Brian Hughes, AP McCoy and Noel Fehily. Those are a few names who announced themselves to the jumps racing world by winning the Conditional Jockeys Championship. The man atop the leaderboard this season with 28 winners and counting is 20-year-old Danny McMenamin.
McMenamin, like the aforementioned Hughes and McCoy hails from Northern Ireland in Downpatrick, County Down. Having not been raised in a racing family, it was trips to the sweeping undulations of Downpatrick Racecourse that ignited his love for the sport. His uncle was manager of the famous 300-year-old track at the time. Local point-to-point trainer Brian Hamilton was the first individual to give McMenamin the leg up before a summer spent in 2017 with Grade One-winning flat trainer Ger Lyons in Kildare.
“I went to Ger’s to sharpen up my skills and ride with the flat lads a bit. It really helped with my style of riding and my positioning on a horse,” McMenamin said.
His career-defining move came in 2017 when family friend and former Grand National-winning jockey Tony Dobbin convinced McMenamin to make the move to Nicky Richard’s iconic Greystoke Stables in Cumbria.
National Hunt racing has always been at the heart of the beautiful village since the 19th Century, but it was the arrival of Nicky’s father, Gordon W. Richards, aka ‘The Boss’ in 1967 that catapulted Greystoke’s reputation to another level. During the golden age of northern racing, horses like One Man and The Grey Monk became household names, aswell as Grand National heroes Lucius in 1978 and Hallo Dandy in 1984.
Nicky’s father tragically died of cancer in 1998. A Conditional Jockey’s Champion himself, now Nicky continues the family legacy while passing on his wisdom to young McMenamin.
“It was tough at the beginning to be fair but Nicky is very easy to get on with and he knew it was going to be difficult for me. He made things very straight forward and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of things.”
Putting his name on the map
‘Get the hang of things’ he did…when on only his third ride at the revered Cheltenham Racecourse, the 20-year-old won the valuable Greatwood Handicap Hurdle aboard Nietzsche for trainer Brian Ellison in November 2018. Reminiscing on that memorable day, McMenamin asserts:
“It was a bit unexpected and a dream come through really. Just a brilliant day all in all. It certainly opened up a lot of doors for me after that and greatly aided my career.”
The value of a seven-pound claimer in jumps racing, especially in a handicap where a horse could be carrying top weight, cannot be understated. Consequently, McMenamin became a name on the lips of many a northern-based trainer from that moment onwards. He would go on to ride 16 winners that season before almost doubling that tally in 2019/20 with 28.
Jockeys are not exempt from mistakes though, so it is imperative for McMenamin to have someone to speak to when things don’t go to plan. That individual being his jockey coach and former stalwart of northern racing, Cork-born Brian Harding.
“He’s helped me out a lot riding wise and just having a conversation with him after a race that didn’t go your way is massive.
“You feel 100 times better about yourself after it and are ready for the next challenge. He’s been a huge part of my career so far.”
A blossoming career that has gone from strength to strength this season, equalling his previous year’s total of 28 winners. Asking McMenamin what the secret has been to his success, he answers modestly:
“A lot of luck maybe…Maybe I’m on better horses now and I have a good connection with the likes of Martin Todhunter and Dianne Sayer, aswell as Nicky of course. They have horses that pop up and win some nice little races.”
The leading conditional has gleaned particular joy from his connection with Ann Hamilton, a trainer with just a handful of horses in the village of Capheaton, 20 miles north-west of Newcastle. His biggest success for the 73-year-old coming aboard Nuts Well’s in last October’s Grade Two Old Roan Chase at Aintree.
Following in the footsteps of the greatness
The most striking element of the Downpatrick man’s rise to the top of the Conditional Jockeys leaderboard has not been his winners total, but the fact that he’s tasted success with 12 different trainers. Including multiples successes on horses like Tommy’s Oscar for Ann Hamilton, Millie of Mayo for Nicky Richards and The Navigator for Dianne Sayer.
As he says himself though, none of this would be possible without the premier agent in the north, Richard Hale:
“He does a very good job and he is also Brian Hughes’ agent who he helped become Champion Jockey last year, so that’s what you’re dealing with.
“I have to give him all the credit really because he’s reached out to so many trainers to get me rides and have a proper crack off this Championship.”
Hughes himself is leading the way once more in the Jumps Jockey Championship and comparisons are sure to be made between him and fellow Northern Ireland born, McMenamin. While others, like eight-time Champion Jockey Peter Scudamore, have said the talented young rider can follow in the most illustrious of footsteps: those of National Hunt racing’s winning-most jockey AP McCoy, from County Antrim.
Similar to the way McCoy saw life in the saddle, McMenamin remarks:
“At the end of the day, winners are winners.
“The sole target is the Conditional title and I set out this season to ride as many winners as possible. Thankfully, I have ended up in front but I try not to get too excited about it because April is a long way away.
“It would be brilliant to win though considering I haven’t come from a racing background and if Brian could hold on to his title aswell, it would be great for northern racing.”
Northern racing itself is not the bastion of power it was back in Greystoke’s glory days. However, recent forays by the likes of Brian Ellison with Mrs Hyde and Definitly Red, aswell as Ruth Jefferson with Waiting Patiently (second in the 2020 King George and Grade One Ascot Chase winner) have offered much needed hope.
“It’s more difficult for northern horses to go down south and be competitive, but you must realise that northern trainers do not have the same wealth as their southern counterparts. They can’t buy the same quality of horse.
“To be fair though, northern trainers have been doing well for themselves in recent years. As a jockey, it’s slightly easier up here to make a name for yourself because you’re not competing against the likes of Harry Skelton and Richard Johnson.”
Only two northern-based jockeys have won the Conditional title in the last eight years, Lucy Alexander in 2012/13 and Craig Nichol in 2015/16. McMenamin certainly has the right people behind his own title push. While on a personal level, there is a competitive nature that pervades the County Down man and a quiet confidence in what he hopes and expects to achieve this season and years to come.
A new flame burns in the north, that of talented 20-year-old jockey Danny McMenamin. Remember the name.