WHEN Palomar won the big £25,000 hurdle race at Market Rasen two weeks ago it was an eye-catching performance by Greystoke-based jockey Fearghal Davis.
Palomar is not a straight-forward ride, but Davis nursed the enigmatic eight-year-old around for much of the race, before coaxing him to come and win his race between the last two hurdles. The horse has ability but is quirky, and Davis kept him collected and balanced, while persuading the horse he was still on the bridle and always going to win.
Davis is based with Nicky Richards at the famous Greystoke training yard. Richards formerly trained Palomar to win five races for his then owner Sir Robert Ogden, and 24-year-old Davis had ridden the horse to three of those victories, so he clearly knows how to ride him.
Sent to the sales in May this year, Palomar was sold for £14,000 to Malton trainer Brian Ellison to go Flat racing, but Davis has kept the ride on the horse over jumps. Other than finishing fourth in the 2010 Cumberland Plate at Carlisle in June, Palomar has shown little return on the Flat this summer for his new stable. So connections must have been relieved when Palomar and Davis won the recent Market Rasen hurdle race, as, in retrospect, £14,000 had probably looked a lot of money for a horse indifferent about winning.
Davis said: “Palomar is difficult to ride, and it suits him best if they go a right good gallop. Mr. Ellison says the Flat jockeys can’t ride him at all, as they can’t settle him in his races.”
Davis is a big lad, even for a jump jockey. He is 6ft tall and has to work extremely hard at keeping his weight down to the minimum 10st. He says he would rather eat properly and work it off than go on starvation diets.
He lives in Penrith with his partner Joey Richards (Nicky Richards’s daughter), and admits: “I work at my weight every day — I go running for five miles around Penrith, or go swimming for an hour, or to the gym for a couple of hours.”
He is from the small southern Ireland town of Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary, where his family had no links with racing. He first sat on a racehorse when he was 14 at his Uncle Robert’s stud farm in Donegal, and that inspired him to think about a career in racing.
“The man back in Ireland I really owe a lot to is former jockey Jim Doyle who really helped me out and got me going in racing, yet it was pure chance that I should meet up with him”, said Davis. “I had a part-time job at the local petrol pumps, and his wife was working on the tills. We got talking and she said I should come and ride out for husband Jim, which I did. And he found me a job with trainer Charlie Swan (former Irish champion jockey) and that’s how I started.”
Davis’s first race ride in Ireland was in a bumper race at Sligo for Swan where he finished sixth of 14 runners. His first winner came with another Swan-trained horse, Rory Sunset, at Down Royal, which won by three lengths. After a dozen more rides as an amateur in Ireland, another door opened when his friend and former head lad at Greystoke, Danny Barry, found Davis a job with Nicky Richards.
Davis arrived at Greystoke on New Year’s Day, 2005. “I’d never been in an airport before, and I didn’t know what Nicky looked like before I came over here, so it was all a big change for me. What immediately impressed me most were the Greystoke gallops and facilities, which are the still the best I’ve seen to train National Hunt racehorses.
“And unlike some Irish lads who come over, I’ve never been homesick or wanted to go back to Ireland, as all I want to do is be a jockey and ride races, and ride good winners like last Saturday on Palomar,” he said.
His first ride in Britain was on 13th February, 2005, in an amateur riders’ hurdle race at Ayr for Richards on board Seeking Shelter, a bay mare of dubious ability: “As we approached the third-last hurdle we were going well and I thought I’d definitely be in the first three home, but she ran out through the wing of the hurdles, and that was that. It turned out she’d broken her pelvis,” said Davis.
In his second season at Greystoke Davis had 64 rides and five winners. The elusive first British winner all jockeys hunger for came in a selling hurdle at Uttoxeter on 6th July, 2006, on board Nuzzle, trained by Richards and returning at 6-1.
Looking at that Uttoxeter race replay, it’s not difficult to spot Davis as he gave a stylish performance in what was a harum-scarum race, and, despite his height, he has retained that polished style of race-riding. What is difficult to understand is why he doesn’t get more opportunities from other trainers, but there never has been much natural justice in racing. Jockeys are either fashionable or they are not.
Richards says of Davis: “Fearghal is a very capable rider. He is a good and willing worker at home and has been well tutored by Brian Harding. When he gets rides he carries out instructions to the letter, which is what you want from a young rider.”
Davis says it was a privilege to ride a winner for Richards at Bangor on One Sniff, a talented horse with terrible legs. The horse had been second to the mighty (Gold Cup winning) Denman in a novice hurdle at Bangor two years previously — admittedly beaten by an easy 17 lengths. Denman had started at 1-12 on, for the race.
One episode Davis looks back on fondly is his successful association with Mrs. Evelyn Slack who trains with a permit at Stoneriggs, near Appleby. “Luckily, the year I rode for Mrs. Slack she ended up being champion permit-holder. We had a fantastic season and I rode over 20 winners for her.
“For whatever reason we had a lot of luck at Sedgefield, and I still love riding there. Carlisle racecourse is another favourite of mine,” said Davis.
How far Davis will go in terms of being a successful jockey is impossible to predict. Greystoke has produced some great jockeys over the years and he could be another. Richards will continue to give him chances, and with Tony Dobbin retired and Davey Condon back in Ireland, the opportunities should come his way.