Tom O’Ryan Eulogy

It’s difficult to say, even harder to accept. But there is a triumph in this tragedy.

To find it, I have over the last few days being looking at – of all things –You Tube. Now you all know that there are some pretty dreadful things on You Tube but there is at least one almost unbearably good one. It is the piece Tom did on Desert Orchid for Racing UK back in 2006.

If you watch it you will find a simple, deep, resonating, wise, caring eloquence that not only sums up Tom’s absolute devotion to racing – but makes this the best tribute ever made by man to horse. 

And you will also think – that Tom was taken much too soon.

Mind you back in Dublin on March 3rd 1955, the idea that triumphs as an award winning writer and broadcaster awaited their new baby probably didn’t feature too highly in Bobby and Edey O’Ryan’s expectations. 

At that stage Bobby was finishing a distinguished career as a jockey. In 1946 he had won the Champion Hurdle on Distel and in 1950 he had been third on Acton Major in an all Northern trained Grand National finish. Freebooter, trained at Ripon by Bobby Renton, Wot No Sun at Middleham by Neville Crump and Acton Major at Tadcaster by old Walter Easterby.

It was with these Northern connections that Bobby and Edey and Robin and baby Tom came over for Bobby to be head lad, first to Rufus Beasley in the Langton Road, and then in 1959 to Pat Rohan at Grove Cottage. For young kids these were heady times with big winners like Right Boy and Althrey Don, top jockeys like Lester Piggott and, in 1968, no doubt with the help of a young assistant called Michael Stoute, the stable had more winners than any other in the country. 

With his father as his hero and his mother as his confidant the only schooling Tom wanted was on the back of a horse. He was small, he was good, he signed up and as now well recorded, in the East Gate Apprentices Selling Handicap at Beverley on July 5th 1972, carrying a decent saddle and the huge weight of 6 stone 10, T.O’Ryan rode the first of what were to be 85 successes under rules on a horse called Vivacious Boy, a first training winner for David Chapman.

You’ll know a lot of the rest of the riding story. Two more wins that year, 11, 17 and 13 in the next seasons and of how, in 1977, Tom won a York Apprentice Race and the Bogside Cup on the future Arkle Chase and Gold Cup winner Alverton.  You will remember that for Alverton’s trainer Peter Easterby he also rode work on Little Owl, Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon, the four horses winning two Gold Cups and four Champion Hurdles between them.

But you might also forget that the triumph of becoming a highly accomplished jockey was accompanied by the impending tragedy of defeat at the scales. By 1979 Tom and Robin were both working with Keith Stone. At Doncaster on May 28th Tom won for Keith on French Touch, the stable’s first winner but afterwards said that the weight was beating him.  He was 25, his whole life had been aimed and sacrificed to the riding passion, the only two real meals he ever ate each year were on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. But this bowing to the inevitable can wreck the psyche and drive you to distress and excess of many kinds.

Tom was battered by it but would always be unbowed. When he finally packed up at the end of that season he didn’t descend into bitterness and delusion but set out on a new course. English had been the one subject he liked at school. So he did not get jobs as a work rider or an assistant. He took a touch typing course, got a job on Raceform and wrote to the Gazette and Herald asking why a great racing centre like Malton didn’t have a racing feature each week. Tom wrote for them right up to this July.

I first remember him in the Press Room at York in 1980. He was young, committed and right at the heart of the game. Over the years I admired the way he added intellect to his industry. He could knock out the tips and the quick report but he could also take time on a feature that added a colour and an understanding that no one else could match. And he did this without ever betraying a confidence or stooping to play a cheap shot. Then a second tragedy hit.

He and Jane Etherington had become an item. Four years had twined their lives together but then she was struck down by leukaemia and finally lost the battle in September 1987. . It was the sort of heartbreak from which some thought Tom would never recover and which often sends people professionally and personally off course.

But Tom didn’t lessen his work-load nor alter his openness, and crucially he kept up his tennis. He was swift and competitive on the court and he and Robin became stalwarts of the Malton team. And one day at the club he met Wendy. The rest, happily – and sadly – you know.

Along the way I made a mistake. I tried to get Tom to come South to be the Newmarket correspondent for Racing Post. I told him the trainers, especially Michael Stoute would welcome him, his professionalism would prevent him going native and his career would flourish. He politely but insistently declined until Tim Richards rang up and told me to stop bullying. That I had got it wrong. That Tom’s refusal should not allow me to think that I had overestimated him, that it was the other way round. 

I had underestimated quite how deep and authentic and caring and local and Yorkshire Tom’s roots were. That and his absolute devotion to racing, were what made him special and would take him on to even greater things. Tim is here today – he was absolutely right. Tom became both a skilled performer and an absolute trouper. Why he even shared a room with Tim during the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita. And Tom’s coronation – don’t let’s call it less – as Horserace Writer of The Year in 2002 was just about the most popular ever. 

What people got was Tom’s quite unaffected love for the game, for the people and the horses at the root of it all and the fact that he never had a bad word for anyone.  When Racing UK arrived, viewers could appreciate it too. With Tom there was no side but great knowledge and, as in the Desert Orchid and other tributes, real touch and sensitivity too.

For, one of the reasons so many are here today is that Tom’s credo was to do well, spread interest and help people. Long before the official introduction of ‘Jockey Coaches’ Tom liked nothing better than putting a beginner up on ‘Neddy’, the mechanical horse he had at Brawby, and preparing them for the thrills ahead. Long in the tooth Macmillan Charity Race hopefuls, unknown young apprentices and champion jockey Paul Hanagan himself are all unstinting in their gratitude.

So too, are one or two lucky punters who have listened carefully when Tom spoke. Mark Howard remembers one day at Ayr in June 2010 when a hotpot Mark Johnston two year old looked a good thing in the maiden but Tom said he would be surprised if Fahey’s got beat. It was Wooton Bassett. 

At the beginning of last year Tom told Alastair Down to follow a three year old called Don’t Touch. Five races including the Ayr Gold Cup later, Alastair should have been, but probably wasn’t, counting his money.

One morning this May, Tom phoned a friend and said: “If what I have just seen is true we have a filly that is something else.” It was Queen Kindly. Tom lived to see her win the Lowther. But only just. 

In 2010 things seemed better set than ever. Cleared of a full time Racing Post commitment he returned to the saddle and rode out with Richard Fahey. He loved it and they loved him. He became part of the stable, mentor to all the riders, competed in the 2011 and 2012 Legends Race at Doncaster and life was great.

Then on May 29th 2013 the third of his life’s tragedies stepped in with that back-breaking whack from the post pulled up by the tape caught in the tractor engine. 

He would have died there in his own field but for the ‘Helicopter Heroes’ of the Air Ambulance and for the triple good fortune of the mobile being in his top rather than his back pocket, it actually having a signal and Wendy, unusually being back home that morning.

Nevertheless Tom was grievously injured and after weeks in hospital and months incapacitated few of us thought he would play a full part in proceedings once more. How wrong we were. He couldn’t ride out but he was over at Fahey’s six days a week doing the entries, he kept up all his other work and had clearly triumphed over this latest tragedy.

Although there was a bit of a set back on the cooking front. Tom had his own taste in TV programmes and although strictly an omelette and bacon cook, was a great fan of the Great British Bake Off. One day Wendy returned to be proudly told there was a ‘victoria sponge’ in the oven. “You should have seen his poor little face when he pulled it out,” said Wendy. “It was as flat as a pancake.”

Otherwise 2016 looked set fair, for besides the usual work and the jockey coaching at Jack Berry House, Tom had been asked to take on what he told Wendy was his ‘dream job’ – the racecourse presenting at York.

He did it and adored it but the fates were to be unkind. In July he had to see the doctors and the diagnosis was not good. On the Friday evening of July 22nd he worked at York for the last time and a week later sent that now famous tweet:

‘Tough cancer battle ahead. Been involved in the greatest game of all with the best of people. Been lucky for 61 years.’

As you all know there was less than a month to go. But first, on Friday August 5th there was a very important omission to correct. It was a beautiful, sunlit Yorkshire morning as Wendy drove them to the registry office. Tom reached over and squeezed her hand and said, “Why on earth didn’t we get married 20 years ago?” Wendy laughed and said: “I think you were hoping for something better to come along.”

Tom died 17 days later and so we come to the last triumph that we have to take from this final tragedy. To do it we have to return to the words with which Tom closed that piece on Desert Orchid and which, I believe, must now equally apply to him. 

They go like this:

“So will we ever see his like again? Probably not. But precious memories, like the legends, will never die.” 

Thanks Tom.


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