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Cratloe jockey keeps his eye on the prize

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A talented Cratloe jockey, who enjoyed a “fairytale” Cheltenham victory, features in a new television series on RTE One. Mark McDonagh (22), who rode a winner at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, appeared on the fourth episode of “My Uni Life”, and will return on the seventh episode on Friday, March 29.
This new series shines a spotlight on a diverse range of students and staff with interesting subject matters. The programme-makers contacted the Sports Department at the University of Limerick where Mark was studying Accountancy and Finance and the sports scholarship student was put forward by Noreen O’Connell. Filming took place at UL, Michael Hourigan’s yard in Patrickswell, and a race in Wexford Racecourse.
Mark rode his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival on the Joseph O’Brien-trained Banbridge in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, the last race on the final day of the 2022 meeting. His success meant that all seven races on the day were won by Irish-trained horses.
“It was definitely the highlight of my career, fairytale stuff. Between injuries and trying to find horses as well as I am going over the last two years, it is hard to get opportunities in big races,” he said.
“I can appreciate the Cheltenham win a lot more now than when it first happened. Cheltenham only happens once a year so there is huge hype around it. Every rider wants to go but it is very hard to get rides there. Every trainer doesn’t have a horse that is good enough to go and compete in Cheltenham.”
In September of 2020, at the age of 19, he won on the Eric McNamara-trained Blackjack Boy, on the opening day of the Listowel Festival. His first big winner came in the shape of the Sean O’Brien-trained Nell’s Well in the Grade 3 Singletons Supervalu Stayers Novice Hurdle at Cork on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Despite this timely television publicity boost, Mark has no intention of resting on his laurels.
“I have to try and keep riding horses well and riding winners,” he said.
“You are only as good as your last race. As long as you can say I did everything I could have done, it makes it a bit easier the next day. You also need to have a good horse in a race, which may not be the case every day.
“I find the busier I am the better I am because you have less time between races to justify any mistakes you may have made,” he says.
In 2019, Mark decided to turn professional at the age of 18.
“One summer I was in Enda Bolger’s yard. I told him I was thinking of going professional. I had nine stone three. I was an amateur rider for two seasons. We had plenty of young track horses so I got plenty of experience,” he said.
“It was always something I always wanted to do. It was a journey into the unknown because my father and grandfather didn’t ride horses as a jockey.
“I didn’t know if there going to be much of a difference between amateur and professional and what it was going to be like. I am the eldest grandson on my father’s side and none of the other grandchildren ride. On my mother’s side, a few of them went the eventing and showjumping route. I am the first of the family to be a jockey.
“I turned professional under the radar. It was a good way for me to start because I got more opportunities on the track as a jump jockey than I did point-to-point.”
Asked if someone has to be half-mad to be a jockey considering the risk of injury from falls, Mark replied “I often say you are extremely clever or thick, and sometimes I don’t know which one I am. It involves a bit of madness. lt is an addiction.
“The fact you want to do it every day and get a buzz off of it, it is certainly something you are addicted to. That definitely brings out the madness in it. When I am on a horse, any troubles outside of racing go away.
“I can often go out to horses, and leave the rest of the world behind to focus on the job. It is an escape. It is a great way of life.
“The day you wake up and say you don’t want to do it, you should stop because if you are not 110% committed, you will not be good at it. I have to keep improving and getting better to be good at the job. I know the risks involved, when you experience the good days everything makes sense. You can forgive the injuries.
“I don’t think about it that much. There are ambulances following you around, you will get falls and you will get hurt. You know that it is there but you don’t really think about it.
“You can’t dwell on it. You have to love racing. If a horse makes a mistake, you will try to recover him. The first protocol is to hold on. If you hit the ground, the big worry is what is coming behind you.”
His injuries include damaging six vertebrae in his back, fracturing the tibia and fibula in his left leg, which resulted in a pin and a few screws, three broken ribs, a punctured lung, shoulder blade, two wrists, and a few concussions.
His worst injury was breaking his leg in a gallops accident on November 2022 having only only recently returned to race-riding following injuries sustained in a fall at Downpatrick on July 13.
That original fall, which came while he was leading in the Irish conditional jockeys’ championship, saw him fracture his T9, T10 and T11 vertebrae, break three right ribs and puncture his left lung. The leg break left him on the sidelines until the middle of February. The only silver lining was the fact it gave him time to study for his Christmas tests. He also took five weeks off racing before his final year exams.
Sticking to a strict dietary regime has become more important over the last two years. While he manages to keep himself at the right weight most of the time, the bottom weights in handicaps can be a struggle.
This involves running five kilometres in a sweatsuit and spending time in a sauna to lose as much weight as possible.
“To be very competitive you have to sweat off the last few pounds. I am quite fit and don’t have much fat on me. Your diet has to be good but you have to put in the work,” he said.
“It can be torture at times. There are days when you have to limit what you eat and do a lot of sweating. It is part and parcel of racing.
“You might be lucky to have a pizza on a Sunday night after a race if you are not racing until Thursday. You will try not to have one even though you would love to have it.
“I wake up in the morning, have a cup of tea and bring a protein bar for the road. I might have some porridge or two boiled eggs at lunch time. I have a lean dinner when I got home.
“I am fond of chocolate so I might have a small chocolate bar with a cup of tea before I go to bed. I am not starving but for low weights you have to take your diet very seriously.
Alcohol is out before a race, he says.
Former Irish jockey Paul Carbery inspires him.
“I always thought Paul Carbery was class, he was able to settle a horse very well. He could get horses to jump very well and was very stylish for his time,” he said.
“There are so many very good former and current Irish jockeys. Barry Geraghty was very good over fences. Ruby Walsh was brilliant tactically. Tony McCoy showed great determination.
“Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy are very good in a race. “There is so much you can take pieces from previous to current jockeys.
“If I wasn’t racing, I would watch Irish racing on television. When I come home from racing, I watch all the races back again. I try to be familiar with horses. If I am riding a horse, I look at their previous runs. I do a lot of homework before a race.
“There are telltale signs in a race. You can see if a horse isn’t jumping well. With certain jockeys, you can tell from body language if they are not happy with their position.
“A horse has a mind of their own. Some horses want to do their job and love jumping. You might have to plamaus other horses along the track. If a horse doesn’t want to be racehorse you can’t force him.
“There are a lot of jockeys in Ireland, it is a very populated industry. Ireland has a lot of horses. It is so competitive, it brings out the best in all jockeys. If you want to do well as a jockey, you have to be really good, there is no in between.
“There are a lot of jockeys struggling to get rides and ones who are out injured. Being a jockey is not like any other job.
“If you are not at the top, it can be a very week-to-week job. It can be a lonely place during bad times. A lot of people don’t see the inside of being a jockey,” he outlines.
Having ridden 27 winners this season, he is among the top ten Irish jockeys and is second in the conditional jockeys’ championship, which is like an apprentice series for jump jockeys.
Currently on 59 winners, once he rides one more winner, he will lose his three-pound claim that is taken off a horse’s back and will be a full professional.
Last Christmas, he entered the winner’s enclosure on “Happy Dreams” for his grandfather in the Tim Duggan Listed Chase.

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