By Pat Costello
IT ended in Punchestown on New Year’s Eve where it all began some twenty years previously and almost 400 winners later. After riding Rich Belief at the Kildare track Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden announced his retirement as a jockey.
There were some notable winners in that 20-year career including a Galway Hurdle, Christmas Hurdle, Galmoy Hurdle and of course the 2006 Aintree Grand National.
When he spoke to the Kildare Nationalist this week, we asked the Kildare man why he had decided to retire at such a young age. “It was just a day short of 20 years with my licence. I’m 35 years of age and I felt the time was right to retire and I feel I’m young enough to start a career in something else and be as successful in it no matter what it is, he explained.
“My first ride was in Punchestown in 2001 and I’d been thinking about for it maybe for the last couple of months and I just said to myself maybe it would be nice to go in Punchestown as that’s where I started. It would have been lovely to go out on a winner and I was lucky enough to have one in Limerick two days before that.”
“I thought about doing it there and then (in Limerick) but I said I’d stick to my guns and go out in Punchestown. I am delighted to go out on my own terms, injury free. It was disappointing I couldn’t have Mam and Dad there and Aine (O’Connor, fiancée, Recruitment Officer with RACE and a jockey in her own right whom we featured on these pages in November) and family there to celebrate with on the day but we’ll just put it on the long finger and hopefully when we get over all of this, we’ll have a bit of a party,” ‘Slippers’ promised.
Madden’s final winner came on the JP McManus owned, The Long Mile and he was quick to extend his condolences to JP’s son, John and the McManus family on the death of John’s wife two days after the Limerick race.
‘Slippers’ is confident about his future after retirement. “There are a few paths I’d like to go down, a few paths I’d like to pursue. There were a few things I couldn’t do while I was a jockey or had a jockey’s licence and now I can go down that line. While nothing is set in stone as of yet, I’m always open to all job offers and see where it takes me but I’m pursuing a few things there and hopefully they come up with what I want to do,” the Kildare jockey added.
‘Boots’, ‘Slippers’ and ‘Socks’
It was always ordained that the young Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden would become a jockey or at least be involved in the racing industry through his father, Niall ‘Boots’ Madden and the Taaffe family on his mother, Patricia’s, side but first of all let’s find out where the name ‘Slippers’ came from.
According to Niall Madden it all started with his father, also known as Niall.
“When my Dad was 16/17, or at least this is the story I’ve been told, he was working for Edward O’Grady. Every mother at the time when you’re youngish, would get you a pair of boots or shoes that were maybe a little big for you to give a bit of room for you to grow into them. Maybe his mother went overboard with the boots she got so when Dad was walking the heel would drop so they’d drag along the ground. The lads in the Yard used to be able to hear him before they could see him, so they’d say here comes ‘Boots’ and it stuck with him. Then I got the nickname ‘Slippers’ and my little brother got the name “Socks”.
“It was weird, and not that I was being ignorant or arrogant but no one called me Niall so if Niall was shouted out, I wouldn’t turn around. No one called me Niall as I was always ‘Slippers’ and that was the end of it. My family always called me Niall but anything to do outside family was ‘Slippers’; it just stuck and I didn’t mind it at all,” he laughs.
Funnily enough ‘Slippers’ doesn’t remember his Dad racing. “Dad finished in about ‘89 and I was born in ‘85 so I don’t remember him racing at all. The only thing I remember about Dad and being a jockey, we had a sauna in the house at home and I remember bringing him in glasses of water to throw on the stones,” he recalls.
The young ‘Slippers’ tried many sports before settling on racing. “I rode ponies from a very young age and I played an awful lot of sports when I was younger, it wasn’t just horse racing. I played a good bit of soccer and gaelic in school, did an awful lot of running as well. I really enjoyed all that but when I got to a certain age then and when things got a bit more serious, I had to drop a few things. Racing was the only one I didn’t drop. It was my hobby, my sport, my job” he explains.
Not surprisingly ‘Boots’ Madden was a big help to his young son when he became a jockey. “Oh, he was a massive help,” ‘Slippers’ recalls. “He was always there when I got my licence. He was always there for advice when I was showing or jumping or cross country or on hunter trials with the pony. Dad was always there for help when getting a horse to jump or even getting horses to settle underneath you and being at one with the horse. Dad had been there and done all that and he was always great for advice on horses.”
“Obviously he was watching the racing then as well so he was able to tell me what he thought maybe the best way to ride the horse was or what I should have done different on the horse if things didn’t go according to plan,” the almost 400-time winning jockey enthused.
While ‘Boots’ was a great help and support to his eldest son the father’s record also put pressure on the young jockey. “Probably the most nervous I was about getting my licence was I had, excuse the pun, big boots to fill, following Dad. Everyone that I knew from racing would say “your father was a great jockey; your father was a brilliant jockey.” That kinda came with a bit of pressure too. I’m his son and he was there to coach me but I wanted to do him proud but I wanted to do myself proud as well,” ‘Slippers’ remembers.
Well both ‘Boots’ and ‘Slippers’ could not have been prouder, I’m sure, when the young jockey won the Grand National on Numbersixvalverde in 2006 at the first attempt and for the first time over fences. Historic stuff!
Recalling the race ‘Slippers’ said, “It’s a day I will never forget. Growing up as a National Hunt enthusiast and wanting to be a National Hunt jockey it’s the race everybody wants to win. It might be easy to say it but if someone asked me now would I like to win a Gold Cup or a Grand National I’d still say Grand National.”
“It’s the race known more worldwide. Even those that don’t follow racing would follow the Grand National. Lads that I went to school with who wouldn’t follow horse racing would watch the Grand National. Between sweepstakes in houses or in schools it’s the race that everybody watches. Like they say that the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation well to me the Grand National is the race that stops it for any National Hunt fan or any racing fan in Europe anyhow,” Madden muses.
Speaking of the Martin Brassil trained Grand National winner, Numbersixvalverde ‘Slippers’ recalls that while Ruby Walsh won the Irish Grand National on him, it was he who had the first success on him. “I won a Thyestes on him as an amateur and I got a spare ride on him in Navan. He was one of those horses that jumped really well and stayed really well. He had the right profile to go for an English National,” he said.
Having ridden in the Grand National on a number of occasions “Boots” Madden was a great support to his son on Grand National Day. “Yeah, I think the best he finished was 5th I think on Attitude Adjuster but he was great to me on the day. We walked the track that morning and he filled me with confidence. Obviously, I was nervous. It was my first ride over fences, my first ride in the Grand National but Dad just told me to enjoy it and that I had a great chance.”
What’s it like in the Weigh Room on Grand National Day we wondered?
“The day went slow enough to be honest with you as it was my only ride of the day. It was like waiting around for a pot to boil,” he remembers. But don’t get me wrong it’s still the Grand National; the big parade beforehand, the massive crowd, lots of interviews, race cards being signed, bits and pieces for memorabilia. I was nervous but once I got down to the start of the race it was just like any other race then.”
Crossing the line and coming back into the ring are also memories that will live with ‘Slippers’ Madden. “It’s hard to describe. The only thing I will say was through the race I was so concentrating on what was happening and what I was doing I never heard anything till I went by the line and I stood up in the stirrups and punched the air and all of a sudden, I could hear this massive wave of sound of the crowd. It was always there but I just never heard it. Maybe I was blocking it out before that but by God did I hear it when I went over the line,” he laughs.
“Back in the ring of course there were lots of Irish and everyone delighted for you and delighted for an Irish winner and Dad was there as well. An awful lot of people that I mightn’t know but Dad would know would be delighted for me and delighted for Dad as well. It was brilliant, it was a day that I’ll never forget and that will stick with me for a long, long time,” the Grand National winner added.
Winners, Horses, Trainers and Jockeys
“I had massive stand out winners and I rode an awful lot of good horses and great winners. I rode two Grade 1’s and 10 or 11 Grade 2 winners and good handicaps. The Grand National is a handicap but a very prestigious handicap and I won plenty of those big handicaps as well,” Madden recalls about his almost twenty-year career.
Did he have a favourite horse we asked the now retired jockey? “Ah sure any horse you won a few races on was always a favourite,” he laughs. “I’ll never forget my first winner, Teknash. He was a favourite for a long time and then you have Shake the Bucket, Numbersixvalverde, Nickname and Jazz Messenger; horses you won a few races on that you never forget. More Rainbows that won a Galway Hurdle for me too.”
“Horses that are owned I always considered horse favourites. They meant something not only to me but to a few people. Family horses like Teknash and Shake the Bucket and Ursumman. It was always great to ride winners but it was always that little bit sweeter riding winners for a family,” he added.
‘Slippers’ rode for many great trainers and won for many of them too so our question if he had a favourite again brought laughter from the retired jockey. “Trainers that you got on with and you rode winners for were always great but I had great time for an awful lot of trainers and got on well with nearly every trainer I rode for. Of course, there were always disagreements but when you’re in sport there are always going to be disagreements. You just have to cope with it and get on with it as not everything went according to plan.”
“Noel Meade was probably my boss for the longest time. I rode an awful lot of winners for him, maybe close to 100 winners. I enjoyed working for him, enjoyed riding horses for him. He was always very simple to ride for. When you were riding out you knew the horses; Noel didn’t tie you down to instructions.”
As Lester Piggott said “good jockeys don’t need instructions, bad jockeys can’t carry them out so better off not to give any,” he laughs. “It’s so true. If you know the horse there’s no point in trying to tie you down to instructions when things could change out on the racecourse and as a jockey, you’re employed to make those decisions out there. Of course, you talk about what way you should ride in a race but things can change,” he adds.
Were there jockeys that the young Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden looked up to or used as role models in his 20-year career? “Dad was obviously a role model all through my life and I was always a fan of Paul Carberry. I was lucky enough to go work for him up in Noel Meade’s Yard. I thought he was just gifted, a real horse man. Watching Paul when I was younger, I never thought he was actually doing anything on a horse but the more I got to know Paul and to know the way he rode I could see that he actually does an awful lot of stuff that you don’t see like squeezing with his legs, little movements with his hands.”
“Obviously Ruby was class. I was a couple of years younger than Ruby but when I started off hunting and Ruby was doing a bit of hunting, he was always great for advice. Even to this day if you had any problem or needed to run something by someone then Ruby was always great for it and he’ll always be a good friend as well,” Madden enthuses.
With characters like Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty and ‘Slippers’ himself now retired will the Weigh Room be all the poorer for that? “Ah of course there will always be characters in the Weigh Room. It’s a great spot to be in. There is an awful lot of talent coming through. There’s always going to be lads retiring, always going to new heads coming through, that’s the way of life. It’s like soccer players, some lads move on to different clubs but someone else comes through. It’s just a big wheel and it keeps on turning.”
“Like everything young jockeys just need to be patient, work hard, keep the head down and listen to all advice and criticism. No one is trying to put you the wrong way. Of course, you need a bit of luck but everybody needs a bit of luck in every way of life but if you put in the hard work the cream will always rise to the top,” Madden advises.
Finally, then was there relief about retiring now? “Ah relief maybe that I got out and I was able to walk away from it. No, it wasn’t a relief. They were the best days of my life, 20 years going racing, making a living out of it. It’s been a joy and I made an awful lot of friends, lifelong friends, best friends from the start, I’m glad that I was able to be successful and make a living out of it.”
“Nothing has changed, I just haven’t been going racing but I have still been going to work every day and riding out every day. I just come home in the afternoons now and watch racing rather than go racing,” he concludes.
Well while we wish Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden every good wish for his retirement we’ll all be watching with keen interest to the next phase of that illustrious career.