The name Heffernan does not feature in the list of most common Irish surnames however in sporting circles they punch well above their weight. Think of Heffo’s Army, Christy the towering Kilkenny full forward and of course the nations favourite walker; Rob, amongst his numerous world medals he also featured at Cheltenham albeit in that popular TV commercial. We can certainly add Seamie to that list of Heffernan’s who feature at the peak of sporting success.
For 25 years now Seamie has been riding winners far and near but more often if not under the radar then out of the limelight. So, it’s with this in mind we caught up the current Epsom Derby winning jockey to learn a little more about a glittering career.
Where did it all begin?
From Donore in County Kildare, there was no strong connection with horses to Seamie’s family. On his mother’s side an uncle did a little however there was no ponies out the back. Instead Seamie’s connection was self-made as he explains “in 1984 before I went into first year in school myself and two friends went and asked Arthur Moore for summer job and if he did not give me that job I may not have ended up working with horses at all”.
“My knowledge of racing was very limited. Before working in Arthur’s we used go to Punchestown but I was not hugely into it however after galloping Arthur would let us ride in some horses such as Thinking Cap and Have a Barney they were very quiet and I remember loving this and then I started following their results and I had the bug.”
The Apprenticeship –
“Too light for National Hunt, Arthur quietly suggested I do an apprenticeship at the school in Kildare. At 14 I did the paperwork and got offered the place, much to my parents frustration I did not return to school but instead took up the offer and began work in PJ Finn’s”. It was with PJ that Seamie rode my first winner, Annsfield Lady in Dundalk on 10th August 1988 only a month after his 16th birthday. Seamie had the pleasure of working with many great people in PJ’s but one stood out and was to prove most significant of all throughout his career, a certain Aidan O’Brien whose paths first crossed there in 1987.
When PJ stopped training a young Seamie had a decision to make so he phoned a friend. “Aidan had just moved to Jim Bolger’s so he got me in the door at Coolcullen.
Jim Bolger is renowned for his discipline and work ethos. “He is someone I hold in the highest regard, he is a proper man, he thought me as much about life, respect and work as he did about riding horses”. In such a good yard it’s no surprise that winners came more frequently and in 1994 Seamie was a joint winner of the Apprentice Jockey Title sharing the accolade with Daragh O’Donoghue.
A friendship formed in PJ Finn’s but forged in Jim Bolger’s was to come to the fore again when this time Aidan phoned a friend. “In 1996 Aidan had moved to Ballydoyle and he contacted me about working with him, I was living in north Kilkenny but it was hard to turn down the opportunity to work with Aidan again and indeed Coolmore”.
Seamie has been living in Tipperary for the past 15 years and loves it there. Why wouldn’t he when he has won four Derby’s, a Breeders Cup Turf Classic, Irish Champion Stakes, classics and numerous grade ones all on supposed Coolmore’s second string. He adds “maybe if Aidan moves on I’ll go with him!”
Having come close in Epsom’s feature race on a number of occasions, Seamie finally collected the top prize at Epsom courtesy of a smashing ride on Anthony Van Dyke in June 2019. “Two out I knew I was going well, it’s not often you take a pull at that point especially in a Derby”. Turning into the straight it looked like he was going on the outside however Seamie had his homework done as he explains. “I had looked at the previous days racing and saw a number of horses who went up the outside got beat plus I had a feeling the lads in front would stay wide so there was a gap on the inside and I went for it.” Cue huge celebrations?
Most at Coolmore seem so composed even after big wins, quizzed on whether they celebrate Derby wins Seamie adds “having won so many maybe it does not have the same impact in terms of celebrations but I for one certainly celebrated that night”.
The Epsom Derby win was not his first Derby success. After coming close on a few occasions Seamie got the first of three Irish Derby successes at the Curragh in 2007 on Soldier of Fortune (ironically bred by his old boss JS Bolger) before quickly making it two in a row on Frozen Fire 12 months later. The confidence gained a year early was very evident as he landed Frozen Fire late on to win once more. “Frozen Fire was a horse with huge potential if he relaxed and if he went asleep he had an enormous turn of foot, the race went right for him and he ended up winning easily.”
This win was in contrast to his third win on Capri in 2017 “I knew Anna’s horse would stay going and I felt it would take me into the straight, Capri was always prominent throughout and both jockey and horse fought and battled to win hard earned Derby by a neck from Cracksman and Wings of Eagles.”
When asked about Santa Anita and that win in the Breeders Cup Turf, one can imagine his eyes light up. Due to Covid 19 and social distancing there was no meeting up for this interview but his voice illuminates at the mention of this equine superstar. “Highland Reel was a super genuine racehorse”.
Of all Highland Reel’s 26 races, Seamie only rode him 6 times and always finished in the top two. Second on this racetrack start under Seamie, Highland Reel won his maiden by 12 lengths at Gowran Park this time with Joseph on board. From that maiden win 5 races would pass before Seamie mounted him on a racetrack again. This time Aidan gave him the task of going transatlantic “I won on him as a 3 year old at Arlington in the Group 1 Secretariat Stakes he bolted up and won from the front.
In the partnerships next three outings, they came second three times including a runner up spot in the Arc to stablemate Found before they headed to the west coast of the USA for the Breeders Cup. Their last outing together could not have ended better. “I got good break which is very important in the States, I went the exact pace the horse wanted to go, he quickened when I asked, he was on the right leg around the bottom bend so I never had to ask him and he won impressively”. A Breeders Cup Turf winner.
Any particular memories and thoughts from Gowran Park?
“My standout memory from Gowran Park was riding Henrythenavigator to win his maiden there by 7 lengths. I recall clerk of the course Paddy Graffin saying to me “he’s not too bad”. He went on to win the 2,000 Guineas double in 2008. On the flip side to Henrythenavigator I went to ride Wedding Vow in the Victor McCalmont Memorial Fillies Stakes and thought it was a steering job only to end up getting beaten by Wayne Lordon on a filly called Legatissimo. I recall being gutted but it turns out Legatissimo went on a week later to win the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket.”
“Aidan has a lot of respect of Gowran Park he sends plenty good horses there so I love riding there because you could get on a really good one.” Pressed on whether the undulations of Gowran Park helps horses for future races, there is an unequivocal Yes. “If a horse does not handle the undulations at Gowran Park and still wins it means they could have a bit of class”.
Asking Seamie to choose a favourite horse is like asking a child to pick one sweet at a pick n mix stand. However one he mentions is So You Think and it makes him do just that. In 2011 after two Group 1 wins – The Coral Eclipse and the Irish Champion Stakes, the pair headed to Longchamp for the Arc. “For me this the one I want, it’s the best of Europe’s 3 year olds and older, the ultimate challenge, the one that has eluded me to date. In this particular race I followed Frankie on Snow Fairy we ended up 3rd and 4th” he added with a rueful tone. When asked about a favourite horse it’s a significant indication to the ambition and motivation of the man himself that Seamie refers not a big win but rather one that got away.
With all your big race success when did you think you made it?
The hesitation is obvious. Like many high achievers, this term nor this question rest easy with Seamie. “Honestly I wouldn’t be happy to tell people I made it but I’ve made a good living from it and for the past few years I’m very content with the way I’m riding and the way I am around people and maybe that is what keeps me going.
On his role at Ballydoyle
Seamie is very pragmatic in his reply “my job is to ride work and give my opinion when asked and ride races when asked. I don’t get disheartened with my job because I knew I was not going to be first jockey and I’m OK with that.”
Pressed about job offers
“Yes I have been offered jobs many times where I would be first jockey but when I sat back and looked at the pedigrees in Ballydoyle, the main course elsewhere would not be a good as the second choice in Ballydoyle.”
Covid 19 and a typical day
I’m in work for 7 and finish by 12. We get our temperature checked every morning. In terms of social distancing there is a marquee set up for a canteen where we get coffee and there is ample room to separate. Outside of work I work on my son’s beef farm and I really enjoy feeding the cattle and seeing calves being born.
On a Strength & Conditioning programme
There is no real surprise that Seamie is old school when it comes to this, he opts for a pitch fork rather than dumbells. “Everyone does what works for them I really enjoy working hard on the farm and feeding cattle and cutting timber, it gets the heart pumping and keeps me in shape”
What motivates this multiple Group 1 winner?
Just like the 13 year old who began working for Arthur Moore it comes down to the love of horses. “I Iove riding young horses and watching them improve and fulfilling their full ability. This leads us nicely on to his answer to our final question.
A horse for 2020?
Asking someone to pick a horse in Ballydoyle that excites him for the season ahead is almost impossible to answer. However, with his love of young horses, years of experience, insight and knowledge gained Seamie highlights the progeny of No Nay Never; “I’m riding some of his progeny at the moment and I really like their attitude and speed.”
Such humbleness maybe part of the reason why Seamie Heffernan is riding at the peak of his powers as he approaches his 48th birthday. The hunger is there more than ever and continuing to chase big race wins. There is no end in sight unless maybe a certain Triomphe is added to his resume.