Grand National winner Ryan Mania retired from racing at the age of just 25. But on Sunday he returns to Aintree to ride for the Countryside Alliance. Tom Richmond talks to the former jockey.
THERE is quiet anticipation in Ryan Mania’s voice as the Grand National-winning jockey prepares to return to the scene of his greatest triumph – for a charity race against amateur riders.
Three years after conquering Aintree aboard Harvey and Sue Smith’s 66-1 outsider Auroras Encore – the first Yorkshire winner of the world-famous steeplechase since 1960 – Mania is now master huntsman with the historic Berwickshire Hunt.
However his competitive instincts remain ahead of Sunday’s charity race in aid of the Countryside Alliance. Just trying to make the 12 stone weight is a reminder of the sacrifices that he made during his brief career. By far the most experienced rider, he will face plenty of gentle ribbing if he’s not first past the post in this mile and a half flat race which features none of Aintree’s signature fences, like Becher’s Brook, that the now retired Auroras Encore jumped with such aplomb.
“Tell me about it!” laughs Mania, 27. “It’s the reason I’m trying to get a good horse. Tactics wise, I should be up front but it doesn’t mean I will win. Seriously, I jumped at the chance. I’ll experience that buzz again – only a jockey can explain it – especially with it being at Aintree.”
Born in Galashiels, Mania only came to appreciate – and love – hunting when he started point-to-point riding, the stepping stone to a career which yielded 192 winners in two stints and a hard-earned reputation for his horsemanship and bravery.
When he first quit the saddle after opportunities dried up in the wake of County Durham trainer Howard Johnson losing his licence, he spent his sabbatical working for the Lauderdale Hunt before the overtures of Harvey Smith, the legendary showjumper, proved impossible to resist. “You get out in the countryside in the middle of nowhere,” he explained. “No mobile phone reception, nothing. You switch off and enjoy yourself – there’s nothing better than watching the hounds work.”
After surprising the racing world in November 2014 when he hung up his saddle for a second time, he joined the Braes of Derwent Hunt in Durham before taking up his current role with the Berwickshire, the oldest hunt in his native Scotland. Riding out on the gallops – an Arctic-like blizzard blew across Baildon Moor when Auroras Encore undertook his final gallop before the 2013 National – has been replaced by the responsibility of looking after 64 hounds and a wider appreciation about the countryside.
“First and foremost, I look after the hounds and arrange all the hunting,” he said. “We have 32 couples – 64 in total. The yard has to be washed down and the hounds walked and exercised. We hunt three or four days a week at this time of the year.”
As well as the daily battle with the scales for this 5ft 11ins tall jockey who starved himself down to 10st 3lb for the National, and spent the post-race press conference rehydrating himself with a limitless supply of water, Mania stopped race-riding because he no longer “got a kick” out of the sport.
Can hunting provide that personal fulfilment that all sports competitors so crave? “Definitely – especially when your hounds go well, there’s some really good hunting,” he says with certainty and clarity. “It’s not far away from a racing situation... galloping around and jumping things. I get plenty out of seeing the hounds do well. The buck stops with me. I can’t pass the blame onto anyone else. It’s not just a way of life. Pest and fox control is very important to farmers and livestock.”
Like many, Mania despairs at how the issue was so mismanaged because of Tony Blair and New Labour’s prejudices and ignorance.
This is borne out by the latest volume of the newly-published diaries, Outside, Inside, written by the former premier’s communications chief Alastair Campbell which cover the turbulent political period from 2003-05, including the occasion when pro-hunting supporters disrupted Prime Minister’s Questions by hurling purple powder into the Commons. “I knew that TB would be really worried about it,” noted Campbell on September 17, 2003. “His instinct had always been that this hunting ban wasn’t really worth doing because of the anger it would stir up.”
Campbell, acting in an advisory capacity by now, said Blair could not back down because he would end up with “a bloody nose” from Labour supporters.
The next day, Campbell noted: “TB called. Asked straight out, can I get away with not doing hunting? JP (John Prescott) called re the same, asking if TB was trying to dump it. I told TB I thought it was too far gone. TB had always been uncomfortable about it.”
Mania sighs with disbelief when told about these political shenanigans which culminated with new hunting laws being enacted. “It just shows you...” says Mania who is backing the Countryside Alliance’s Hunting Newcomers’ Week which aims to boost participation.
His frustration, as the Alliance seeking changes to the Policing and Crime Bill which will empower officers to order hunt saboteurs to remove their masks for purposes of identification, is that the issue remains too politicised and polarised. “I come across so many people who say they are against hunting. Yet, when I sit them down and talk to them, they change their view,” he says.
At present, Mania is settled in the Scottish Borders. His son Rowan is three and “full of mischief” while his partner, the talented artist and designer Annie Galbraith, is the step-daughter of National Hunt trainer Sandy Thomson. He does miss those occasions where he could, fitness and injury permitting, have been riding in big races.
Yet his rather abrupt retirement a decision which prompted expressions of surprise from 20-times champion jump jockey Sir AP McCoy and others – masked the sacrifices that Mania had been struggling to make.
His cheery demeanour at racecourses, always willing to oblige autograph-hunters, was at odds with a soul-destroying starvation existence which meant he, unlike other dads, had to forego cake, or treats, with his new-born son. Not all riders have the willpower of the freakish McCoy. “I don’t miss the day in, day out lifestyle,” adds Mania. “I’m a healthy 12 and a half stone now, and I wouldn’t say I’m carrying much excess weight because I do lead an active life.
“I’d had enough of sucking ice cubes to stop the hunger pangs and fooling my body into thinking I was eating food. I know there’s a whole weight issue with fashion models, but no one really looks at what jockeys have to go through. It’s the same thing, if not slightly worse, because we have to go out and ride a ton of horse, not just walk down a catwalk.”
At least Ryan Mania had, by then, won a Grand National – not many do – and the chance to ride off into the sunset to pursue his love of hunting.
Double standards over hunting law
THE main difference between the Scottish and English hunting legislation, according to the Countryside Alliance campaign group, is the number of hounds that can be used.
In Scotland, there is no upper limit on number of hounds used to flush a fox from cover in order to shoot it.
In England and Wales, a maximum of two hounds may be used to do likewise.
An Alliance spokeswoman told The Yorkshire Post: “The obvious problem here is that if a huntsman, like Ryan, is using a pack to track a scent then he will have to stop, put most of his hounds back in a lorry and then carry on to flush and shoot using just a couple of hounds. Impractical to say the least.”