IT was a ‘miracle’ ride that summed up jump jockey Joe Palmowski’s career and approach to life: never give up.
Moody mare Madam Lilibet was so far adrift of her rivals at Carlisle this week that her odds drifted to an unfavourable 1,000-1 on the betting exchanges.
Nearer Scotland than Cumbria as the stragglers turned for home, Rotherham-born Palmowski and his mount were so far adrift – at least 50 lengths – that they were not even in the television pictures towards the end of this gruelling three-mile, one-furlong hurdle.
He had also conceded vital ground in taking the horse wide to avoid the kick-back from those at the head of affairs. Many more experienced riders would have called it a day.
Yet, as Palmowski sensed the two pacesetters were beginning to tire on the stiff uphill finish that would play to his horse’s strengths, he sensed he might sneak a place at best as Madam Lilibet – an aptly-named horse who invariably lives up to her name – responded to his urgings.
At least 10 lengths down as horse and rider cleared the last with aplomb, the six-year-old – trained at Brompton on Swale by Sharon Watt – began to take off with a Frankel-like change of gears thanks to the assistance of the stand-side running rail.
Her husband, Bill, who builds obstacles for racecourses, was one of the few people not to give up hope. Aware of the horse’s traits, he wisely chose this moment to invest £4 when the odds were at their most generous.
Now it was getting serious. As long-time leaders Native Optimist and Bescot Springs faltered, their riders were left stunned as Madam Lilibet galloped past them to win by half a length pulling away.
It was such a blur that the unassuming Palmowski, who nearly missed the ride because he was held up on the M6, was unconvinced that his mount had got up.
He was speechless when the result was confirmed and jockeys started congratulating him. As top rider Aidan Coleman said: “Well done pal, winners like that don’t come along very often.”
An early contender for ride of the year, it would have made national headlines if the jockey had been racing record-breaker AP McCoy, who is to retire shortly after securing a 20th successive championship – he remains the patron saint of lost causes.
Yet, in many respects, this victory for perseverance is even more remarkable because the man in the saddle is the most unlikely of riders.
Born in Rotherham, and brought up in West Melton, Palmowski did not even sit on a horse until he was 14 and saw a leaflet at Saint Pius X Catholic High School in Wath-upon-Dearne promoting a course at the Northern Racing College in Doncaster.
Even then, the odds were stacked against him. There is no history of racing in the Palmowski family who hail originally from Poland – his father Nick is a contracts manager for a construction firm while his mother, Julie, works for Rotherham Council.
When he was enrolled on a NVQ course at the college, Palmowski found himself along much older students who had actual experience of riding. He had none and found the experience daunting.
He told The Yorkshire Post “that it took forever” to get to grips with riding and there were times when he questioned the wisdom of giving up a promising career as a cross-country runner.
Palmowski was even more disheartened when he left school to begin work at the Malton yard of James Hetherton. It came to a head when the trainer telephoned the then stable lad’s father and advised: “He’s not going to be a jockey. He’s only good for mucking out.”
Not the most flattering of references for a rider desperate for opportunities, and possibly fair comment at the time Palmowski actually used them for motivation and salvation came in the form of the associations soon established in Middleham with first Ferdy Murphy – and then George Moore.
He had the privilege of riding out Murphy’s Grade One stable star Kalahari King on the gallops – Palmowski was at Cheltenham when the horse was third in the 2010 Queen Mother Champion Chase – and had the good fortune to be able to lead stable-mate Poker de Sivola into the winner’s enclosure when the stout stayer provided Ireland’s Katie Walsh with a first Festival win.
“Kalahari King, I’ve sat on some good horses, but he was quick. An aeroplane. He had so many gears,” enthused Palmowski.
Such experiences created a lasting impression – Palmowski was even more determined that this would be his life and he would prove the doubters wrong. Not even a riding stint in Australia, which ended with the rider in intensive care with multiple injuries after his horse bolted into a lamp post, did not diminish his persistence. “I’ve always been a bit of a fighter,” says the 25-year-old.
The aforementioned Murphy, now based in France, recalls his young work rider with fondness. “Joe was determined to get on. He grafted from day one and had no bones about grafting. He always had a smile on his face and never threw tantrums. He was a pleasure to have.”
Ironically, it was Madam Lilibet who provided Palmowski with his very first triumph when she was a wide-margin winner at Newcastle in January, 2013. The contrast with the horse’s recalcitrance at Carlisle could not have been greater.
Even though the rider left Yorkshire in the summer of 2012 to team up with Stratford-Upon-Avon trainer Robin Dickin of Restless Harry fame, he maintained the partnership with the mare and won on her at Hexham last November.
“I used to be an event rider so have helped Joe with his jumping,” said Madam Lilibet’s trainer, Sharon Watt, who has 10 horses in her care at her yard which will be the beneficiary of her husband’s shrewd investment when everyone else had given up hope. “She’s well named, she’s a little madam, and there are days at home when she won’t go out of the yard. Joe knows her so well that he refuses to give up. He was stuck in traffic on Monday and we were beginning to look for other options. Anyone else in the saddle, and she would have been pulled up. It’s great for Joe. The more winners he gets, the more he will be recognised.”
As for Palmowski, Madam Lilibet’s unlikely success – his third on the horse – was just the sixth of a burgeoning career which saw him finish second in last year’s Cheltenham Festival aboard the Dickin-trained Thomas Crapper in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. He draws solace from the fact that the winner, Don Poli, is now a Group One-winning chaser for Willie Mullins and favourite for next month’s RSA Chase.
He is also buoyed by Under The Phone’s victory at Kempton earlier this month when he got the better of McCoy’s mount Last Shadow in a terrific tussle. It was a landmark win – Palmowski lost his 10lb weight allowance and the 400th of Dickin’s training career.
“The champion, what a gentleman,” said the victor. “He came up to me, after the race, and said ‘well done’. He didn’t have to. And then he announces his retirement the next day. He’s an icon for jump racing.”
He will always be a hero to Joe Palmowski who also cites the influence of his father. “Dad has been unbelievable because he has always believed in me. He’s kept picking me up and dusting me off,” added the rider, who says his ambition is to repay the faith shown to all those people, including his jockey coach Phil Kinsella, who have supported him.
As he lists the names, he saves the best to last – Madam Lilibet. “She was my first ever winner and she will always have a place in my heart,” added Palmowski. “She’s really got me noticed.”
She has now.
Proud to be flying flag...
UNTIL Madam Lilibet’s shock win at Carlisle, and the acclaim that rightly followed, Joe Palmowski’s biggest claim to fame was being the mascot for his beloved Rotherham United at Wembley when they beat Shrewsbury in the final of the 1996 Auto Windscreens Shield.
“I can remember the day now – April 14. I was seven three days earlier and Dad had bought it for me as a birthday present,” Palmowski told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“Sir Geoff Hurst, the 1966 World Cup winner, presented me with a medallion before the game. It was a great day and Nigel Jemson scored the winner.
“I follow Rotherham avidly. If they avoid relegation from the Championship this season, it will be a great achievement, but I was disappointed with Tuesday’s result against Derby County. When you’re 3-1 up with 20 minutes to go, and at home, you shouldn’t be drawing 3-3 – even against one of the top sides.”
Palmowski, who is in action at Newcastle today when riding Vodka Moon for Madam Lilibet’s trainer Sharon Watt, hopes his success in the saddle can boost Rotherham’s profile following the sex grooming scandal.
“It’s my home town and I hope it gets a better name, whether it be the football team or someone like me,” he added.