The big interview with Barry Geraghty: Mastering the mind game

Barry Geraghty has endured a terrible run of injury in the past 12 months but as the 37-year-old prepares for his latest comeback, at the Galway Festival on Monday, he proclaims himself fitter and stronger than ever. And despite broken arms, fractured ribs and a punctured lung in the last year, he isn’t even considering retirement.

“I needed to know two things — was he conscious and was he moving his legs? And if the answer to both those questions was yes, anything else was a doddle. Broken bones and punctured lungs are always fixable; head injuries and paralysis are not.” — Chanelle McCoy

The very best golfers tend to be the very best liars because in one of the most psychological sporting pursuits on the planet, the enemy invariably lies within.

Pádraig Harrington is renowned for it, boundless optimism that often makes no sense in the face of poor form. It is why he so often bounced back from a bad hole with a good one. He could erase his errors, pretend they never happened.

The greatest of them all, Jack Nicklaus swore he never bogeyed the last hole of a major. He did but would persist with his view. It was a key element of the aura of invincibility he built up, mostly for himself. As a consequence, he stood on the 18th tee on a Sunday in the Masters, either of the Opens or the PGA, brimming with confidence.

While engaged in conversation with Barry Geraghty earlier this week, it occurs that jockeys must adopt a similar strategy. After all, they are tracked by two ambulances every day they go about their work. They have seen colleagues die or suffer life-altering injuries. To them a broken a collarbones, dislocated shoulders, or cracked ribs are garden variety setbacks.

You need a durable body for this profession but there is no question that an unbreakable mind is imperative.

Geraghty has endured what he describes as “an ordinary run” on the injury front in the past 12 months, breaking his right arm at Market Rasen on July 16 of last year, fracturing seven ribs and suffering a collapsed lung in Kempton on February 25 and then on April 17 breaking his left arm and a wing of a vertebra in his back at Fairyhouse.

All the reporting ahead of his comeback on Monday has detailed the arms, the ribs and the lung but there has been no reference to the vertebra. So you ask.

“No.” Pause.

“Nooo.” Pause. And then something clicks.

“There was a wing of a vertebra. When was that? That must have been around the same time.”

I remind him that he wrote about it in his At The Races blog, in relation to the latest mishap.

“Oh no actually, you’re right… I did one of each but the one I did in Easter was lower, there was a lot of muscle and everything connected to it.

“Very painful. I got up to walk off the track after the fall and after two steps I couldn’t move. I had to be lifted off. The arm was painless, and was painless last year, though they were completely broken. But the back was very painful. I did one with the ribs but that wasn’t too bad.”

It is a genuine exchange and suggests not so much a concerted, definite intention of blanking these things out. It must be the subconscious taking control. Or maybe there are so many that you can’t keep track of them all. That might sound blasé, like when his wife Paula talked about the seriousness of a punctured lung and he reminded her he had two of them.

Rather than being bare-faced liars to themselves or anyone else, jockeys just block it all out. There is a trip switch somewhere within them that kicks in and they forget. How else would you risk life and limb every day?

He is fighting fit and raring to go, looking forward to next week in Galway, a festival that has always been good to him even if the top two prizes, the Plate and the Hurdle, have eluded him until now.

The 37-year-old hasn’t ridden publicly since Minella Foru’s fall in the Irish Grand National, two hours after landing a Grade Two juvenile hurdle on Project Bluebook but was given the green light by his surgeon Paddy Kenny to race and has been riding work for fellow Meath man Gordon Elliott’s.

Jockeys didn’t always view themselves as high performance athletes but the bar has been raised spectacularly in the past decade. If Tiger Woods made golfers more aware of fitness, conditioning and the general pursuit of those inches to prepare in the best possible fashion for the job, AP McCoy did the same for jockeys.

Geraghty admits that he wasn’t as disciplined as he should have been 15 years ago but falling in love with a nutritionist had obvious benefits. He took to running in his 20s and is now a convert to the benefits of a judiciously-applied weights programme.

Having broken both arms in a year, he can compare and he feels in significantly better shape than after recuperating his right one. He was anxious not to come back too early however, feeling that he may have rushed it after the broken ribs and punctured lung, to make Aintree. He doesn’t know but it may have contributed to the injury picked up a few weeks later.

Enda King is head of performance rehabilitation at Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry. Ruby Walsh is an avowed convert since King helped him recover from shoulder surgery three years ago. Geraghty is now too.

“Your humerus, your upper arm, has a knock-on effect on your elbow and shoulder. Your shoulder in particular is a complicated enough joint in that it needs the right work. Bands and pulling on weights and lifting in all different directions, you feel the improvement. The muscle around your shoulder blade and your back wastes away from not being used. You start an exercise and next thing you’re pinching the front of your shoulder because the back of it hasn’t full strength. So rather than working on the arm itself, it’s the shoulder muscle in your back that you really need to build up… I am fully bought into the weights as being a good thing.”

There might have been a perception in the past that weights meant weight — the mortal enemy of the jockey. Toning rather than muscle-building is the target of course, more reps than Olympian feats of power-lifting. And the benefits are everywhere.

“It’s improved my posture, which probably wouldn’t be brilliant. When I went to Enda last year he just said: ‘Blank canvas now… an awful lot to work on here.’ I’m still more rigid in me back than I should be but I’ve an awful lot more movement, better strength and would be in better shape than I would have been before me arm injury last year.

“Racing has come an awful long way with the approach to physio and what not in the last five, six, seven, eight years… And it’s through Adrian McGoldrick’s help.”

McGoldrick is chief medical officer of the Irish Turf Club. The greatest hero in Irish racing, he is revered by jockeys in particular for his pioneering work on their behalf.

“Adrian has transformed the game and he’s ahead of the game in England as regards going forward. He has a higher level back protector in, he’s the (best) helmets, he’s working on everything. There’s only a couple of years left in Adrian before his retirement and that’ll be a sad day when he signs off because the biggest transformation has come from him.

“He’s brilliant; his enthusiasm, his energy. You could ring him in the middle of the night, no problem. I have done it myself. I remember getting a bad fall in Punchestown off Riverside Theatre years ago. It was 12 o’clock when I rang him and said: ‘Adrian, this leg is after flaring up.’ He rang Blanchardstown and had me straight in, and he rang me again then about half one in the morning.”

One of the areas McGoldrick is lobbying on is the increase of the minimum weight for jockeys, given that the human is getting bigger. Studies have shown jockeys to be at risk of reduced bone density, while there is evidence that the battle with the scales might be contributing to mental health issues suffered by many jockeys. Geraghty has a handle on his weight now.

“I got better with Paula’s influence. You try your best but I’ve been in better shape weight-wise in the last 10 years than I would have been before that. Diet is a big part of it. When I started going to England more often first and saw the lads running on the tracks, I’ve been running since. That’s been a help too. You think that’s good but then you move on to the next thing like the rehabbing I’ve done in the last couple of years and that brings it on again.

“That doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to get injured — I’ve had an ordinary run in the last couple of years — but you’re in better shape. You’re fitter, you’re stronger, you’re more able for the job.

“You think you’re in good shape and then you get better and you realise that maybe you weren’t in such good shape.”

The elite athlete is always looking for an edge. “It improves your performance which you hope will improve results. It’s not black and white... But you want to have done everything you can to be as good as you can be. You’re trying to rule out shortcomings. Where can you maximise on everything? That’s part of it.

“When I was younger you’d probably hit 11-4, 11-5 no problem (when I was injured). Then you’d be coming back and trying to get your weight in order and you’d be straight back into racing. You might get to 11 stone handy enough. Then you’re 11 stone on the day and have to do 10-12 and lose four or five pound. Run in a sweat suit, into a sauna. You eat then that evening and are up the following morning and bang, you’re 11 stone again. So you need to chip it off gradually.

“I don’t weigh myself as much as I used to either. I’d know when I’m heavy and I’d know when I’m light. But I’m better off when I’m light thinking I’m heavy. If I thought I was light, I might go to town on it! You’re better off thinking ‘Maybe not.’ It’s self-discipline if you like.”

The mental games again.

“It works.”

Chanelle McCoy revealed in an interview that she once rang her husband AP’s driver after watching on TV as the now-retired champion fell and received medical treatment. She urged him to go down to the fence to check if he was awake and mobile.

It must be horrible for spouses and partners. Jockeys must live in denial — but how can their loved ones do the same? So, when you come home with a punctured lung or a damaged vertebra, what is Paula thinking?

“It’s been a hard year for herself and the kids on the sideline. She’s obviously aware of it but she knows how I operate and think. She was talking about the seriousness of the lung and I said: ‘Sure haven’t I two lungs?’ Looking back on that, it was probably a bit of… when you’re in a job like we’re in, you need that.”

Protection, a defence mechanism. The way you have to think.

“It is, isn’t it?” Given the advances in fitness and preparation, Father Time is not as impatient with jump jockeys as once was the case. Noel Fehily is riding better than at any other stage in his career, more than half-way through his 42nd year. Richard Johnson recently turned 40. Walsh and Davy Russell are 38, and Geraghty will be in September.

He has no plans to retire, revelling in his role as principal jockey for legendary owner JP McManus and the prospect of the exciting arsenal at his disposal while donning the famous South Liberties GAA-inspired green-and-gold-liveried silks.

“Everyone would love to go on forever but there’ll come a time and hopefully it’ll be me deciding but I’d rather if it wasn’t for a while yet.”

Gaulstown Farm is therefore not so much planning for the future but an outlet for now. “I don’t play golf. I’d rather be losing a day to young horses and cattle.”

He buys and sells young horses with Warren Ewing and Paula, and some excellent horses have benefited from his tutelage at Drumree including the progressive hurdler Brain Power, Reigning Supreme, Canardier, and Bullock Harbour.

The best of them all was Bobs Worth, a Bob Back gelding he bought at Tattersalls’ November Sale in 2006 for €16,500 and sold at Doncaster’s Spring Sale 30 months later for £20,000 (€22,400) to his then boss, leading English trainer Nicky Henderson. He would go on to accumulate more than £700,000 (€783,000) in prizemoney while winning 11 of his 22 races, including three at the Cheltenham Festival.

Geraghty was in the saddle for all the big days and the pair combined most memorably to be triumphant in the 2013 Gold Cup. It was quite a remarkable feat given their history with one another but the extent of the catastrophic injuries suffered by leading amateur pilot John Thomas McNamara earlier in the week — and which would eventually claim his life a year ago this week — had emerged. It left a pall of gloom that has not dissipated.

“It was a great race to win, but… you know. There was no celebrating.

“You hear the stories and you’re always thinking... There were bad injuries before and you’re always thinking ‘Maybe it’s not that bad.’ On Friday morning it started to filter through how bad it was.” Sometimes reality intrudes and it sucks.

Speaking earlier this week, Geraghty had no idea which of McManus’s battalion he might be on board for the Plate or the Hurdle. Make no mistake, his job is a plum one but just like Walsh, Bryan Cooper, and Ryan Moore, No 1 riders for Willie Mullins, Gigginstown House, and Aidan O’Brien respectively, there is no guarantee he will choose correctly.

It is a first world problem but he would like to get off the mark in the blue riband contests. He has been placed three times in the Hurdle, and fell at the last on Thomas Edison when challenging a couple of years ago. In 2006, he was pencilled in to ride Cuan Na Grai but broke his nose and cheekbone in an earlier race and watched from hospital alongside David Casey — who broke his collarbone after his mount was brought down by Geraghty’s — as Paddy Flood gave trainer Paul Nolan his third win in five years.

The closest he has come to bagging the Plate was in 2013, when McManus had the first three. McCoy had the choice at that time and plumped for the John Kiely-trained Carlingford Lough, who beat off Quantitativeeasing with Geraghty third on Jacksonslady.

In all, he has 108 Grade One successes, making him one of the most successful jockeys in the history of jump racing. Walsh is miles clear of everyone else, one shy of 200 but Geraghty is well clear of McCoy, Russell, or Johnson.

Yet the man with such a penchant and hunger for winning was caught up in a storm of controversy when charged with not doing his best to get it done in April of last year. The 30-day suspension imposed by the Limerick stewards was one of the most severe ever handed to a jockey for a non-drug-related offence.

They judged that Geraghty had not done all he could and should have, to get Noble Emperor to win the handicap hurdle claimed effortlessly by Velocity Boy, with Geraghty finishing a distant second. The jockey appealed the verdict successfully.

Rule 212 — the so-called non-trier rule — has been amended since. Robbie Power and Denis Hogan are just two jockeys who have expressed concerns about it, arguing that riders will be performing for the camera and the public rather than for the horse. Hogan has asserted that it will not be until winter racing kicks in that the safety consequences for horse and rider will be seen. Geraghty agrees.

“It’s a double-edged sword. You’re riding for the camera and you could argue that you’re not doing your best to achieve your best possible position because you’re overusing your horse at a stage in a race that if you conserved him, you could finish closer at the death. Plus, going for your horse earlier puts both you and the horse under a bigger threat of getting a tired fall late on.

“We’ve been lucky over the years with the stewarding in Ireland that there’s generally a common-sense approach. With the whip, for example, I think they’ve done really well. I’m a big supporter of not hitting one out of contention and 212 probably flies in the face of that as well. To see a lad hitting one that has no chance in the world with three to jump, you’re saying: ‘Ah will you leave it alone.’ Irish stewards have done brilliant with that and there’s a common-sense approach.

“I hope it settles down on 212. It’s probably not as noticeable and will not cause as much as an issue at this time of year as it would do in the depths of winter when you’re going around Naas in bottomless ground. They think you’re cantering and you’re hanging onto fresh air. You’re one squeeze from putting a horse on the floor.”

Getting the suspension overturned was obviously critical in terms of winners and revenue, but for his reputation too. Would he do anything different now if he were in the same situation again?

“I threw away a winner in Punchestown on Coney Island because I wasn’t as patient as I would have been because of what happened. I was in front earlier than both planned and ideal. I can’t say that across the board but it was so hot in my mind at the time, it cost me a Grade One at Punchestown.

“I remember coming back in and saying to the boss after getting beat on him that I would wait all day on Carlingford Lough (in the Punchestown Gold Cup). It confirmed in my mind the way Carlingford Lough needed to be ridden when it cost me the previous race. If you stop the video jumping the fourth last lads will say: ‘He’s not trying’ but you ride the horse the way he needs to be ridden.”

He won. Expect more of the same.



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