I guess his mother may have called him Patrick, or even, when he was in trouble, ‘Patrick Joseph’, but in the racing world, like the great McCoy, the Yorkshire-based jockey P.J. McDonald is known simply by his initials. It is proving to be a very good year for ‘P.J.’ and those initials are becoming steadily more familiar to southern as well as northern racegoers. He won the National Stakes at Sandown and the Molecomb Stakes at Glorious Goodwood on Karl Burke’s Havana Grey, and as I write he is firmly ensconced in the top ten riders’ table with nearly 80 winners. ‘I’d love to get the hundred up this season,’ he says, and there must be every chance he will. But at 35 his is the success of a hardworking slow-burner, not that of a precocious youth.
Sometimes it looks as though everyone in Ireland has a trainer in their family tree, a horse in their backyard and an ex-jockey for a neighbour but there were no such advantages for P.J.: ‘I had no racing connections. I never had ponies. I just wanted to be a jockey.’ He was taught to ride by Dusty Sheehy and mentored in point-to-points by Padge Berry, but at Goodwood on Saturday he confessed that, after his first four years in racing with Irish trainer Charles O’Brien had brought him only 70 rides and just three winners, he had been on the point of giving up and enlisting for a trade. Then a friend, ex-jockey Michael Cleary, persuaded him to contact the England-based jumps trainer Ferdy Murphy, and P.J. boarded the boat to give racing one more try.
So much in sport depends on confidence — having somebody to instil it in the first place and then developing it yourself. There can be no more obvious example than the ultimate flowering this season of champion jockey Jim Crowley, a one-time middle-of-the-road jump jockey who is now riding Group winners on the Flat with eye-catching flair and total tactical self-belief. The straightforward P.J. admits that Ferdy Murphy was the man who worked the miracle for him. At a stage when he was so light they needed a wheelbarrow to carry his saddle if he was to ride a chaser at 11st 7lbs, Murphy ‘gave me the confidence, he gave me the platform and he guided me the right way. I cannot thank him enough.’
Among P.J.’s victories when riding jumpers was that of Murphy’s Hot Weld in 2007 in the gruelling Scottish Grand National. Ironically, the man in second place that day was the then stable no. 1 Graham Lee, who has been in the vanguard of former jumps riders in recent years who have switched successfully to the Flat. Murphy urged P.J. to start riding on the Flat as well to toughen up. He did it so successfully that he was signed up by the late Alan Swinbank as second jockey to Neil Callan, and made the switch permanent (with the offer that he could return to Murphy, nowadays training in France, if things didn’t work out). Since then, P.J. has made steady progress, establishing himself among the leading group of northern-based jockeys getting plenty of rides from the likes of Mark Johnston, James Bethell, Ann Duffield and Micky Hammond. He loved his time jumping but relishes the different challenge. ‘Jumping you can get horses switched off but on the Flat split-second decisions win races.’
Is it tougher north of Watford? ‘It’s tough wherever you are. The hours are long, it’s hard work and most of the time you are working just for your bread and butter — but at the same time it’s brilliant.’ One of those riders who is there grafting in yards in the winter, too, helping to bring on the yearlings and two-year-olds, P.J. has clearly become a fully integrated Yorkshireman. He insists, ‘You have to go and get everything — nothing comes to you.’ He is a man at ease with words in his Co. Wexford tones, and it is easy to see P.J.’s value to trainers not just in obeying instructions, as he did when grabbing the running rail at Goodwood on Havana Grey, but in the way he observes: ‘You have to be able to get off horses, speak to the owners and be confident about what you are saying.’
P.J. had ridden an impressive double at York’s Ebor meeting the day before on the debutant Dream Today for Mark Johnston, and on the quirky Montaly for Andrew Balding, but he is not the sort to be carried away by the current wave of success. ‘You must never look too far ahead. There have been days when I rode doubles and finished being carted off in an ambulance.’ But there is an optimism too. ‘If it was meant for you,’ says P.J., ‘it won’t pass you by.’
Just as well it hasn’t. When I asked him what trade he might have chosen if racing hadn’t worked out, the reply was: ‘I’ve no idea. All I know is horses. Even the DIY is left to the wife.’