IT all started with Grey Pip. Brian Hayes can’t remember the exact year he convinced his late father Martin to buy this ‘little pony’ at the annual Rosscarbery Fair Day held every August, but he can recall the short walk home to Ardagh, on the western side of the village. Brian. His dad. And Grey Pip. All three looking at each other, trying to figure out what happens next.
‘We were greenhorns and didn’t have a clue,’ he smiled.
Brian thinks Grey Pip cost his father the princely sum of €120, but it would turn out to be money well spent.
‘We brought her home, put a rope on her, tied her to a stake and she just ate the lawn really. She was my first pony and it all started from there,’ he said.
‘The lads would have always been messing with me – I was the only fella with a pony at home in the back garden!’
By then Brian already had a fascination with horses. He doesn’t know where it came from. Rosscarbery is football country. GAA is king here. It would have been easy to stay on the well-trodden football path, but his passion was horse racing.
‘It’s a very competitive sport. I like that edge to it,’ he explained. ‘I love getting horses ready for the big events and going to the big competitions. I love that competitive side to it.
‘What also attracted me to it is that, with GAA it’s not professional so you’re not going to make a living out of it, but with horses if you were good enough you could make a living off it, so that drew me towards it.’
Brian backed himself to make it – and 15 years, almost to the day, since a photo appeared in The Southern Star of a presentation to the young Ross jockey after he rode his first prize winner in Clonmel in early 2008, he is back on these sport pages again, this time as a Cheltenham Festival winner.
From Grey Pip, he has graduated to Impervious, and together they won the Paddy Power Mares' Chase on the final day of the recent festival. It was Brian’s first Cheltenham winner; a notable addition to his CV. And it’s why he was honoured with the first monthly award of the 2023 West Cork Sports Star Awards at the Celtic Ross Hotel on Sunday night. It was a rare trip back home to Rosscarbery for what felt like Brian’s homecoming, a moment he shared with family and friends who have been on this journey with him.
‘In the back of my mind I always said I’d love to win a race big enough to be able to win a West Cork Sports Star monthly award,’ he said – and now he can tick another box. Mission accomplished.
‘Rosscarbery definitely shaped me, I don’t get back here as much as I’d like to so it’s great to be back now,’ he said. Even the Celtic Ross Hotel holds memories for him; his late mother Margaret worked here, and so did his two sisters, Eimear and Deirdre. He was the only one who didn’t work in the hotel, he quipped. On Sunday night Brian took centre stage at the Celtic Ross, all eyes on him as his heroics at Cheltenham were celebrated and cheered.
His partner, trailblazing jockey Rachael Blackmore, made the trip west with Brian, both coming off the back of winners in Tramore earlier on Sunday having both raced at the Grand National in Aintree a day earlier, but she mingled in the background with familiar faces as this night was all about the local lad who has become a hero and a Cheltenham winner.
‘To have it on the CV is massive. It will always be beside my name. When someone says “jockey Brian Hayes”, it will be followed by “Cheltenham Festival winner” and that’s great to have because I didn’t have that,’ he explained.
‘I have ridden loads of winners but to have a Cheltenham Festival winner is different; it means a lot to have it in the bag. I'm a bit older now as well, I’m 34 and it’s not like I rode a Cheltenham Festival winner when I was 22 so I know how hard it is to get them so I can appreciate it a bit more.’
That experience means he knows how special nights like last Sunday’s are. Childhood friends were there, like Mike Mennis and Daniel Kelly; they had some pitch and putt battles on the local course, walking distance from home. Local trainer Thomas O’Leary, who gave Brian his big break, was there too.
‘A community can raise a person, and that’s definitely the case,’ Brian said. Carlow might be his base now, and his packed racing schedule means trips home to Rosscarbery are not as frequent as they once were, but he’s never forgotten his roots and the importance of family and friends in his rise.
His deserved West Cork Sports Star monthly award was the perfect chance to step outside the intense jockeys’ bubble for a brief moment, relive his Cheltenham win, and reminisce, too, about Grey Pip; that’s where it all started.