Champs 2012: Geraghty rides to first crown

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From the December edition of Steeplechase Times.

Bea and Tucker Geraghty were on a late-summer holiday in 2009. Their son Ross, fed up with the racing game at home in Ireland and his place in it, made a decision about America. He could ride there, couldn’t he? Especially with a contact with leading trainer Tom Voss.

“It was Sunday night, and I flew on Wednesday morning,” Ross said. “I didn’t tell my parents. I just went. I was here a week and a half and of course they knew at that stage but I rode two winners and had two seconds at Monmouth.”

The jockey’s father picked up the phone and said “Good job.” His oldest son, the one he worked closest with at the family’s Pelletstown Riding Centre in Co. Meath near Dublin, was an American steeplechase jockey. Ross had ignored his father’s advice not to go, but his father was proud anyway.

Imagine how he feels now. A little more than three years after leaving his home country, Ross Geraghty can add champion steeplechase jockey to his career description. He won 17 races in 2012, three more than runner-up Darren Nagle, and dethroned three-time champion Paddy Young. Geraghty picked up six stakes victories, reached $444,950 in earnings, built a lead with a strong spring season and made it stand up in November.

The championship completed a mountainous climb in the U.S. Geraghty quickly won six races that first season, weathered a dismal three-win 2010, quit the job with Voss, briefly considered becoming a bull rider and turned it all around. He won seven races in 2011 and, after winning the crown in 2012, couldn’t help thinking about his father’s thoughts.

“I was working pretty close with my dad and he was losing me; he didn’t want me to go,” Ross said. “But it was one of those things I had to do. If I didn’t do it, I’d still be at home with regrets.”

That phone call after winning at Monmouth aboard Easy Red and Ground Frost erased those.

“That was great, he was hoping that was going to happen, he wanted it to happen for me and it worked,” Geraghty said. “He was delighted for me, but he was afraid it wasn’t going to happen. He loves that I’m doing well.”

Riding an association with leading owner Irv Naylor, Geraghty bounded to the front with stakes wins at Aiken (Pullyourfingerout) and the Carolina Cup (Black Jack Blues). Though defending Eclipse Award winner Black Jack Blues went to the sidelines, Naylor and trainer J.W. Delozier imported another star in Via Galilei. The flashy Irish-bred won the Temple Gwathmey in April and the Zeke Ferguson in June. The loaded stable had Geraghty thinking championship, at least a little, from the start.

“With all the horses we had after the winter, I was confident I was there with a  good shout,” he said. “Quietly confident. If I could stay in one piece, I was going to get good horses to ride and I wasn’t going to have to share them with anybody else like some of the lads do.”

By June, he’d ridden 10 winners – eight for Naylor  – and sat atop the standings. With Young injured early and on the sidelines all spring, parity reigned on the leaderboard with five jockeys separated by just three wins at the top. As good as the Naylor horses were in the spring, they faltered just as badly in the summer and fall. Geraghty kept building, however, getting a Saratoga Open House win with Brother Sy for trainer Todd Wyatt and a proper Saratoga win with Alajmal for trainer Janet Elliot. When Willie Dowling went down with an injury at Far Hills, Geraghty won the maiden with Dahoud for trainer Jack Fisher. Three races later, Geraghty guided recent Naylor import Top Man Michael home first in the 3-year-old stakes.

The partnership with Dahoud produced another win, this time in the novice stakes at Callaway Gardens – where Geraghty also won with Seer.

“I won five races for Jack (Fisher) and it means something to get winners from a yard that size,” said Geraghty, who led all jockeys with 76 mounts. “Other  people were showing interest in me riding for them, an up-and-coming trainer like Todd Wyatt, a Hall of Fame trainer like Janet Elliot. I needed wins like that in the end, but it’s a good sign no matter what.”

Geraghty comes by steeplechase racing naturally. He grew up at Pelletstown, birthplace of steeplechase legend Golden Miller, the only horse to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and English Grand National in the same year (1934) and a five-time Gold Cup hero.

Today, it’s a public riding facility with boarding, lessons, training grounds, sales and leasing. Tucker manages the horses, Bea takes care of the business and they have the odd point-to-pointer or racehorse as well.

The six Geraghty children all learned to ride there and took those lessons far. Ross, Norman, Barry, Jill and Holly all won races as jockeys. Ross and Barry (one of the top riders on the English and Irish circuits now) made riding races a career. Norman became a farrier (he actually shod Top Man Michael for trainer Noel Meade). Sascha edits the equestrian section of The Irish Field newspaper. Holly rode two winners for her father this season.

In the annals of jump racing, champion in America doesn’t match younger brother Barry’s career in the U.K. and Ireland. He’s won the four big ones at the Cheltenham Festival – the Queen Mother, Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Stayers’ Hurdle – plus a Grand National at Aintree. Barry Geraghty rides hundreds of races a year in England and Ireland, routinely wins at a 20-percent clip. In the 2011-12 season, he won 119 of 524 rides in England and Ireland. That’s a career in America. This summer, he collected his 1,000th Irish winner.

Jump racing is a way of life at places like Pelletstown, just down the road from Fairyhouse Racecourse. Conversely, the American sport is small, barely a business, hardly a way of life. But it’s not a joke, either.  

“It’s different from the U.K. and Ireland, but still it’s a big achievement,” Geraghty said of his title. “It’s the top of the tree, everybody wants to do it. To me it’s a big achievement. It’s as big as the sport is and I’ve heard from plenty of people back home about it. They’re happy for me and know it takes hard work.”

Geraghty likes the American prize money and the weekend racing, compared to the everyday grind European riders go through. The schedule helps Geraghty plan, think it through, be at his best on raceday.

“Back home you’re on the road most days,” he said. “It’s a lot of traveling for rides. It’s a huge volume and it can grind on you.”

Geraghty never won more than 13 races in a season in Ireland. In 2000-01, he rode 314 races and climbed on at least 172 for six consecutive seasons. Like all jockeys at that level, he hit low spots, struggled (2-for-101 in 2007-08), questioned. He wasn’t winning, wasn’t getting good rides, it’s a tough cycle.  In the midst of such a run years ago, Geraghty got some advice from leading jockey Paul Carberry.

“You’re trying too hard,” Carberry said. “Sit back and enjoy the ride. See what happens.”

Geraghty won his next race.

“There’s a lot to be said for that, it can help you,” said Geraghty. “I’ve probably improved since I came over. I have a lot more confidence now and a better grasp of all the tracks, all the horses, all the horsemen. When I came over, my confidence was sky high at first. It dipped down for a while when nothing was going right. I just kept grinding away and trying, but I was learning, learning, learning too.”

And making his father proud.