'My Mum passed away and it made me look at life differently': Jay Tabb on his jockey dreams

The former Ireland U-21 midfielder has enjoyed an inexplicably varied retirement but is now dedicating himself to horse racing.

Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

JAY TABB ALWAYS thought he’d retire from football at 35 but in December 2015 he hadn’t played for Ipswich in three months. Over Christmas, he made his mind up that he’d walk away at the end of the season – three years ahead of schedule. And he couldn’t wait. 

“I felt I’d achieved what I was going to achieve and I just wanted to do something else with my life,” he says. 

“I’d enjoyed football and was extremely grateful for what it had given me. But I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. My Mum passed away that year too and it made me look at life differently.

“Life is too short so I thought, ‘Sod it – what’s the worst that can happen?’ so I decided to pack it in and see what was next. I was extremely lucky to do it for as long as I did, to play in the Premier League and do what most kids dream about. I’d never badmouth it at all but the next chapter of my life was always something I was looking forward to.”

His last competitive game for Mick McCarthy’s side was an FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth in January 2016. Ever since, there’s been no coaching and no punditry. Instead, he’s had an inexplicably varied retirement. 

There was a period of working with his father – renovating houses and fitting kitchens – which helped with the grieving process. After so long cocooned in a football bubble, he enjoyed reconnecting with his family again and being more present. When he had the chance to sign up for Old Wimbledonians rugby side and line out alongside his brother and two cousins, he jumped at it. Slotting in on the wing or at full back, Tabb – who represented the Republic of Ireland at Under-21 level and received a number of call-ups to the senior team – inevitably took the kicks too. Last year, they fell just shy of reaching Twickenham after a regional final loss in the RFU Junior Vase.

A gifted golfer, Tabb also spent some time as a caddy on the Ladies European Tour.   

“It is weird when I look back,” he admits. 

“Rugby is my favourite sport, along with golf, and I’d always wanted to play it. I knew as soon as I finished with football that I’d take it up again. And then the guy I played with at my local golf club mentioned his daughter, Lauren (Horsford), was a pro and had got her tour card so I asked him one day if she needed a caddy and I ended up in Thailand, Spain and at US Open qualifying with her. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed it and at the time I thought caddying was something I could be good at. But riding the horses and working in racing pipped it, really.”

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Reading v Manchester United - Madjeski Stadium Jay Tabb in Premier League action for Reading against Manchester United in December 2012. Source: Nick Potts

Ah, yes.

The horse-racing.

It goes back to his days at Coventry City and sharing hotel rooms with team-mate Ben Turner. He was an obsessive and would constantly watch races on TV, giving Tabb a crash-course in the process. Within a few years, Tabb had shares in a couple of horses. Finally, he and Turner bought their own – Mr Miyagi – and saw it race at key meets in the UK and Ireland: Kempton, Punchestown, Aintree and even at Cheltenham. By that stage, Tabb was thinking big.

“It’s probably the last six or seven years that I’ve really had that keen interest,” he says. 

“I always thought that when I hung the boots up, it would be great to try and ride a horse and have something else to do. Whenever I was at the yards, it always looked so rewarding. Everyone seemed to really enjoy what they were doing, the stable lads and lasses work so hard. And I thought, ‘Why not try and give it a go?’ Coming to Northern Racing College was the best option so I started looking into the process. I came up and had a look around on the Open Day and then I sent in my application and got accepted for an interview.”

Tabb, born in Tooting, South London, was desperate to just get away and the intensive 12-week course – located in Doncaster, a three and a half hours drive north – seemed to land in his lap at the perfect time.

“The main reason for doing it was that I live in London and I wanted to get out and live a bit more in the countryside, wake up every morning and get to ride horses and be part of a racing yard and a team.”

The full-time course primarily caters for teenagers who have left school prematurely and those attending live on-site for three months. At 35 and given his background, Tabb was certainly a different kind of applicant.

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Nottingham Forest v Ipswich Town - City Ground Tabb pictured in action for Ipswich during the 2014/2015 Championship season. Source: Nigel French

“When I came for the interview they asked how I’d handle being around predominantly 16-20 year olds,” he says. 

“But playing football, you’re at the same training ground as the youth team and they’re all the same age. So I knew how to deal with it a bit. I’ve got my own room here so I don’t have to share with an 18-year-old lad, which is good. I do have my own privacy but there’s no special treatment in terms of the work. I do exactly the same as what they do. It’s been a bit of a challenge but also quite fun too and I kinda see myself as a big brother, really.”

His first day at the college was 29 March but Tabb was working hard well in advance of that. Firstly, he had to wind the clock back a little and dabble in some pre-season training to greatly reduce his weight.   

“I’ve got the right height for it (Tabb is 5ft 6in on a good day) but I’m still a bit too stocky, to be honest,” he says. 

“I can get down to about 10-and-a-half stone before I start feeling a bit weird. Between 10-and-a-half and 11 I’m happy with but anything lower and I’d be struggling. They’re quite clear here that you can’t be over 11 stone. But after the Christmas…’indulgences’, shall we say, I was coming in at just over 13 stone. So it was a bit of a challenge getting rid of that. But it wasn’t that drastic of a change, to be honest. Since I’ve stopped playing, I’ve always enjoyed keeping fit so I’m still in the gym. But when you don’t have to be totally in shape then there’s no reason to say no to beers with mates and no reason to eat a bit of crap occasionally. I wasn’t putting loads of weight on but gradually, some of it sticks. But I knew once I started being a bit strict with myself that it would come off quite quickly because I was a bit heavier than I should’ve been.”

I did intermittent fasting so I only had food and drink between midday and 8pm and then I wouldn’t eat again until midday the next day. I took my calories down a little bit and the weight kinda flew off. It was quite hard seeing my friends heading out, because I was off the alcohol too but having something to look forward to – like riding a racehorse – made it a lot easier.”

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Secondly, as a complete novice regarding the practicalities of everything, he needed to get some time with horses. 

“The only time I’d ever sat on a horse was when I won a golf holiday to Mount Juliet and had a lesson in their equestrian centre,” Tabb says. 

“But as soon as I knew I was accepted to this course, I booked six one-hour lessons at my local stables. It was basically trotting around but I did get up to a canter by the end of it. I picked it up pretty quickly. I wouldn’t say cocky is the right word but I really wanted it. Over the six lessons, I’d get on the horse and almost pretend I was better than I was just to progress a bit quicker. When they’d ask if I wanted to do this or that I’d just say yes. I had no fear. And that helped me out a lot once I got here.”

Jay Tabb and Kevin Kilbane Tab closes down kevin Kilbane during a Republic of Ireland training session in October 2006. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The commitment required is incredible.

Tabb is kind enough to sacrifice a rare break in order for us to chat, shovelling down his dinner to ensure there’s enough time. But we wrap at 6.25pm sharp so that he can make his way to an evening lesson. When I ask him to describe a typical day, he takes a deep breath before rattling off an exhaustive schedule.     

“I set my alarm for 5.20,” he begins.

I get up, go for a run around the gallops and by the time I get down there, run around a few times and come back up, it’s about 6km. Then it’s a quick shower and I’m down and ready to feed the horses by 6.30am. I come back up, get about a 10-minute break for a quick coffee and then we sign in at 7 o’clock and start mucking out. We muck out two horses and then it’s tacking up and have the first lot in our indoor school, which is focused on our technique and a little bit of cantering but nothing major. Then a quick breakfast just after 9.30 before it’s tacking up the next horse at 9.45. Then it’s onto the gallops and we ride three lots between 10.15 and 1pm. It’s tacking and untacking. Then if you’re lucky to be finished for 1pm, you get some lunch. If not, you get lunch when you’re finished. At 2pm, it’s back to the yard to groom and feed the horses and to skip out. Then there could be an afternoon session with that horse and some classroom sessions too. Sometimes there’s a bit of fitness as well. We’re done by 5.30 so we feed the horses and have our dinner and then it’s the evening programme at about 6.30, which is another lesson and we’re usually done by 7.30 or 8pm. Then it’s time to shower up, catch up on Game of Thrones and go to bed. The days literally roll into one. They’re full on. The weekends are a bit easier and there’s more time off because we don’t do the riding. But Monday to Friday, you sit down for five minutes if you’re lucky.”  

Mucking out? Tacking up? Skipping out?  

“Mucking out is basically cleaning the horses’ food and water bowls, redoing their bed for them, taking all the crap out and making sure they’re nice and comfy in the mornings,” Tabb clarifies. 

“In the afternoons, you don’t do a full muck out. You just take what they’ve, erm… ‘produced’ between 9 and 1 and take the top stuff, which is skipping out. You give them a good brush over and groom them for about 20 minutes and make sure they’re settled for the night. Tacking up means getting the horse ready to ride. And that was a big challenge for me because I didn’t even know how to put a head collar on. It’s quite a challenge because you have to do it quickly. It’s not at your own pace. It’s a quick turnaround. You’re on your feet the whole time and running around like a blue-arsed fly, basically.”

There’s a therapeutic and holistic quality to all of it that Tabb says is difficult to describe. The horses have something magnetic that pulls him in. The work is so challenging and physically demanding but Tabb is very much revelling in it.   

“Every day, it’s what I look forward to: that time with the horses,” he says. 

unnamed-3 Tabb is loving every second of his new chapter. Source: Jay Tabb

“They all have different personalities and different ways. I’m at a level now where I’m getting put on a few of the more difficult horses, which is good. I have to pinch myself, really. The day I started, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But I’m picking it up and going about it quite well. You do have to love it because it is really hard work. It’s not easy. At the end of every day, you’re always tired. And you have to have a lot of patience too because horses have their own minds. Once day they can be in a good mood and the next day they can be in a bad one and you have to be ready for that.”

A bit like football managers then? 

“It is, actually,” he says, with a laugh. 

You can tell the mood your manager will be in as soon as you see them. There are similarities between this and the football. Both take a lot of dedication and sacrifice. You can’t do what you want when you want. You’re committed to the job. But this is pretty full-on every day of the week. And the moment you first sit on a horse, you realise how vulnerable you are. You’re putting your trust in them. They’re so strong. If they don’t want to do something then they won’t and you realise your vulnerability so it can be scary. But that’s why you have to love it and really want to do it. You put the fear to the back of your mind and you see it through rose-tinted glasses, really. That’s the way I am right now. Touch wood, I’ve had a couple of falls but none on the gallops yet. I’m sure if that happens, I’ll probably see things more differently.”

For any athlete, retirement can be a death knell of sorts. The routine is broken. For the first time in 20 years, there’s so much time. And there’s the struggle of finding anything that excites or motivates the same way their sport did. But Tabb has had the opposite experience. Throughout his playing career there were always other interests: the piano, indie music, golf. When it got to the point of football becoming a job, he was thankful for the extent of his other hobbies and it certainly prepared him for what came next.   

“My friends and family have said they’ve seen a change in me,” he says. 

“My body language and my expressions have changed hugely since I’ve been here. Just sitting on a horse on the gallops here is a big thrill but I can imagine that a race of any sort would be amazing and it could fill the void of finishing playing football. It would be dream. The 12-week course gets you Level 1 qualification and then there’s a six-week placement at a yard so we’re starting to talk about that now. But after that, I’d like to carry on in racing and see where it takes me. I’d be lying if I said my competitive nature hasn’t come through so I would love to ride in an amateur race or a point-to-point. Or even a charity race. That would be an incredible thing to achieve. It’s a case of small steps because I’m only just starting out and there’s so much to learn. But a year or two down the line, who knows?” 

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud


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Eoin O'Callaghan

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