Back in the saddle nine years later

Story by Tadhg Carey

Friday, 5th July, 2019 3:17pm

Back in the saddle nine years later

Paddy Merrigan (left) with Anthony Connell, his personal trainer.

 

It was a day when autumn was turning to winter. Sometime in late October 2018.

Paddy Merrigan, a precociously talented but then washed-up ex-jockey from Athlone, weighing 16 stone and fresh off a bottle of whiskey and a heap of drugs, faced the greatest battle of his life – to thwart the suicidal thoughts that crowded his brain.
Fast forward just eight months later, and Merrigan (32) is back working as a professional jockey and sitting in an Athlone coffee shop recounting the story of how that pivotal day catapulted him into the saddle again.
By any standards, it's an utterly remarkable sporting comeback, and a bullish Merrigan is determined it's only the start of a personal tale of redemption he hopes can inspire others in similar situations.
To understand the highs and lows of Paddy's life, you need to go back to the beginning to when a young Merrigan mesmerised by the Grand National on television committed to immersing himself in the equestrian world.

 

The beginning
After taking up pony racing at the age of 12, Merrigan's natural ability was quickly spotted.
He soon impressed on the Irish National Hunt scene and in the middle of 2004 at the age of just 17, he headed off like young starlets of so many sports on a quest to find the gold-paved streets of London.
Over the next few years, Merrigan was a shooting star across the skies of British jump racing; his stunning horsemanship lit up the staid, overcast world of tweed jackets - his unerring ability to find the self-destruct button brought him crashing down to earth.
Success came naturally and swiftly: his first double was secured at Wetherby just after his 18th birthday.
In the 2005/2006 season, he finished third in the conditional jockeys' championship, despite having quit his trainer's yard at Christmas after an incident with an air gun.
The following year he was making headlines for all the right reasons and was neck and neck with Brian Hughes for the conditional jockeys' title when he walked out on his then trainer Peter Bowen after being taken off one of the stable's main horses for a big race.
Merrigan is determined now to fix his gaze on the future and not the past – but when questioned admits that back then he was unable to handle the pressures of top level sport.
“I was a child. I left for England when I was 17 years old. I competed against the best jockeys in the world and I had camera crews in my face every day and the mainstream media writing about me,” he says.
“I was too immature to deal with the ups and downs. I was too passionate. My passion f**ked me. I loved the game, I loved the horses I rode. I was too attached. When it went wrong, I couldn't handle it,” he says, with a directness that seems to be a core part of his make up.
“I always wanted more. One thing about me was I could win on a horse and still be disappointed if I wasn't spot on. And that was my downfall," he tells the Westmeath Independent.
As seems to be the case for many top-class sportspeople, for him the joy of winning was transitory and fleeting. A will-o-the-wisp to be relentlessly pursued. Like an addict chasing yet another fix.

He explains: “There's a massive thrill, the feeling of winning a race. I got the thrill crossing the line. The minute I got back on the ground, it was gone and I needed it again.”
After walking away at the end of 2007, there were a number of comebacks to racing in the following two or three years that later faltered and faded away.
“I tried to come back a few times after that. It just never worked out. I had a load of personal problems. I was no good at it any more. I hated it. I had to walk away in the end,” he explains.
Even then, the long shadow cast by his dark demons was blocking out the bright sparkle of his talent.
There's a picture of Merrigan from that time which he recently shared on his Facebook page. It's taken during one of his short-lived comebacks, after a victory in Sandown.
Paddy doesn't remember the details (it was a win on Blazing Buck on November 7, 2009) but he recalls the reason behind his unflinching glare. 
He was suffering from a severe depression at the time that no one knew about.
“Sandown,” he remembers, pausing momentarily. “I drove out that gate contemplating killing myself. At that stage, winning, it meant nothing to me.”
By January 2010, Merrigan had ridden his last horse as a professional jockey – or so it seemed. Another name to chalk down on the roll call of nearly-men who could have been contenders. 
Until...

 

The last decade
The intervening years were tough at times.
Initially, he rode out with the Derwins in Athlone, worked at selling horses and on various other adventures but the same pattern would reoccur. He could work away successfully for months and then simply go off the rails. 
And all the time the guilt of not fulfilling his talent was gnawing away inside, chewing up him until there was nothing left.
He admits to gorging on drink, drugs, gambling and women in an attempt to both replace the highs of racing and to mask depression.
Taunted by the voice of failure in his own head and plagued by the comments of those who sneered at him, he used his addictions to escape.
Writing on his Facebook blog, he says: “I was sick of hearing 'You had a big future in racing but you threw it all away' and 'How does it feel to be the biggest waste of natural talent I've met?'
“So once again I would go on the mad drink/drug/gambling fuelled bender that could last for months at a time to block out the dark thoughts from the guilt.

I had become an addict, a bad Dad, a bad brother and bad son,” he says on his Facebook page.
“I knew the only way I could have peace of mind was to come clean and face my problems head on to overcome them. And rebuild my life and get back to a sport that is all I've known since I was a kid.”
And so to that fateful October day in 2018. Faced with a simple choice; in the words of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption: 'Get busy living or get busy dying.'
For Merrigan, living was racing. It was his whole life. So that which had sent him tumbling into the abyss was what could provide him with his only stepping stone back up again.
“I had to go back. It was the only way I could turn my life around. I would have taken my own life, if I didn't (go back racing). It as simple as that.
“Only I survived that day and I came out of it and it was pretty much either go back racing or I'd be dead in an hour, or a day or a week.”
He rang his friend Anthony Connell, a personal trainer who runs Rogue Aesthetics and Performance, who had over the years offered to train him if he ever wanted to return to horse racing.
“I just rang him one day and I said 'I'm done with the drugs, the drink, the gambling and I'm going back into horse racing.' I was 16 stone and I was fresh off a bottle of whiskey and a heap of drugs.”
He made the decision to chronicle his journey on social media, through a Facebook page, Mad Merrigan, which now has over 4,800 followers.
The blog has two purposes. It helps Paddy by providing him with accountability, and he hopes it can serve to inspire others.
It's not that he believes he has all the answers. In fact, he wants people to take their own learning from his experiences.
Paddy explains: “I say this on the blog everyday. I'm worse off than you are now. I'm not a successful person shouting into a camera.
“I'm only fresh off it. I'm only off the boat. I'm not in the clear. If I can do it so can you.”

 

The comeback
And with the same single-minded passion that twelve years ago elevated him to the top ranks of his chosen sport, Merrigan began to knuckle down to his programme, training at least twice a day in the Radisson Blu Hotel gym where he said the staff have been fantastic and with Martin Ward at Na Fianna Mixed Martial Arts gym. 
His personal trainer Anthony explained the thought process that shaped the training programme.
“We decided to put him on a high intensity workout and to make sure that his work outs were done within 45 minutes.”
Each workout was designed to ensure that, after he got off the treadmill or bike, his metabolism was still firing on all cylinders later on at home.
Anthony says: “We wanted to make sure the training we were doing would increase the longevity of his career rather than just smashing him so hard that he wouldn't be able to get up and train the next day.”
Diet was a key part of the plan with Paddy under strict instructions as to his kitchen habits.
Since that time in late October, Merrigan's rigorous regime has seen him lose over five stone, successfully regain his jockey's licence and return to professional racing, with trainer Paul Flynn in south Longford.
Written in those few sentences, it seems almost mundane. But it's a truly phenomenal recovery.
“Nobody gave me a prayer and no one is going to take it away from me. I got back because I put the work in and because that man there (Anthony) was by my side," Paddy declares.
A bloody-minded, obstinate determination to prove the doubters wrong (and himself right) has also helped to fuel his journey to date.
“I was proving everyone wrong,” Paddy explains. “The same people that said I couldn't lose the weight, they'll say I couldn't go down as one of the best ever in the sport, and make no mistake about it, I didn't lose five and a half stone to get a pat on the back and a 'Well done Paddy'. I lost five and a half stone because I genuinely believe I am as good as any jockey that ever rode in this game, past or present.”
In early February, Merrigan secured a job riding out five days a week with trainer Gordon Elliott.
The plan was initially to return to the saddle, maybe in America, by September.
As a jockey sometimes pre-race plans go out the window in the heat of battle and you have got to judge the pace of the race as it unfolds.
And so it was that in Killarney, on May 13, 2019, over nine years from when he last faced the starter on a race track, Athlone's Paddy Merrigan re-entered the weighing room, pulled on his silks and heard the crowd's roar.
In the last two months, he has surpassed his own expectations. He's had 15 rides, mainly for Paul Flynn and among them one in the distinctive colours of Gigginstown House for Gordon Elliott. So far there's been two seconds and a third. 
“Paul Flynn has been absolutely brilliant. Paul has just put his neck on the line for me.
“He is doing me a great turn,” he says, before realising that he is selling himself short. So he corrects himself and says: “He has given me the rides because he thinks I'm good enough.”
“He is a great man with a horse and it would be fantastic if locals could support him more.”

For Paddy Merrigan, the journey has only begun. 
His next challenge is to get to a riding weight of 10' 8” in six to eight weeks. And he knows what he wants the ultimate destination of this journey to be.
He dreams of – or should that be visualises - returning to the very top of his sport, being champion jockey, and riding well into his 40s.
But you can't get to the finish line if you don't get over the very next hurdle or fence so he focuses instead on the little steps, the daily improvements.
“The plan is to focus on how I can become a better man and better jockey every day. I'm not going in begging no one for anything. But I plan on forcing everyone's hands down the line by my ability.
“I have faith. I know my ability. How can I make myself a super fit man... If I turn up in shape, super fit, I'll get rides off anybody.

 

The future
“It's just time. It's hard work for years, keep my head down. I need to work hard for two or three years,” he realises.
Merrigan's story to date has made waves across the sport.
In recent times he has been followed by a TG4 film crew for a documentary due out in October. They had heard a radio interview with Midlands 103 and made contact.
“I left myself vulnerable in this. I talked about my beliefs as being one of the best jockeys in the world. I talked about the worst day of my life. I talked about all the drugs I took. I talk about suicide, I talk about depression, I talk about the day I was going to kill myself. It has it all.”
'It has it all' – it could be the title of Paddy Merrigan's autobiography if he chose to write one. 
But there's material ahead for plenty of chapters and Merrigan is in no doubt about the nature of any future content.
“Winners are coming and they are going to come in bunches.”

 

The Samaritans are available on freecall 116123 24 hours a day if you need to talk about anything in confidence.  You can also text 087 2609090 at any time or email: jo@samaritans.ie

Paddy's Facebook blog Mad Merrigan is at @inspiration2thenation

 

 

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