safe and friendly place to raise a family. I have seen many changes since 2001, it is a rapidly growing and changing place.
“I suppose, like the city, the racing scene has changed. In the early days, the flagship track was Nad Al Sheba but now it’s Meydan, the sheer size of which would amaze you, it’s an incredible venue. We used to race in Ghantoot but that is also closed, Al Ain is our latest addition and is a very fair track.”
Change is a word applicable to many facets of O’Shea’s life during his early days in the city of cranes, including a heightened level of exposure to Arabian racehorses.
Several big-race triumphs in that sphere leave him well placed to contrast such horses to the thoroughbred variety so commonplace in Ireland and England.
“Arabians are definitely unique and a lot more intelligent, they are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have been very fortunate on them and ridden some top-notch ones,” O’Shea says.
One success holds special importance to him.
“There has been plenty of standouts, but I suppose winning on Mizzna (in the Kahayla Classic for Arabians) on World Cup night in 2008 caught the attention of Sheikh Hamdan, I got the second jockey job and enjoyed four seasons working for his team.”
O’Shea is likely to hold a strong hand on the Arabian front once more this term courtesy of his retainer to owner Khalid Khalifa Al Nabooda, while HH Sheikh Ahmed and Nicholas Bachalard will provide him with opportunities aboard top-class thoroughbreds.
Access to horses of such quality as befits the UAE’s top jockey also makes him a target.
The now customary influx of riders from Ireland and England to the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula during their off-seasons won’t make his life any easier either. He’s aware of that too but not fazed.
“I’ve seen many jockeys come and go over the years and I think it is healthy competition and it obviously keeps you on your A game as the racing is at a very high standard here.
“Believe it or not I never set myself targets because racing doesn’t work like any other job, my main aim and hope is to stay healthy and in one piece.
“I ride for some great people so (the aim is to) go out there to do my best and I think the main thing is to be consistent and professional both on and off a horse.”