Beer with.... The Jockey
Horse Racing : A chat with Fergus Sweeney
Fergus Sweeney has ridden 11,114 (at the time of writing) races in his 23 year career. His best victory came on Twilight Son in the Betfred Sprint Cup in 2015, a year in which he amassed over £700k in prize money. Fresh off the back of a winner, we met the ever smiling Fergus at the bar, and paid for drinks so we could ask questions.
Venue : The Outside Chance
Format : Drinks, only a couple.
The Sporting Blog : As someone who has ridden for 20 odd years, what makes a successful jockey and how do you stay in the game for so long?
Fergus Sweeney : Well that's what its all about, staying in the game, it's a marathon not a sprint. Its about getting to that level where you are successful every year and make a name for yourself. There's a lot of good kids that come out of their claim as an apprentice and fall by the wayside, just because maybe they've had a bad first year or whatever. It's so much about fashion, you've just got to keep riding winners and keep yourself in the picture. It's very fickle.
TSB: So, when they're coming up as apprentices, does it help who you know?
FS : It helps. I've been very lucky in the fact that you get a lot more respect if as an apprentice you stay with one yard. If that's a big yard you get even more respect and if it's one of the bigger trainers you get noticed quicker. I was lucky because I moved a lot and it didn't help.
TSB : Obviously this isn't an advice column but interesting to hear you advising against what you did yourself.
FS: No listen I've said it all along, you've got to stay put and you'll get a lot more respect in the long run. I think it's why I struggled to get on some top rides back then because they're thinking "he's moving about a bit, why?"
TSB : On the topic of riding winners, a lot of our readers won't know exactly how you're picked or not picked to ride at any given time...
FS : At the start you're relying a lot on your employer to give you rides. As an apprentice you're unknown so you're relying on them to make your name. I'd say once you've ridden 10 or so winners it's time to get an agent who can book you some better rides. But you need to kick off well, an agent can't sell a jockey that hasn't ridden well.
TSB : Is it important for these younger guys to be seen in 'horsey' places? You live in Marlborough which is well known for various yards and so on.
FS : It definitely helps. Obviously you've got Racing HQ in Newmarket, hundreds of yards up there. Then you have Lambourn at a smaller scale, then you have Malton and Middleham up North. If you're in those training centres you can easily ride out for other trainers, not just your boss.
TSB : Talking of riding out, how important is that in terms of getting your face in and around the scene? It's not something you get paid for right?
FS : Basically if a trainers paying you to ride out they're not obliged to give you rides. I've never asked for money for riding out. I ride out to get rides. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Obviously this year myself I have had to go back to scratch. (Sweeney left his retained rides with trainer Martin Meade in 2016) I put all my eggs in one basket. When that goes pear-shaped it's difficult so I decided this year to get off my arse and put myself out there. So, I'm riding out for 4 yards now and it's going well.
TSB : Also last year you were injured and it pretty much ruined the season...
FS : Yeah I was off for 3 months, which is a long time in this game. You know it's 3 months of other jockeys riding horses that you've ridden and if they do well on them they're going to keep those rides.
TSB : In other sports like football, rugby etc of course you still get paid when you're injured, how did that play out for you?
FS : Well thank God we're insured, so we are looked after. But when you have to get back to the game it's hard as you have to re-establish yourself. People question your fitness and whether you've lost your bottle.
TSB : On that note, most people that read our blog will have this image of jockeys being fairly bullet proof; although your injury wasn't 'in race' did it effect you riding wise?
FS : No. I've always said to myself that if you go out without any doubts it's time to hang up your boots. If you're worrying about what might happen you've got no chance.
TSB : What did you do during that period to keep race fit? Is there a way?
FS : It's difficult. You can do as much running, cycling, swimming as you want but nothing lives up to race riding. I have an equicizer which is as close as it gets. It's a fake horse more or less and you jump on it's back and you make it gallop so you're using your legs, arms and upper body. It's about as close as you can get. Even riding out you're never asked to give the horse everything. It's the sharpness too, the split-second decision making only comes with racing.
TSB : What about mentally? In other sports we hear of professionals sitting around the house for hours when injured, how did you manage that? Not having really had any time off in 20 years it was the complete opposite of your normal life.
FS : It was really difficult. I didn't watch any racing or even look at the paper, it was torture. I just switched off. After a while you're sort of out of the bubble. Racing is such a big bubble it totally consumes you, when you're riding every day it's all you think about. All you know is racing.
TSB : People might not understand this bit especially, but do you miss the company of the other jockey's that you'd normally see every day?
FS : Oh yeah definitely . The weighing room is just like a classroom full of your mates. You know you race against each other competitively but once you're back in the room it's back to taking the piss and having a laugh. It's a very tight knit group and we really stick together.
TSB : Did you have a lot of support from the others when you had your injury?
FS : Well mine wasn't life threatening so not so much, as they all knew I'd be back. I'm talking more about what happened to my good friend Freddie Tyclicki and George Baker. Freddie is wheelchair bound for the rest of his life and we've raised a hell of a lot of money because we all stick together as we all know it could have been one of us.
TSB : On the day to day front, when you were injured did you carry on eating and drinking like you have for the last 19 years? Keeping the weight off etc?
FS : No, if I'd had that mind set I'd have gone crazy.
TSB : So you just ate and lived like a normal person for the first time?
FS : Yep I just switched off, let my body heal, did as much physio to keep myself as able bodied as possible but mentally I took myself away from all that.
TSB : In boxing for example there are plenty of fighters ballooning in weight or getting on the beers when they are out for a while then flogging themselves to get back to weight...
FS : I was fairly lucky... you'll appreciate I had a few beers when I was off! In general though I'm lucky and fairly disciplined. If I want to have a beer I will, if I want to eat well I won't have a beer.
TSB : In the world of Instagram body shots, crazy diets and the general lifestyle pressure to look good, jockeys are at the extreme end of the scale with regards to keeping weight off...
FS : For me it's just my 'normal'. It's been a mindset for me since I was 13. I really knew I wanted to be a jockey when I was about 11 and had my own ponies. I went through the pony club, hunting, cross country, pony games and so on. Then got involved in racing horses. I was always worried about getting too heavy so probably started skipping meals when I was about 13.
TSB : Obviously that's not a healthy thing to do.... but the game has always been like that, is it still that way now?
FS : When I went to the British racing school I was 16 and I could ride, and ride well, but I didn't have any contacts in England so had to go to the school in Newmarket on a 10 week course with people who had literally never ridden a horse before. It was a means of getting placed in a yard in England, having coming from Ireland at 16.
TSB : Leaving home at 16 like that is a pretty tough thing to do. How were your parents and family with that?
FS : My parents tried to put me off. They sent me down to The Curragh with a jockey they knew down there and said to him "put Fergus off, it's a hard lifestyle we don't want him doing it". So, they sent me there for 2 months, his name was Phillip Lowrie and he was a good jockey in Ireland. He said to my Dad "I've got some good news and bad news.. the bad news is I can't put him off being a jockey, but the good news is that he's very good!"
...But going back to the weight thing, when I was at Newmarket at 16 I was 8 Stone 3. I can still ride at 8 Stone 6 now and I'm 39.
TSB : I guess for lots of people reading that are interested in fitness and stuff they just won't understand how that is possible. You also don't look like a small guy at 5 foot 7 or 8.
FS : I'm very lucky. I know a few friends that wake up at 9 stone every day and are doing races at 8 stone 10 so are taking off 5 pounds every morning, whereas I'm up at 8 stone 10ish and only ever have to get down a couple of pounds.
TSB : What proportion of that is diet as opposed to sweating it out in the bath and so on?
FS : It's a bit of everything. Those last 2-3 pounds are purely sweating.
TSB : Anyone that is involved in sport knows how important nutrition is for all sorts of reasons, not least energy and focus. Is it a case that from 13 years old you've just trained your body to adapt or do you notice fatigue more from simply not putting enough calories in versus what you expend?
FS : It's changed a lot since I was coming up, I have my own way but now we have nutritionists who don't advocate skipping meals. In the last few years the PJA has been really pushing but I have my own way and it works for me, not to say that's the right way!
There is a thing they are doing in Liverpool which focuses on a high protein diet and only drinking green tea and water. You get up at 6am and go for a run to kick start your metabolism before breakfast. There are a lot of things in place now that weren't available when I was younger. It's much better than it was before.
TSB : Just to flip things on it's head... do you think there is any mileage in the future of simply having heavier jockeys and letting the horses run with more weight?
FS : At some stage that will have to happen because when I started I was big, now I'm small. The lads coming in now are 5'10- 5'11 and are killing themselves to do the weight. They can't physically be any lighter and they are doing everything possible.
TSB : There are only a few sports, rugby, basketball etc where size is so important but there must be plenty of talented riders who just happen to be 6 foot or whatever?
FS : Yeah totally. The guys that have it lucky in a way are the ones that are still 5'2! For them it's just easier but they're aren't so many around now. In the USA all the lightest are the smaller guys from Chile and Brazil etc. Jockeys are fitter now than ever before. Sir Tony McCoy was the start and Ryan Moore. They're teetotal and have a totally different mindset.
TSB : Does it take that kind of celebrity to bring it into focus?
FS : Definitely. When I started there was no emphasis on this stuff but now fitness is so important. Jockeys are running around the course before racing! It's changed the weighing room culture too. Going back 30 years jockeys had a drink before they rode! It wouldn't happen now. I'm not saying the standard of riding has definitely improved, but other things have.
TSB : Has the standard improved?
FS : Personally I think so but ask the guys from back then like Lester Piggott or whoever, they'll say it was a better class of ride back in the day.
TSB : Another thing people are interested in is the mental side of knowing you're going to travel a long way to ride something you know hasn't got a chance, compared to knowing you might be riding a winner.
FS : It's just part and parcel of the game. Some days you open the paper and you think you haven't got any chance of a winner but you've still got to get in the car and drive 3 hours, knowing you are unlikely to win. It's a lot easier to motivate yourself when you know you've got a couple of rides at Newbury 20 minutes down the road, but something in you has to believe you might have things go your way no matter what.
TSB : You have a wife, kids house and all the rest of it, what is the motivation that keeps you going after 20 years?
FS : The buzz you get from riding winners. Nothing lives up to that. That's why so many jockeys struggle when they retire, there is nothing that can replace the buzz. It's hard to explain. It's winning, it's all about the winning.
TSB : Is there a general plan for retirement? What's your aspiration?
FS : We have a thing called JETS which is about training jockeys to do other things after racing. As a member of the PJA we get money put towards doing courses. I've done courses on ground management and I have a role as Jockey Safety Officer so that's something I'm interested in.
TSB : Do you ever see yourself out of the game?
FS : To be honest I'd like to give something back. Racing has been very good to me and I'd like to return that. I'm not 100% sure how yet, whether it's through media or course safety, we'll see.
TSB : One which we have been asked is about what are the events in the calendar that still get you really excited?
FS : Group One winners, Royal Ascot winners and Classics. I haven't been lucky enough to get near a classic winner, bit I did I've finish 2nd in the french 1000 guineas.
TSB : Your best Group One winner...
FS : Twilight Son. I got on well with the horse at Henry Candy's. The horse was quite difficult, very boisterous, he'd try and throw you off but I had a bond with him. I won at Salisbury in his maiden ride and was lucky enough to keep the ride. They were good enough to keep me on him at Haydock and I couldn't believe how much he improved. He showed nothing at home and trained average. He surprised me. As soon as he was on the racecourse he just grew and I didn't know where his limit was.
When we stepped him up he delivered. At Haydock he went from winning a handicap and going up to a Group 1. That's very rare... it was great with no pressure and no one thought he'd be good enough but he pulled it off and that's what made him special.
TSB : Just explain the idea of the bond between jockey and horse.
FS : Don't get me wrong, I sit on horses I've never met before and given the right information from owners and trainers I can win. But there is no substitute for riding a horse at home and getting his mindset.
TSB : So many people ask "Does the horse know it's competing? Does it know it's a special day?"
FS : 100%. If they don't want to run you can't make them run. Look at when they fall at National Hunt races, they get up and want to race. They enjoy racing.
TSB : And do you guys take an interest in the horses' welfare after they've retired from racing.
...Listen as jockeys, we are horsemen. They've been kind to us, and we'd like to be kind to them. We all started off as kids loving horses, and as horsemen that's why we have to put them first. One other thing that needs mentioning is the stable lads. They're working 7 days a week and it would be nice to recognise them more. The most important thing is the backroom staff as they are riding them every day and know them best. Those girls and guys are doing it from 6am and bond with them. Without those guys, there is no racing.