‘For the last 30 years, I have a cup of tea and a Twix for breakfast’
Name: Niall McCullagh
Sport: Horse racing
What was your childhood ambition? For the word go, I always wanted to be a jockey. I was small and light. I was never going to be a professional basketball player.
Growing up, who was your sporting hero? Lester Piggott – the most famous jockey in the world.
Do you have a mentor? John Oxx and Johnny Murtagh have been brilliant mentors throughout my career.
What or where is your happy place? Being at home with my family.
What sparked your love of racing? Going racing with my dad as a child, especially if I got off school to go! (He was trainer Michael McCullagh)
What horse put you on the map? Rose of Carlow – my first winner in Navan on 21 May 1986. It was my fifth ride overall and two weeks before I was due to sit my Leaving Cert which really cemented my belief that I wanted to be a jockey. I had been thinking of a career as a schoolteacher. It was a special winner for me because my dad trained the horse.
Who is your favourite horse? Royal Diamond – my Irish Classic winner. We won the 2012 the Irish St Leger together for Tommy Carmody.
What was it like to ride in your first race? My first ride was on a horse called The Mighty Midge trained by Denny Cordell Lavarack. The horse’s name was appropriate for me as I was only about five stone. It was a mixture of excitement and nerves and the race was over before I knew it. It was an unbelievable buzz and I wanted to do it again straight away.
How long does it take to learn race-riding tactics? I am 51 years old and I’m still learning after 30 years riding. Experience makes you more tactical and you get to know the racecourses and how to ride them, but you are always learning.
Describe the feeling of riding your first winner? Absolute joy! I still get the same feeling from riding winners to this day
What is your most memorable racing moment? Winning the Irish St Leger – an Irish Classic. It doesn’t get much better than that. It is quickly followed by Saddler’s Rock in the 2011 Doncaster Cup for John Oxx.
What is your favourite racecourse in Ireland? The Curragh – it is the best racecourse in the world.
If you weren’t a jockey what would you be? A geography teacher.
If you could ride one horse, what would it be? In the present, I would love to ride Pinatubo. In the past, it would have to be Shergar.
How do you cope with pressure? I tell myself I cope well! I can be a bit tetchy on the morning of racing if I have a good ride in a good race.
What mental preparation do you do for the big days? Same as any other day. You always do your homework and try to work out who your dangers are, where you are drawn, where the pace might come from. I do the same preparation for small days and the big days – they are all important to me.
How do you stay motivated? I am very lucky because I absolutely love what I do so it is easy to stay motivated.
How do you deal with dips in form? I keep telling myself it is the horse and not me!
Outside of racing, what is your favourite sporting moment? My daughter winning the under-12 county final for Milltown. They were the complete underdogs and were playing Maynooth and she scored a goal. I was a very proud daddy that day!
Can you give us a Netflix/film recommendation? My favourite film is Blood Diamond and I loved Ozark on Netflix.
What is your guilty pleasure? Chocolate for breakfast. For the last 30 years, I have a cup of tea and a Twix for breakfast!
Desert island discs – name your favourite three songs? Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light, Aslan’s Crazy World and The Stunning’s Brewing up a Storm.
What person do you admire the most and why? My Dad! He is a self-made man who ran a jewellery shop business in Bagenalstown while also training horses and he gave me my love of racing
Favourite dinner? Steak and chips.
Where is your favourite place to go on holidays? Lanzarote.
What ambitions do you still have? To stay healthy and to ride as many winners as I can.
What is the hidden gem of Kildare and Carlow?
I am a proud Carlow man and Kildare is very close to my heart as I have lived in the county for 30 years. The hidden gem of Kildare is to spend a morning at the Irish National Stud. The river Barrow is the beautiful gem of Carlow.
When you think of your home what immediately springs to mind? My family.
How are you occupying your time during the Covid-19 restrictions? I am still riding out every morning and doing loads and loads of gardening in the afternoon.
If you had one piece of advice for everyone during these worrying times, what would it be? Wash your hands.
If you were to go back to when you were 20 years old and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be? Get on the property ladder as soon as you can.
Favourite saying/quote? What is for you won’t go by you.