THE Cheltenham Festival is going to feel very weird this year – especially for Barry Geraghty.
One injury-enforced absence aside, the punters pal has been an ever-present at the meeting since 1999.
Last year he rode an astonishing five winners from just 11 rides, with rising stars Epatante and Champ among his haul.
Some fans saw his success as the dawning of a new era of Geraghty dominance – but he knew it was his curtain call.
“I knew that it would be my last Festival, I just wasn’t sure when to announce my retirement,” he said.
“Covid was closing in on everyone and we had no idea things were going to play out the way they did.
“At the time you’re holding out to see if Aintree goes ahead, or Fairyhouse or Punchestown. I didn’t want to risk missing those meetings.
“And having had such a good week at Cheltenham, it ended up posing as many questions as answers.”
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Just days after the Festival, Britain and Ireland went into lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic put life on hold.
Racing was shut down for several months which gave Geraghty, 41, the time he needed to think his decision through.
He continued: “For three weeks afterwards I was thinking, do I really need to retire?
“Lockdown gave me time to digest things, and I realised I couldn’t go out on a better note than five winners at the Festival.
“It’ll be a very different experience watching from the couch this year, but it’s a complete contrast in emotions from when you’re out through injury.
“When I missed 2017 with cracked ribs it was very hard, but I’m in a much more comfortable place, there are no 'what ifs'.”
And far from finding it tough watching his former rides win without him, Geraghty has taken great pleasure in cheering home the green and gold silks of old boss JP McManus.
He is particularly excited about Gold Cup second favourite Champ and reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante, who Geraghty describes as ‘electric’.
“I’d have had some great rides if I was there this week that’s for sure,” he said.
“I actually haven’t been tortured watching my old horses on TV.
“I was blown away by Champ when he ran at Newbury last month.
“If you’d told me after he scraped home in the RSA that he would run so well in a big two-mile race on good ground on his next start, I’d have said you were on drugs!
“Whatever work has been done with him over the last year, he seems to be in great terms with himself – he looks a different horse.
“I was so excited watching him, and likewise Epatante in the Fighting Fifth in December.
“After the race my wife asked me how I found it, but I was absolutely fine.
“I wasn’t kicking myself, because I’ve been very fortunate to have lived many of those big moments already and won those races.
“When Cheltenham comes around, there’s nowhere else you want to be. But you can’t trade the other 51 weeks of the year for four days.”
And he definitely doesn’t miss the day-to-day pressures of being a jockey.
The early starts, the planning of races, the long-distance travelling – and calorie counting.
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“I don’t think I’ve put on too much weight. Mind you, the battery went in my scales just before Christmas and I haven’t bothered replacing it!” he joked.
“I haven’t gone up a size in clothes yet, though maybe that’s because they’ve stretched!
“When you’re riding the clock is ticking in your head all the time. Racing is a manic environment as regards your flights, bookings, entries.
“There is a lot of detail and a lot of analysis that goes on in your own mind every day. So it’s just nice to live at a more relaxed pace.”
When you think of Geraghty at Cheltenham, you think of the glory days during a brilliant career.
The Gold Cup wins on Bob’s Worth and Kicking King, the Champion Chases on Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre.
He exploded out of the traps as a youngster in the early 2000’s and turned down several job offers – including the chance to be stable jockey to Paul Nicholls.
But his decision to remain a freelance backfired as rides and opportunities at the top level dried up and his career was on the verge of fizzling out.
He said: “Not long after Moscow Flyer and Kicking King, my career wasn’t in a good place. The numbers and quality of horses I was riding were well down.
"It wasn't looking particularly good, but it was going into the 2008 Festival that I had a real sliding doors moment.
“I lost the ride on Catch Me, who was fancied for the Champion Hurdle. I was friendly and still am with Paddy Monaghan who was one of the part-owners.
“But one day he just said he didn’t want me to ride the horse, he said I wasn’t lucky for him.
“I had to scratch around and ended up getting on board Punjabi who was a longshot that year, but he ran great and finished third.
“Three weeks later, Mick Fitzgerald got injured at Aintree and not long after that Nicky Henderson made me his stable jockey.
“It was a huge turning point and the rest, as they say, is history.
"Who knows how things could have played out – but I can look back on my career and record at Cheltenham with plenty of pride."
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