Sean Houlihan is an amateur jockey based with Philip Hobbs at Sandhill stables in the Southwest of England. A native of Dungarvan in Waterford, 21 year old Sean is beginning to make a name for himself in racing across the Irish Sea. In his first Tote Blog Sean tells us of his family connections with some big names in Irish racing, his career in England so far, what it’s like to work with current champion jockey Richard Johnson and what the future holds.
This will be my fourth year in England and I’ve been based in Somerset with Philip Hobbs since I came over. I came over about a fortnight after finishing my leaving cert exams and I’ve been based with Mr. Hobbs from day one.
My interest in horses and racing started when I was very young, there’s a great family connection in racing so my interest grew naturally. On my mum’s side my uncle Pat Phelan trains horses in England and my other uncles have both owned horses and have worked in Coolmore. I rode a winner in Punchestown for my uncle Maurice who trains horses in Athy, Co. Kildare. I’m from Dungarvan in Waterford and my neighbours are David and John Kiely who are both trainers and both living alongside my family home. Dungarvan is a great place, steeped in racing with so many trainers and jockeys from around the area. Dungarvan is big in the Point to Point scene so I was never too far from racing growing up. I’m also first cousins with Emmett Mullins who has gone from riding to training all before he’s 30! He had a great career in the saddle and is now flying as a trainer.
Along with my brothers, Conor and Niall, I was big into pony riding when I was younger and with the family connections I think my parents were always keen on us to ride horses. We were never pushed into it but they just wanted to keep us occupied and probably keep us out of trouble when we were younger! I got the bug from riding ponies and wanted to progress into riding racehorses – it really took off for me when I was 12 or 13 years old, I was getting too big for the ponies and I wanted to get on bigger and quicker animals so it was a natural progression. I was always keen to be a jockey but my parents wanted me to do my leaving cert exams and go on to college but that never panned out.
Joining Philip Hobbs’ Yard
I came out early from my English exam in my Leaving Cert and went home and read the paper. I saw an ad for stable staff work in Philip Hobbs’ yard in England and through Pat Breen, a local trainer I was riding out for, contact was made with Mr. Hobbs. He got in touch with the yard and within a few hours of seeing the ad in the paper I had the job. Two weeks after my 18th birthday I moved over and I’ve been here since, that was July ‘13. Initially I came over with a stable job, I wasn’t brought over as a jockey. I was told going over that there was no guarantee of being able to work as a jockey but I was told that if I put my head down, rode well and worked hard then the chances would come – that was great as I was able to get stuck in and work extra hard to get a chance. I was here a few months and the opportunity to get a Point to Point licence came up so I applied and luckily there were lots of nice pointers to ride every week. I had a good few rides but no winners. At that stage it wasn’t about riding winners, it was about working hard, getting experience and getting my name out there for people to notice. I was young and green and didn’t know how things really worked yet so I was just focused on working hard and getting used to everything in British racing.
Second Season & First Winners
In my second season I was a lot more confident and applied for an amateur license to ride under rules. Things really took off for me and I was able to ride the pointers as well as ride under rules. I rode pointers every weekend from the start of the season until the end and I had around 10 rides on the track. I had one winner in a hunters chase in Newton Abbott on a horse called Dancing Olga. After a good season, things kind of dried up for me a small bit. I wasn’t riding many and I wasn’t riding with much confidence. Things were quiet for me over the summer and in October ‘15 I went over to Punchestown to ride a horse called Petuna, trained by my uncle Maurice, that won and when I went back to England things took off again for me. I started to get more rides on the track and they were coming more frequently than before. I ended the year with 9 winners in total, between pointers and on the track.
At the end of ’15 I had a tough decision to make – to stay amateur for another season or turn conditional for Mr. Hobbs. I spoke with Mr. Hobbs, Richard Johnson and my agent Dave Roberts who advised me to stay amateur for another year to get more experience and things will eventually happen for me. It was great to have people with so much experience advising me and I definitely made the right decision.
I had a setback in October ’16 when I broke my collarbone and I was out for a while. Things slowed down a bit then as it took me a while to get back into the swing of things but I got back fit and rode a winner in an amateur race called Beau de Brizais for Mr. Hobbs in December ’16. That was great to be able to repay my boss with a winner. Since I’ve come back I’ve been going well, riding plenty horses for different people and making lots of contacts in the process. I’ve been lucky to ride lots of horses for other trainers and owners and it’s all great experience for me. My agent Dave Roberts has been great to me, he was Tony McCoy’s agent and he looks after lots of other current jockeys so having someone like him in my corner is great as he’s always looking for the best opportunities for me. He’s a great help to have and he knows horses better than anyone, if a decision needs to be made about a horse then Dave is the man to ask.
With so much competition for rides in Mr. Hobbs’ yard it’s important to keep working hard and taking your opportunities when they come around. When I broke my collarbone I was out of action for a while and I was itching to get back in to things as quickly as possible. Luckily, I got back in to the action quickly and on my first ride back I rode a winner in a Point to Point. Having winners and riding well is hugely important for a young jockey still trying to establish a name in racing, thankfully I’ve been doing well and picking up lots of rides since I came back from the injury. Confidence is everything and not only confidence in yourself but it’s important for a trainer or an owner to be confident in you as well, it’s important for them to know that as a jockey you can do your best for them and for the horse.
The yard has a great mix of lads, Richard Johnson is number one jockey and Tom O’ Brien is number two. It’s great to have someone as experienced as Richard around and he is such a great help to everyone. Having the champion jockey around to give advice is brilliant and he is so approachable it’s brilliant as I’m always learning from him. Tom is a great help as well and he’s riding out of his skin this season riding plenty winners for other trainers as well as Mr. Hobbs. Richard is the current champion jockey and Tom was the leading conditional a few years ago so having both of them around the yard is great. With so much experience behind him, Richard is a fantastic person to look for advice on a particular horse or even racecourse. A two minute crash course from Richard is invaluable as it is so easy to learn from him. Richard is an out and out gentleman and all round nice fella. He always has time for everyone in the yard, having him around is a huge help and he has played a big part in my progression since I’ve arrived in the yard.
As I said there’s a great mix of lads in the yard and there’s quite a few Irish lads here which makes things easier as I don’t miss home as much with all of them around. Ciaran Gethings, Micheal Nolan and Conor Smith, who I live with, are all based with Mr. Hobbs so it’s great to have them here. We’re all the best of friends and we’d all sit down together and watch the GAA matches during the summer. Even though we’re all great friends, when we’re on the track we all want to finish first so the friendships are left to one side for a while!
Looking To The Future
Looking to the future, the obvious aim is to turn conditional and move another step closer to turning professional. At the moment, things are going well for me as an amateur. I have my rides on the track but I also have my rides every weekend at the Point to Point tracks. For now I’m happy to just keep developing and learning while I ride for many different owners and trainers and make as many contacts as possible. I have no plans to come home to Ireland for now, I’ve spent a long time building a career and a life off the track for myself so I’ll keep working hard and see how things progress. There are lots more opportunities for me in England than at home in Ireland. The number of meetings, horses and trainers is far greater here in England but there’s also more jockeys meaning it’s a bit more difficult to make the breakthrough as a young rider but the opportunities are there if you work hard. I’ll continue to work hard and hopefully take my chances when they come around, the opportunities will come and its just up to me to take them. I’m in the best place possible; the yard is one of the best in England with the current champion jockey here every day it’s brilliant to be involved. The yard is renowned for giving opportunities to young riders and looking at the jockeys that have come through here gives me great confidence. Tom O’ Brien, Paddy Brennan, James Best, Rhys Flint and Micheal Nolan are just some of the jockeys that started out with Mr. Hobbs and have all gone on to great things with Paddy winning the Gold Cup in 2010 on Imperial Commander. Seeing those lads achieving great things and knowing they started here give me great confidence going forward. I started at the bottom here with Mr. Hobbs but I’ve come a long way since the beginning and it’s been through hard work and getting the opportunities from my boss that have helped me progress.
Mr. Hobbs’ allows Point to Point trainers to come and use the gallops here so I have the chance to ride out for several different people on certain days which is great as it means I don’t have to travel too far for opportunities. It’s fantastic to have that facility on my doorstep and as it allows me to ride different types of horses which means I can keep learning and developing. We’re encouraged to keep learning and the yard is a brilliant environment to be involved in. We are all treated with so much respect here and we all get our chances so it’s up to the individual. I’m confident in myself and it’s just a case of keep learning, keep improving and the success will come.