Sheehan picking up Festival winners, not weeds

WINNER: Jockey Gavin Sheehan celebrates winning the Ladbrokes World Hurdle with Cole Harden at Cheltenham Festival.
WINNER: Jockey Gavin Sheehan celebrates winning the Ladbrokes World Hurdle with Cole Harden at Cheltenham Festival.
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NOW that he can bask in the glory of being a Grade One-winning jockey, Gavin Sheehan now knows what it takes to reach the top. “Hard work,” he says. “If you get things easy, you don’t appreciate it.”

It is why one of the many telephone calls made by the quietly-confident 22-year-old after Cole Harden’s front-running victory in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival was to his former boss and mentor Charlie Mann.

“All the hard days are now forgotten,” Sheehan told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “The days spent at Charlie Mann’s picking weeds out of the gallops and skivvying in the yard. He could have made the young lads use weedkiller, but it was all about the work ethic.

“It made me work, that you had to graft if you wanted to make something of yourself. If I was a trainer now, I would make any young jockey do the same because it keeps their feet on the ground. I thanked Mr Mann the other day for it, and making me pick the weeds. I appreciate it now.”

However, young riders can be assured that this proud son of County Cork, the reigning champion conditional, has no plans to give up his day job after firmly establishing himself as one of jump racing’s best prospects on both sides of the Irish Sea, first with Lambourn-based Mann and then Warren Greatrex.

While he still rides for Mann on a regular basis – their relationship survived the ‘old school’ introduction to racing – Sheehan is now first rider to the upwardly mobile Greatrex who has transformed the Uplands stables in Lambourn made famous by the late Fred Winter, one of racing’s all-time greats.

And Sheehan and Greatrex have a horse of a lifetime in the previously unheralded Cole Harden whose ‘catch me if you can’ style of running is emblematic of their own ambition.

The likable jockey is speaking adjacent to the wind-swept Wetherby winner’s enclosure where he, and Cole Harden, came to prominence last November when winning the bet365 Hurdle on Charlie Hall Chase day by eight-lengths on Medinas.

Even then, Sheehan did not expect to be returning to the West Yorkshire track as a Cheltenham-winning rider. “I wanted to believe that he would be a World Hurdle winner, but I didn’t think it would be this year,” he revealed.

“He had good ground at Wetherby, and that is key. I thought he would improve because he wasn’t 100 per cent wound up.

“When he won, I started getting excited. He was then second to Medinas at Newbury, but I said to Warren that he didn’t give me the same feel.”

After two further defeats, both at Cheltenham, Cole Harden underwent a wind operation to improve his breathing in racing.

The difference was discernible in Cole Harden’s two racecourse gallops prior to his date with destiny, so much so that the horse’s work rider Graham Baines told a slightly sceptical Sheehan: “You are going to ride the World Hurdle winner.”

Baines was not the only person brimming with confidence – the aforementioned Greatrex made sure his jockey was primed to deliver the ride of his life by delivering a motivational pep talk which left Sheehan thinking that his boss “was about to box Floyd Mayweather”.

“He told me to leave nothing out there – and that this was our time. It is easy to say it now, but I was pretty psyched myself,” said Sheehan who went out and turned this three-mile race, won four times previously by Big Buck’s into the ultimate stamina test.

There was to be just one difference. Unlike 12 months previously when Sheehan, in his very first Festival ride, tried to make all in the Neptune Investment Hurdle on Cole Harden before being swallowed up by the likes of Faugheen who then won this year’s Stan James Champion Hurdle, the jockey didn’t see another horse for them most important five minutes and 40 seconds of his life.

“His jumping was brilliant – in and pop – he was very quick and did everything right. Ping, ping, ping,” he said. “I was nervous coming down the hill for the final time, where were they? I expected horses to come around us. I was waiting. Ping. Another jump,” says Sheehan with great recall. “We’ve turned into the home straight and he’s picked up. Good ground again. Over the last, head down. When I saw the winning post out of the corner of my eye, I thought I had done it. Yes. ”

And then Gavin Sheehan says his heart sank as he thought of all the people who had supported him and his teenage years spent riding his first pony Star that had been a present from his parents.

His mind turned to his mother Geraldine and brother Keith who were at Cheltenham, his brother Alan watching the race in Australia and his proud father Seanie, a mechanic, who was at home in Ireland with relatives.

Unlike Greatrex’s tearful celebration in the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure, at least Sheehan kept his cool – certainly in public – but he says he will always cherish the reaction of his family and what the win means to them.

“I rang my father that evening. He was with my grandparents, auntie, two sisters and brother. He was speechless on the phone and they were all crying,” he said. “They weren’t heavily into racing, but shipped me about as a kid and it is very good to give something back and sense their excitement.”

They can also be assured that the Sheehan family standard-bearer now intends to turn these emotion-filled telephone calls into regular occurrence.

Not satisfied with one Cheltenham winner, he’s hopeful Cole Harden can now dominate the three-mile hurdling division – starting with next month’s Grade One hurdle at the Crabbie’s Grand National meeting.

“I’m a bit greedy. I want more now. I’d like to go over larger obstacles with the horse, but Warren wants to stick with hurdles,” added Sheehan, who believes some younger riders are not prepared to make sufficient sacrifices.

“I call Cole Harden ‘My Star’ in the yard – and he is. It’s just his attitude over ability, he’s a warrior. He’s got that fight in him and you have to have that fight if you’re to succeed. Not just in racing, but in any sport.”

Jockey and Greatrex are good partners

GAVIN Sheehan credits his front-running tactics to his easy-going relationship with Warren Greatrex, this season’s winning-most trainer at Wetherby.

He says his boss trusted his instinct when a horse was dropped back in trip and Sheehan’s ability to judge the pace – racing’s critical fractions – has reminded many of AP McCoy when racing’s record-breaker took the sport by storm 20 years ago.

Sheehan says he moulds his riding on all the top riders, McCoy included, but is particularly fulsome in his praise for Greatrex.

“He’s a very positive trainer. I’m a very positive rider. He’s an up-and-coming trainer and I’m an up-and-coming jockey,” said Sheehan.

“We get on well together because we want the same thing. If he was on the way down and I was on the way up, it wouldn’t work.

“But we both want to make it to the top and there is a great team at home. We’re getting more horses and, hopefully, horses like Cole Harden are just the start. They are exciting times.”