Athlone jockey Stevie Donohoe on Mainstream, a horse owned by Queen Elizabeth II and trained by Michael Stoute.

Athlone native on life as a professional jockey in England

As somebody who has carved out a career as a jockey in the tough world of professional horse racing, Stevie Donohoe knows the value of perseverance.

This quality was needed more than ever in 2020 which the Athlone native describes as “a disaster of a year”. Predictably, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on sport was the main source of the difficulties.

“Everyone struggled in the racing industry apart from the big lads who held their ships together. But the guys at the foundation level really struggled and it will take a bit of time for some normality to come back,” says the experienced flat racing jockey.

In addition to the problems caused by Covid-19, Stevie had a wrist injury which he sustained before taking part in an international jockey challenge event in Barbados. While the event in Barbados has a competitive element, it’s also a chance for jockeys to enjoy a bit of downtime away from the usual grind. While taking part in a race there, Stevie noticed his injury hadn’t healed and he eventually needed keyhole surgery.

If he had known that Covid-19 was going to intervene, he would have got the injury dealt with sooner, and Stevie admits this period was “a nightmare”.

However, 2020 also had some very memorable moments for the Athlone man.

Winning the John Smith Cup with Sinjaari in York was Donohoe’s personal highlight of 2020, but even this success was tinged with a negative twist, with Stevie pointing out that the prize money was slashed by a considerable amount.

“Because of Covid, a lot of sponsorship was cut but I couldn’t believe the amount the prize money was reduced in the year I won the race,” says Stevie. Still, he was pleased to win a race of such prestige on a horse trained by William Haggas.

Stevie’s victory on Kentucky Hardboot at Great Yarmouth last June attracted a great deal of attention.

“That race got a lot of air time because of the way the horse won the race – coming from way back in the field. It wasn’t a really big win but people picked up on it because of the dramatic finish,” says Stevie.

Another dimension to the race was the difficulty Stevie had in getting the horse into the stalls at the start. But it wasn’t a case of Kentucky Hardboot mending his ways thereafter. “I couldn’t get that horse into the stalls in two races after that,” Stevie adds light-heartedly.

Stevie’s 2017 victory in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot, on board Rajasinghe, is among the sweetest of his career. “I was involved with that horse from day one which made it even more special,” he recalls.

Kielan Woods is another Athlone native who is working as a jockey in England, though he’s in the jumping game rather than flat racing.

“Kielan is a great jump jockey and I’ve kept an eye on his career,” says Stevie. “I’ve never been on the jumps. The jump jockeys are bigger, heavier lads than the likes of me. Thankfully I’ve managed to keep my weight down.

“I’d be watching some of the jump racing though my fingers,” he adds with a laugh.

When Stevie spoke to the Westmeath Independent, he was driving to Wolverhampton for a race (as things transpired, he finished third on ‘Blow Your Horn’).

“I’ve been here in England a long time and it’s not easy sometimes. To get into the car and drive for two and a half hours for one race in the middle of winter, those are the days that are the killer. But it’s just your job, and any job has good days and bad days, so you just get on with it.”

Covid-19 has made things more difficult for “journeyman jockeys” as Stevie describes himself in self-deprecating fashion.

“There has always been an emphasis on results but I think they have become even more important because trainers and owners are under more pressure. There is a knock-on effect and some high profile jockeys you wouldn’t normally see on the circuit are now riding in smaller races.”

This makes things harder for young jockeys who are trying to establish themselves, according to Stevie. “If a few races don’t go well for them, trainers might think their confidence has taken a knock,” says the Westmeath native.

Stevie lives close to Newmarket, having moved a short distance from his previous base in Cambridge.

Stevie’s partner Jenny Powell is “steeped in the horse racing game”. She’s the daughter of former jockey Brendan Powell, who rode Rhyme ‘N’ Reason to Grand National success and is now a trainer. Jenny’s brother, Brendan Jnr is also a jockey.

Now 36 years old, Stevie admits that moving on to training horses is something he has considered, but he’s acutely aware of the challenges involved. Moving back to Ireland if the right opportunity comes along is also something that has crossed his mind.

“I’m getting on a bit and I’m always looking over the fence to see what I’ll do next,” he says.

In the immediate future, he has the option of working for a spell in Mauritius, where the racing scene is very different than in the UK or Ireland. “It would be an intense job and the race tracks wouldn’t be as good as in England,” says Stevie, adding that the evolving Covid-19 situation and consequent uncertainty over travelling will be factors in whatever decision he makes.

“Everyone is sitting on the fence and nobody knows what’s going to happen. There was even talk of racing getting knocked on the head. I think if racing and football weren’t allowed to take place at all, people would go off their nut.”

But Stevie has no issue with racing being held behind closed doors and he feels Ireland has been correct in being “stricter” than England regrading Covid-19 regulations. He feels that while people were afraid to go out when the first lockdown was imposed in England, many people now seem to be trying to get around the restrictions.

Jockeys are required to wear masks as far as the stalls, something which is “alien” to Stevie and his fellow competitors, and he’s relieved they are not required to wear them while racing.

Stevie is grateful for the financial backing of UK Meds managing director Joe Soiza, describing him as “a massive supporter of horse racing”.

From The Derries in Athlone, Stephen took his first steps in the equestrian game with the Derwin family, whose riding school is located close to where he grew up. He is full of praise for Jim and Francis Derwin for the way they passed on their knowledge. He’d spend his days riding ponies and horses and doing other work in their equestrian centre.

“I was fearless in those days; I’d get up on anything - ponies or horses,” recalls Stevie.

As time went on Stevie gained more experience by riding ponies for Athlone’s Gerry Moran. Then, having trained in the RACE academy in Kildare, he really underlined his potential by becoming British Champion Apprentice in 2006.

In 2018, Stevie was involved in a bizarre incident when he was banned for three days, after weighing in two pounds lighter than he was before a race in Ascot.

“The BBC got hold of it and Twitter was hopping about it, but it was blown out of proportion,” recalls Stevie, explaining that it was a technical breach.

Stevie felt there was no point in contesting the ban of three days. “I always say it wasn’t my fault but I had to take the blame,” says Stevie philosophically. “The horse got demoted which was unfair (Fighting Irish had finished fourth but was later disqualified)”.

It was just another example of the ups and downs of being a professional jockey.

Stevie is grateful to the support over the years of his mother Joan and stepfather Peter, and one of his biggest supporters, his grandmother Eileen Egan, who lives in Retreat Park, Athlone.

“My granny loves horse racing. With the Covid restrictions, she probably can’t put a bet on at the moment unless she gets my uncle to do it, but she has a great interest in the sport,” he adds.

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