August 28th 2011
Early on Wednesday morning Ian Mongan drove one and a half hours to ride for Henry Cecil at Newmarket. On Thursday he went just one and a half minutes to do the same for Pat Phelan at Epsom. In the week after he hit the big time with Twice Over in the Juddmonte, Ian is not having his head turned by one glorious day in the sun.
In the first training centre he rode the two year old unraced full brother to Frankel as part of his duties as second jockey to the resurgent and resplendent Cecil team. In the second it was an unraced three year old half sister to a winner in Moscow as a long time “friend and ally” to the small but sporting string that the experienced Phelan has been building these last four years . The first horse showed infinite promise, the second did not.
At Newmarket there was a whole roster of jockeys already outside their cars when Henry Cecil stepped out of his Mercedes at 6.30. Ian Mongan had left Epsom at 4-45 am, Tom Queally, Eddie Ahern, Jimmy Quinn and Charles Eddery had only made the local journey but were now alert and intent as the trainer gave them each an individual briefing before the mighty 40 strong string file through on the walkway to the Al Bahathri gallop.
At Epsom on Thursday Ian Mongan’s much travelled BMW sat on its own at the bottom of the Six Mile Hill Gallop at Langley Vale as Pat Phelan and his Ermyn Lodge patron Tony Smith drove in of the three horses due to be galloped. Pat has made silk purses out of sows’ ears from Dublin to Tokyo and is necessarily optimistic as to how assorted treatments may yet have transformed the filly from the headcase which last year took off and impaled herself on those very post and railings over there.
Back in his car Sir Henry waited for the automatic gates for entry into the tree lined avenue at the end of which the Al Bahathri gallop stretched towards us along the railway line. It was along this route that Frankel famously overtook a train but if it was going as slow as the one passing now it could not have meant that much. Anyway it’s not him we await, it’s his brother who has been tagged with the not unambitious name of Noble Mission.
There is no name yet for Pat Phelan’s filly but a palpable sense of relief as the trainer gets back into the car with Ian Mongan safely in the saddle and the nearby rails still intact. After swinging up the hill to the racecourse we stop outside The Rubbing House pub to collect it’s live wire proprietor Peter Wheatley who also features as the owner of Phelan inmates Green Earth and Bubbly Braveheart, both winners this year and the second to be ridden by Mongan on his second sortie. And that’s not to mention the standing ovation the pub gave Ian when finally made it back from York after his mighty Juddmonte triumph for Cecil on Twice Over last Wednesday.
On the Al Bahathri this week, the Cecil string came winging past us in twos and threes. Henry stands alone by the five furlong marker and as each group strides by there is a moment when that almost studied willowy casualness tightens into an X ray of concentration so fierce that you can almost hear the machinery click. Noble Mission was being stepped up a gear on Wednesday against just one stablemate. The way he stretched out as Ian Mongan tilted forward behind the ears was an image only of encouragement.
A day later Epsom’s Six Mile Hill is still green from the August rain and the Phelan flyers are coming up the peat and turf strip with Headley Church a timeless witness on the horizon. Three horses are coming in this group. As they get closer it is clear the first two are well clear of the third. An unhappy thought begins to form. “It looks like there is a bit more to do,” says Pat philosophically as Ian and the unnamed Moscow connection coast in some 8 lengths adrift. If the sky’s still the limit for Noble Mission, this is more likely to be a case of “any race will do.”
The debrief of the Cecil string is even more intense than beforehand. The cinder collecting ring beneath the beech trees is crowded with steaming horses and set faced stable hands as they duck between heads and hindquarters to be legged back in the saddle after the jockeys dismount. Henry seems to talk as much to the horses as he does to his riders. There is a very real sense of the scholarship class.
You can’t really say that about Phelan’s little posse and Ian Mongan is too central a part of the team to lob useless unrealism into the discussion. He and Pat walk out to meet their next horses by Epsom’s six furlong start whilst Peter Wheatley warms the mood telling how the Rubbing House is “The Only Pub In The World” on a racecourse, hence the name of the syndicate which owns Bubbly Braveheart who is now due to work with Mongan in the a neat and compact figure in the irons.
This gallop all goes to plan alongside the well named Epsom Salts who is about to try and score his fourth “Derby” win on the track having already done it for Lady Riders, Apprentices and Jump Jockeys. On Monday it is “The Amateur Derby” in the stylish hands of young Freddie Mitchell who seems to have doubled in length since last seen as a diminutive, dynamo driven, Thelwell figure in the Shetland Pony Grand National. Pleasantries are exchanged, hopes are set for Philip Wheatley’s Green Heart today at Goodwood and Ian Mongan sets off for the rather shorter trip home than the M11, M25 lottery which is part of the challenge of Newmarket.
“Of course the two stables are a big contrast,” says Ian, “but I have been in the game long enough. Being at Henry’s can be wonderfully exciting but Pat has to work with the horses he has. He is my bread and butter. I like riding for him, he’s a great man – and he has winners – and that is what it is all about. If they can win a 0-60 or a 0-70 they still need training, they need taking out in the morning. To me it’s a joy going up to ride the good horses but I do enjoy riding for Pat too.”
The professional contentment becomes personal as he swings up to the immaculately tended paddocks and barns and bungalow of Condover Stables from where his wife Laura runs a family stable complete with two goats, some fox fancied hens, Ian’s treasured Triumph Street Triple 675 which he uses for local racetracks, and a rule-the-roost two year old daughter called Daisy May. The pair have been married seven years, having even survived the early trauma of Ian finished tailed off last when Laura won her first race at Lingfield in January 1997. “He really hated me then,” she laughs as she prepares the scrambled eggs, “but we seemed to make it up later.”
At 32 Ian has come a long, long way from the little 15 year old at Brighton’s famous Cardinal Newman who put up his hand in the career’s class when someone asked for volunteers for work experience in a racing stable. Up till then his ambition had been to be a midfield dynamo on the football pitch and he had been given a trial by Brighton at the Goldstone ground. To get to Paddy Butler’s little stable near Plumpton racecourse he had to take two trains, a bus and then walk two miles but the attractions was instant.
“I had never sat on a horse,” remembers Ian, “but I was put on a grey pony with a dip back called Stormy and an old chaser called Jimmy The Jackdaw and I just loved it. Eventually Paddy got me an amateur’s licence and I can still remember the buzz before my first race – at Warwick on a horse called Little Luke. Cantering the start I felt like the bees knees. In truth I was nowhere near ready to ride, I even forgot to pull my goggles down, but afterwards I was chomping at the bit, determined to improve, to get better.”
It took a while and the winners did not come until he moved, still as an amateur, to Gary Moore’s workaholic academy above Brighton racecourse. In 1998 there were five successes, two on the flat, two over hurdles and one exhilarating win round Plumpton on a spare ride, his first ever mount over fences. After another 8 wins (all on the flat) the following year and the Moore work ethic knocking the weight off the naturally chunky Mongan frame, Ian made the switch to an apprentice flat licence and saw the winner total rocket up to 47, 67 and still career best 82 in 2002.
That last figure and the winter All Weather Championship which followed next, were achieved in association with Nick Littmoden when the Newmarket trainer was “king of the sand”. But when Nick wound down to concentrate on readying yearlings for Hong Kong so too did the Mongan fortunes albeit with the considerable bonus of having met his future wife Laura Sheen at the Littmoden yard.
So despite continued success, and a treble for the John Dunlop yard in May 2005, the totals drifted down towards the low 30s and the win rate percentage to below 10%. Neat, calm and competent though he might be Ian Mongan’s career was drifting into journeyman’s land – and at 9 stone he was struggling with his weight. He needed an incentive and three years ago he got it in someone whose winner total in 2005 had been twenty lower than Mongan’s 32 in 2008. Henry Cecil called him into the office at Warren Place.
“I was really quite nervous talking to him with all his history,” remembers Ian, “but he was very friendly and said he wanted me to be part of the team. He is special in the way he puts faith in his jockeys and makes things simple. At home he likes you just to draw up alongside and let them eyeball each other, “come and smoke your pipe” he says. At the races there are no great orders but he likes his horses to be ridden in a particular way, to be given a chance, not to risk hard luck stories, he would rather you come round than get trapped on the inside. You have got to ride the race as it unfolds and it is amazing how much better you ride.”
So twice a week from spring through to autumn the Mongan car slides out of the gate at 4-45 a.m. and wings round the M25 and M11 soon after 6. He has yet to sit on Frankel but he has ridden Midday, has won a Listed Race race on Timepiece and this year he began to ride regular work on Twice Over. “I have been with racehorses for 15 years,” says Ian, “but he would be the best I had ever sat on and I could feel it straitaway. He’s like a Bentley and the best thing about him is that he is such a gentleman. You ride the first canter with stirrups long and rein at the buckle end, you have to kick him across the gallop and then once he turns he is a racehorse.”
There is a tangible sense of professional pleasure as the jockey pays tribute to the horse who is as tall as jumping stars like Kauto Star and Denman which he admires so much. Indeed he still schools his wife’s hurdler’s each week although did make an exception the day before the Juddmonte. “Twice Over is such a big horse and so sensible,” he says, “that he settles on a nice hold and when you move him out he just lengthens into that top gear. I was not nervous at York because if I had been I should not have been there. I knew the horse was up to it, and that so was I.”
So was Henry Cecil. “He knows the horse, I like the way he rides and he is very good, isn’t he?” said the trainer with that trademark interrogatory quirk as we drove back towards Warren Place on Wednesday. “He was a bit laid back at first but he is very focussed now. I know he gets on really well with Twice Over at home so why shouldn’t he ride her at York. And no one could have given Twice Over a better ride at York. Could they?”
That day will play forever in the Mongan memory. “I drove up with my father in law Mervyn Sheen (who with his wife Penny is the owner and principal patron of Laura’s yard),” he says, eyes shining at the very thought of it. “We got there early, I had a sweat and a shave and everything went according to plan. The only thing that I didn’t predict was that the O’Brien horse (Await The Dawn) would not kick early in the straight. I moved up to go with him then he kind of sat so I was getting there too soon and had to wait half a furlong before starting to wind my feller up. Then Tom quickened on Midday and she had the legs of me but at the furlong pole we were at least going to be first and second.”
Other big races may well follow but this is the one that Ian will first tell to his grandchildren and their eyes will widen as he gets to the climax. “Henry has always said that Twice Over needs a long run and he is right. Midday ducks left and I am beginning to reel her in but I only think I am going to get there in the last fifty yards. When I passed the line it was a really brilliant feeling but the best bit came when I came back to parade in front of the stands and a voice was shouting “Ian, Ian” and I looked across and it was Henry with his hands cup to call ‘well done’. That was the picture that was in the papers.”
The appropriate song for all winning jockeys on the road home is the Sinatra classic “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” That was exactly how Ian Mongan felt as the M.1. became Cloud Nine for the long slog back to Epsom. “Every half hour it came up again on the radio,” he remembers, “it was just fantastic and then we got to The Rubbing House and everyone stood up and cheered and they had champagne and played the race again and again. I don’t know what the ordinary diners must have thought.”
Ian Mongan is back to earth after being over the moon. But once you have been there……………