Ted Durcan: Retiring on His Terms | TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video

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By Chris McGrath

Too often, jockeys contemplating retirement defer the decision so long that suddenly they find injury or fashion has taken it out of their hands–leaving them stricken before the pathless years ahead. But Ted Durcan has always been too intelligent a judge of potential, whether in a racehorse or in his own situation, to fall into that poignant trap. Sure enough, the skill that most distinguished him as a jockey–his ability to read and contribute to the development of a good horse–is likely to remain no less an asset, now that he has called it a day, than over the past 25 years.

Before hanging up his boots last week, Durcan had already been assured by Sir Michael Stoute that his horsemanship, in the mornings, will be as valued as ever. And he also hopes to turn his instincts to new use in the world of bloodstock. As such, he has been able to bring the same dignity to his retirement as he did, day by day, to his role as a trusted cog in some of the Turf’s most precious and refined machinery. He performed especially long service for the Maktoums; he rode an Epsom Classic winner and runner-up in the Niarchos silks; and it is an apt measure of his standing that he book-ended a career tally of around 1,500 with winners for Jim Bolger and John Gosden respectively.

“When I was growing up, looking at all these legends, the likes of Jim Bolger or John Dunlop or Geoff Wragg, a lot of these people I ended up riding for,” he says. “Racing was excellent to me, I had great fun over the years and rode for some great people. And I’m extremely fit, wouldn’t have any issues with the riding, and as enthusiastic as ever. But I swore to myself didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I could easily have ridden on another year or two but always thought I’d walk away when it was my choice.”

That, after all, is a very literal priority in this walk of sporting life. The couple of injuries he has endured over the last year or so would have made it necessary to regroup in a fairly major way and, as one who turned 45 yesterday, Durcan sensed the time was right. That last winner for Gosden, in a listed race at Newmarket, happened to be called Face The Facts (Ire) (Nathaniel {Ire}). But the reminiscences he shares over a pot of tea at his house near Newmarket have no taint of regret. And why should they? For who can say what other horses might yet earn a place on walls that positively gleam with mementoes and photos–whether schooled on the gallops, or maybe identified at some yearling sale?

“Riding, you’re flat out all the time,” Durcan reflects. “I don’t want to slow up, just to channel my energies into something else while I’m still young enough to do so. In bloodstock, so far I’ve only messed around in a small little hobby way. I do understand it’s not an easy avenue but it excites and intrigues me. Other people ride a race and walk away but I wasn’t ever like that. I’ve always been a little bit more hands-on, always had my eye on the sales, the breeding, especially in recent years. The older you are, of course, the more you start recognising families–I rode the sister, the dam, whatever–and it all starts to make sense.”

All that said, it is still a book that he is closing; not just a chapter. And what characters have peopled its pages. Beyond the obvious highlights, there were satisfactions no less profound: a winner in Rio De Janeiro four years ago, for instance, when spending a week there at the invitation of the late Stefan Friborg. Or a Queen Alexandra S. for John Dunlop, in 2011, on Swingkeel (Ire) (Singspiel {Ire}).

“I got a great buzz out of that,” Durcan says. “I think it was Mr. Dunlop’s last Royal Ascot winner, and an easier man to ride for you wouldn’t meet. I know there are more important races at the meeting, but there were 17 runners and passing the stands I was last and off the bridle. I thought I was going to be tailed off. And then he arrived there in the straight.”

But the obvious ones, too, cross quite a spectrum. His first Group 1 winner, for instance, was welcomed in by the Easterby family: Somnus (GB) (Pivotal {GB}) in the 2003 Haydock Sprint Cup, beating Oasis Dream (GB) (Green Desert) himself with Airwave (GB) (Air Express {Ire}), granddam of Churchill (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), in third. Resonant stuff today, for sure, but a huge moment for Durcan at the time after smashing a leg and a wrist in quick succession.

Then there were a stack of big winners for Mick Channon–whose background and bearing could, in turn, scarcely be more different from the man who had first set Durcan on the road. For when the son of a Co Mayo solicitor somehow got it into his head to proceed straight from Clongowes to a racing yard, an uncle’s friend advised that was only one equivalent academy on the Irish Turf: “If you want to find out if he’s serious about racing, that place will either make or break him.”

In the event, Durcan lasted six years with Jim Bolger. “It wasn’t all rosy, of course,” he smiles. “It was regimental. All the old school stuff: boots, jodhpurs, collars, lads sent away to have their hair cut, saddles and bridles spick and span. His attention to detail I still haven’t experienced anywhere else. But if those were six hard years, I’ll always be grateful for what I learned, the opportunities I was given and the people I met.”

“There were two huge things,” he recalls. “Number one: you learn. No matter how stupid you are, no matter how wet behind the ears, if you stick it out, you will learn. Because of that, I know a load of lads–people like Adrian Regan, part-owner and manager of Hunter Valley Farm in Kentucky–who never had any ambitions riding but went on to be very successful in other areas. But the other thing was that if you did have those ambitions, there were opportunities. You had to earn them. But if you worked for them, no matter how ordinary a rider you were, he would still give you rides.”

Says Durcan, “All the rides, bar the very odd one, stayed in-house. If Christy Roche was suspended, Willie Supple would ride; or Seamus Heffernan, or A.P. [McCoy]. You would receive your window of opportunity. Yes, the odd day he’d have you walking out of there with your head on the floor; but he put time and energy into his apprentices.”

“I must say Seamus was the most streetwise apprentice I ever knew: such a marvellous man for riding work,” says Durcan. “Ride a horse once in the morning, and it would be: ‘seven furlongs, soft ground.’ And 99 times out of 100 he was accurate.”

This was not lost on the stable amateur, Aidan O’Brien, who duly hired Heffernan after graduating from Coolcullen. But it was a similar gift, in Durcan himself, that would make him no less cherished by the great rivals of O’Brien’s patrons at Ballydoyle.

Durcan’s start with the Maktoum family was instructive of the random breaks on which every racing career must turn. “I was unheard of, losing my claim, could easily have been lost in the system like so many other lads,” he says. “I was at a small meeting–Sharjah, which back then was pretty much like Southwell–and picked up a ride for Sheikh Rashid. The horse won, they left me on him at Nad Al Sheba next time, and he won three or four in a row. Pure luck. The horse was probably so well handicapped he had to win, and then got confidence. But that was the turning point. Just being in the right place at the right time, nothing to do with ability.”

Sheikh Rashid didn’t see it that way, and retained Durcan the following winter. He promptly won the first of seven local riding titles, crowned by a double on the World Cup card. “I got a huge kick out of that,” Durcan admits. “Because when he promoted me I’d say there were a lot of raised eyebrows.”

By matching his horsemanship with such humility, Durcan proved an exemplary team player and duly earned a key role in those thrilling early days at Godolphin, when the focus was so profitably on quality rather than quantity.

“I rode so many good horses in work,” he recalls. “Daylami (Ire) (Doyoun {GB}) you could set your clock by; he’d do exactly the same, top-class work every time, and rock up one Saturday a month for an Eclipse, a King George, whatever. I was there when there were only 40 to 50 horses, and from box to box you had Cape Verdi (Ire) (Caerleon), Cape Cross (GB) (Ire) (Green Desert), Josr Algarhoud (Ire) (Darshaan {GB}), Muhtathir (GB) (Elmaamul), Lend A Hand (GB) (Great Commotion), Fly To The Stars (GB) (Bluebird), Intikhab (Red Ransom). And those were just the milers.”

Sure enough, it was very much as a team player that Durcan later won a St Leger in the Godolphin silks: riding the 14-1 second string, Mastery (GB) (Sulamani {Ire}), to beat Frankie Dettori on favourite Kite Wood (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) in 2009.

“Mastery was the most straightforward horse in the world,” Durcan says. “And we got lucky: he loved rattling ground, and we had a heatwave. To win a Leger in those colours, after all their support over the years–that was special.”

As it happens, Durcan was also perceived to be riding a second string in what was probably the defining moment of his career. For the late Sir Henry Cecil also saddled a disappointing favourite, Khalid Abdullah’s Passage Of Time (GB) (Dansili {GB}), when Light Shift (Kingmambo) famously restored the trainer from a personal wilderness in the 2007 Oaks. Thereafter, of course, Cecil was steeled in his fight with cancer by Prince Khalid’s horse of a lifetime, Frankel (GB) (Galileo {Ire}).

“Henry was in a situation where he needed people behind him,” Durcan recalls. “The owners of those two fillies had stuck with him, 200%–and he swung it round and repaid them all. There was a long spell where you could see the treatments were knocking him sideways, but he never moaned about it. He fought so long, and still had that smiling nature, never locked himself away.”

“But while it was Henry’s afternoon, and that’s it, it was also special for me to ride an Oaks winner for the Niarchos family,” he says. “They had been so loyal over the years, super owners both winning and losing. And the whole thing just worked out, which is rare.”

“The beauty of it was that Henry had the other filly in the race and all the heat was on her. You just knew you had nothing to worry about with Light Shift, she was just a very easy, straightforward, sweet filly. Henry had her spot on and she just floated round there, so athletic and light on her feet.”

Having observed great trainers at close quarters, as well as great horses, Durcan has gained privileged insights into where one can make the difference to the other.

“What separates those top-notch trainers is the way they manage even the horse that’s a bit mentally fragile,” he says. “They’ve all had those marvellous, quirky horses they can still squeeze the maximum out of. We’re always very quick to knock horses–he’s a bit soft, she’s a bit of a madam–but quite often, six months or a year later, some issue comes to the surface that explains why they were hanging, or weren’t eager to go out in the morning. And those trainers, they can see the little signs others can’t, can almost see into the future.”

Modest as he is, you won’t find Durcan acknowledging that similar antennae are required by those riders who do not rely just on a minute or two in the afternoon for their input to a horse’s development.

“I was never the most natural rider in the world,” he says, shrugging. “And I knew that. I always knew my limitations. But I like to think I was a reasonable horseman. I’d be fairly confident in my abilities in the morning, that I could assess a horse. For years and years, whoever else was around–Frankie or McEvoy or whoever–I’d be there behind the scenes. Yes, they always gave me rides when there was a surplus. But I was here for what I could offer in the mornings.”

He will miss the camaraderie of the weighing room, that peg next to the elder statesman, Joe Fanning. But he will be missed there, too. Because few others have seen enough to be able to dispense wisdom equally between a champion like Ryan Moore, or a raw apprentice; and even fewer make so little of their eligibility to do so.

“We all know you need luck in racing,” he says. “And we all end up with a share of both kinds. I’ve always said the same, whether to Ryan or to young lads who are struggling. In horse racing, just remember one thing: if you’re having marvellous luck, it’ll end. And if you’re having rotten luck, hang in there–because that will end, too.”

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