“In a funny way that’s what I’m enjoying being away from,” Barry Geraghty says when he considers the intensity missing from his life as a retired jump jockey. “I’m enjoying the slower pace. I went for a run during lockdown, even though I haven’t put on much weight, and I thought: ‘I really need to start doing more running.’ But then I said: ‘You know what? I don’t.’ I had been like a coiled spring since my teens so I’m enjoying being more unravelled now.”
Geraghty, who turned 41 last month, smiles with the relaxed thoughtfulness that epitomises his mood at home in County Meath. The former Irish champion jockey announced his retirement in July. Four months earlier he had dominated the Cheltenham Festival, winning five races, displaying the guile and strength that persuaded many racing experts that he was the most complete jockey of his generation – even in an era lit up by the remarkable AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh.
The Festival should never have been held in front of packed crowds when Covid-19 already held a distressing grip on the world but, in romantic terms, it seems fitting Geraghty’s final races were at Cheltenham. He won five Champion Chases, four Champion Hurdles, two Gold Cups and 43 races at the Festival – second only to Walsh. Geraghty won 1,920 races in total, including the Grand National in 2003, but he has started an entirely different life now.
Since he began seeing a psychotherapist, Francis O’Toole, three years ago, Geraghty has learned to temper his intensity. Until then, he would be racing to the track, racing to win, racing to get away as fast as he could, racing to get a drink, racing towards doing it all again the next day.
“It’s all I knew,” Geraghty says. “I needed to see Francis to understand that life doesn’t need to be at that pace. Back then it was all fight or flight. I loved racing and I loved the fun, the buzz. But for myself, the kids and [his wife] Paula, retirement’s been a good change. John Francome [the former jockey] said: ‘The biggest regret you’ll have is you didn’t do it five years earlier.’ I won’t regret that and I’m happy to have done those five years. But I’m happy to have stopped because I can appreciate there’s life after racing.”
Geraghty’s autobiography, written with Niall Kelly, is an intelligent and often beautifully observed book that also shows the depths to which the jockey sank. By the age of 23 he was feted. His success on the brilliant Moscow Flyer, winning the National on Monty’s Pass as well as becoming the first jockey to win RTE’s Irish Sportsman of the Year, ahead of Roy Keane, changed him for a while. His natural confidence as a jockey turned “towards arrogance”. The sensitivity he felt as a child was “scrubbed” and he became “self-centred and driven”.
Racing is an unforgiving business. Four years later, having turned down lucrative offers to become a retained jockey to leading trainers, including Paul Nicholls, Geraghty was on the downward slope as a freelance. It felt he had become “the forgotten man” of racing and it needed “a sliding doors moment” for his life to change again just before the 2008 Cheltenham Festival.
He was devastated to have lost his ride on Catch Me in the Champion Hurdle when the horse’s part-owner, Paddy Monaghan, told Geraghty: “You’re not lucky for me.” He was replaced on Catch Me by Walsh. A dejected Geraghty was relieved when he was offered a late ride on the seemingly unimpressive Punjabi, trained by Nicky Henderson.
Geraghty’s class showed and Punjabi surprised everyone by finishing third – with Walsh and Catch Me finishing sixth. Henderson valued that ride and when Mick Fitzgerald, his No 1 jockey, suffered a career-ending fall the following month, Geraghty was offered the job that rejuvenated his career. There were many more winners and, in 2017, he got the top job in jump racing when he replaced McCoy as JP McManus’s retained jockey.
There were more testing times and Geraghty felt he was being hounded into a premature retirement when some of McManus’s trainers preferred other jockeys. He then suffered another calamitous injury when he broke a leg so badly at Aintree last year that he could not race during “six months of hell”. Incredibly, he returned and finished with his five winners at Cheltenham in March.
“You hope you’re going to have a winner because this is what I love and this is the last time,” Geraghty says. “So there was great fulfilment in having five winners from 11 rides. There were no seconds, which meant I didn’t get beaten on anything that had a chance of winning. It closed the book perfectly.”
His career rocketed as soon as he sat on the great Moscow Flyer in 1999. “I was Champion Jockey that season. I was only 20 and I was climbing the ladder and hitting no snakes. It was brilliant, but it felt normal. It’s only when you lose these horses that you really understand what [fellow Irish jockey] Paul Carberry told me: ‘You jammy bollocks getting him.’ As the years pass you feel for other fellows not so fortunate to have a flagship horse. Moscow was amazing. We had our slips, but he always came up trumps.”
When Moscow Flyer died in 2016, Geraghty was “sick with sadness”. The death of another cherished horse, Macs Joy, was even more hurtful. During his leanest spell, rides on the best horses seemed to dry up, almost inexplicably for a jockey as gifted as Geraghty, whose only fault was that he had chosen to retain his independence rather than work as a contracted rider. “A cupboard stripped bare doesn’t look quite so bad when you’ve still got Macs Joy,” he says as he praises the loyalty of the trainer Jessie Harrington who stuck with him.
“He was a small, unassuming, lovely character,” he says of Macs Joys. “Very measured, had a bit of class, wasn’t a flashy horse, but he jumped hard. He was so athletic you just perched on him, squeezed away and he would dance. I’d lost Kicking King [his 2005 Gold Cup-winning horse] and Moscow Flyer. Everything was caving in on me, but I had Macs Joy.”
In December 2007, in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham, Macs Joy and Geraghty fell. The jockey needed only one look at the horse’s leg to know it was broken. He waited alone with Macs Joy on the track, trying to comfort him until the vets arrived. Geraghty cried as they put the screens up and he said “goodbye to my little friend”.
Geraghty looks rueful. “Whether he was my last string or not, I loved him. So what happened that day was heart-wrenching. I walked away from him and dropped to my knees. I covered my ears because I didn’t want to hear the crack of the gun.”
He was affected most by the terrible injuries that led to the death of two close friends. Kieran Kelly died after falling in a race in 2003, at the age of 25. “Kieran was a brilliant rider and we had the same devilment. Racing was fun, but so was a night out. Most days when we were racing it was Kieran, Shay Barry, Tommy Treacy and me. There was more fun than seriousness because we were young lads having a good time. A few months before he died Kieran won the Sun Alliance on Hardy Eustace at Cheltenham and I won the Champion Chase on Moscow. We shared great days.”
In 2013, Geraghty had another unforgettable Festival. He won the Arkle on Simonsig, the Champion Chase again on the imperious Sprinter Sacre, and then, most importantly, his second Gold Cup on Bobs Worth. But there was no joy. Geraghty describes “a photo, taken just after the finish line, of me staring into space. No smile. No nothing. Vacant. All I can think of is John Thomas and his family.”
A few days before, at the Festival, John Thomas McNamara fell so badly that he broke his neck and back. McNamara was paralysed and he died three years later. “That’s why the Gold Cup didn’t count,” Geraghty says, “because everyone knew the torture he was facing and the sadness. It was brutal. How could there be joy on Gold Cup day?”
He nods when I ask if he saw much of McNamara in the three years he was paralysed. “I visited him a lot and we spoke a lot on the phone. I was probably in contact more with JT after the accident. We’d chat for an hour, talking horses and everything. He was such a lovely fellow and he watched everything from his bed. If you needed to know something you’d ring JT and he could tell you the news.”
Geraghty’s transition to a new life has been eased by the changes Covid-19 has forced on racing. “It’s been a terrible time for the world but there’s no doubt it helped me. The initial lockdown, when racing was called off, made life very simple. All thoughts of racing again were gone and thankfully Covid didn’t darken our door. I had time to appreciate the simple things, being at home with Paula and the kids, and that gave me a taste of life in the slower lane.”
Becoming a trainer holds no interest for Geraghty but he says: “I’ve always kept a few young horses. Hopefully there’s another Bobs Worth in there because nurturing young talent is what I enjoy. I’m busy with that but, mostly, I’m just playing catchup on the years away from the family. I’m being as helpful as possible around them.
“On the day I announced my retirement we arranged a party at home. We were blessed with the weather because in Ireland that’s not always the case. It was just beautiful. We had friends and family over and none of them guessed what was going to happen. I dropped a bombshell and told them I was retiring. The kids were there with us till the small hours and we could dance and embrace the moment. It was perfect, behind closed doors, because it was so intimate. It was a beautiful way to end it and, also, to look forward to the future.”
Barry Geraghty’s True Colours is published by Headline