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Inches from glory

photo finish web

HE crossed the line and could see no horse in front of him, but still Richie McLernon wasn’t certain.

Had he won the Grand National? With Sunnyhillboy beneath him, he’d moved two lengths clear with 100 yards to go. But they had company.

“I knew as we passed the water jump that Neptune Collonges was coming to me,” McLernon says. “When we did go over the line, I really wasn’t sure at all.”

Nobody was sure. It had been a gruelling two laps of the storied Aintree track. 25 entrants failed to finish; two horses died, including Gold Cup winner Synchronised.

At the end, two passed the post side by side, nose by nose: Sunnyhillboy, under Cork-born McLernon, and Wexfordman Daryl Jacob on Neptune Collonges. Never in the 173-year history of the race had there been such a close finish. The judges studied the pictures for over a minute and then…

“FIRST NUMBER FOUR NEPTUNE COLLONGES…”

McLernon’s heart hit the floor: “When they announced it … I don’t know what to say; it’s not a feeling I’d like to experience again. It was gut-wrenching,” he says.

“I’ve watched the race back a fair few times and I’ve gone over it thousands of times in my head. Finishing second in the Grand National – if someone had offered me that beforehand I’d have grabbed it with both hands – but there and then I was absolutely gutted.”

Sport seldom produces the fairytale ending, something McLernon knows more than anyone since that April 14 afternoon at Aintree.

A jockey will fight for every inch in the closing stages of a Grand National, but the finish to the 2012 race was more about centimetres than inches.

When you come out on the wrong side of a result like that, it hurts. But hurt is a part of McLernon’s world, the world of a jump-jockey.

*******

Richie McLernon has always wanted to do this. But despite coming from a family that live and breathe racing, he was a relative latecomer to the sport.

His parents, Philip and Betty, both rode as amateurs and his uncle, Tommy Carmody, was one of the greats of jump-racing, a seven-time winner at Cheltenham.

“I always wanted to be a jockey and my parents didn’t mind that, but their first priority was to make sure I did my exams.

“Once I had my Leaving Cert done they were happy for me to do whatever I wanted,” says 25-year-old McLernon, whose younger sister Jessica works for Richard Fahey at his stables in Malton, Yorkshire.

After leaving school, Richie worked at home with top point-to-point trainer Eugene O’Sullivan, a two-year spell during which he rode 25 point-to-point winners and six under rules.

But then, in the summer of 2007, came the move to England. McLernon was invited over to Jonjo O’Neill’s yard at Jackdaws Castle near Cheltenham for a couple of weeks. He’s been there since, building a reputation as one of the best young jockeys in the business.

Such is his modesty, McLernon will have you convinced that he just got a lucky break by getting his foot in the door at Jackdaws, but the quality of some of his recent spins and the high regard in which he is held by his peers suggest that McLernon’s ascent has had more to do with talent than a stroke or two of good fortune.

The man from Mallow has been producing the goods regularly, including a first Cheltenham Festival winner in March. Even after his Grand National heartbreak last month, McLernon was at Market Rasen just 24 hours later, riding his 18th winner of the season. Perhaps Jonjo O’Neill is the lucky one.

“I absolutely love working at Jackdaws. We’ve got the best facilities, the best horses, the best owners, the best trainer, the best staff … it’s great to be part of it.

“It’s a five-star hotel for horses here. I get put on good horses and I ride for good people. It’s a pleasure to work for Mr and Mrs O’Neill. I’ve been very lucky with the life I have here.

“I enjoy coming to work. The days are long but I love what I do so I don’t mind that at all. I never really thought I’d get to a place like this and work here.

“When you work at a place like this, getting up in the mornings makes it a lot easier. It’s an early start but you don’t mind when you’re riding good horses every day and looking after nice young horses. I love it here and I’ll stay for as long as I can.”

Like every jockey, McLernon always aspired to riding winners at the big meetings. In particular, Cheltenham was his target. After two second-place finishes, he finally got his winner in the famous colours of JP McManus on Alfie Sherrin in this year’s JLT Speciality Handicap Chase.

“That was very special. Cheltenham is the reason we get up early in the morning, it’s why we’re out in the rain getting hammered off the ground. That’s what we do it for.

“I was grateful for the opportunity I got and it was brilliant to be able to take it. It was an unreal feeling. When you get a taste for what it’s like to win at Cheltenham, it’s something you want to do again.”

McLernon is certainly learning from the best at Jackdaws. Being able to call on AP McCoy for advice isn’t a bad option for any young jockey to have.

“AP is great,” he says. “If you’re riding a horse in a race that he’s previously ridden, he’ll always have a word with you and give his opinion about how best to ride it.

“It’s nice to look at things from his perspective. He’s just naturally gifted and watching him up close, going to a fence, he’s a joy to watch. He’s been around long enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

His Grand National hurt is still raw, and it probably will be for some time, but Richie McLernon is a jockey with a big future under Jonjo O’Neill.

Emulating McCoy as champion jockey is the dream, although perhaps not 17 years in a row. For now, just the once will do.

“As long as you stay fit and well, anything after that is a bonus,” McLernon says. “Like, everyone wants to aspire to be champion jockey. I do too and I’m lucky here at Jackdaws because you get to ride really good horses, which is what I love doing. You get a good buzz from that.

“I’m very grateful that I get that opportunity. This is a great place to work and if I had the choice I wouldn’t choose to work anywhere else.

“You could be the best jockey in the world, but if you don’t work hard and for the right people you’ll get nowhere. With the opportunities I’ve been given by Mr O’Neill and Mr McManus, I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in.”

A first win at the Cheltenham Festival and having gone so close in the Grand National, 2012 has been Richie McLernon’s best year yet in the big races. The very best, however, is yet to come.

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