'I was shocked when I passed the winning line. It was a dream come true'

Galway teenager Rossa Ryan on moving to England for a sporting career, his club Corofin’s football glory and the mental health battles in racing.

Rossa Ryan after victory at Royal Ascot last month
Rossa Ryan after victory at Royal Ascot last month
Image: PA

IN THE EARLY hours of a January Monday morning, Rossa Ryan got up from his base in Victoria to tune in to the live action in Croke Park.

He had headed to Australia for a break from the English winter, availing of the downtime in his life as a flat jockey.

The Galway native’s racing licence was moved over and he was immersed in that sporting world.

There was more to it than that. A chance to travel, connect with family members and reassess after a long season.

“I’ve two uncles out there. It was brilliant because I had them to guide me. Tom is based in Euroa which is about an hour and a half outside of Melbourne, he rides out in David Hayes’ country yard. Then Darren works on the roads in the city. They usually come home to Ireland once a year, then to go out and live with them for three months was a great experience.”

Living in England, flying to Australia and yet he was drawn to the matters of the day for his community in north Galway like a magnet.

In late November, he was present in Tuam to witness the latest demonstration of Corofin’s control of Connacht club football.

Since making the leap across the Irish Sea from the comfort of his locality to settle in the town of Hungerford in Berkshire in January 2017, he had been watching the progress of his home club from afar.

That provincial final was a precious opening to see them in the flash.

“I hadn’t been home at a match in nearly two years. It was absolutely brilliant. At the Connacht final, I think that was when I really respected how proud I was to be from that parish.”

He relocated to the other hemisphere soon after with a plan in his mind to touch down in Ireland in time for St Patrick’s Day if Corofin progressed to the final. But the news of the tweak to the GAA fixtures calendar had passed him by and he had to rely on GAA Go to relay the message when they attained three-in-a-row immortality at the expense of Down’s Kilcoo.

“Got up at two o’clock in the morning to watch them win, it was amazing. A lot of the lads I played with are now coming onto the panel.

“It’s probably the thing I miss the most over here in England. When I was at home, you’d be training nights during the week and I was keeping well fit. It was enjoyable stuff. I did give it a go training in Reading for a while but it wasn’t what I was used to in Corofin.

“Frank Morris is the backbone of it. I don’t think anyone would disagree. He looks at the long game. You’d want to be winning Féile at U14 and playing for your county at U16 but that doesn’t matter, it’s all about building as a team and becoming senior footballers for the club.

“Some of the football Corofin play, I mean if Dublin was doing it, with the quick moves in the forward line from Ian Burke and Martin Farragher, people would say they’re the greatest team that ever lived. The one thing is they all have pride in the jersey, they all want to be there. Men like Kieran Fitzgerald provide the leadership then to the young lads coming through.”

corofin-players-celebrate-after-the-game-with-the-cup Corofin players celebrate their All-Ireland club final success Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

When he returned in the spring and started wrapping his mind around upcoming English flat season, Covid-19 took a sledgehammer to his carefully laid out plans.

Ryan was just another sportsperson facing a future of uncertainty and he was thrown a tricky dilemma to contemplate as well.

“I actually got asked back to Australia, They said you’ve got a week to decide as the borders are shutting. I thought if I went out I’d have to do two weeks quarantine and then ride and then two weeks when I get back.

“I was thinking I’d be best off here riding out. By God was I wrong, I just had to sit and wait until we got the go ahead to go again.”

He kept busy as best he could, riding out in the yards of trainers Richard Hannon and Paul Cole, enthusiastic for work that would keep him out of the house.

The green light flashed at the start of June and Ryan hit full speed. He finished the month with 18 winners, the most prosperous spell of his career.

The marquee moment occurred midway through the month. A first runner at Royal Ascot and success at the first attempt. Highland Chief took the Class 2 Golden Gates Handicap Stakes, a 20-1 shot defying top weight.

The meeting was stripped of the usual pomp and ceremony but the empty grandstands could not diminish the magnitude of the win for the 20-year-old who grew up outside Tuam glued every summer to the footage from these prestigious races.

“It was strange for me in the sense that I’d never been to the Royal Ascot meeting until this year. I would have known Ascot on a normal day and you’d still have crowds there.

“But it’s still Ascot, there’s a buzz going out onto the track whether there’s crowds or not because you go in under that tunnel.

“You don’t send your average horse to Ascot, they’re going to have to go there with a chance. The last two furlongs are the longest two furlongs you’ll ride anywhere. I thought I couldn’t be doing too bad when I was around the three favourites. I just saw the big lads were there, William Buick and Frankie (Dettori) were just in in front of me, Ryan Moore was one side of me.

“My lad did show a tremendous turn of foot. He was a horse with a lot of potential, obviously people looked at his Newmarket run and ruled him out. Every horse puts in a bad run.”

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Source: AscotRacecourse/YouTube

An explosive finish was the catalyst for glory. Comprehending the result was not straightforward.

“I was shocked when I passed the winning line. It was a dream come true. I’ve grown up on the jumps scene but every year at home we would have always watched Royal Ascot. When I did make the decision to stay on flat, it became real that was a dream I wanted to fulfil.

“I couldn’t believe it when it happened. Completely lost for words, I didn’t even know how to debrief the trainer afterwards. Every jockey lives for that feeling. It’s incredible.”
royal-ascot-day-three No fans present at Royal Ascot this year

A notable milestone had previously been reached last August at Goodwood, the same trainer entrusting him as Duke of Hazzard took claimed a Group 2 triumph.

“I think there was a lot more pressure at Goodwood, I felt it a bit more. I was kind of my own worst enemy. When I was in Royal Ascot, there’s no crowds so you still get a buzz but you don’t feel the tension coming down on top of you. I said it to Oliver Cole going out that I was going to have to get him to relax and ride him to come home. That’s what I did and he showed his ability. Away he went.”

royal-ascot-day-three Highland Chief winning at Royal Ascot

The progress vindicates the seismic decision he made midway through his Leaving Cert year at St Jarlath’s College. The racing environment is natural to him, his father David’s stable produced a Punchestown Festival winner in 2006 with Paul Carberry on board One Four Shannon.

It all fostered a love for the sport, he got his jockey’s licence before entering 5th year and then juggled school and racing commitments, with football lobbed into the mix at times.

Something had to give. David’s friend John Bleahen had a connection to buyers for Richard Hannon. A video of Rossa in action, a week’s trial at the yard in Marlborough and then a dramatic swerve from the course of a student in Christmas 2016.

“My Dad later told me he’d to sit my mom down and she was all about the Leaving Cert. He said, ‘Look it’s Richard Hannon and this chance only comes once in a blue moon to go out there and ride for him’.

“The fact that he’d rang us and with the portfolio he has of lads that have come out of there. It was just too big to turn down. So in January I packed my bags and away I went. Haven’t looked back since.”

Before the glamour of Royal Ascot, there has been no shortage of graft. Trekking around England for starters. He can recall a week being in Brighton on a Monday, Haydock on a Tuesday and covering the 250 miles in between.

“I bought a car in November (2018) and I drove it home before I went to Australia, the November just gone. It was a year to the day exactly and I’d 70,000 miles done on the clock.

“Last year I was everywhere. The sweating is very hard to keep on top of the weight but on top of doing that mileage, it just makes it very difficult. When you do have winners, it’s like a little pat on the back to keep going.”

windsor-races-june-29th Delegate The Lady wins at Windsor during the week for Rossa Ryan Source: PA

He list off his influences – his trusted family at home, agent Steve Croft, jockey coach Rodi Greene and the trainers that have been good to him. When he was in Australia, he spent time with Cork native Johnny Allen, a jockey thriving on the Group 1 scene there, and found their chats really helpful.

All valued resources in a career that can be gruelling on the mind.

“I used to struggle sometimes on social media with abuse on it. It’s the day when you’re on the back foot, you haven’t had a great week. You’re sweating hard, driving long hours, you’re tired, you’re moody and some lad has the nerve to pop into your messages and send something.

“Most of the time I don’t lose it but there’s been a couple of times I have lost it. I’ve turned around and asked them what have you accomplished sending that to me? They can never give you an answer. I just don’t look at it when I’m in a bad mood, if I’m in a good mood I do and I just laugh. I could always ring Rodi and he’d put a smile back on my face straight away.”

Mental health is a pressing issue for jockeys thrown into sharp focus by the sudden passing of Grand National winner Liam Treadwell. The Professional Jockeys Association noted in their statement. that Treadwell ‘was polite, funny, kind and brave, having spoken passionately and eloquently about his mental health issues’

“Of late we’ve had the passing in racing of Liam Treadwell, which was so sad to hear,” says Ryan.

“Whatever about mental health for an average person, when you’re a jockey and mental health is giving you issues, I think personally it’s ten times harder. Your mood is going on your career. Whatever about riding winners, you’re on a crest of a wave then, but when you’re not and horses are running poor and you’re getting abuse online, you’re not even able to feed your body to function your brain fully.

“There’s been times where I’ve gotten in hard patches and I’ve been able to ring the PJA and I’ve been able to go see somebody. Only for a very general chat but it’s with a random person that cares and that’s where it helps out.

“Having the people around me, I’ve a great bunch, and when things have gone wrong and gone bad, they have picked me up and I’ve got on with life again. Everybody will be with you on the good days, it’s the people that have been with me on the bad days, I’ve a lot of respect for.

“Right now I’m in a great place with my career and rides and winners. I can’t thank them all enough.”

There was regret that his family couldn’t fly over to share in the Ascot glory but he was engulfed by a wave of well wishes afterwards. Former Corofin team-mates, old teachers from school, neighbours at home in Ballinderry who have been forced to isolate of late.

A success story was welcomed in a time of general gloom.

“There was a man called James Fenton that has got through cancer and he’s just coming through his last couple of weeks of chemo. He’s been following me since I was pony racing. He’s from Kerry, he runs the Blue Bloods Thoroughbreds for owners, they’d have horses with Willie Mullins. He’s been a family friend since I was a very young age.

“He text me after and said, ‘Look I have been struggling and when you rode a winner, I could barely get out of bed but it lifted my spirits’.

“Whatever about riding a Royal Ascot winner, I think it’s that it put a smile on people’s faces, that means more to me.”

The work goes on. On Tuesday night he won the last two races on a card at Chepstow. Another winner back at the Welsh track on Friday. A few near misses yesterday at Haydock.

He thinks of the Corofin players and the qualities they have shown, unwavering commitment and the relentless pursuit of success.

All stuff he can aspire to.

Patience, graft and keep driving forward.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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