PJ McDonald in the running to steer Laurens to glory at Newbury

PJ McDonald and Lucy Burke celebrate the win of Laurens in the French Oaks.
PJ McDonald and Lucy Burke celebrate the win of Laurens in the French Oaks.
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EVEN though jockey PJ McDonald will deservedly take the plaudits if Laurens – Yorkshire’s reigning horse of the year – makes a winning comeback today it is the hard yards behind-the-scenes that are just as important and integral to the filly’s success.

Now four, Karl Burke’s stable star lines up in today’s Group One Lockinge Stakes at Newbury – the first race of an ambitious 2019 campaign that will see Laurens attempt to assert herself as the champion miler in the country.

Lucy Burke (right) leads in Laurens after the horse, and jockey PJ McDonald, won the French Oaks last year.

Lucy Burke (right) leads in Laurens after the horse, and jockey PJ McDonald, won the French Oaks last year.

Owned by investment banker John Dance, Laurens recorded her first Group One success when winning Newmarket’s Fillies’ Mile under McDonald before going on to claim four victories at the highest level last year in Britain, France and Ireland, including the French Oaks.

And while she rounded off 2018 with a below-par run behind the tenacious Roaring Lion in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot last October, the jockey has been waiting for today’s race ever since connections confirmed that Laurens would stay in training.

Yet it is not without its sacrifices. When the multi-tasking McDonald answered his mobile phone yesterday morning the Leyburn-based rider was quick to say: “I’m on the treadmill having a run.”

A less glamorous aspect of a rider’s life, he needed to run five miles, or thereabouts, in order to maintain his racing sharpness and make his 8st 7lb weight limit at York yesterday.

Like the travelling up and down the country it is part of the job and lifestyle. “You have to be fit. You have to be ready. I’m not different to any other lad in the weighing room,” said McDonald, whose example saw him elected the Flat president of the Professional Jockeys’ Association last year. “You have to put the work in.”

While horses like Laurens continue to take his career to new heights following a successful switch from National Hunt racing more than a decade ago, McDonald is quick to single out the importance of stable staff who care for horses while jockeys are at races.

In particular he believes the success of Laurens is also down, in no small part, to the commitment of the trainer’s daughter Lucy, who rides the filly each day on the Middleham gallops.

“I’ve sat on Laurens about five or six times this year – Lucy rides her every day and does most of the core work,” McDonald told The Yorkshire Post. “She knows her inside out. She knows if she is having a good day or a bad day. She picks up all the little things that other people may not. The stable staff are vital – you can’t do the job without them. They are the unsung heroes.”

Yet all the evidence suggests Laurens is primed for today’s tough test against colts and fillies, Lord Glitters from the North Yorkshire yard of David O’Meara just one of several notable adversaries.

McDonald hopes and believes Laurens will improve for the run, just as she did after beginning her 2018 campaign by finishing second to Billesdon Brook in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket. “She’s a once in a lifetime horse and it’s great to be taking part, and even better to have a chance of winning,” enthused the rider whose no-nonsense approach is epitomised by the frontrunning tactics that he will, in all likelihood, attempt to adopt to great effect.

“You don’t get a chance to ride horses like her every day – and I’ve been waiting weeks for this day. Whatever happens she will have a big year and the Lockinge isn’t the be-all and end-all. She’s fit and she won’t be lacking for fitness. You can only get them so fit at home without running them. You saw how much she improved from the Guineas last year and I think she’s improved physically and mentally.”

McDonald’s view is shared by the horse’s trainer. “She bossed the females last year, and I think she can do the same to the boys. I think the mile division probably lacks a star and I hope she can fill that gap,” said Burke.

“She’s a high-class horse, and we think she’s improved again. She certainly has improved physically – she’s probably got quicker as she’s got stronger. I think the programme of races over a mile suits her better.

“Arguably the Lockinge and the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot will be her two toughest races because after that she can go back in against fillies – apart from the Breeders’ Cup if we end up there. It would be lovely to finish her career out there.”