We all have our memories of Barry Geraghty. For the widest audience it will be of his youthful panache on Monty’s Pass in the 2003 Grand National or of the veteran gunslinger inspiring the apparently well beaten Champ to storm up the Cheltenham Hill this March. But for a real glimpse of his talent come with me back to a soft March morning in County Carlow a full 20 years ago.
Barry was four riders up ahead of me as we spun around the tight two-and-a-half furlong circuit which was the basic workbench on which trainer Willie Mullins honed his horses. It was only easy exercise but whether it be kicking a ball, hitting a shot, or in this case balancing a galloping horse around a turn, there is a way supreme talents do it which is unmistakeable. Barry Geraghty had a sweetness in the way he rolled the athlete beneath. It vividly brought back a memory from 40 years before, my first ever canter on a racehorse, and the similar shape of Terry Biddlecombe up front. Could this boy really be someone?
Barry was already on his way. That season he would be Ireland’s Champion jockey and up ahead were almost all of the sport’s great prizes. In 2002 he would ride the first of 43 Cheltenham Festival winners, a record only surpassed by the inimitable Ruby Walsh. His Grand National in 2003 saw him voted Irish Sports Personality of the Year, and in 2004 was to be followed by the first of what were to be five Champion Chases when Moscow Flyer dazzled Cheltenham in a way only matched by Barry’s other two mile superstar Sprinter Sacre in 2013.
There were Gold Cups on Kicking King (2005) and Bob’s Worth (2013) and four Champion Hurdles on Punjabi (2009), Jeski (2014), Buveur D’Air (2018) and Epatante (2020). In all there were 1,920 winners over jumps, 121 at Grade One level, again a mark only second to Walsh. But numbers are only one measure of talent and Geraghty’s skill in the saddle was reinforced with the coolest of temperaments and an acute and open intelligence.
If he had some of Biddlecombe’s flare, he was devoid of the Prince Hal penchants which besieged and foreshortened that legendary rider’s career. His parents riding school in County Meath had ensured that true horsemanship was at the root of his style. Long in the legs and arms, he could soar a spring-heeled horse at a fence and also hold together a clumsy one. He had great physical strength un-sapped by any excesses of diet or dehydration despite his size. This could make him look a somewhat untidy in a finish but there was no mistaking the power, determination and real hunger for the winning line.
His longevity was proof not just of lifestyle and talent but also of very real courage. Time was when anything after 30 was borrowed time for a jump jockey. Barry Geraghty did not just add a decade, he came back last season after a horrific fall at Aintree had left his leg so shattered that it needed two months in a wire cage to get stable. There were many doubters at the wisdom of his return and it says volumes for his own inner resources as well as to the loyalty of his principal supporter, JP McManus, that it should end so triumphantly with five winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, the last time that any of us will see him in the saddle.
So now Barry Geraghty sets off for a second and very different circuit on the biggest of all racetracks. He will be welcomed wherever he goes and has done something confined to the very few. He has left his own imprint on the sporting page.