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My Racing Story

My Racing Story

Paul Callaghan

Paul CallaghanPaul Callaghan
© Photo Healy Racing

I am from Meath Hill which is a small townland based in north County Meath. I first got into racing through my father. On my father's side, everyone would have been interested in racing. I grew up the youngest of five and at that time the Fairyhouse Easter Festival was on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We used to go on Wednesday, it was family day and I absolutely loved it. From there, I started to broaden the horizons to Navan and Dundalk when it was a grass track. I even got up to Phoenix Park a couple of times and Sligo as well. I grew up on a farm and we had our holidays in Laytown. We used to go during race week. I loved both codes - Flat and National Hunt, but particularly fell in love with National Hunt racing. That all sparked my interest to be a National Hunt jockey. I started primary school at five and even then I knew I wanted to be a jockey.

When I was 15, I rang Gerry McArdle who used to train just outside Dundalk. I got a job there as a stable lad working during the Halloween break at the end of October. I had sat on a few ponies, but essentially I couldn't ride. First day I rode a horse called Coral Cottage and the horse absolutely carted me around the paddock, but I loved it. The next day I went in and rode five horses walking and trotting. I did the week with Gerry and ended up working every day I was off school with him and within six months I was riding work on the beach at Laytown and at Fairyhouse. I progressed pretty quickly, but a lot of experience was thrown at me.

I was playing a lot of football at the time as well. My family would have been very strong with the local GAA and two of my brothers, my sister and I all played for Meath. I lined out for the club at senior level and for the second team when I was 14 under Nudie Hughes, but racing was always going to take over. Approaching the Leaving Cert, I noticed that Tom George was advertising for an amateur jockey in England, so I rang Tom and got a job with him. It transpired that three days after the Leaving Cert I was in Tom George's. It was a massive move for me, my mother was never that keen on me going into racing full-time. She wanted me to go on to college. I suppose it was like a lot of Irish lads that want to be jockeys, you are battling away with your mother more so than your father. I finished up playing football when I was about 16/17. Horses had taken over and the interest from a playing perspective had gone. I got my amateur licence out at 16 in Ireland, but I didn't have any rides.

I had it in my head that I had to go to England. I loved it in Tom George's. I was lucky enough in that Jason Maguire was there and we were quite close in age and he's from Meath as well. It was a change of culture and lifestyle, but I absolutely loved it. At that time with the amateur licence, I could only ride in amateur races because I had so little experience. There were only amateur races every two or three months. My first ride was a winner, I rode a horse called Dellone for Tom at Hereford on 4th December 2001. I had plenty of groundwork done as in loads of work and loads of schooling, and Tom had us away on plenty of racecourse gallops. I can remember galloping down to the first hurdle thinking there's no way a horse can jump going this fast! The horse was brilliant, though, and jumped great. The one thing Tom had drilled into me was that if you have to push the horse, you are going too fast, and if he is pulling you, you are going too slow. Let the horse find his own rhythm. He bolted up by 23 lengths in the end. It gave me plenty of confidence, it was everything I had imagined and more. It was an unbelievable feeling.

I was with Tom for three seasons. My next ride was in March (2002) and that was for Steve Brookshaw and it was my first ride over fences on a horse called Cutina at Huntingdon. There were 16 in the race and not many of us got around, but she was one of them that did (sixth). Jason was riding out for Steve Brookshaw at the time and I went in a bit with him. She was tiny, but jumped well and got round. I got a lot of experience with Tom. We worked very hard there, but we had a great team and we were all around the same age. During that time we had the Polish version of Galileo, he won the Sun Alliance at Cheltenham (in 2002). I used to look after him and did all his groundwork when he came from Poland. I led him up when he ran in the Stayers' Hurdle (seventh in 2003). The last year in Tom's I got going point-to-pointing, I went to Yogi Breisner for lessons and I managed to get going. I had a few winners and was riding a stone better than maybe a year or two previously.

I bumped into Howard Johnson one day at Haydock. He popped his head over the door and asked me if I would lead up a horse as all his staff were snowed in. I led up Royal Rosa who managed to win, and I got chatting to Howard after it. He said for me to keep an eye on the entries and he would look after me, and to keep in touch. Fast forward a few months after many phonecalls to Howard and eventually I got on a horse called Katmandu in Sedgefield (March 2004) who was owned by Terry McDermott and Alan Shearer with the black and white silks - and me a lifelong Newcastle fan. Katmandu had his own way of doing things. Howard wanted him in the first three or four, jump the last as close as I could to the leader and I wasn't to hit the front until approaching the winning post. Miles Seston, a very good rider in the north, led us into the home straight and I led just after the last and he bolted up by four lengths. Howard offered me a job the next day sharing the rides with Alan Dempsey behind Graham Lee. I turned 21 that summer and I moved to Howard's at the end of July. It didn't work out, though. I stayed there for maybe eight months and only had three or four rides and they weren't great. I was riding a lot for smaller yards which Howard didn't like and he wanted me in the yard.

Paul winning at Cartmel in 2008Paul winning at Cartmel in 2008

I then did a little bit of freelancing as an amateur. I got a terrible fall in a bumper at Exeter where I broke my collarbone and was out for a few weeks. In that time my name came up as an amateur for Henry Daly. I had a think about it and said I was definitely interested. Henry seemed very straightforward and a lovely man to deal with and I spent two seasons with him. Opportunities arose and I got plenty of rides. My strike rate was terrible, though, I only managed to ride one winner. At one stage, almost anything that Richard Johnson wasn't on, I rode. It was fantastic and great experience. We had Richard Johnson and Mark Bradburne in twice a week every Tuesday and Friday to school and it was unbelievable for me. You could jump up to 100 fences on a Tuesday and a Friday and you were riding nice horses. When Henry used to kick out everything for the summer, I spent three summers riding out for Mark Johnston and I remember riding Monterosso who went on to win a Dubai World Cup (in 2012). He was a little bit out of the ordinary now.

I fractured my thumb when I was maybe 26/27 and chipped some of the bone off. It was the same thumb that I fractured and dislocated when i was 18. I rode an hour later and also did the same when I had a cracked shoulder, I kept riding. Then I had a few bangs to the head and I had short-term memory loss, so eventually I took time out. There was a period where I was struggling to get out of bed with hip and groin problems. I had been strapped up most days and took painkillers every day. It was a difficult decision to hang the boots up when you grow up wanting to be a jockey. I had no education behind me as such. I decided it was time to come home and I worked for Des McDonogh and had a couple of rides for Des. I probably shouldn't have as I wasn't riding well. I was looking to remain in the racing industry and got a CV done up and handed it into a number of employers. BoyleSports came back and I got a job working in a betting shop. That graduated to being a shop manager and then got a job in their studio broadcasting. I loved the broadcasting and I thought I brought a different insight to it. Through JETS (Jockeys Education & Training Scheme), I did the media course with Racing TV and got opportunities with them before Covid-19 and managed to get a couple of gigs at Dundalk Racecourse. That opened the door to doing the MC work for Dundalk.

I was nine years with BoyleSports and progression had become static where I was, so I went to college. I spoke to Helen O'Sullivan from The Irish Jockeys' Trust and she pointed me into going into education. It was something that I was absolutely against and it maybe took two or three conversations with Helen for me to do a U-turn. I did a six-week course in Marketing at DKIT (Dundalk Institute of Technology) and then the following year I applied for a business course. I completed that and got an honours degree in Business at DKIT. I was studying part-time and working full-time for four years. An opportunity came up with Harvey Norman as an Assistant Store Manager in Swords. I went there for six months and enjoyed it. From there, I saw that The Irish Field were looking for an Advertising Executive - I went for it and thankfully got it in January 2023. I'm still in the industry and I do enjoy it.

The best day I had in racing was probably finishing fifth over the Grand National fences on Ghadames in 2007 (in Fox Hunters). The horse never missed a beat. I had a good night's sleep the night before, but I don't think I slept for about three nights after it with the adrenaline!

Paul was in conversation with Michael Graham.

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About Michael Graham

Michael has worked in horse racing journalism for more than 15 years, having also written a weekly betting column on Gaelic football and hurling for a newspaper. He is involved in writing the My Racing Story features on this website. He spent a year in South Africa completing a Diploma in Business Administration and also studied Newspaper Journalism in Belfast. He enjoys playing 5-a-side football on a regular basis.

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