CORK jockey Gavin Sheehan has been a testament to perseverance ever since he first arrived on English shores.
On January 21st last at Bangor-on-Dee racecourse, he joined an elite group of jockeys on 500 career winners.
Riding Sartene’s Son for trainer Robert Bevis, the 28-year-old reflected:
“Never in a million years did I think I’d ride 500 winners when I first went to England. I am very proud of it and thought it was a massive achievement for someone who’d come into racing a bit late and hadn’t been brought up with horses.”
Born in Dunmanway, Sheehan’s primitive steps into racing came at age 14 when he rode his first winner on the pony racing circuit. He then became an amateur jockey, managing just two winners in two years for trainers Michael Hourigan and Robert Tyner.
“I didn’t think I was good enough at the time to become a jockey but I had done very well in pony racing. I didn’t think the whole racing game was going to be for me,” Sheehan said.
It may not have been; but for a phone call to Eamonn Fehily, brother of multiple Grade-One winning jockey Noel Fehily, a fellow west Cork man, based in Lambourn.
“Eamonn rang his brother Noel and there was an opportunity over there (Lambourn) because Charlie Mann’s conditional jockey at the time, Peter O’Toole was after getting a fall.”
A Whirlwind Beginning Sheehan began his career in England promisingly, amassing 31 winners in his first two seasons with Charlie Mann.
The ambitious Corkman craved further success though and made the move to Warren Greatrex’s yard.
Greatrex was young by racing standards, but he knew his stuff and had assembled a youthful cast around him that would allow Sheehan to blossom.
Emulating Fehily, the 28-year-old announced himself on the British racing scene in 2013/14 winning the Conditional Jockey’s Championship. That was followed by a career-best 73 winners in 2014/15 and maiden Grade One success with World Hurdle winner Cole Harden at Cheltenham’ 2015.
Further Grade One prizes arrived the following calendar year, courtesy of Harry Whittington’s Arzal and Greatrex’s One Track Mind.
Reminiscing on that period, Sheehan said:
“It was a great time for me. The year after being Champion Conditional, Warren had a bit more faith in me and he used me as his number one jockey, which meant I was going racing almost every day. To ride big winners is brilliant but to do it as number one for Warren was a dream really.”
Not all dreams are meant to last though.
“I didn’t feel the need to prove him wrong” Following the heights of his early career, things slowed down for the Dunmanway native subsequently.
"This was down to injuries and Greatrex’s decision to demote him as number one jockey in 2017/18 and use Champion Jockey Richard Johnson when available.
“I was quite upset about the whole thing and what made it worse was that he (Greatrex) had his most ever winners the previous season. I couldn’t work that out for myself.
“The year he started using Richard as first jockey, I actually rode more winners for Warren than Richard did. I’ll always get on with him and be extremely grateful but It was tough at the time,” Sheehan remarked.
The Corkman kept grinding and the 2018/19 season became a comeback season of sorts as he rode 69 winners from 411 mounts.
“I had to find other outlets and new connections basically. Jamie Snowden (trainer) has been brilliant ever since and the other thing was Andrew Brookes (owner) using me as his main jockey.
"It was great timing because I had gone through a quite spell,” Sheehan exclaimed.
The relationship with the Brookes family began in 2018 as Sheehan was on hand to nurture young talents such as Saint Calvados, Simply the Betts and Itchy Feet.
Horses that would begin to fulfil their potential the following season.
“He (Andrew Brookes) never had a Cheltenham Festival winner or a Grade One winner and they were the two things that I said I’d get him. I didn’t think that it would happen in the space of a month or so last year.”
This time last year the Corkman guided Itchy Feet to victory in the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown, followed a month later by Cheltenham Festival glory aboard Simply The Betts in the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase.
As for this season, Sheehan with 30 winners to date, remarked:
“It has been one of my worst years, I think. I do well enough during the summer and we didn’t have that this year because of the pandemic. I didn’t get the numbers up straight away and then of course I got injured for two months.
“The people I am riding for aswell have just been a bit quiet. They’ll come good again though.”
Trainer Harry Whittington in particular, has endured a plus three-month drought outside the winner’s enclosure.
The focus now for Sheehan is finishing the season on a high and aiming towards Cheltenham, just over a month away.
“Saint Calvados wasn’t done with when he took a stumble in the Cotswold chase at Sandown. It would be my thinking we would drop back in trip and have another go at the Ryanair Chase.”
As for the six-time winner Emitom trained by Greatex, Sheehan noted:
“He ran a stormer in the Stayers Hurdle last year and we’re going back over hurdles now. I think he’ll go for the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock like last year before another crack at the Stayers.”
The multiple Grade-One winning jockey will certainly be boosted by his recent milestone of 500 winners.
And considering how many accomplished riders have thrived after turning 30, you get the sense that Sheehan at 28 still hasn’t peaked.
It would therefore be foolish to underestimate him reaching 1000 winners in the coming years.