IT was Einstein who noted that opportunity could be found lurking in the midst of difficulty. Such possibilities might not always be obvious but when you are an optimist by nature, it comes a little easier.
That’s how it is for Seán Flanagan following the severing of his link with Noel Meade. As he sees it, there are many avenues that had been closed off to him that are now ripe for exploring.
He bounces into the cafe after schooling a horse for Barry Connell on the Curragh and you are reminded that while you didn’t know him when he walked to the middle of Punchestown and cried enough, literally, lugubriousness is certainly not his default mode.
That he wasn’t shocked when the split occurred softened the blow a good bit too. It had become apparent to Flanagan that his presence at Tu Va Stables three or four or days a week was unnecessary. He had become a luxury.
“I knew it was on the horizon,” says Flanagan. “Noel has 60 or 70 flat horses… Really, it’s the lack of sureness that it leaves you with about where you stand. But I only rode 10 winners for him last year. It’s not as if I rode 50. There have been years when I rode 25 or 30 winners for him. I rode far more outside winners last year.”
There has been no fallout and they spoke “the other day.” It just came to an end.
“We’ve had a hundred arguments through the years, he says something, I say something and it’s left and two days later, I’d ring him or he’d ring me and it’d be all forgotten about. This argument was the very same and he didn’t ring me and I didn’t ring him, and that was it.
“It was over someone else riding a horse. I said, ‘No, hang on now,’ and he said, ‘No,’ and that was it. Literally, ‘Jaysus, I think I should be riding him,’ and he says, ‘No, he’s riding him.’ And I says, ‘Well I don’t think that’s good enough,’ and he said, ‘That’s grand, I’m going to use best available,’ and I said, ‘That’s grand.’ That was it.
“At the end of the day, he sacked me, I’m not getting away from that.”
Life as a jockey
It is a reminder of the precariousness of life as a jockey, that the perils are not confined to when you are in the saddle. Such jobs don’t come with contracts. You are a sole trader reliant on staying in your employer’s good books.
“It’s very one-sided. Is there many jobs in the country big enough for a contract? That’s probably the bottom line.
“You see a lot of the bigger lads doing what they want anyway. There’s so many riders there in the weigh-room that are struggling and many that are getting on grand but there’s only a handful are really going well.”
How many are making a living?
“I’d say a good living, top 10. At a push. Top seven maybe. And then four or five after that tipping away. And then the rest of them are struggling. You’re self-employed paying your own tax out of what you get for riding in a race.
“You have travel and so many other expenses. Lots of lads ride work or school horses but you mightn’t get paid for that.”
Flanagan describes the reaction since his split with Meade became public as “phenomenal.” He reels off a host of names he has fielded calls from, trainers that are anxious to avail of his talents. It is like a whole new bonus level being unlocked in a computer game.
He will ride out primarily for Gavin Cromwell and Gordon Elliott now, as well as Peter Fahey and O’Connell. John Ryan, Paul Nolan and Shark Hanlon have been in touch and he will continue to keep his hand in with the likes of Adrian Murray, David O’Brien and Liz Doyle, who he has had long associations with.
It is all very fluid still though. He reveals, when his first winner for Willie Mullins at Listowel’s Harvest Festival last September is brought up, that he spent some time in Closutton at the end of the season. If there was an opportunity to spend a morning a week there, it goes to say he would jump at it.
There is no wallowing here. Flanagan knows rock bottom and this isn’t it. When he retired from the game for a month at the beginning of end of 2011, having as he says, “not even had a job to lose,” he was done.
It had all started so promisingly. Too well, in hindsight. He won a couple of graded races for Dusty Sheehy and Colm Murphy – the latter on brilliant mare Voler La Vedette – and also bagged a Thyestes Chase on Whinstone Boy for Jimmy Mangan. But his claim was gone before he turned 21.
When Sheehy was almost wiped out by the recession, Flanagan opted to try his hand with Evan Williams in Wales. But he never got going.
When he came home to ride a horse for a friend that suffered a fatal injury, he could take no more.
Jimmy Kelly gradually persuaded him back though and the enthusiasm soon returned. Liz Doyle provided backing too and then he had a stint in America that went well.
After his return, he met Lauren and seeing as he was passing Tu Va regularly on his way to Armagh to visit her, he decided to make another call to Meade, having initially made contact following Davy Condon’s injury-enforced retirement.
He started riding out and wasn’t there long when Paul Carberry suffered the fall that ended his career. Meade needed a replacement. Flanagan was the right man in the right place.
“I remember after I won the Flogas Novice Chase on Disko at Leopardstown (in 2017) and it was my first Grade 1 winner. And he said to me the next morning, ‘God I didn’t know that was your first Grade 1 winner.’ And I giggled at him and said, ‘I bet you didn’t realise that six months ago you put me up on Monksland in a Grade 1 that it was my first Grade 1 ride either!’ I hadn’t got that experience but at the time he had the horses that were able to bring me to those places.”
Happier days for the Meade stable with Road To Respect after winning the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Chase in Down Royal \ Healy Racing
The partnership with Road To Respect is the one he will cherish the most, yielding as it did three of his six Grade 1s and running a corker in a Gold Cup when finishing fourth. And then there was that Cheltenham winner, on Jeff Kidder in the Fred Winter. The “gas little horse” he has a soft spot for went on to add Grade 2 and Grade 1 honours.
I see where people are coming from, health-wise, but closing the sauna in the weigh room doesn’t stop people sweating
All that is history now but having delivered when supplied with the artillery means he is in demand, so is looking forward. He is not afraid to work hard and recently flew himself to Cartmel for a couple of rides for Fahey.
The advantages of being able to pilot himself are significant and he tells me that he was home before Johnny Burke, even though he was leaving the mainland. He doesn’t know why more riders don’t pursue that avenue in Britain, given the hours spent on the road.
He doesn’t rule out moving across the water if the right offer came along.
“I actually tried Britain before. I gave seven or eight months in it. Didn’t ride a winner. I’d say I had about 25 rides. I worked with Evan Williams. Sound fella, good friends with him still. But I just couldn’t crack it.
“But at the end of the day, I was a young lad, gone out of my claim, no one had a clue who I was. I landed over there and it was the complete wrong thing to do. If I had gone over there with any sort of a claim, I might have had a chance. I couldn’t crack it but did really enjoy it.
“Absolutely, if a job arose, I’d go in the morning.”
He and Lauren got married last year and his wife is now expecting their third child. Lilah just started school and LJ is beginning pre-school. So while a more central location might be handier with his driving set to increase significantly, he won’t drop a bomb on the family equilibrium unless something unfolds that’s more concrete – in so much as such a thing exists in racing.
“My wife is brilliant. She’s, ‘Whatever you need to do.’ But now, it’s whatever we need to do for Lilah and LJ. So we’re gonna stay put until we see where we are unless something pops up.”
The enthusiasm is evident.
“I often wonder what the future will hold when I retire as I don’t really like being in the same place every day. I love different places, seeing how different things are done. And I’ve no bother getting into a car and going three hours to ride out. And it has to be done.
“In order to be a successful rider numerically in Ireland, you have to have your hands on 150-plus horses. You have to be able to get on the best horses.”
A Cheltenham winner - congratulaated by Paul Townend after winning the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle on Jeff Kidder (orange sleeves) for Noel Meade \ Healy Racing
And that will mean making decisions, along with his agent. And, in the spirit of fresh beginnings, he has switched to Garry Cribbin having been on Ruaidhrí Tierney’s books for a long time.
“I was with Ruaidhrí for close to 10 years and he got me back on track but I just felt that the time might be right for a change. Ruaidhrí has been an unreal part of my career and I will be forever grateful for what he has done for me.”
Making such a call wouldn’t have come easy but Flanagan likes being up front and to call it as he sees it, for his betterment but also if he sees it as being for the betterment of his fellow riders.
Fitness and health
He acknowledges that there has been huge progress to what had so long been a hidebound culture in terms of how jockeys were treated and how they approached their own fitness and health. Senior medical officer Jennifer Pugh has played a gigantic role in that, as did her predecessor, Adrian McGoldrick.
The decision to remove saunas from Irish racetracks had long been signposted, after they had been closed during the pandemic, the reasoning being that it wasn’t right for the industry to facilitate jockeys riding while dehydrated.
An added allowance of a pound was given to the riders, but Flanagan was critical of the move.
While the Wexford native found that period through Covid without saunas beneficial on a personal level, he doesn’t think it’s the case for many, who he fears will be driven underground, sweating in a less controlled, safe and healthy manner. And he thinks there will be more problems now as the leading National Hunt riders return from a three-week break.
“I thought it balanced the weights and I still do, when you’re not sweating every day, but that’s me, and I’m only one person. There’s more than me in the weigh-room.
“I still disagree with the removal of the saunas, big time, but it’s done. I see where people are coming from, health-wise, but closing the sauna in the weigh room doesn’t stop people sweating. It just drives people to remotely sweating, and in my opinion, unsafely sweating.
“The amount of people now - and I see it on a daily basis - that get out of the car with sweatsuits on them after driving two hours. You don’t know how much you’re losing.
“You see lads getting in before racing, having been in the bath the night before, getting up at five in the morning to have a bath for an hour before riding out, have ridden out with the sweatsuit on them, drive to racing with the sweatsuit on them and they’ve lost 5lb instead of 3lb, standing on the scales having a drink, having done too much. I cannot see how it’s healthier.
“You could limit someone’s bottom weight and if they want to lose a pound, or a maximum of 2lb, when they get to the races, weigh them and put a cap on what they can lose and how low they can go. That’s what I think should have been done.
“To be fair, Jennifer Pugh does a lot of very good work for Irish racing and she wants to bring that minimum bottom weight in and it will happen but I think it probably needs to be brought in for the younger riders starting and that way, eventually, everyone will have it.”
Flanagan felt a bit isolated by the Irish Jockeys’ Association when he made his comments on the sauna decision and was so irked that he cancelled his membership.
It left him frustrated though by not having a voice on other matters of relevance to jockeys so after six months, he returned.
“It’s a touchy subject. I got plenty praise for standing up but what was frustrating was I was getting praise for standing up but I was standing up, not on my own, but not far off it. And that’s a bit like racing in general.
“If you’re going agin’ the grain, you’re going agin’ it on your own. If people agree with you, they don’t want to stand out. They’d say it privately. I don’t want to stand out either but I’m 34 years old. I’m an independent man.
“The organisation needs a good shake-up. Things need to happen faster. I don’t think jockeys’ voices are heard as much as they should be.
“It’s the old thing too if a jockey says something, ‘You’re whinging again.’ You’re not whinging for the sake of it. Just because one person doesn’t see something doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“We’re not doing things or saying things to give anyone a hard time, we’re doing things to help everyone go forward.”
As a member of the board of Irish Injured Jockeys, he knows of the progress that has been made and the work that is being undertaken on a number of initiatives that will be launched soon.
He does think trainers can play more of a mentoring role for less successful, or younger riders working in their yards, and perhaps be a bit more transparent as regards their intentions for them too. That said, he recognises that trainers are under unprecedented levels of pressure now.
Making things better for those less fortunate than himself and the next crop of riders is important to Flanagan, but the focus must be on his own career.
What is certain is that he will not wait to hit the low ebb of a decade ago. He’ll pack it in before then and having the pilot’s licence gives him a legitimate option for his second career.
Not that he is thinking that way. With his work ethic, it is hard to imagine he won’t be busy while he chases the next Road To Respect.
“I’m easily excited,” he admits with a broad grin. “I’d be a glass-half-full type of lad. That door’s closed, right, let’s go. Game ball, time to keep kicking. All any man wants, it doesn’t matter if you’re stable jockey to the biggest yard in the world, all you want is one good one.”
The search is on.