JOCKEY PJ McDonald has never been afraid of hard work. It is why he rode a career-best 128 winners on the Flat last year a decade after winning the Scottish Grand National over steeplechase fences.
Now the 35-year-old adopted Yorkshireman hopes his first ride in a Classic will be a winning one when he partners the Karl Burke-trained Laurens in the Qipco 1000 Guineas.
This is the filly, owned by John Dance, which he partnered to victory in Doncaster’s May Hill Stakes at last September’s St Leger meeting before landing the Group One Fillies Mile at Newmarket where the Guineas will be staged on Sunday.
As with Hot Weld, which he partnered to victory in the Scottish National for the then West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy, McDonald is determined to make the most of this opportunity, the result of a decade working his way to the top after initially switching codes to keep fit during the summer.
His burgeoning association with Leyburn-based Burke, and high-profile rides for trainers of the calibre of Middleham’s Mark Johnston, have certainly given McDonald the knowledge that he is a match for illustrious riders like Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore, and the confidence to embrace the major racedays.
“I can’t wait, I’m very excited. I’ve waited such a long time for this and it might never happen again in my career,” he said this week. “For me this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m going to make sure I grab it with both hands.
“I’ve ridden in plenty of good, competitive races, but I’ve never ridden in the Guineas. I’m ready for it. This is what it’s all about. It’s the reason we travel the miles we do, all looking for that one good horse. I’ve been riding in races since I was 16 and I’m now 35 and this is the first time one has come along for me.”
While it has been suggested by some that the filly struggled to get the mile on her final start at the track last season there is no doubt in the mind of County Wexford-born McDonald that the trip will not be an issue.
He said: “We feel like she has definitely improved physically. She was a very mentally sound horse as a two-year-old and was pretty much chilled out. Physically she has definitely filled up into her frame and looks like a beast now.
“She showed her battling qualities in the May Hill over the mile and to be fair it was Karl who was very keen to go to Newmarket and fair play to him, he put it on the line. She is a Group One winner and her pedigree suggests she will be much better at three and four.”
McDonald praised Burke for making sure Laurens is in the best shape possible for the big occasion following a recent racecourse gallop at Newcastle. He said: “He has got great attention to detail. He has to work hard to find value for money, as he doesn’t have blank cheques from big owners, and has proven he can do that over the last five or six years.
“I’m confident Karl couldn’t have her in better shape going into the Guineas. If she was trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore she would pretty much be favourite.”
With his own career having taken off, McDonald attributes his success to riding better horses. “Things have gone from strength to strength over the last couple of years and the most important thing is the quality of horse I’m getting on,” he said.
“If we win it will be overwhelming. These are the days you dream of and riding in a Classic – it sounds mad thinking about it. It would be amazing to to win it, I can’t describe what it would feel like and what a little tick it would be to have on my CV.
“I’m under no illusions that it will be tough, though, as three-quarters of that field will be thinking the same as us. Win, lose or draw, I know she is a good filly who will have another good one in her. If it is not to be on Sunday we will dust ourselves down ready to do battle again.”
Just like PJ McDonald has always done.