A small town situated in the heart of County Limerick, Rathkeale punches well above its weight when it comes to horse racing culture.
Michael Hourigan began his training career with a handful of horses at the back of the family pub in Rathkeale. He is most known for jumpers like Dorans Pride and Beef Or Salmon, both multiple Grade 1 winners. His son Michael is also a trainer and was champion amateur jockey in England in the early 1990’s.
Eric McNamara is another terrific trainer who is having a fruitful spell the past twelve months. He trained Strangely Brown to Grade 1 success in Auteuil and is some man to win a big handicap. He won the Kerry National three times between 2007 and 2012, twice with Ponmeoath.
The town has produced some brilliant jockeys – Emmet McNamara, Eric’s son, won the Epsom Derby aboard Serpentine this year. James Jones was a brilliant rider back in the day whilst Rob Jones and Brian Byrnes also made a right good fist of it in the saddle.
Others to note are Philip O Brien, Trevor Naughton, Gerry Mulcaire, Conor McNamara, Michael Byrnes, Billy Dunne and Liam Ward who won two Irish Derbies in 1958 and 1970 aboard Sindon & the great Nijinsky.
It was a pleasure to catch up with Ray Hogan this week, a hugely talented rider back in the day who has come out of retirement after fifteen years. Ray is a fireman, a DJ, a proud father and a keen soccer player with a wicked left peg.
A proud Rathkeale native, Ray was given a ride on Taylors Three Rock in a Listowel bumper last Monday. Sent off at odds of 20/1, the mare was not fancied in the betting but she was given an unbelievable ride and finished second.
Now this is a cool ride!
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) September 21, 2020
Ray was given a bit of a scare in the parade ring before the race when he got thrown off the mare. Thankfully after a doctors inspection he was just winded so he was given the all-clear to continue.
I spoke to Ray post-race and asked him some questions to get some insight into his life and career. It was a fascinating interview and I hope you enjoy it.
What drew you to the sport?
“Adrian Maguire was my biggest inspiration when I was growing up. He was an incredible jockey and I watched him win the Gold Cup in 1992 on Cool Ground which is where I got most of my inspiration. I was messing with ponies from the age of 11 or 12.”
Where did you learn your trade as a jockey?
“I started riding out at Eric’s (McNamara) when I was 12 any time I got the chance, school holidays, evenings and weekends. James Jones and Gerry Mulcaire took me under their wing and they were so good to me. They taught me a lot.”
What was your first ride?
“I went to the race academy in Kildare when I was 15 and started an apprentice jockey course. I got placement with Frank Berry for 4-5 years. My first ride was in 1995, a 6f race around Punchestown on a horse called Ballyhook on Thursday October 4th. Frank was like a second father to me and JP McManus was also very good to me. I rode 21 winners in total.”
What was your first winner?
“It was just my second ride ever and it was at the Curragh over 6f, a horse called Another Sky-lark for Frank Berry, 12/1.”
What race gave you the best thrill?
“My fondest memory was at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, where I beat a McManus hotpot and won the big handicap hurdle at 33/1, that was in 1996. I also rode at the Cheltenham November meeting and was meant to ride in the County Hurdle the following March but I dislocated my ankle.”
Why the comeback after 15 years?
“It was mostly down to my son Calum being an up-and-coming jockey. He’s addicted to racing and he rode his first winner in Broadford in 2019. When I was stood at the winning post, watching him I got the buzz. I said to myself “I’d love to do this again”. I spoke to Barry Geraghty on the phone after Christmas and he said “Ray, age is no barrier, go for it, have no regrets.”
How has racing changed in that time?
“I found a huge change in Listowel just from the empty stands alone. The calibre of jockeys out there now is frightening, they are professional athletes now. Back in my time not so much. They are now fitter, stronger, have a better lifestyle, standard is unbelievable. Massive credit is due to the pony racing committee where jockeys learn their trade.”
Parade ring incident – any last minute doubts?
“I was quite sore no doubt, but Calum took a half day off school and I wouldn’t let him down. I was winded, I took a big rap off the ground, the mare is a baby. It was all new to her, she got worked up, but second time on her back she got settled down to the start.”
Did the race at Listowel go to plan?
“It did. Eric’s instructions were do what you want, he said “You know her, you do what you want”. That’s the way it panned out, she went hard for the first three-quarters of a mile and was keen. I let her roll but saved as much as I could for the finish. If I could change one thing, I would have come wider turning for home at the 4f-pole in search of better ground.”
Is the buzz still there?
“Without a doubt, my priority is the fire brigade but when I have spare time I will do a lot. My weight is good, I am currently 10 stone 7 pounds. If I can keep on top of that I will hopefully pick up rides. They gave me back a 7lb claim which is an advantage.”
Have you more rides planned?
“Nothing at the moment, I applied for my license in February, Covid-19 put all on hold, I got my license recently, but I have a taste again so I want more.”
Do you want your son Calum to be a professional rider one day?
“Yes, without a doubt. I have no doubt that he will make a career as a jockey. He has a similar built frame to me, but is technically better. However, you have to work for it, it won’t be handed to you. He’s going the right direction and has a great attitude. Another proud moment was watching Emmet McNamara develop as a jockey from his pony racing days right up to winning the Epsom Derby, I was a proud Rathkeale man that day.”
How do you keep yourself fit?
“I play a lot of sport, I was always naturally light, I am 6 foot 1 and I still play soccer for Rathkeale B. I am always active, I like to keep in good shape.”
Have you any advice for anyone over 40 who feels they are too old to compete?
“Only advice I have is age is only a number, an old man once told me “Ray, keep going as long as you can because you’ll be long enough looking from the sidelines”. My wife thinks I’m nuts, I feel great and I’ll keep going.”
Give us a horse to watch out for
“We’ve a little horse that won at Listowel on Monday called Blackjack Boy, he will make great horse in the winter months. Donkey Ears is one to keep an eye on, he’s got a bright future for JP McManus.”