Nagle closing in on first title, 100 winners

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Darren Nagle and Sean McDermott leaned on an iron rail along the horsepath at Belmont Park last month and knocked each other, their rides and their chances on winning the National Steeplechase Association jockeys’ championship this year.

“I’m not so sure of my chances this weekend.”

“Oh sure, you’ll have four winners. You should see the ones I’m riding.”

“Yours? I’ve got orangutans.”

“Oh, I’m on a right beaut in that race . . . did five laps before the start last time.”

“Then you’ll have pace then.”

“You’re going to win it.”

“No, you’re going to win it.”

“I’ll tell you one thing, if he doesn’t win it, he should get a right kick in the arse given the horses he’s got to ride every week. I’d love to ride those.”

“Yeah right, your rides are far better than mine. I’ve got no chance.”

And on and on and on.

Don’t bother trying to figure out who said what and which horses they were talking about. They really don’t think anyone’s horses act like primates. It was all hyperbole, show, fun. Besides, I got it all mixed up anyway since everything came with a fair dose of Irish humor and accents. They were laughing, joking, wisecracking and wondering about the game after riding a winner apiece at one of the world’s great racetracks and being two wins apart in the standings with six weekends to go.

A few days later, Nagle and McDermott added two more wins – each – and they ended September separated by two at 14-12 (advantage Nagle) with Jack Doyle third with 10 heading into the final five weekends of the season. It’ll be over Nov. 12 at Charleston and somebody will be champion jockey.

None of those three own an NSA championship, but they’ll be part of this year’s in some fashion – though former champions Kieran Norris and Ross Geraghty sit just behind with nine wins each.

“I’m going to get Darren a girlfriend and a job, and the wheels will go off the wagon,” Geraghty chimed in while listening to the back-and-forth at Belmont.

Nobody knows which way it will turn out, especially given the limited opportunities this season, but it will be fun to watch.

Nagle shows the way, and will be difficult to catch down the stretch though he’s doing everything he can to not look at the leaderboard. The 30-year-old Irishman has won races at a .274 clip (14-for-51) while riding for a variety of trainers. He won two at Saratoga, one each for Jack Fisher and Neil Morris, then guided the Jonathan Sheppard-trained All The Way Jose home first in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Sept. 21.

At Shawan Downs, Nagle watched Doyle (two) and McDermott win the first three races before taking the fourth and fifth. Nagle steered home Second Amendment in the 115 handicap hurdle for Lizzie Merryman, and won the open timber aboard Rodriguez for Willie Dowling.

Nagle does not ride first call for any jump trainer, and spent Saratoga galloping for flat trainer Shug McGaughey.

“Galloping horses at a racetrack every day is not the thing for me, but I like riding horses,” Nagle said. “I was over with Reeve (McGaughey) at the harness track. I rode nice horses and they’re great people and they listened to what I had to say. They appreciated feedback. Whether I was right or wrong I don’t know. They liked to hear it and I liked doing it.”

When Saratoga ended, Nagle headed to Kentucky – though not for another riding job. He spent early September at the Keeneland Sales, trying to learn the game. He mixed in a few schooling sessions on horses trained by Desmond Fogarty and Brian Murphy to keep sharp.

“I love the sales and I love the young horses and it’s something I want to get into a bit more,” he said of the experience. “I don’t work for any of the jump trainers, I don’t ride for any of them per se. Jonathan Sheppard’s been good to me through the years, Jack’s been good to me, Neil’s been good to me, a lot of trainers have but I’m not anybody’s jockey if that makes sense. I’ve had 25 less rides than some of the other lads so I’ve been very lucky.”

Nagle (who has ridden 27 fewer races than McDermott) rode his first race in 2005 and didn’t get more than 30 rides in a season until 2009. The numbers have bounced around ever since – 10 wins in 2010, 14 in 2012, 15 in 2013, just five in 2014. He finished second to Geraghty in the 2012 standings, and was second again (by a single win) to Paddy Young the next year. Last year, Nagle won just nine races as Norris swept to the crown with 14.

“I get disillusioned with the whole thing from time to time,” he said of the jump-jockey’s life. “Instead of quitting you’ve got to find the right balance for yourself, you know what I mean? People can judge you whatever way they want, but if you’re not happy doing something you’ve got to make it right for yourself or else you’re never going to succeed in anything.”

Nagle won’t dwell on winning the championship, not that it would help if he did.

“I hate to say it but it doesn’t register with me. It’s not an ambition, it’s not something I aspire to be,” he said. “Come the last day and if I’m a couple in front I might say ‘Jeez, this might happen.’ I don’t mean to downplay it, but it’s not something I’ve ever wanted to put myself under that sort of a pressure for. That’s not good for anybody. If I can get rides and do my best on them, what more can I do?”

And it’s not as if Nagle doesn’t work at it. He reduced to do 142 pounds aboard All The Way Jose at Belmont – and had the cramping legs and popping ears to show for it. The jockey won his first racetrack Grade 1 in the Lonesome Glory, won over timber at Shawan and at the Queen’s Cup this spring, has guided Dapper Dan and Mutasaawy to two wins each. His 14 wins have come for five trainers.

In addition to a potential championship, the 2017 success moved Nagle to the brink of a milestone with 97 career jump wins. Saturday, he can become the 39th to reach 100 at Virginia Fall in Middleburg, Va.

“That would be something I would be very proud of,” he said. “Anybody can have a good year or anybody can win a big race on a good horse, but to ride a lot of winners like that you need to be good or consistent or whatever you want to call it over a period of time. I would be very proud of that if it were to happen.”

• Nagle lost Second Amendment, who was scratched from the 120 handicap, to an injury but rides the card at Middleburg: Codrington College for Sheppard in the opener, turf stakes winner Manchurian High in the maiden hurdle, Giza for Sheppard in the 120 handicap hurdle, stakes winner Grand Manan in the timber feature, contender Pac Yer Tack in the maiden claimer and Spoiler Alert in the maiden timber.