• In the Stables with J.J. Slevin

    I’ve had a great time of things in recent months but nothing has topped my win on Champagne Classic in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle in March. It was unreal to be honest, there were times I thought I’d never even get to ride at the Cheltenham Festival. 

    One of the reasons I based myself in England for a time was to ride at Cheltenham. I spent a year with Nigel Twiston-Davies and rode two of his horses at the festival back in 2016, Splash Of Ginge in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase and Ballybeaufort in the National Hunt Chase. Neither ran well but it was great to see the former win at the course over the weekend. 

    But to go back there 12 months later, in my first season as a professional, and ride a winner was the stuff of dreams. Just to get the leg up from Gordon Elliott was amazing. It was a shock to the system and took me about three weeks to get over it! I still look back at the race from time to time, it always puts me in a good mood. 

    I was determined to build on that and I feel that I have. I haven’t quite matched last season’s tally just yet, but I’m well on the way. No one looks too far ahead in this game but I rode 27 winners in all last season and have 24 so far this time, 23 in Ireland and one across the water. I’m the leading conditional rider in the country which is a great honour but it won’t stay that way for long. 

    All being well, my claim will be gone shortly. I have three winners left to ride before it runs out and I haven’t a hope of staying in front in the championship. It’s just the way it works. I wouldn’t be upset by it and the aim will always be riding winners. And I have plenty helping me do that. 

    Ken Whelan is my agent and he is doing some job. My plan was to come home from England and turn professional and Ken has been there with me from day one. He is a big asset. He would always be pushing and he works hard for you. He has got me on horses that I would never have ridden. 

    Together we have kept a good few contacts from my days in the point-to-points and Colin Bowe would be just one of them. He trains close enough to us at home and I would have ridden winners for him going back a couple of years. I’ve ridden three winners for him this season and he’s a great man to have on your side. 

    It was Ken who linked me up with Henry De Bromhead and I’ve had a good bit of success for him too. All my winners for Henry this season have been over fences. I was delighted to win a couple of races on Gigginstown House Stud’s Attribution at Limerick and Tisamystery was nice for owner John Byrne at Kilbeggan. 

    Every ride is important and plenty of others have given me chances. I’m so grateful to them all. I rode a winner for Jimmy Mangan at Cork on Sunday. It was only my second ride for Jimmy and again it was all down to Ken. 

    I’m based with Joseph O'Brien on the hill in Piltown. He’s my cousin and naturally we go right back. We were very close growing up. When people think of Ballydoyle, they see it as one of the best training facilities in the world. For Joseph, it was where he grew up with his brother and sisters and for me and my brother Mark, it was a holiday destination as kids!

    We were there all the time, along with other cousins, including Tom O’Brien who is in England full-time. And the lads spent loads of time with us in Wexford too. I worked for Aidan O'Brien for a time and got to ride work in Ballydoyle with some of the biggest names which did me the world of good. And in those days, we’d come to Piltown in the afternoon to work with the horses there. 

    Joseph has quite the set up now. I’d ride four or five lots every day and I love it. I love to school the horses and get a great kick out of it. When I’m not racing, I’d always be schooling the point-to-pointers Dad keeps at home. We do lots of schooling and everything is over banks. We are always on the look out for the next cross-country star. 
    I rode two winners at Cork on Sunday and Joseph got me rolling with Us And Them in the maiden hurdle. He’s one that works well at home and will definitely pay his way on the racecourse. He is a naturally brilliant jumper and has the scope 90% of them don’t have. He jumps his hurdles well and will do better again over fences. He’s very exciting and it was great to get the win on him. 

    I was in Cheltenham last Friday and Saturday for three rides and it was tough going. The ground was badly chewed up from a very early stage and I’m not surprised there were a few raised eyebrows. The best I managed was second place on Joseph’s Mischievious Max in a good handicap hurdle on Saturday. He’s a versatile type. I won on him on good ground at Downpatrick back in August and was delighted that he went so well in those conditions. He’ll get three miles and hopefully there is a big one to be won with him. 

    I went for a good number of years when things weren’t that great and setting targets was not an option. Its clearly picked up for me in more recent times but I still wouldn’t be one to set too many goals. The plan is to keep riding winners and with the backing I have, the ball is very much in my court. We’ll keep tipping along and might just get to live the Cheltenham dream again. 

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