Weekend Interview: PJ McDonald – Handling the reins for the safety and welfare of jockeys

In charge: PJ McDonald is the new Flat president of the Professional Jockeys Association. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
In charge: PJ McDonald is the new Flat president of the Professional Jockeys Association. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Jockey PJ McDonald is talking animatedly about the future of racing when he suddenly becomes distracted.

One of his young daughters has become perched on the armchair and is pretending to ride the finish of a race.

In the parade ring: PJ McDonald at Catterick this week.

In the parade ring: PJ McDonald at Catterick this week.

Then the doting dad quips: “I hope she’s better than me.”

If she is – and here’s hoping – racing’s future will be in safe hands. It will be thanks, in no small part, to her North Yorkshire-based father, who remains in the form of his life thanks to high-profile successes.

Now a Classic-winning rider after Laurens won the French Oaks last month, he has just been appointed the Flat president of the Professional Jockeys Association. A prestigious role that he shares with National Hunt champion Richard Johnson, who represents jump jockeys, he is the spokesman for his weighing room colleagues.

While the accolade is a reflection of his big-race successes, it is also a measure of the high esteem in which McDonald is held. Not yet the sport’s biggest name, he is certainly one of the most respected as he succeeded Steve Drowne, who is training to become a steward after hanging up his riding boots.

Saturday sports interview.'Jockey PJ McDonald, the new president of the Professional Jockeys Association

Saturday sports interview.'Jockey PJ McDonald, the new president of the Professional Jockeys Association

McDonald, who lives in Leyburn, has been the North’s safety officer for the Flat since he joined the professional jockeys’ trade association and, in effect, the jockeys’ union, in 2010.

Yet to describe him as a ‘shop steward’ does a disservice to a no-nonsense man who believes in dialogue, and working with others, for the sport’s betterment.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but I like to get my opinions across,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview to mark his appointment. “It’s all about the youngsters coming through and their experience of the sport.

“Things haven’t always been so good. Now things are improving and changing and we’re in a position to make life – and racing will always be a tough life – better for the next generation. If we talk, and get on, 99 per cent of people in racing want the best. Hopefully, we can sort things before they’re a problem.”

By this, McDonald means the PJA’s successful campaign to modify the sport’s ever growing fixture list so there are two natural breaks in the calendar for Flat riders.

Safety and welfare are paramount. It is why evening and twilight meetings will finish no later than 8.30pm in winter months – McDonald is acutely aware how late-night racing, and travel, can take its toll on all racing staff, not just riders.

It is why, for example, he drove from his Leyburn home last year to Ayr to assess ground conditions at the Scottish track before its high-profile Gold Cup meeting. Jockeys, he says, should have an input because of the inherent risks to horse and rider.

It is why, he says, he offered his advice when York Racecourse rebuilt its weighing room – and why the PJA believes all tracks should provide riders with nutritious food to reflect their status as high-performance elite competitors.

It is all part of the PJA and McDonald’s mission to give something back. Yet, ironically, the 36-year-old’s appointment this month – universally welcomed by the sport and its leading lights – coincided with Flat racing’s busiest period. Asked how he is now addressed by his fellow riders, he says: “There are a few jokes going around but we’re all that busy that the lads have other things to be thinking about.”

In McDonald’s case, it is his big-race success in the saddle just over a decade after he switched to the Flat to stay fit, and race sharp, following his 2007 Scottish Grand National triumph over steeplechase fences on Ferdy Murphy’s Hot Weld. Once he lost weight, he felt healthier – and the results speak for themselves.

A landmark Group One success on the Karl Burke-trained Laurens last year was followed this year by further top-flight success in the Prix Saint-Alary at Longchamp before adding the Prix de Diane – the French Oaks – when owner John Dance’s horse of a lifetime repelled all-comers in a blanket finish.

However, the unflappable McDonald is fazed, albeit momentarily, when asked what meant more to him – these Group One success or the PJA accolade? “It’s an unfair question,” he complains before coming down on the side of Laurens.

“Obviously riding. That’s where I am at the minute and it’s my main priority. Laurens is good and should be spot on for the Yorkshire Oaks next month. Physically, she’s strengthened up. She finishes her races off. She’s battle-hardened. If Karl and his team can eke out a bit more improvement, she should handle the step up in trip to a mile-and-a-half. It’s brilliant to be involved in a horse like this.”

Yet McDonald, who enjoyed big-race success on the Burke-trained sprinter Havana Grey last weekend, is not getting carried away. Though he is becoming established as a regular Group One jockey, rather than an occasional rider, in these elite races, he knows that a split-second can be the difference between victory and defeat.

“You don’t go into a Group One expecting to win it,” he says. “Once you get to that level, nearly three-quarters of the field expect to win. They are all very good horses and you need a bit of luck along the way. I’ve been in it long enough to realise anything can happen.”

Born in County Wexford, McDonald became involved with horses when he visited his grandmother’s cottage where her lambs roamed with some ponies owned by his friend Kieran Roche that he started to ride.

By his own admission, McDonald did not have the mental strength – or application – to make a success of riding in Ireland and it took a move to Yorkshire, and Murphy, to kick-start his career.

Yet, while his career could be described as one of steady progress until relatively recently, he credits the influence of wife Abby, whom he met at Murphy’s West Witton stables, and their young daughters Amelia, four, and Lavinia, who will be two in October.

Asked to pinpoint the turning point in his career, he says: “When I met Abby and settled down, things went from there. The kids are great, too. They remind you that there’s more to life than racing.”

This is pertinent to McDonald when the weighing room’s father-figure is asked to dispense advice to the young apprentices at the start of their careers.

“You’ve got to listen,” he adds as he reflects on his rise to prominence. “Patience. You get one ride and you think you should have 10. Store up the experience. It’s being mentally ready. If you keep your head down and work hard, you will get your chance.”

Just like PJ McDonald.

The PJ McDonald story...

JOCKEY PJ McDonald moved to Britain as an apprentice rider in 2005 to further his career.

He initially rode over jumps for Ferdy Murphy and his biggest success came in 2007 when Hot Weld won the Scottish National.

Yet, after spending the summer riding on the Flat, he made the switch permanent.

To date, McDonald has had over 7,000 career rides, with 37 jump winners and around 750 Flat winners.

His best year to date came in 2017 with 128 winners from 887 rides, including a breakthrough Group One success on Laurens.

This year, McDonald’s successes include Group One victories in the Prix de Diane and Prize Saint Alary on Laurens.

Yet, while he is retained by increasingly influential North East owner John Dance and has built a strong alliance with Leyburn trainer Karl Burke, McDonald is also regularly used by Middleham’s Mark Johnston, who is on the brink of becoming British racing’s winning-most trainer.

McDonald became Flat president of the Professional Jockeys Association this month in succession to Steve Drowne, who is training to become a stipendiary steward.

Nigel Payne, the PJA chairman, told The Yorkshire Post: “PJ is extremely well respected. He’s no-nonsense and gets on with the job without a fuss.”