IF SEPTEMBER is synonymous with All-Ireland final day then March belongs to racing and to Cheltenham, one of the few times of the year – Grand National and Derby Days being the others – when the sport reaches out beyond its core audience and embraces a wider constituency, a time when the game’s problems are sugarcoated, when dreams come true and heroes made.
Paul Carberry is a subscriber to the romance. Recovering from a wrist injury suffered in December, be pencilled his comeback date into his diary in bold, red ink ahead of next week’s festival. “If there’s one thing you can’t miss, it’s it,” he says – It being so well known, it doesn’t need a title.
Nor does Carberry. Liked as well as respected by his peers in the weigh room, his legacy has been secured by both the quantity (over 1600) and quality (11 at Cheltenham, 44 Grade One) of his winners. “He’s one of the most natural sportsmen I have ever met,” said Tony McCoy of his friend and rival. “He’s like a George Best type of character, totally fearless.”
“You couldn’t teach anyone to ride like Paul Carberry,” says Ruby Walsh, who knows a thing or two about the practice.
“He is the ultimate jockey of his era,” says Davy Russell, leaving the only one with doubts about Paul Carberry being … Paul Carberry.
“We go [to the Cheltenham Festival] each year to prove ourselves,” says Carberry. “For me, it’s about showing that we can still do it.”
The Meath man has been doing it all his life, and proving himself in a professional capacity for nearly 20 years. Because of his presence in the public eye, we thought we knew him. Then came his book, One Hell Of a Ride and we realised we knew nothing.
Firstly, we knew nothing of his passion, of how true happiness really only came from being on horseback, of how his father’s legacy as a successful jockey in his own right, burnt deep into his son’s soul and how victory on Bobbyjo in the 1999 Grand National felt like a completion in the relationship between father and son.
More than anything, though, we didn’t know of the hardest hurdles he had to jump, with drink and addiction, of how difficult he found it to overcome the embarrassment of two failed breath tests and an arrest following a fire on board a flight from Spain to Dublin.
By 2008, it all came to a head. Noel Meade, his long time trainer and friend, told him he was prepared to cut him loose. And that was when Carberry won the biggest race of his life.
He says: “Life is there to be enjoyed and if the truth be known, I bloody enjoyed drinking. You enjoy the buzz, you enjoy the craic. Whether I was meeting my friends from back home, or going out with other jockeys after training, drink was always a big part of it. I also liked the effect it had on me there and then. I was never much of a talker and I wouldn’t be great socially among people I don’t know, but drink helped that.
“I had reduced the drinking in the two years prior to [giving up]. During the winter months I was hardly drinking at all. The racing was too important. But during the summer there were very few big meetings and there always seemed to be some big festival or dance to go to, meaning I tended to lapse back into the drinking habit.”
For the last four years, though, he has kicked the habit.
“It is not the big sessions I miss but I suppose it’s going for a pint or two with the lads after racing that I miss most. I suppose I have only come around to not letting the absence of drink bother me anymore and some of that is down to Red Bull. At least it gives you a bit of a buzz. I’d be shagged without it.”
The therapeutic effect of telling the world his innermost secrets has helped in the healing process. When contemporaries finished reading his autobiography, they shook his hand and offered a look which suggested they knew what he was going through. After all, jump jockeys share a bond which none of the rest of us can ever understand.
“It’s because we know when we go out there that we may not come back the same way,” he says.
That fate has happened a few of his friends yet still he considers the risks of the trade worthwhile. “Nothing beats being up on a horse in full flow.”
Nothing, of course, except the feeling of guiding that horse to glory at Cheltenham.
It’s a few years since he last done that and in the meantime Ruby, AP and Barry Geraghty have stolen the limelight. Even Nina, his sister, grabbed a share of it as Paul soldiered up Cheltenham’s hill wondering when the next big winner would come.
He could still be wondering in 10 days time. “Ruby has a better shot than me,” he says of his chances of glory. “He’ll do well and Ireland will do well.”
By contrast, Carberry is there in hope rather than expectation. Yet he will also be there in health and sobriety. Even Cheltenham can’t produce winners like those.
*One Hell of a Ride – Paul Carberry with Des Gibson Published by Paperweight