He’s not a man for the media circus, but Tom Queally’s Dungarvan grounding helps him appreciate the special things in life, such as the greatest horse of all time.
YOU’D expect him to be above this. Sure enough, Tom Queally’s is a job tethered to an earthy humbleness and a flat, heavy understatement when placed alongside other professional sports. But he still manages to surprise you with his priorities. You’ve just finished talking about Frankel, the last race, his perfect 14-0 record, his precise placing amongst the stars and what it was like to sit aboard such a devastating beast, when he turns the tables and has a question for you.
“Can you do me a favour?” he asks.
“It depends,” you say.
“The CBS in Dungarvan you brought up earlier, could you give them a mention in this piece you’re writing? They were very good to me and they deserve it and I think they’d really appreciate it.”
You pause. For a moment you’ve to remind yourself who it is you’re talking to. This isn’t some novice point-to-pointer ticking all the boxes upon unheard of attention. In October, Queally’s own hand pulled the curtain on the career of what many believe to be the greatest racehorse of them all, yet here he is still joining the dots that took him from there to here, on the bumpiest of journeys. Then again, the 28-year-old is more cerebral than a lot of sports people. He takes time to consider responses, and when you ask how and why he’s still so grounded, he thinks, sighs and tells a tale from just a few weeks back as he gets on with a more mundane sliver of his career.
Now in Hong Kong until March, his first ride there was at Sha Tin. The racecourse may be spectacular with a horizon of mountains and high rises but the race wasn’t. It was a Class Five on the dirt, and worse again, he was three-quarters way back with no chance of clawing his way through the field and with muck shooting into his face direct from the hooves of the frontrunners. When he finished he saw a bunch of bemused locals in the stands, wondering aloud how someone can go from Frankel to this. But Queally just told himself this is his job and while there are perks, there is work too.
“Jockeys, their careers are short enough,” he says. “That’s why even with any of the big winners I’ve had, I try to remember it’s just another race. Some of the lads, they think they are film stars, but once you are gone you won’t be long forgotten. So it’s about being broad-minded. You’ll get narrow-minded people in life but you’ll get people who see things for what they really are as well. I like to think I’m a bit like that. At least I try to be a bit like that.”
Perhaps it was because of the CBS in Dungarvan that he is like that. After all, back then, at just 15, it would have been easy and almost acceptable to get carried away. “My first winner, aye, I remember it alright,” he says with the same tone and detail of his last race on Frankel. “I took a half day from school, asked could I get off to go ride at Clonmel. A great day that got the ball rolling.”
Soon it was rolling at pace. Twenty-seven more winners followed and days after his 16th birthday he was apprentice champion here. But that was the smooth side to the story. Riding for Pat Flynn, his parents stepped in, said education had to come first and an arm wrestle took place until the Turf Club got involved and terminated his apprenticeship a year early.
“The whole thing, you obviously know about how it flared up on me and all that. It got very public. It painted a bad picture of me maybe, portrayed me in the wrong light, and it took a good while for me to prove a lot of people wrong. I look back at everything, and I’ve realised you always have a different view of a thing afterwards. At the time I was thinking about the winners dropping off but it was just a case of getting the Leaving Cert out of the way. But the priority of education stood to me. I was chatting to a friend the other day about that. A Leaving Cert, it’s a very basic education but I suppose in comparison to some jockeys it’s very adequate. But in the real world, it certainly helps your confidence. I was always kept fairly grounded by my parents and the teachers and education was a big part of that grounding process.”
None of them could have seen the horse that was creeping ever closer to Queally’s life, but all the wise words he scooped up and kept along the way allowed him to deal calmly with what was coming. But while Frankel may be the hero of this tale, there are others with crucial if less obvious roles too. Take Northern Irishman Barney Curley. Known as a tearaway gambler, he’s been the saviour of many a young Irish jockey that’s crossed the channel. Under him, Queally became apprentice champion in England in 2004, but he became much more than that. “He’s been very important to me. I speak about people with experience that are always there to lend advice and he’s certainly one of the more prominent people in my life. Even before I made the breakthrough on the bigger stages he took me off to Zambia for... A grounding I suppose you’d call it.”
There, Queally noted that it wasn’t so much the orphanages that got to him, but the handicapped children. “They don’t know who you are,” he’s said previously. “Nobody wants them. But one thing I noticed out there, you ask anyone how they are, and they say, ‘Great’. Everyone is great, everyone is smiling.” You ask what it means now, in hindsight? “Perspective,” he replies.
Henry Cecil could have taught him a bit of that too. Theirs was a chance coming together as they got nattering away one morning as Queally waited on a horse and Cecil waited on a jockey. It became a regular occurrence and while the talk wasn’t about racing, at first it wasn’t about the demise of Cecil either. Queally remembers going to his yard and seeing large tracts rented out to others and the loneliness of empty stables. It coincided with the trainer losing a twin brother to cancer, with a divorce fought out in the gossip columns and with Cecil’s own illness but even so, when the question was popped if he’d ride for him, Queally jumped at it. Not long after came Frankel.
“He was a little bit, I won’t say highly strung, but a little bit on the fiery side,” recalls Queally of the now-four-year-old. “I can remember the first time I came across him. His work was very good and he was pleasing everyone. But you see, you often get asked if you knew straight away, but there are so many nice types and you’ve no idea the calibre you are dealing with. What way will I sum it up? You don’t have high expectations from the word go but when he won his first maiden, I was very impressed because the ground was really soft. He won with a lot more in hand than met the eye and I was thinking, ‘Jaysus, this is very. very good.’”
What made him that good, given you spent so much time sitting on him?
“He had bundles of class. He had speed that sort of lasted. He could do sprinting fractions at the end of a mile race and that sort of thing. He could kill the horses off at any stage of the race he wanted to. For any horse that was against him, there wasn’t a way they could win. There wasn’t a way to even have a go at him. There was no formula anyone came up with to get close to him. If I rode against him I wouldn’t have a clue what I’d do to beat him because it just wasn’t possible.
So he was the best ever?
“I think so. People talk about a mile-and-a-half but it wasn’t impossible. I don’t think anything would have beaten him over a mile-and-a-half. I’m not around long enough to have a solid judgement on that but there are people three times my age that have said he is the best ever, and they’ve seen a lot. He’s the best Henry has ever seen and that’s enough for me.”
And that’s what made Oct 20 and the Champion Stakes at Ascot a confusing cocktail of emotions. Queally talks about how everything from a month out stared directly at that day. Not just him either, but his family and the whole yard were counting down to a celebration that was infused with a strange sort of sadness. Then it was over in just a few moments. “I was just talking to Frankel after it. It’s a lot easier to get on with horses than people sometimes. But look at what he meant to people. He gave Henry a lift in his life for instance. There are jockeys riding at a meeting he was at and they were getting a huge buzz out of this. If I needed clarification of how lucky I was, that just puts it into perspective really.”
With that, he stops talking about the past, and focuses on the future and the dirt of Sha Tin. Before he goes though, you wonder how he gets on with his life when racing won’t get any better than what’s gone before. And more precisely you wonder if there’s a danger he’ll be remembered as Frankel’s jockey and nothing more. But this time there’s no delay in an answer.
“Are you joking me?” he says. “I just hope I’m remembered as Frankel’s jockey.”
THE HISTORY MAKER
Date - Race - Course - WD - Price
Aug 13, 2010 — EBF Maiden Stakes — Newmarket – 8 Furlongs – 7/4
Sept 10, 2010 — Frank Whittle Stakes — Doncaster – 7 Furlongs – 1/2
Sept 25, 2010 — Royal Lodge Stakes – Ascot — 8 Furlongs – 3/10
Oct 16, 2010 — Dewhurst Stakes – Newmarket – 7 Furlongs – 4/6
Apr 16, 2011 — Greenham Stakes – Newbury – 7 Furlongs – 1/4
Apr 30, 2011 – 2000 Guineas – Newmarket — 8 Furlongs – 1/2
Jun 14, 2011 — St James’s Palace – Ascot – 8 Furlongs – 3/10
Jul 27, 2011 — Sussex Stakes — Goodwood – 8 Furlongs – 8/13
Oct 15, 2011 — Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – Ascot – 8 Furlongs – 4/11
May 19, 2012 — Lockinge Stakes – Newbury – 8 Furlongs – 2/7
Jun19, 2012 — Queen Anne Stakes – Ascot – 8 Furlongs – 1/10
Aug 1, 2012 — Sussex Stakes – Goodwood – 8Furlongs – 1/20
Aug 22, 2012 — International Stakes — York – 10½ Furlongs – 1/10
Oct 20, 2012 — Champion Stakes – Ascot – 10 Furlongs – 2/11
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