Champion Jockey: Paddy Young

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ST profiled the steeplechase champions in its December edition and will re-run those articles here.

Paddy Young knows it’s all about timing. To be champion jockey, timing is everything. 

Sure, it’s about riding a horse, seeing a spot, a sense of pace, good hands, keeping people happy, getting up and going to work every day, getting lucky – and timing.

For Young, timing proved decisive in 2009. The 33-year-old Irishman won 19 races to dethrone two-time defending champion Xavier Aizpuru by four wins. Second to Aizpuru in 2007, Young thought that was his one and only chance.

“I thought that might be the closest I would get,” Young said. “I tried really hard, even though you were second, you’re disappointed, that year is over, I felt like that might be the closest I ever get, it was a letdown.”

Timing wasn’t right in 2007. Two years later, Timex.

Eagle Beagle happened to come along this year and win five races. Young and his wife, Leslie, mined three wins from their niche operation. Tom Voss imported Peter Buchanan and Ross Geraghty, depriving Aizpuru of a needed pipeline. Rivals Jody Petty, Danielle Hodsdon and Robbie Walsh lacked ammunition. Padge Whelan retired due to concussions. Young doubled at Winterthur and Willowdale, tripled at Virginia Fall. Doug Fout provided seven wins.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Young said. “I don’t think I’m any better than Robbie Walsh, or Xav, or Dani Hodsdon or Chip Miller, when everything falls into place it falls into place, for some reason this year was meant to be and you’ve got to take it when you’re given it.”

All year, timing went right.

Then it didn’t. Going into Camden, five up with 10 races to go, Young’s father died from cancer. The man who made Young a jockey knew his son was in front, but never knew he was champion. Or maybe he did.

“He knew I was five clear with 10 races left going into Camden, he had a fair idea it would take a miracle,” Young said. “I hope he’s up there crying, I hope he’s sharing in the glory as much as I am. You know you only have one dad.”

Young followed his dad’s lead in Ireland, riding the family’s horses as an amateur, picking up point-to-point wins here and there. He ventured to England to work as “a lad in the yard” at Nicky Henderson’s, then spent five formative years with Henrietta Knight, schooling everything he could, including future three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate.

Looking to ride the Maryland Hunt Cup, Young landed at Jack Fisher’s barn in Maryland in the fall of 2003 and quickly carved a notch in the vacant jockeys’ table, winning seven races from 24 mounts, including the feature at Shawan Downs with Indispensable.

“When I first come over, it was to have some fun, ride as an amateur, maybe ride the Hunt Cup and call it quits, that was it,” Young said. “Being champion jockey or anything like that was never there. I kept falling into good rides, it built more on luck than anything. Being in the right place and things opened. I owe Jack a lot, nobody else would have given me the opportunity he gave me, he gave a kid a chance.”

Young won six races the following year and then struggled in 2005, going 2-for-48 while admittedly sidetracked by personal issues back in Ireland.

“When I look back at my early career in America, I was always on the front end, I wasn’t learning anything,” Young said. “I was winning races thinking I was better than everybody else, that kind of catches up with you so I had to go back to the drawing board and work on it, the more I got into it, the more I got better. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’ve improved.”

A better rider than a jockey, Young moved to Pennsylvania to work for Sanna Hendriks in 2006 and has made steady headway since: winning 56 races over the past four years. Built more like a center for the YMCA basketball team than a champion jockey, Young has learned to be patient, save ground and think through a race.

“When I started working for Sanna, she had more hurdle horses than timber horses, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ Then people like Bruce Miller were calling me up to ride, people I never dreamed of riding for when I first came over,” Young said. “I started to think this was something I could make a go of, that I could be competitive, ride 10 winners in a year, I was more than happy to do that.”

Married with three kids, Young has a full plate, but keeps his keel evenly in the water of family life, racing career, training operation and galloping job. He exercises horses for Hendriks, helps train his wife’s horses, schools for trainers when needed and shows up every weekend ready to ride. This year, he rode first call for Fout, winning seven races for the Virginian including the Temple Gwathmey with a daring ride on Isti Bee and the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup with a butter-smooth trip on Erin Go Bragh. Young won six races for Ricky Hendriks (Eagle Beagle producing five), three for the house and one each for Michele Sanger, Paul Rowland and Fisher.

“Do I think I’m a better rider than everyone else? Definitely not. But it’s a reward for all the hard work over the years more than anything else,” Young said. “It’s really hard trying to keep all the little people happy, the people that have been so good to me over the years, it’s hard to say you can’t ride for them anymore. They were there for me when I needed them.”

Young rides for everybody, balancing his first-call assignment for Fout with quality spares from the rest of the sport. He was able to find five stones in a river of claimers with Eagle Beagle. When Willie Dowling took off Major Malibu at Virginia Fall, Young gladly stepped up. When Voss needed a rider at Montpelier, Young got the call aboard Fogcutter (he was on his way to winning when he slipped on the turn) and first-time starter Ballet Boy who finished second. When Jimmy Day needed a jockey for Spy In The Sky in the Colonial Cup, Young was on speed dial.

It wasn’t all perfect. Young lost a winner when Coupe De Ville was disqualified at Colonial Downs for a prohibited substance. Saratoga kicked Young around; he went winless in nine rides at the Open House and the real meet. He wound up with a broken collarbone when he fell from Teak on the final day at Palm Beach.

“The one thing I love is getting up in the morning and riding. They say horses are bred to race, I don’t know if people are bred to ride, but I love riding,”  Young said. “I can’t wait until the Saturdays come around, no matter how bad a week you’ve had, you think next week will be better. My life is riding horses, to get paid for that, what more can you ask for?”

For your father to see it through.

“He had a great love for what we did as kids. He was the person who started me up, gave me rides, got me going. I wanted to win for him,” Young said. “He loved following it, he got really into it, he enjoyed getting the results, when I found out he was dying, I thought being four or five clear would be a pick-me-up for him, but the hardest thing for me was that I couldn’t ring him and tell him ‘Thanks for everything, I did this because of you.’ ”

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