Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I thought it was a massive achievement” – Corkman Gavin Sheehan reflects on the milestone of 500 career winners

Posted on 17 February 2021 by Tadhg Creedon
Gavin Sheehan celebrating on his way into the winner’s enclosure after victory aboard Simply The Betts at last year’s Cheltenham Festival (Source: RacingPost.com)

Jockey Gavin Sheehan has been a testament to perseverance ever since he first arrived on English shores. Last January at Bangor-on-Dee racecourse, he joined an elite group of jockeys on 500 career winners. Riding Sartene’s Son for trainer Robert Bevis, the 28-year-old reflected:

“Never in a million years did I think I’d ride 500 winners when I first went to England. I am very proud of it and thought it was a massive achievement for someone who’d come into racing a bit late and hadn’t been brought up with horses.”

Born in the West Cork town of Dunmanway, Sheehan’s primitive steps into racing came at age 14 when he rode his first winner on the pony racing circuit. He then became an amateur jockey, managing just two winners in two years for trainers Michael Hourigan and Robert Tyner.

“I didn’t think I was good enough at the time to become a jockey but I had done very well in pony racing. I didn’t think the whole racing game was going to be for me,” Sheehan said.

It may not have been but for a phone call to friend Eamonn Fehily, brother of multiple Grade-One winning jockey Noel Fehily, a fellow west Cork man based in Lambourn at the time.

“Eamonn rang his brother Noel who obviously knew a lot of people over in England. When I spoke to Noel, there was an opportunity over there.”

This was because Charlie Mann’s conditional jockey at the time, Peter O’Toole was injured after a fall.

Sheehan added: “I very much enjoyed it as soon as I came over. Lambourn is a bit like the Curragh: it is just horses and where you get horses you get horsey people. It was an easy world to fit into and Charlie was a very good trainer, plus I had Noel 10 minutes down the road from me as well.”

Cole Harden and Gavin Sheehan in route to victory in the 2015 Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (Source: Getty Images)

A whirlwind beginning

Sheehan amassed 31 winners in his first two seasons with Charlie Mann riding in England. However, the ambitious Corkman craved more:

“Charlie had been very good to me and extremely supportive but he was starting to go down in numbers and that’s when I got an opportunity with a young, up-and-coming trainer, Warren Greatrex. Something which I couldn’t turn down.”

Greatrex was young by racing standards, but by assembling a youthful cast around him, Sheehan blossomed.

“He was a young trainer who I knew if he gave me the chances, I would deliver. As soon as I went there, it wasn’t long before things took off.”

Emulating his good friend Noel Fehily, the 28-year-old announced himself on the British racing scene in 2013/14 by winning the Conditional Jockey’s Championship. The season was followed by a career best 73 winners in 2014/15 and maiden Grade One success, partnering Cole Harden to claim the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Further Grade One prizes arrived the following calendar year, courtesy of Harry Whittington’s Arzal and Greatrex’s One Track Mind. Reminiscing on those early days, Sheehan said:

“It was a great time for me. The year after being Champion Conditional, Warren had a bit more faith in me and he used me as his number one jockey, which meant I was going racing almost every day.

“One Track Mind was a horse I was always very fond of and to win a Grade One on him back home at Punchestown was serious. To ride big winners is brilliant but to do it as number one for Warren was a dream really.”

But as the Lambourn-based man can attest to, not all dreams are meant to last.

Gavin Sheehan in consultation before a race at Exeter racecourse on February 26, 2016 (Source: Getty Images)

“I didn’t feel the need to prove him wrong”

Following the heights of the 2013-16 period, things slowed down for Sheehan in the intervening years. This was down to a couple of contributing factors including several injuries and the quantity of his rides diminishing.

It was also a tough pill to swallow when Greatrex began using Champion Jockey Richard Johnson ahead of him in 2017/18.

“Warren never stopped using me but he demoted me to second jockey. I was quite upset about the whole thing and what made it worse was that he had his most ever winners the previous season. I couldn’t work that out for myself.

“I didn’t feel the need to prove him wrong after that. The year he started using Richard as first jockey, I actually rode more winners for Warren than Richard did. I’ll always get on with him and be extremely grateful, but It was tough at the time,” Sheehan remarked.

The Corkman is not one to hold grudges, he instead kept grinding despite his demotion. The 2018/19 season became a comeback season of sorts, riding 411 times with 69 winners, compared with 288 mounts the previous season. This was largely down to new relationships forged.

“I had to find other outlets and new connections basically. I needed to spread my wings because Warren had taken the wings off me for a little bit.

“Jamie Snowden (trainer) has been brilliant ever since and the other thing was Andrew Brookes (owner) using me as his main jockey. It was great timing because I had gone through a quite spell,” Sheehan exclaimed.

A relationship that began with the Brookes family in 2018, the 28-year-old was on hand to nurture young talents such as Rouge Vif and Saint Calvados for Whittington and Itchy Feet for Olly Murphy. The following season, those young prodigies would begin to fulfil their potential as Sheehan would uphold a promise he’d made to Mr. Brookes.

“Andrew is a very successful businessman. He’s putting a lot of money into the game and he does it for enjoyment. He never had a Cheltenham Festival winner and never had a Grade One winner and they were the two things that I said I’d get him. I didn’t think that it would happen in the space of a month or so last year.”

This time last year the Corkman guided Itchy Feet to victory in the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown. He then followed this up by recording his second Festival winner aboard Simply the Betts for trainer Harry Whittington in the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase. The celebrations saw Sheehan commandeer a scarf that had his name emblazoned across the blue, white and red colours of the winning owners.

Gavin Sheehan and Itchy Feet (nearest to camera) in full flight on way to victory in the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown Racecourse on 1st February, 2020 (Source: RacingPost.com)

500 winners and counting

Sheehan admits that this season has been a bit of a slow burn, with 30 winners to date and just over two months remaining in the jumps season.

He said: “This season has been one of my worst years, I think. I do well enough during the summer and we didn’t have that this year because of the pandemic. I didn’t get the numbers up straight away and then of course I got injured for two months and missed out on a few winners.

“The people I am riding for as well have just been a bit quiet: Andrew Brookes horses haven’t been running that well and the trainers I ride for have had better seasons. They’ll come good again though.”

Whittington, in particular has endured a plus three-month drought outside the winner’s enclosure. The focus now for Sheehan is finishing the season on a high and aiming towards Cheltenham, which is just over over a month away.

“Saint Calvados wasn’t done with when he took a stumble in the Cotswold Chase at Sandown. It would be my thinking we would drop back in trip and have another go at the Ryanair Chase which we were so close to winning last year.”

As for the six-time winner Emitom trained by Greatex, Sheehan said:

“He ran a stormer in the Stayers Hurdle last year and we’re going back over hurdles now. I think he’ll go for the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock like last year before another crack at the Stayers.”

The multiple Grade One-winning jockey will certainly be boosted by his recent milestone of 500 winners. And considering how many accomplished riders have thrived after turning 30, you get the sense that Sheehan at 28 still hasn’t peaked. It would therefore be foolish to underestimate him reaching 1000 winners in the coming years.