“I was a 22-year-old seven-pound claimer when I moved here. Now champion jockeys are riding Group One winners when they are 22,” McDonald told The Yorkshire Post.
Yet there has been one constant – McDonald’s insatiable work ethic – and that saw him become the latest jockey to reach the landmark 1,000-winner mark courtesy of Mark Johnston’s Zabeel Champion at Newmarket.
A victory that sparked scenes of spontaneous joy on ITV Racing as it saluted one of the weighing room’s most popular members, it needs to be set in the context of the jockey’s formative years with Ferdy Murphy.
McDonald was, initially, a jump jockey who landed the 2007 Scottish National on Ayr. Yet it was Murphy, who died last September, who convinced McDonald to then spend a summer riding on the Flat following Hot Weld’s victory. And the late trainer’s protégé has never looked back.
Now a multiple Group One-winning rider thanks to his association with Karl Burke’s now-retired Laurens, and the Flat President of the Professional Jockeys Association, Murphy would have been the proudest man in racing.
“When I moved to Ferdy’s, I was only 8st 2lb and I was as fit as a flea,” recalled McDonald, who is now 38. “He said if you want to be a jump jockey, you have to put weight on. At that stage I just wanted to make a living – I didn’t have a plan – but I loved the adrenaline of racing. Ferdy gave me the confidence and he guided me the right way. You need the right people at the right time.
“Of all the decisions, I have made, some good, some bad, that decision to switch to the Flat in 2007 was the best from a racing point of view. I had an option to keep a dual licence but it came down to trying to be the best Flat jockey or the best jump jockey and not try to do both.
“One thousand winners means different things to different riders. I went to Newmarket with Joe (Fanning) who has over 2,500 winners. Yet, for me, it was a sense of achievement because I was a slow starter.”
Just 24 Flat winners in the summer of 2007 was a steady start. Not only had McDonald gained a new lease of life but a family – he had met his future wife Abby at Murphy’s yard and their daughters Amelia, six, and Lavinia, three, are their father’s biggest fans.
Yet the sacrifices remain significant and the post-Covid restriction, limiting jockeys to one meeting a day, has given McDonald time to reflect as a father and as the weighing room’s senior spokesman. “A lot of people don’t realise, but your personal life and social life go out of the window when you are a jockey,” he observed while undertaking a 520-mile round trip to Sandown on Thursday which did, thankfully, yield a winner.
“Racing takes over, and if you want to be the best you can be, that’s what it is. You have to make sacrifices, be smart and work hard. What motivates me is the family. I get up out of bed every morning to do what I do so my kids have everything I didn’t have when I was growing up.
“For me, it’s getting the balance right between family time, and work, and when I get the balance right, I know that is when I ride at my best and I am at my happiest.”
McDonald believes there are sufficient opportunities for all jockeys as racecourses stage up to 10 contests a day as part of a rejigged fixture list. Whether sufficient horses remain in training, he adds, is another matter.
But he says it has prompted many in racing to think about the physical and mental welfare of jockeys. “At the moment, you’re not racing round the country chasing your tail and keeping everyone happy,” he added.
“Everything is up in the air at the moment – nobody knows how it will pan out in six months – but what I do know is that you can’t take your eye off the ball for one moment. There’s plenty of young talent coming through ready to snap your heels off.”
Just like a young PJ McDonald.
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