Winter has come. The crunch of frost underfoot and the emergence of jump racing’s heavy-ground National Hunt heroes signals the start of Flat racing’s offseason.
While most riders on the level relish the opportunity to recharge the batteries after a lengthy campaign, the 2019 season can’t come quick enough for Shanagolden native Chris Hayes. He is in the enviable position of looking forward to partnering one of next year’s most exciting, unbeaten Irish horses, Madhmoon.
The 31-year-old rider, who has just concluded his best ever season in the Irish Flat jockeys’ championship with 57 winners, isn’t someone you’ll find on floodlit Friday evening meetings at Dundalk this winter as instead, he is plying his trade in the Middle East, fulfilling a high profile retainership for Sheikh Ahmed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai’s royal family.
Through significant high-level successes, Hayes has become recognised as one of the go-to riders for British trainers saddling runners in Ireland and the proud Limerick man has landed in Dubai with momentum very much on his side after partnering the first Irish-trained horse to win Scotland’s Ayr Gold Cup in its 214-year history at the end of the 2018 season. Fair to say, it’s been a year to remember.
“I’ve exceeded my previous highest total. It’s fantastic to be able to call this season officially my best yet. I would have been happy to land on the 50-winner mark and find a nice horse that could take me to the big races – thankfully in Madhmoon, we have one that can hopefully do just that.”
The two-year-old Hayes refers to has only been sighted twice in public, but looks a potential superstar.
Sporting the famous blue and white epaulettes of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, Madhmoon looked a bright prospect when winning on his August introduction at Leopardstown before announcing himself as a genuine contender for next year’s Classic races when emphatically landing the Group 2 KPMG Champions Juvenile Stakes on Longines Irish Champions Weekend.
Abundant potential aside, much of the fairytale surrounding the exciting youngster’s career involves his trainer Kevin Prendergast. In a 55-year career of training multiple champion performers, remarkably, Prendergast may just have found one of his best equine athletes yet at the ripe old age of 86.
“This is a big deal for the two of us,” says Hayes, who has ridden for the man he regularly refers to as ‘the boss’ since the beginning of his riding career in November 2003.
“You can find decent, solid horses all along your career but it’s the special ones that are few and far between. Hopefully he might just be in that category.”
Hailing from the same family as the pair’s 2016 Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Awtaad, the 20-1 fancy for next year’s Newmarket and Epsom Classics faces an exciting 2019 campaign.
“As two-year-olds, Madhmoon is a better horse than Awtaad and if he can be a better three-year-old than him I’d obviously be more than delighted,” says Hayes, who is also the retained stable jockey of Fozzy Stack.
“I think you could run him over shorter distances or step him up in trip. He’s got a lovely mind, is very well-balanced and has a lot of pace – I can’t fault him. I’ve only had limited experience of true top-class horses, with Awtaad being one of them, but everything he does suggests he is just that.” Things couldn’t be going much better for the pony racing circuit graduate as he concludes his 15th year in the saddle, but not long ago the former three-time champion apprentice faced a precarious future – one which didn’t immediately appear likely to render the high-class victories of today.
“2011 was my worst ever year numerically, career-wise and everything” he reflects. “I had been champion apprentice, was handed a good retainer with Lady O’Reilly and was almost living off that thinking everything was just grand.
“I didn’t get lazy but I got complacent about the whole thing and thought the game was easier than it was. It never affected my riding but I’d lost hunger and my work ethic for different elements of the job had diminished.”
According to Hayes, Lady O’Reilly admitted it wasn’t feasible for her to have a retained rider having been hit by the economic downturn, informing him just before the beginning of the season when most stables already had their riding arrangements confirmed.
For a horseman of Hayes’ ability to be in this position without a guaranteed base of rides was surely a shock to the system and it led the now dual Classic winner to consider a move abroad in search of opportunities.
“I had received a job offer in the UK and headed over for three days to see what the yard was like and if I’d settle in,” he says.
“I enjoyed it but when I came back, Patrick Prendergast [trainer] encouraged me not to hare off, saying I could ride the majority of his horses, albeit he didn’t have huge numbers.
“That season only yielded 19 winners, my lowest total since my first year, but a couple of wins were on his horses and the following year I took off again and rode my highest total of 56 winners – the season after that I landed my first Group 1.”
Hayes admits: “That lull happened for a reason and it was the kick up the backside I needed. It was a good fear to have, really putting worry into me and thinking ‘God, will I be riding today?’”
The rider, for whom the title of ‘baby-faced assassin’ fits well, is undeniably in demand, with only last year’s champion jockey, Colin Keane and Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Shane Foley having more rides than Hayes’ 570 mounts this season.
“It’s all very different now in comparison to 2011. I’ve just came back from five rides at Gowran this afternoon, will be on the gallops in the morning before heading to Navan where I’ll be riding four more. I’ll be flying to Dubai that night for five rides at Jebel Ali the next day and will be back at Leopardstown for more [six mounts] the day after.”
One of Hayes’ rides at the latter venue saw him receive his first leg-up from legendary trainer Aidan O’Brien, which just so happened to yield another winner. With a growing demand from powerful international stables, it begs the question, would Hayes ever be tempted to leave Ireland for a high-profile position elsewhere?
“I’d never say never to anything and if a good opportunity came along I’m constantly aiming to improve by riding the best horses, but in the same breath, I’m very loyal. The people I’m riding for are very good to me and I’m very happy with the way things are.”
He adds: “Fozzy has invested in some lovely young stock – as has the boss – and who knows, Fozzy could find a Madhmoon next year. The law of averages suggests that Kevin finding two horses of the calibre of Awtaad and Madhmoon in the space of two years was highly unlikely, but it happened. It proves that anything is possible in racing.
“As long as Madhmoon is around, I’ll be living the dream on his back.”
The translation of ‘Madhmoon’ from Arabic to English is ‘content’, an adjective that certainly describes Chris Hayes very accurately at present.
The Limerick man is continuing to shoot for the stars, and in the shape of this hugely promising colt, he may just have landed on the moon.
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