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My Racing Story

My Racing Story

PJ McDonald

PJ McDonald riding over jumps at Punchestown 2007PJ McDonald riding over jumps at Punchestown 2007
© Photo Healy Racing

Winning a Group 1 on Laurens last Friday was the culmination of over 20 years of hard work and dreaming and while it has been a long road, it was one worth travelling.

My family isn't involved in racing and had no racing background but for reasons that nobody can explain at home, when I was a kid I’d sit in the middle of the floor and watch the racing on telly. Most kids were watching cartoons yet I was watching horses run around a field without an idea of what was going on. I was just drawn to it for some reason and it just went from there.

One of my best friends from home, Kieran Roche, he trains point to pointers at home in Wexford, and he used to keep ponies and when he was feeding them I’d be down annoying him and he used to always say to me “If you stay small I’ll get you a job when your older” and I remember I was just 14 and a couple of weeks away from starting my Junior Cert, standing outside the chip shop in the village at home, and Kieran came up the road and said “I’ve got you that job if you want it” so I ran home and told the mother I wasn't finishing school or doing the Junior Cert and packed my bag and off I went to start a job with Dusty Sheehy in Kilkenny. That’s where it all started.

I went from Dusty’s and spent a summer with Dermot Weld before going back down and I spent a lot of time with Padge Berry, who was one of the best point-to-point trainers around, and after that I went to Kildare and was apprenticed to Charles O’Brien for a few years.

I had about 70 or 80 rides in Ireland and rode about three winners and I could just never get going. Every time I rode a winner I thought ‘this is it, I’ll take off now’ but I never took off. Some other young lad would come through and he’d get going ahead of you and climb up the ladder and I was still struggling away. Then you start thinking to yourself ‘Jesus, am I good enough to be a jockey’ and I was going to pack the whole lot in until a friend of mine, Mickey Cleary, suggested I give it a go with Ferdy Murphy and from the morning I landed in his yard my career took a massive turn. His help was influential in getting me where I am today.

I tried on the flat and didn't succeed so I left Ireland to be a jump jockey and that’s where I was - in jumping yards - so that’s always the route I thought I’d go down but I was too small and when I went to Ferdy I was 8st2lbs and he said to me I had to put on a stone!

I spent two and a half years with Ferdy and the summer after I won the Scottish National for him in 2007 he had turned all his horses out for the summer and because I had a good winter my agent was able to get me a job with Alan Swinbank and I rode about 25 winners that summer. The plan was always to go back jumping but Alan offered me a job at the end of the summer to be second jockey to Neil Callan and in fairness to Ferdy he said to be I’d be absolutely stupid not to give it a go but always assured me that my job would be there if it didn't work out. It was a win win situation for me.

Things went very well but the last couple of years have been brilliant. I switched agent two years ago, I went from Richard Hale to Gareth Owen and Richard did a fantastic job for me from the day I moved over and he got me established over here. But I just felt my career had fizzled out a bit, even though I was doing well, and I was making a good living, but I was hungry and ready for a step up and better opportunities. I got introduced to Gareth and told him I wanted to be riding on the bigger days at the bigger meetings and felt I was good enough and he’s got behind me and given me a push and I’ve ended up getting in with Mark Johnston, Karl Burke and landing the job as retained rider to owners John and Jess Dance and it has just gone from strength to strength. The quality is coming now and thank God I’m able to get the job done when I get the chance.

Last Friday was massive for me. At Newmarket you are competing against the best jockeys, the best trainers and I always knew in the back of my mind how good I am and I always had plenty of faith in my own ability. I’ve always said if the horses are good enough, I’ll win on the them, but it’s alright saying that to yourself but you’ve to go and do it. To be able to perform at Newmarket just proved to me that I’ve earned my place to be there.

People looking in from the outside don't realise the sacrifices that have to be made. Friends, family, you miss weddings, parties, all sorts of things, you are away from home so much but if you are getting those big winners at least you have something to show for it. But for a long time when the big meetings were on, I was going to the lesser tracks and I was glad to be going there to make a living but you always want to be at your Newmarkets and your Ascots and now this Saturday I’ll be going to Ascot for their big meeting.

When number four was called out last Friday (Laurens saddlecloth number) all the hard work, graft, all the rejections, years of thinking your not good enough, being intimidated by walking into the weighroom beside the big name jockeys, it was just 22 years of pressure off my shoulders.

I’m only a few winners away from having my first ever century of winners in a year and that would be a brilliant achievement but one that I’m trying not to think about to be honest. When you want something to happen or you are waiting for something it takes forever so I’m trying to keep my mind off it, but with the help of God I’ll be after passing it pretty soon. Whatever happens, if I get it, it’ll be brilliant, if I don't I’m still after having a brilliant season. But just because I’ve had a bit of success this year, by no means does this mean that my foot will be coming off the pedal for next year. It means I’ll have to work even harder to beat by targets.

First and foremost the aim is to stay injury free with the help of God and just keep the men I’m riding for happy and if I can keep them happy, well I’ll be happy. You can only make a horse go as fast as he can go so hopefully a few good ones will come along again and I’ll get a chance to keep performing on the big stage.

God knows what will happen between now and next year but with Laurens we’ll not be done for dreaming over the winter anyway. You are usually going into the year praying you’ll find something like Laurens to ride and hopefully now I’ll have Havana Grey to look forward to as well if they both get there safe and sound. I’ve got a bit of quality now and hopefully we’ll get a bit of luck.

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