A chat with… Willie Ryan

WILLIE RYAN is a UK horse racing legend in my eyes. Why? Well, he produced probably THE best Derby ride in history on Benny The Dip in 1997. And then there was his unstinting loyalty to Sir Henry Cecil during a 20-year association. Willie retired from the saddle in 2004 and I made it my business to catch up with him to find out about life after racing. As he prepares to ride in the Legends race at Doncaster today, Willie talks exclusively about his new career as a jockeys’ agent, Sir Henry, Frankel, Steve Cauthen, his beloved Arsenal, and shares a few memories of the Town Moor classic.


Willie, it’s eight years since you retired from riding. Do you miss it?

No, I don’t miss it. I kind of missed the camaraderie of the jocks’ room for a while but no longer.

What bits do you REALLY not miss?

The travelling. I hated it at the finish.

Do you still ride at all?

I took a complete break from horses for a few years but now I ride out regularly for Peter Chapple-Hyam.

You’re now a jockeys’ agent. Which riders are on your books?

I look after Daragh O’Donohoe and Patrick Hills. I did Eddie Ahern’s rides for a while but we went our separate ways about six weeks ago although we remain friends.

Are the hours long? And is there a typical day?

I don’t find the hours long and no there is no typical day really. It’s a matter of going through the entries and making calls but Patrick is a little limited because of his weight, which is a shame as he rides very well and is a smashing lad. Daragh took a bit of time out over the last couple of years but has now renewed his hunger to resume race riding, so I am always looking out for him. The thing I won’t do is send them a long way for just one spare ride that appears to have little chance. It’s a waste of time and proves to be expensive to them. I hated doing that when I was riding, so I find it only fair to do the same for them. Some people would look at that differently but hey ho.

Benny The Dip edges out Silver Patriarch in the 1997 Derby

You won the Derby on Benny The Dip, but what was your best ride in the St Leger?

The best ride I had in the Leger was second on Minds Music in 1995. It was when Classic Cliche won. I thought that Red Route might have won the year I rode him as he was impressive in his trial in the Geoffrey Freer at Newbury, but he could only finish fourth [behind Moonax in 1994].

Do you think Camelot can complete the Triple Crown at Doncaster this weekend?

Yes, I think Camelot will win. Of course, he has to get the trip and there is always some doubt in that respect. However I think he will manage it.

What about your old guvnor Sir Henry’s runner Thomas Chippendale?

I would love to see Henry win it. But I also think Guarantee will run a big race for William Haggas. I was impressed with him at York and although this is a big step up in class I can see him finishing in the first three.

You were number one for Sir Henry for several years after being number two to several great jockeys, including Steve Cauthen. Do you keep in touch with Steve or any of the other jocks?

I do keep in touch with a few of the jocks: Robert Havlin, Frankie Dettori, Patsy Cosgrave, the Hills boys etc. I guess plenty of them really. Although we were all competitors back in the day, I’ve remained mates with most. I don’t speak to Steve as much as I should really. He is a godfather to our daughter and was one of the nicest blokes ever. And I am sure still is.

Steve Cauthen, here riding Derby winner Slip Anchor, is godfather to Ryan’s daughter

You must have grown close to Sir Henry during your 20-plus year association with him. Why do you think he is so good at what he does?

Over the years and morning coffees we would talk about anything and everything. I think his eye for a horse and his patience is why he is so good. He just seems to know when to push on and also when to back off them.

As for Frankel, do you think Ascot is the right finale for him or would you have preferred to see him go for the Arc?

I feel Frankel’s finale was always going to be the Champion at Ascot. Henry would have known which races he was aiming at this time last year. He would have had it all planned in his mind, even down to when his gallops would be and everything that goes with it. Because of his treatment Henry is undergoing, I imagine it would have been very difficult for him to travel to Paris, so I think it is absolutely right and proper for Frankel to go to Ascot.

Away from racing, I believe you’re a big Arsenal fan. How are they going to do this season?

Every year I feel the Arsenal will win all four major trophies. OK, it’s been a while, but this is our year.

And (speaking as an Evertonian) was Mikel Arteta worth the £10million?

Mikel Arteta is worth every penny of the £10million we paid for him. Superb player and Arsene will make him better than ever. I was impressed with how he played against Liverpool last time as he slotted nicely into Alex Song’s old position as a defensive midfielder.

How do you relax away from the job?

I tend to watch a lot of football and sport. I’m normally fairly relaxed anyway. Just don’t wind me up.

And which bands are on your iPod?

I don’t own an iPod thingy. If I did I would be listening to the likes of Matchbox 20, Stiff Little Fingers and The Jam. A lot of old stuff and bits of the current.

Apart from the Derby, what victory gave you the greatest pleasure and why?

I’m not sure really, I was lucky enough to ride loads of winners and enjoyed them all. Of course, Benny`s Derby will always be the stand out. Relive Benny The Dip’s dramatic victory by clicking here

Do you have any ambitions within racing? What about training?

I have no real ambitions within racing. I would have trained but the economics of setting up and everything was just too much. Financially it would have been too risky for me. I love the industry and the people involved, and have made lifelong friends within it. But if the right opportunity comes along, then …who knows?

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