Why Group One-winning jockey PJ McDonald will have a different mindset when racing resumes

LIKE all jockeys, PJ McDonald has had time to reflect during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jockey PJ McDonald is looking forward to the resumption of racing.

“I’m going to enjoy my riding more,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

“And I’m going to appreciate the good things that are happening rather than waste my time on the bad things.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The 38-year-old is speaking at daybreak yesterday as he drives to Newmarket to ride out for trainer James Tate.

PJ McDonald celebrates the 2017 French Oaks win of Laurens.

Even though there’s no Government confirmation, the working assumption is Flat racing will resume on June 1.

McDonald is certainly refreshed. The father-of-two has enjoyed the time with his young family in Leyburn. “It was my first Easter with the kids, I’m normally working,” he says.

As the Professional Jockeys Association’s president for Flat riders, he’s also been involved in daily calls over the sport’s resumption which has given him real insight into the behind-the-scenes work and politics.

But, first and foremost, he’s a professional sportsman and the priority now is making sure that he’s in peak condition for the restart when it comes.

PJ McDonald enjoyed multiple success who is pictured winning the Group One Fillies' Mile at Newmarket in 2016.

Past successes, says McDonald who recorded a career-best 132 winners on the Flat last season, count for nothing. “We all start from a blank sheet of paper,” he says.

And, like all professional sports, this means making sure athletes – both equine and human – are in peak condition.

“It’s not only horses that have to be fit,” explains McDonald whose career has been taken to new heights by his association with multiple Group One winner Laurens.

“We’ve got to be fit and sharp as well as jockeys. You have to keep a feel for the game and the horses you are riding for. I basically stayed at home for six to seven weeks through the worst of it (lockdown) to make sure the family are safe and sound.

PJ McDonald after Summer Moon's win at last year's Ebor festival at York.

“I’ve been backing riding out for two weeks – more so on exciting young horses – and I’ve been to Mark’s (Johnson), Karl’s (Burke) and Jedd’s (O’Keeffe) and others, people who I ride for a lot.

“Once you start sitting on these unraced horses, it gets you psyched up raring to go. It’s exciting but, at the same time, you have to be very wary and very cautious of what is going on in the wider world.”

As the spokesman for Flat riders, McDonald is mindful of the balance that must be struck between public health – and the need for all those in racing to earn a living.

In daily contact with senior PJA officials like Dale Gibson, he says he is “blown away” by the amount of work taking place so the sport can resume safely.

One day, he says, is encouraging and then the next – just like a race – “leaves you back on your hocks” because of the politics of racing, and the wider country, at a time of crisis.

Even the content and tone of 10 Downing Street’s daily briefings have mattered. “There’s always stuff to do but the jockeys have been brilliant throughout this,” says the rider who won the 2007 Scottish Grand National on Hot Weld for the late Ferdy Murphy before switching codes.

“The lads want to get back to work but they want to make sure it is safe – not just for them, you know what I mean, but everyone.

“The majority of them are family men and they have families to think of. Racing behind closed doors, not being able to use the showers or saunas, it’s not going to ideal for anybody.

“Not for jockeys, Not for trainers. Not for owners. Is everybody going to be 100 per cent happy going racing under these circumstances? Probably not.

“It’s going to be an alien environment, something we’ve never experienced before, but I’m confident all the racecourses will be as safe as they can be because of all the work that has gone on.”

McDonald is acutely aware of Covid-19’s economic cost and why it will be in the sport’s best interests if all participants fully respect protocols on social distancing and public health.

It’s even more reason, he says, why he’s conscious of the need to change his mindset after enjoying so much success with Laurens – Flat racing’s ‘Queen of the North’ – who has now been retired and is in foal.

Owned by John Dance and trained by Karl Burke, the jockey’s appreciation of the champion racehorse, and her successes, is profound.

“She proved that if the horse is good enough, I’m a big enough rider on the big day,” he explained. “She proved that I could compete at the top level and not let the occasion get to me. You never know these things until the day.

“It’s proving the same thing also to trainers and other owners. When they have the confidence to put me up on the big day, that they know I can get the job done.

“She lifted my profile. She made me a Classic-winning jockey (French Oaks) and a Group One-winning jockey. They seemed little achievements at the time, but now I look back...

“If I rode a big winner, as soon as I was off, I was thinking where the horse would run next – or where am I going to ride my next big winner?

“You haven’t enjoyed it as much as you should. You’ve not taken a step back and enjoyed what you are doing. That’s what I mean, you know, when I say I want to enjoy my racing. Appreciate it. Hopefully it can help me improve too.”

And it also explains why Covid-19 has given PJ McDonald a new perspective on life – one which he hopes will serve the whole of racing well as it begins its own comeback trail.

“If there’s some good to come out of all this madness, it is people – not just in racing but everywhere – appreciate what a good position we were in and how good our lives were,” adds the rider who is particularly excited by the prospect of riding Jedd O’Keeffe’s unraced three-year-old filly Continental.

“We’re no different from any other industry or workplace. The country will take a massive, massive hit and the participants of our sport are all going to take a hit.

“But it’s a matter of getting back on our feet, doing the best we can and rebuilding for next year. First, let’s get June out of the way.”

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

Almost certainly you are here because you value the quality and the integrity of the journalism produced by The Yorkshire Post’s journalists - almost all of which live alongside you in Yorkshire, spending the wages they earn with Yorkshire businesses - who last year took this title to the industry watchdog’s Most Trusted Newspaper in Britain accolade.

And that is why I must make an urgent request of you: as advertising revenue declines, your support becomes evermore crucial to the maintenance of the journalistic standards expected of The Yorkshire Post. If you can, safely, please buy a paper or take up a subscription. We want to continue to make you proud of Yorkshire’s National Newspaper but we are going to need your help.

Postal subscription copies can be ordered by calling 0330 4030066 or by emailing [email protected] Vouchers, to be exchanged at retail sales outlets - our newsagents need you, too - can be subscribed to by contacting subscriptions on 0330 1235950 or by visiting www.localsubsplus.co.uk where you should select The Yorkshire Post from the list of titles available.

If you want to help right now, download our tablet app from the App / Play Stores. Every contribution you make helps to provide this county with the best regional journalism in the country.

Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson