A woman I once encountered at the dining table whose prime years were clearly behind her described herself as ‘approaching fifty’. Noting our raised eyebrows she added, ‘Look dears, I don’t have to say from which side.’ Suddenly the weighing room too seems full of veterans. Lightweight jockey Jimmy Quinn is certainly approaching 50 from the wrong end while Frankie Dettori and Franny Norton, both still in their riding prime, are 46. It was, though, the 49-year-old John Egan, who recently shrugged off a chipped vertebra in a Kempton fall with a teenager’s resilience, who had me comparing. I noted lately the remarkable coincidence that both he and his talented apprentice son David, the only father-and-son team currently riding, had secured exactly 16 winners each from an identical 140 mounts this season.
At Ascot last Saturday John told me that he began partnering winners on the Irish pony racing scene at the age of seven in the 1970s. Around 500 followed before he entered full-scale racing with Noel Meade and then Mick O’Toole. The former champion Irish apprentice in 1986 among such rivals as Charlie Swan and Johnny Murtagh, Egan senior looks back with special pleasure on the Golden Jubilee and July Cup he won on Les Arcs, trained by Tim Pitt and owned by his friend Willie McKay. The former middle distance horse took up sprinting and ran in his first Group One at the age of six.
Les Arcs’ Golden Jubilee came at 33-1, but punters may remember too, amid a colourful career including a few brushes with authority, the Ebor Handicap John won on Jane Chapple-Hyam’s Mudawin at 100-1. With support from trainers like Mark Johnston and Mick Channon he has had plenty of success at Ascot while Egan Senior and Franny Norton are rated by many too as the canniest riders around the tricky Chester circuit. Says John, ‘ There is a knack to Chester but at the end of the day you’ve got to be on the right horse. I prefer it when Franny isn’t in the race, otherwise we end up aiming at each other.’ His partnership with Welsh trainer David Evans, who always has some two-year-olds ready, has normally ensured he makes his mark early in the season, but one winner in May this year was down to sheer luck: trainer Evans had intended to book John’s 5lb-claiming apprentice son David for a Brighton ride on Sheer Intensity, but clicked the wrong button and booked dad instead.
Sheer Intensity was one of 31 winners for the articulate apprentice who has been two years with Newmarket trainer Roger Varian, a trainer who, he is quick to point out amid the current controversy over the exploitation of apprentices, does everything by the book and gives him every chance. Says father John of the row about apprentices’ expenses and trainers retaining their winning percentages: ‘At the end of the day as an apprentice it’s success you need, not money.’
David, a graduate of Newmarket’s Racing School who lives with his father in the town, certainly has the pedigree. His mother is former champion jockey Richard Hughes’s sister Sandra and his grandfather was the revered former jockey and trainer Dessie Hughes. David could well be in a position to challenge for the apprentice title but says he doesn’t want to lose his apprentice’s weight allowance too quickly. His father adds: ‘Some of the youngsters just aren’t ready when they reach that stage. Suddenly they’re out there in midfield with no support playing against David Beckham.’ When I asked David what advice his father had given him he replied: ‘Work hard. Listen rather than speak and keep your head down.’ John’s response to the same question was: ‘Train hard. Keep focussed. Remember that it’s the horses that matter and aim to be champion jockey because you’ve got to believe you have that ability.’ John, who rode a winner on his 49th birthday, says that apprentices have it easier now. ‘In my day you only got a few rides at the end of the season so that you stayed on for the next year. Now they get far more opportunities.’
He himself has clearly kept focussed despite a couple of years successfully preparing horses for the breeze-ups. He is confident in his own ability to keep competing at the top level, saying that of the competition he faced riding alongside the likes of Ray Cochrane, Pat Eddery, Michael Kinane, Christy Roche and Bruce Raymond: ‘They were serious pilots, there aren’t so many now.’ Being his son’s mentor and trainer and using gyms and equicizers that weren’t available when he began has probably helped John retain his fitness and enthusiasm. I wish though that I had met father and son not at Ascot, where their rides drew a blank, but at Salisbury that night. John scored on Koeman for Mick Channon at 11-2 and David on Lyrica’s Lion for Michael Attwater at 20-1. That would have been a nice double.