Tom O’Ryan remembered: Tribute to voice of Northern racing

Tom O'Ryan after his accident in his garden in 2013.
Tom O'Ryan after his accident in his garden in 2013.
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TOM O’RYAN was not just a natural horseman who inspired a generation of young Yorkshire jockeys; he was also a peerless writer and broadcaster who was universally respected as the voice of Northern racing.

Perhaps his proudest moment came on a crisp November afternoon in 2010 when Paul Hanagan, one of his many protégés to rise through the ranks at Richard Fahey’s stables in Malton, was crowned champion jockey for the first time.

As a shellshocked Hanagan, physically and emotionally drained by a title race which was only settled on the final afternoon of the season, fought his way through the melee of photographers, camera crews and wellwishers at Doncaster, there to greet him outside the hallowed weighing room was his great friend and mentor resplendent in his trademark flat cap.

Their emotional embrace said it all – Hanagan’s triumph, replicated on another nerve-jangling day at the end of the 2011 campaign, meant the world to the humble Yorkshire-born O’Ryan who, like the late John Oaksey and then Brough Scott before him, had made the seamless transition from rider to writer.

“I first came across Tom when I started at Richard’s,” an emotional Hanagan told The Yorkshire Post. “He was good friends with Richard and always pottering about the yard.

“When you are young and green as grass, he made you feel at home. Tom was a massive influence on my career...anything major, he was one of the first people I spoke to because I valued his guidance and advice.

“The one thing I will never forget is the smile on Tom’s face when I won the first championship. He was one of the first people to give me a hug and say how proud he was. A lot was down to him throughout that year. A shoulder to cry on, he was there every day throughout that campaign giving me confidence and advice.

“I was devastated when I first heard the news – and I don’t think I’ve used that word before. You felt at ease when you were talking to him. That’s why most people loved him...they could trust him.

“It makes a huge difference. People say he was a good guy but he really was a proper good guy. You don’t come across them too often, a proper, proper man.”

Born on March 6, 1955, O’Ryan’s father Bobby had won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham nine years previously aboard Distel.

Starting his career with Malton trainer Pat Rohan, the fresh-faced O’Ryan – who had begun life as a stable lad with few privileges in life – tipped the scales at just 6st 2lb when he had his first ever ride, with his first victory coming courtesy of the David Chapman-trained Vivacious Boy at Beverley on July 5, 1972.

Three winners in this breakthrough year rose to 11, 17 and 13 in subsequent years before teaming up with Peter Easterby in 1976 just as the irascible Great Habton trainer was acquiring a formidable team of National Hunt champions.

Two of O’Ryan’s most notable successes came courtesy of subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Alverton – they included an apprentice riders’ handicap at York and then a spirited one-length victory in the prestigious Bogside Cup at Ayr.

As well as Alverton, O’Ryan was entrusted with riding Little Owl – another Gold Cup winner – on the gallops as well as those titans Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon who each won two Champion Hurdles in a golden era for Yorkshire jump racing and this small Ryedale parish in particular.

“You won’t have enough room to fit it all into your paper,” said Easterby this week. “He’s bigger than royalty you know, three pages in the Racing Post. Must have been special.

“He did a lot to help everybody. Always well respected, he thought about other people. He wasn’t selfish. He was a good horseman, fairly good jockey, not tops but alright. A great writer – and a sad loss.”

Rising weight saw O’Ryan’s riding career come to an end after 12 years – and he soon became a race reader for Raceform, The Racing Post’s longstanding northern correspondent until relatively recently and a regular contributor to the York Press. Rightly, the Horserace Writers and Photographers Association named him journalist of the year in 2002 – the most sought-after award in the press box.

Yet his love of racing meant he could combine these duties while broadcasting for Racing UK – his easy-going warmth, and brilliant TV tributes to Sir AP McCoy and Frankel for example, made him a firm favourite with viewers – while riding out for the aforementioned Fahey yard where he became a father figure and confidante to countless young jockeys.

Understated, and with a cigarette never far away, O’Ryan’s approach to life – “Jack of all trades, master of precisely none” – did a disservice to a self-deprecating individual who did so much for racing that the jockeys’ apprentice title should be permanently renamed in his honour. As Racing UK front-man Nick Luck said, his late colleague offered a horseman’s insight and journalist’s instinct in spades.

Countless riders benefited from expert coaching on an exercise horse at O’Ryan’s home, and more recently Jack Berry House, and he was the master of the form book and race-riding on the course. He usually referred to all and sundry as ‘pal’ – and he meant it. Nothing, however, gave him greater pride than a Yorkshire success – and he was as elated as anyone when Sue and Harvey Smith’s Auroras Encore won the 2013 Grand National. He understood what racing meant to owners, trainers and jockeys alike.

His distinctive North Yorkshire vowels meant he was in popular demand at speaking engagements – whether it be charity fundraisers or funeral eulogies. He was racing’s man for all seasons. Just as happy working at Catterick on a wet winter Wednesday as York in high summer, he still rode out for Fahey until 2013 when a freak accident in his garden – he was struck in the back by a flying fence post while cutting grass in a field – left him in intensive care at Hull Royal Infirmary, his rescue subsequently screened on the BBC’s Helicopter Heroes with the trademark profanities edited out.

After recovering from this horrific ordeal, he remained intrinsic to the recent success of the Fahey yard and its jockeys, including rookie rider Adam McNamara who won York’s Ebor seven days ago on heartbreak City for Irish trainer Tony Martin.

O’Ryan would have been so proud, the 19-year-old teenage jockey saying in tribute: “He was a true gentleman, horseman, a great mentor, but most importantly a good friend.”

The first public inkling of the seriousness of O’Ryan’s lung cancer came on July 29 when he tweeted: “Thanks to you all. Tough cancer battle ahead. Been involved in greatest game of all with the best of people. Been lucky for 61 years.”

Overwhelmed by messages of goodwill, he added: “Can’t say enough. Thank u everyone for your best wishes. Won’t be any replies - hope u understand - but everyone thanked profusely...”

Thomas Edward O’Ryan died on Tuesday aged 61. He is survived by his wife Wendy and his brother Robin who is assistant trainer at the Fahey yard. Jockeys’ wore black armbands on Wednesday in tribute to their greatest supporter, with Fahey himself summing up the sport’s collective grief with these heartfelt words: “Racing is a poorer sport without him in it.”