H&H interview: Derby-winning jockey Emmet McNamara *H&H Plus*

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  • This month’s Derby-winning jockey tells Catherine Austen how he landed the odds on his Epsom debut, and why he’s in no rush to pursue his accountancy career just yet

    While the equine heroes of Derby Day at Epsom were Serpentine and Love, the magnificent chestnut son and daughter of Galileo who gave trainer Aidan O’Brien an eighth win in both the Derby and the Oaks, the undoubted human star was Emmet McNamara.

    The 30-year-old gave 25-1 chance Serpentine a brilliantly bold, front-running ride to capture Flat racing’s most illustrious prize by 5½ lengths. As the assembled journalists frantically Googled him before the press conference, they discovered that not only was it his first ride in the Derby, it was also his first ride at Epsom, his first Group One – let alone Classic – success, and his first winner of any sort since October last year.

    Emmet may have been an unfamiliar face to the British press, but, speaking with humour, honesty and intelligence about the race and his position at Ballydoyle, he isn’t one we’ll forget.

    “I’ve been saving myself,” he said, with a sideways smile, when asked about those winnerless months.

    More Googling reveals a LinkedIn page – how many jockeys have those? – a first-class honours degree in accounting and finance, and three out of four of his professional accountancy exams. There’s more to this man than a pair of chiseled cheekbones and ability in the saddle.

    A different perception

    When we speak, he is back at home in Tipperary on day two of the 14-day quarantine period he has to undergo after riding in England and France.

    “I’d have taken 14 months’ quarantine for this,” he laughs. “I’m no better rider this week than last week, but winning the Derby changes how people perceive you. Whereas people might have labelled me as ‘Emmet McNamara, former champion apprentice’, or ‘Group Two-winning jockey’, now I’ll always be ‘Derby-winning jockey’.”

    Emmet is part of a small band of jockeys who essentially form the second string at Ballydoyle. Ryan Moore and Seamie Heffernan ride the most fancied horses, while Emmet, Padraig Beggy – who got his own blast of Epsom glory when Wings Of Eagles won the 2017 Derby at 40-1 – Michael Hussey and a couple of others get their chances when Aidan has multiple runners. He rides out at Ballydoyle 13 mornings out of 14 and is a cog in that extremely well-oiled mega-machine.

    He explains: “When you are coming up through the ranks in racing, you are always dreaming of these top races and think winning them is possible. It’s only when you actually start riding against the best jockeys you realise just how hard it is. Whatever ability you have, if you don’t get on the horses, you’ve no chance. I was lucky – there are a thousand lads in that weighing room more talented than me, but they didn’t ride Serpentine in the Derby.”

    Racing in the blood

    Emmet’s father Eric is a popular jumps trainer in Co Limerick, and race-riding was always Emmet’s focus. Aged 11, he started pony racing, and was national champion in 2004 and 2005. He rode 166 winners – a record-breaking 65 in the 2005 season. After a year to concentrate on his Leaving Certificate at school, he began riding on the Flat under Rules. He joined Ger Lyons’ yard in 2008, and became champion apprentice in his first full season.

    He spent the majority of the next six years riding for Ger, with short spells in England with Ralph Beckett and in Australia with Gai Waterhouse. A struggle with his weight led to a season and a half as a jump jockey, but his heart always lay with the Flat and, once his weight was under control again, he went back.

    “Ger was very loyal to me for the time I was there – almost a second dad,” says Emmet.

    However, when Ger appointed Colin Keane as his stable jockey in 2014, Emmet decided to look elsewhere. “I asked Joseph [O’Brien] one day if he thought there might be a job for me at Ballydoyle,” Emmet says.

    He went and rode out at the Tipperary powerhouse one Sunday morning, and Aidan offered him a job. With Ger’s blessing and good wishes, he took it, and has now been a permanent part of the team for six years.

    He emphasises the impeccably high standards of horsemanship and horsemastership at Ballydoyle.

    “All the jobs are done by the very best people, be they the work riders, farriers, the groundstaff, the vets, the accountants,” he says. “It is a fantastic place to work. There are never any raised voices. All Aidan asks is that everyone tries their best.”

    He elaborates: “There are very, very few top riding jobs in Ireland. You could be a busy fool flying round all over the place trying to pick up spare rides with very little chance. I’m very happy with the position I have at Ballydoyle and I will stay there as long as Aidan O’Brien wants me. I suppose it means you focus on quality, rather than quantity, but it suits me.”

    Talent away from the saddle

    What about the accountancy degree, however? Is that an indication that he is looking beyond the saddle?

    He is keen to refute this, saying: “It might look as though I have some masterplan to get out of racing and go and work in an office, but that wasn’t actually the case. It was more that, once I had finished riding out in the mornings, if I wasn’t racing I didn’t have a whole pile else to do. I wasn’t that bad at school, and it was something I could do in the evenings to fill my time in a constructive manner. There was no grand plan to take the finance and accounting world by storm. As things stand, I have a good job, I’m not looking for another one.”

    He certainly has no ambitions to take over his father’s training licence: “I couldn’t think of anything worse.” He is the eldest of four children – and they, and his wider family, got “a huge kick” out of his Derby win, and no one more so than his proud father Eric who, Emmet admits, rang him “probably 40 times” in the 24 hours before the Derby.

    Serpentine, whose sire won the 2001 Derby and whose dam, Remember When, was second in the 2010 Oaks, only won his maiden a week before Epsom.

    “But Aidan filled me with confidence beforehand,” says Emmet. “He told me that, if things went his way, he was one horse who could win the Derby. I believed him, because if that man tells you something about a horse, you’d believe him. You’d believe him if he told you the sky was green.”

    The race itself went like a dream. Emmet says: “I don’t think I stole a march on them early in the race – they were up behind me at halfway. It was in the second half of the race where he really stamped his authority. ‘You stole it’ doesn’t wash with me; he galloped them into submission, rather. When we turned down the hill and I gave him a little squeeze, he took on the downhill run, whereas maybe some of the others didn’t take it on with as much gusto and bravery. He attacked it, which is testament to his balance and his genuineness.”

    It seems likely that, when the Ballydoyle riding dice are shaken, Emmet will get the chance of a few more sixes. But if he doesn’t, his brain, temperament and talent will surely mean he achieves something, somewhere, and it will be interesting to see what that is.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 July 2020