HOW times change. Ten years ago, PJ McDonald was just another apprentice jump jockey trying to make a name for himself in North Yorkshire.
Fast forward a decade and the likable Leyburn rider competes against Flat racing’s aristocracy today when he partners Clever Cookie in the Ascot Gold Cup – still the crown jewel of the prestigious five-day meeting.
He’s not the first National Hunt rider to make the switch – indeed Bedale’s Graham Lee, a former Grand National-winning rider, won last year’s Gold Cup, staged over two-and-a-half demanding miles, on Trip To Paris.
Ironically, the underestimated McDonald only switched codes after winning the 2007 Scottish National on Hot Weld when he beat the Lee-ridden Nine De Sivola in a thrilling one-two for the then West Witton-based trainer, Ferdy Murphy.
He has no regrets. His second career has been one of progression and consolidation, helped by the support of trainers like Ann Duffield, Micky Hammond and James Bethell, and spare rides such as last month’s high-profile Yorkshire Cup win – the biggest that McDonald has achieved on the Flat to date – on Clever Cookie for Malton trainer Peter Niven, himself a former NH jockey.
McDonald only came in for the ride because of the unavailability and injury misfortune of others, but this win was sufficient to convince Niven, whose mother bred Clever Cookie to run over hurdles, to retain the partnership for today’s Grade One race – renamed in honour of the Queen’s 90th birthday – rather than book a big-name jockey with more Ascot experience.
With forecast soft ground a big plus, Clever Cookie will probably not get a better chance to land this celebrated contest with a first prize of £226,840.
“I only found out last Thursday that I had the ride,” McDonald told The Yorkshire Post. “Peter had told me that there was a chance and then my agent called and I said I was jocked up – that was the first I knew for definite.
“I am absolutely delighted. It’s nice to have a ride in a race like this – I’ve never had a winner at Royal Ascot before – but it’s even better to be on a horse who has a good chance.
“He’s got a better engine than most of the horses that I ride and he’s definitely got the ability to win a big one.
“He needs cover and he needs to relax early. You do need him to switch off and hope he picks up when the gaps open. At York, everything fell into place and I think he’s more likely than most to get the two-and-a-half miles.”
Those cheering County Wexford-raised McDonald will include the aforementioned Murphy, who now buys, sells and trains horses in France.
He’s not surprised that his former conditional rider is flourishing on the Flat. “A friend of a friend of a friend rang and said this young fella is grand and you should take him on,” he recalled.
“I spoke to PJ. He was fantastic on the phone and I told him ‘Get your a*** over here’. He was a brilliant grafter in the yard, a brilliant team player. When he was riding 11st 7lb, you needed a wheelbarrow to carry his saddle because he was so light.
“Anybody who can win a Scottish National as a conditional, and beat Graham Lee in the finish, has ability. PJ also knew how to please his owners. As a rider, he saved just enough for the end of the race so his horse would be running on – it meant everyone could look forward to the next day.”
As for Clever Cookie, his preparations have gone to plan.
“We are ready to go, I think,” said Niven, who rides out his stable star each day in order to keep costs down at his Ryedale yard which has 15 or so horses in training at any one time. “He’ll handle the ground and it just brings staying into the equation, which suits us. It’s a big day for him, but we think he’ll be up for it.”
A quality field is headed by Order of St George from Aidan O’Brien’s all-conquering yard, though the ground may not suit the favourite.
Doncaster Cup winner Pallasator, a giant of a horse, bids to give Sir Mark Prescott a first Royal Ascot win in 20 years, while Ireland’s all-conquering National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins saddles last year’s Melbourne Cup runner-up, Max Dynamite.
However, McDonald, 34 last week, has earned his chance.
“I have no regrets about the switch but the Flat is very tough,” added the rider whose wife Abby is expecting the couple’s second child. “It’s more competitive for rides than it ever has been. You have so many good jockeys who can get the job done. It’s great for owners and trainers, they’ve never had so many people to call upon. For riders, you can’t afford to take your foot off the gas.”
It explains why McDonald needs days like the Ascot Gold Cup to pay. Not only does he have a young family to support, but he’s given up rides at Ripon, one of his “bread and butter” tracks, to ride Clever Cookie in a potentially career-defining contest for horse, trainer and jockey as they attempt to become the first Yorkshire winner of the stayer’s championship since Royal Rebel prevailed in 2002 for Mark Johnston.