“She had a heart attack, turned upside down and I went down beside her” - The unglamorous life of a young jockey
Leave your preconceptions at the stable door.
You may remember this video we shared a while back of jockey Cillín Leonard’s family going absolutely bonkers as he went on to win his first race.
It's quite something.
“I needed it now, I wasn’t getting going at all. Pat Fahy, the trainer I’m with, he was giving me loads of races but I needed the win to get noticed but I’d say I need another one or two,” Cillín tells SportsJOE.
At 20-years-old, Cillín only has that single win to his name, yet there is a lot more to the young rider than his one viral video.
Growing up in Beaumont, Dublin, Cillín was always very energetic, someone who could never rest easy.
He had a keen interest in sport, playing for Whitehall Colmcille growing up and participating in cross-country in school.
But in school Cillín struggled. While he may have been adored by his teachers for his humour and general friendly personality, he would frequently find himself in trouble for being the ‘class clown’.
Academically he struggled too, his dyslexia not helping the cause.
“I hated every minute of school, I just hated it. Every young person does but I wasn’t getting going in school, I wasn’t liking it at all. I just couldn’t do it.”
As part of an arts and crafts project in 1st class, every student had to bring in a photograph of their favourite holiday; most students had pictures of themselves in Spain or Portugal, standard package holiday destinations for families with young students.
But not Cillín.
His picture stood out; there was seven-year-old Cillín Leonard with a big goofy smile and not a care in the world atop a horse, as he visited his uncle in Laois.
And it was the same uncle that gave Cillín the nudge he needed to become a jockey in the summer of 2012.
“I always had a small interest in horses, my uncle owned a few racehorses and I was up in Laois a lot so the interest was there and my uncle said there was a racing academy in Kildare for young jockeys.”
Cillín took the short drive down to the Racing Academy & Centre of Education for a trial week just after completing his Junior Cert exams. As he turned 16 he received a letter from the academy saying he had been accepted and his mind was set. He would leave school.
“I took to it naturally enough, I wasn’t too bad of a rider. I was loving it, I couldn’t compare it to school.”
Cillín’s parents knew his personality would be better suited away from academics and they had no reluctance in letting him pursue his jockeying ambitions.
“They knew I liked working outside and I liked using energy," he reveals. "I was buzzed up when I was younger and this kind of took the edge off of it.
“The second they heard (the news) they were delighted, they nearly packed the bags for me, delighted to get me out of the house.”
Cillín left home as he went to take a 42-week course at the racing academy in the Curragh, where he learned the ins and outs of horse riding.
As part of the course, Cillín was sent to work in a yard, he worked with Ken Condon for a year before moving to the yard of renowned trainer Willie Mullins in the hope of gaining more experience with National Hunt horses.
He stayed there for a year, but while he was working he grew envious seeing the jockeys racing every day.
“I was sick of looking at the jockeys and I wanted to be one," he admits.
"All I was doing was riding out a few lots and grooming my horses. I was only really a number there. Now don't get me wrong Willie is a gentleman but there was never an opportunity there for me to become a jockey."
Never one for being patient, Cillín became restless and wanted to ride horses competitively as soon as he could. He received word that trainer Anthony McCann was looking for a rider, so he took a chance and called him.
“I was just chancing my arm, I wasn’t really expecting much and then he said he was working down in Naas so I just drove down to him one morning, rode out for him and schooled the horse.”
McCann was impressed.
Cillín received his jockeying licence but was subjected to the ultimate baptism of fire in just his second race.
Riding a horse called Annskert Lady in Downroyal in August 2015, Cillín would experience his first fall.
“It was only my second race. I think I was sitting second or third but as the race started to unfold my horse seemed to drop back and weaken very quickly
“Coming up to the third last hurdle, I was just a bit inexperienced and I kept kind of pushing for a stride that wasn’t really there.
"Sure it turns out that she weakened because of her heart and just as she took off she had a heart attack and went straight through the jump and didn’t lift the legs.
“She turned upside down and I went down beside her, straight onto my collarbone.”
Initially, Cillín thought his collarbone was badly bruised, there’s no way he could have a break in just his second competitive start.
“When they took off the colours and the back protector you could see the bone was sticking up.”
Cillín was taken to Belfast Hospital and was told that he received tissue damage on his collarbone but, after waking up the next day, he had an inkling he had been misdiagnosed.
“The next day I woke up and I knew well that it wasn’t just tissue damage because it was really stiff and sore, I knew it was broken," he says.
“So I went to the hospital in Dublin and they said ‘Yeah, it’s broken in three places.’”
It would have been understandable had Cillín been apprehensive about getting back on the horse, but he wasn’t.
“The second I jumped again everything was back to normal, I nearly forgot completely about the fall.”
After his spell with McCann, Cillín opted to move to Carlow with Pat Fahy.
“I haven’t looked back since I moved up to Carlow, I’ve really got going since I moved there.”
And with his move to the countryside, Cillín’s Dublin accent has instead converted to a Carlow twang.
“It started four years ago and it is getting thicker every day, I’m a bit thankful I got rid of that Dublin accent.”
The life of a jockey isn’t all thrills.
Cillín could go well over a week without getting to race and the day-to-day of being a horse rider involves getting up early and working late.
By their nature, jockeys have to be slim and even though he is a little less than six feet in height, Cillín wakes up most mornings well under 10 stone.
“I’m not meant to but I’d sneak in the odd takeaway, a lot of the lads have diets but I just kind of eat healthy enough. Some lads are very strict with what they eat.”
The future is bright for the 20-year-old but Cillín hasn’t set any clear goals for himself.
“Basically I’d just like to go and crack in a few more winners and see where I go from there. Obviously, the dream is to ride the Grand National winner or the Champion Hurdle winner or any of those big ones but just starting off I just want to keep the winners coming in.”
While you're here, check out the latest episode of #SportsJOElive where we had Irish legends Shay Given and Clinton Morrison on the couch!
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