Thursday, April 26, 2012

A long way to Mallow

By Stephen Dwyer

Tadhg O’ Shea arrives at Meydan early. It is Dubai World Cup Day, the climax of the racing season in the United Arab Emirates. A nine race card carries almost $30 million in prize money, with $20 million of that set aside for the last three races alone. An hour and a half before the first race, Tadhg is sitting in the shade by the weigh room. Looking relaxed he is happy to talk about the season just past.

Including the two rides he at this year’s World Cup, Tadhg O’ Shea will have ridden in 278 races this season. He is the busiest jockey in the United Arab Emirates and it is no happy coincidence that with 37 wins, he is about to be crowed Champion Jockey for the second time in three years.

Last season he missed out on completing a double in the jockey’s championship when losing out by a single winner to Kildare native Wayne Smith. Not so this time as he finished five winners ahead of Royston Ffrench and nine ahead of Wayne Smith in third. In his tenth year racing in Dubai, O’ Shea is well settled to riding at Meydan, the world’s largest and most expensive racecourse.

The United Arab Emirates are long way from home. It is about 4,000 miles as the crow flies to Dromahane near Mallow, where Tadhg O’ Shea hails from. With no real family racing background, he attended the eleven month RACE academy and graduated from there in 1998. O’ Shea rode his first winner a year later at Tipperary for Michael Halford. That winner, Class Society, was the first of many as an apprentice and serving his time at the Halford yard, O’ Shea won two Champion Apprentice titles.

It was after winning his first Champion Apprentice title that the opportunity arose for Tadhg to travel to Dubai. He recalls “Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum very kindly sponsored a trip to come to Dubai for a four-month all-expenses trip. It was a working holiday where I spent a month each working with four different trainers. Erwan Charpy from France, Paddy Rudkin from the UK, Kiaran McLaughlin from the USA and John Sadler from Australia”

Four months in Dubai passed all too quickly and this exposure to different training yards had a lasting influence on the young jockey. This trip also planted a seed that he could compete on an international level. When O’ Shea won the Champion Apprentice title in Ireland for the second year, another four month trip was made to Dubai. It is also worth mentioning that the jockeys he beat to the title were Colm O'Donoughue and Pat Cosgrave, both high class riders then and now. From an early age O’ Shea showed very real potential and was quick to capitalise on it in Dubai.

After losing his apprentice claim, O’ Shea was to spend five seasons with Erwan Charpy as the stable’s first-choice jockey. The opportunities offered by Charpy, coupled with a strong work ethic elevated the young Cork man’s career. So much so that he was offered the position of second jockey with the much-vaunted Sheikh Hamdan racing outfit. Angus Gold, the racing manager to Sheikh Hamdam offered Tadhg the position in 2008 where he would replace Martin Dwyer. O’ Shea admits “without even thinking, the answer was immediate”.

The scale of the opportunities in Dubai is deeply impressive, there is racing three days a week and scores of high-class horses available to ride; O’Shea admits “I count myself as very lucky to ride with Sheikh Hamdam, he is a very loyal and knowledgeable man and is one of the best judges of a race you can meet. With the amount of horses he has and the setup over here I have to pinch myself most days when I wake up in the morning”.

Living in Dubai for five full months of the year is made much easier with the company of his wife Debbie and their 18 month old son, Daragh. It was at the RACE academy that Tadhg met Debbie, they have known each other for half their lives and Tadhg semi-seriously jokes that “Debbie is a full time mummy to two of us, Daragh and myself”.

Right across the spectrum, Debbie provides immeasurable support to Tadhg and he is quick to provide examples where she assists with his diet and more importantly; encouragement; “Debbie is very supportive, I met her in 1998 at RACE and we went to Michael Halfords. She comes from a racing background, her family own Blackhall Stud in Wexford and she is very knowledgeable. Debbie is always there for me on both the good days and the bad days and gives me a lot of confidence; she really is the unsung hero.”

Aside from racing three days a week and riding out each morning, Tadhg runs 5 Kilometres every day. No easy task given the intense heat. The outdoor run is around Zabeel Park and is completed even if he is racing that day. Maintaining a weight of 52KG is a managed a little better in temperatures often in the high thirties by mid morning.

The prize money in Dubai is also very attractive. Riding fees are 600 AED ($126) and the standard 10% cut of the prize money for riders applies. There is prize money awarded right down to sixth place. In his two rides on Dubai World Cup night Tadhg would finish sixth in the first race, collecting $5,000 for connections and fifth in the second race, where $30,000 was awarded for that placing.

For a 30 year old, Tadhg is an old hat at riding at the Dubai World Cup meeting. This year was his seventh and he believes that riding in Dubai and especially at this meeting has had nothing but a positive effect. “Dubai makes you a better rider, if you are going around with the best jockeys in the world for five months of the year it has to make you a better rider in every aspect”.

With many top jockeys having ridden in Dubai, O’ Shea is following is a familiar path to the top of the pecking order. Frankie Dettori and Mickael Barzalona are in demand for Godolphin and both are crowd favourites. However O’ Shea is a very popular figure and regularly interviewed in the media. Finishing the season with 17 winners, Richard Hills made a final appearance on World Cup night. O’ Shea is quick to praise Hills “Richard Hills has been a massive influence on my career; he is a very dedicated guy and could not have been more helpful to me”.

The appointment of Paul Hanagan, replacing Richard Hills as leading rider to Sheikh Hamdam was also well received “Paul is a great bloke; I think we will work very well together and we have been very close for a long time. I hope he rides as many winners as he can because it means if he is having a good year so am I and I wish him all the best”.

After riding his two races and collecting the jockey’s championship award Tadhg and his wife and son flew back to Ireland. His aim for the remainder of the year is of course to ride as many winners as possible for Sheikh Hamdam. He would dearly like to pick up a Group 1 and no doubt any spare rides in his book will be quickly filled.

Speaking about the current crop of three year olds, Tadhg is very sweet on a 3yo filly out of 2005 Oaks winner Eswarah “Firdaws is a filly we hope will be the flag bearer for us”. Trained by Roger Varian, she could be one to follow this season.

Tadhg’s philosophy in Dubai is very positive, he believes that you can only improve as a rider there and he knows it has brought him forward mentally. He is a very amiable person but under the surface is highly determined. “In November we will come back fighting to Dubai and will be going all out to win the title again”. He would welcome the influx of some younger Irish riders to Dubai as he knows first hand the doors that this can open.

Tadhg resolutely believes that the best is yet to come. Numerically this winter in Dubai has been his most successful to date, he makes the most of every opportunity and works very hard at getting the best from himself. You don’t get one of the top jobs in racing any other way.

Four thousand miles then from Mallow to Meydan but a journey well worth taking. There is no doubt that Tadhg O’ Shea’s star is still rising.

Dubai is lucky to have him.

 © The Irish Field - April 2012

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