I would not have become a jockey without Paddy Neilson.
Before school, my last two years of Unionville High School. Monday to Friday, one set. Eight dollars a horse, plus breakfast. Neilson’s wife, Toinette, toasted cinnamon rolls, I’d run up the steps, take a quick shower, pull on a slightly cleaner set of clothes, eat breakfast and listen to lectures and lessons from my mentors. Toinette, I had known her since she galloped and rode races for my father starting at Delaware Park in the 1970s, a great rider, a great cook, a great friend. She offered subtle points.
I knew Paddy Neilson long before galloping horses before school. Everybody knew Paddy Neilson. You knew his rides, his horses; Haffaday, Sir George, Coke Hi, Chapel Street and all the other great timber horses. Soft hands, light touch, he was a tactician on a horse. One of the best I had ever seen, long before, I knew what he was doing. I couldn’t see a spot, but I knew he could. Sometimes wearing sunglasses, they looked like wire-rimmed Ray Ban sunglasses, he won everything there was to win when it came to timber racing. Whew, the way he folded into a horse over a jump, elbows like bookends on either side of the horse’s neck, leg tight, heels down, like Paul Brown drew him.
In the morning, Paddy, who had just returned to riding races after a 10-year retirement, always went in front, the buffer, the bumper for me. Still as a cat on a limb, his hands never moved. Bandanna tied around his neck, jeans that looked like he had changed the oil in his car before the first set, green Wellington boots, no helmet. We galloped around a big circle in the bottom of a corner field, two, three times in each direction, and then would lope along the post-and-rail fenceline to the top of the hill, finishing at East London Grove Road. Two Irish chasers owned by Broderick Munro-Wilson, Talon and Probon, were my usual rides. I could ride them and that’s about all. I remember the winding path through the woods, I remember the horses’ hooves scraping across stones in the stream crossings, I remember the lessons Paddy instilled. But they were tricky. Paddy talked to me like I was him, like I somehow felt the same as he did when riding a horse. He’d say, “You know when you see a short one, Sean, and you sit real still, give them that subtle cue…” I’d be thinking, short one, I don’t see a short one, I don’t see anything.
On a cold March morning, he put me on Sam Son Of A Gun, a Maryland Hunt Cup regular but long since retired, for company on a green hurdle horse. Sam could see me coming, here’s a horse who jumped around the Hunt Cup, well, he shortened like he was being paid by the stride, I popped up in the air, and the green hurdle horse went blowing by us. I was useless, not even a passenger, I rode like a car bumper caught my belt loop while I was waiting on the corner.
That’s when Paddy Neilson drew me a picture.
Back at the house, as the cinnamon rolls warmed, Paddy grabbed a piece of paper and a black ink pen from next to the phone and began to scribble. He drew three fences, post and rail of course, complete with wings and flags. Might have been the three through the middle at Fair Hill or three down the back in the Hunt Cup. In front of each fence he drew a box, a long rectangular box. The rectangles were in different locations. The first one was close to the fence. The second one was a little farther out. The last one was farthest from the fence.
Paddy looked at me like a college professor in front of chalkboard (he did graduate from Princeton and Wharton).
“Sean, you have three choices. These are the three choices. Short. Long. And right.”
He pointed to each sketch when he offered those choices – this was his chalkboard.
“You want your horse’s hind legs to push off from one of these three boxes. These are the only three choices you have. Once you get to the box, it’s too late, you need to adjust before you get to the box.”
I nodded, starting to understand. Or, at least, understanding that there was some method to what had only seemed like madness to me.
“When it’s short, you’ll see it. Grip with your calves, lower your heels, support the horse with your hands, tell him, ‘Yeah, that’s right, short, that’s good,’ but leave him alone. Don’t pick up his head and don’t lean back and don’t hit him in the mouth, stay over him, let him pop up underneath you.”
I could see 1968 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Haffaday over the third.
“The second option is long. Be careful with these, you only have so many of these in a race. Be definitive, go with him, but don’t ask…”
I could see 1974 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Burnmac over the 13th.
“The third is right. The more of these you can get in a race, the better…”
I could see Uncle Merlin over the 17th.
Actually, that last one hadn’t happened yet. I graduated from Unionville and Rockaway Farm in May 1988. The following spring, with a broken wrist, I watched the greatest ride ever given to a horse when Paddy dissected the Maryland Hunt Cup course aboard Uncle Merlin. They simply galloped and jumped for 4 miles over wet, tiring ground while chaos and calamity rained down around them, landing on the wire in front like it was destined. Jockeys need composure, Paddy rode that horse that day like he was curled up on a couch with a good book. I’m sure he got a short one and maybe a long one along the way, but for 4 miles, 22 fences, it was just right.
Paddy rode his first Hunt Cup when he was 16 and his 21st when he was 56, breaking Jervis Spencer’s record of 20, set from 1899-1922. He won three, hit the board in a few, fell in a few and always kept the sense of humor and the sense of history.
Toinette and Paddy gave me a few rides, as many as they could. Rev Three in the Athenian Idol, Straight Paths at a point-to-point, a filly on the flat at Potomac and Fair Hill. A few winners followed, Duke Kahana Moku at Fair Hill, Bitamin at Red Bank, Rev Three at the Saratoga Open House. Just a few winners, but monumental to a fledgling jump jockey without much business.
Every day I went racing, every time I schooled a horse, I thought of those three boxes a riding legend had sketched on a piece of a paper for a green kid looking for a chance. I’m sure he diagrammed his method of jumping a fence for others, maybe they didn’t need the pen and paper, but they certainly benefitted from his tutorials. His pupils were many – from amateur Buddy Martin to apprentice Eddie Graham and so many in the hunt field. Daughters Sanna and Kathy Neilson took it to the bank, winning their own Hunt Cups, Sanna as a jockey and Kathy as a trainer. And, wow, the next generation, Paddy’s grandkids, they ride like they read the diagram in the womb. Paddy was never more proud than watching his grandkids ride.
The lessons sunk deeper as I got older. Years later, I actually sketched three fences (hurdles, of course) and three boxes for a wanna-be jockey who couldn’t see his spot. I’m not sure it worked.
Paddy was a loyal friend to my family, especially my father, who doesn’t make or lose friends easily. Recovering alcoholics, they shared that, always trying to reach out and help those who needed it. Mostly, they were riders, enjoying the art while trying to prefect the craft. Fox hunting was their muse.
When I read that Paddy had died of cancer this week, I thought of my father and their friendship. I thought of Toinette, the cinnamon rolls and those before-dawn rides in the fields of Cheshire Hunt country. I thought of Paddy’s five daughters, Sanna, Kathy, Liza, Daphne and Emily, his influence on them, their influence on him. I thought of the man who Paddy Neilson had become. And, of course, I thought of his drawing – short, long and just right. He was a little bit of all three.