Niall 'Slippers' Madden: on living the dream

Kildare's Niall Madden on conversation

Tommy Callaghan

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Tommy Callaghan

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editor@kildarepost.com

Kildare jockey Niall 'Slippers' Madden: his career, his national win, and much more besides

Niall 'Slippers' Madden

His dad, Niall 'Boots' Madden rode no less than seven winners in Cheltenham as well as being a former amateur champion jockey who remains a very accomplished trainer today.
His mam, Patricia, comes from rich racing stock as in the Taaffe family.
His grand-dad, a much respected former champion jockey, 1956 and '57, who also rode the winner of the Irish Grand National in 1960, Toss Taaffe; also a highly rated and successful trainer.
His uncle no less a man that Pat Taaffe of Arkle fame, and much more besides.
His younger brother, Tom, aka 'Socks' has just joined the full jockey professional ranks after losing his claim not long ago and is now very much part of Jessica Harrington's successful Yard.
His sister, Sarah Ann, is a major cog in Irish Point to Point Services (P2P), does all the computer side of entries, amongst many other duties.
So a family steeped in racing down the years.
And with that sort of purple breeding Niall 'Slippers' Madden was never really going to do anything else but being heavily involved in the racing game.
And he has certainly lived up to that expectation.
Niall went to Naas CBS and like most lads of his time was immersed in sport.
“Cross country running, played a bit of Gaelic; played lots of sports and when I went to secondary school, played soccer for Rathcoole Boys until I was 14 or 15 but decision time was just around the corner.
“It was either go to play soccer or go to a hunter trial, or show jumping or whatever, so I had to call it then, but there was always only going to be one winner.”
So what stage did you start riding seriously?
“I got my amateur licence when I was 16, that was a Thursday and I had my first ride the following Sunday, in Punchestown, for my father, in a bumper.”
Were you waiting long for your first winner?
“I had my first winner, think it was my 18 or 19 ride, in Wexford, a horse by the name of Teknash, it was also my second winner, which was at the Galway Festival.”
Getting a winner so early in your career at a prestigious meeting such as the Galway Festival must have been a huge boost.
“It was brilliant to get a winner in Galway so early in my career, but that is the thing about Galway, year after year there always seems to be a young lad who rides a winner there that progresses; maybe more on the flat, but it's a great stage; it's on RTÉ, a great platform for anyone to get going.”
Niall rode eleven winners in his first season, while still at school remember.
And how did that go down with the school authorities, did it cause problems.
“Not really” he laughs, “it didn't bother me but I always caught up with what I missed and while I am not saying I was great at school I did what I had to do to get by and if I missed a couple of classes I always found out what went on and I caught up that way.”
Like all young lads and girls interested in getting involved with horses, Niall worked in various stables during summer holidays.
“I did that for a couple of years and I think the summer I got my licence I went to Noel Meade and simply fell in love with the place and was lucky enough to ride a winner, progressed from there and when the summer was over went back to school in Naas.
“When I did my Leaving Cert went straight back up to the Meade Yard and became full time from there on.”
Hectic times?
“Yes” was the quick reply, adding “but when you are young, not that you don't get tired, but you are living on the buzz; living the dream and while mam and dad wanted me to finish school I really wanted to complete my schooling also and I am delighted I did my Leaving, it is nice to have something to fall back on if need be.”
So what other young jockeys were on the scene around that time and who did you knock around with.
Mark Walsh was breaking into it at that time; myself and Mark used to go pony racing, along with Paddy Flood, the three of us use to go ponying together.
Niall Madden rode the winner of the Aintree Grand National in 2006 and to put that in context even the great AP McCoy struggled for years before eventually riding his first (and only) Aintree National winner on Don't Push It, in 2010.
But apart from the big win in '06 is there any other particular winner(s) that stand out for you?
“You really never forget your first winner, while winning in Galway so early on was something special, but without putting my finger on any particular winner, I suppose being crowned champion amateur was a really big thing; it was great, especially as I had been runner-up the year before and then came out the following year (2004/05) and I hosed up with 44 or 45 winners; the nearest to me was something like 20 plus; that year I also won the Thyestes on Numbersixvalverde, as an amateur.
“Thyestes Day is something very special. “I love that day in Gowran; it's just a great day out; it's like Punchestown used to be; all the schools close; a day out; it's like a Bank Holiday down Gowran and Kilkenny way.”
So having been crowned amateur champion jockey, the next step was the decision when, and indeed if, he would turn professional, but it did not take Niall too long to cross over that line.
“Having been crowned champion amateur at the end of Punchestown 2005, I stayed amateur for a month or so, while still at Noel's (Meade) Yard; then Paul Carberry broke his collar bone and Noel said to me 'I think it's time for you to turn (professional) now' and I just said grand.”
That summer I was lucky enough to win the Galway Hurdle which really was a great start.
So apart from the obvious does much change for a jockey when he/she moves from the amateur ranks into the fully paid professional side of the game?
Funny as it may seen, replied Niall, as far as I was concerned, there was no great massive difference.
“I was still going racing every day; as an amateur I was riding over jumps for various different people as well as riding in bumpers so I suppose the big difference was there were more rides coming in; better chance of getting more rides as a professional; but my lifestyle did not change very much.
“My weight was always very good; I did not have to watch my weight any differently; was always able to do the weights; so no real lifestyle change apart of course from being busier which was brilliant.”
Niall will always be associated with Martin Brassil and the Aintree Grand National winner Numbersixvalvardie of 2006, he had won The Thyestes on him (2005) which was big feather in the Naas man's cap.
“I had ridden him in two chases, before the Thyestes and I won the two of them; my first time was riding him in Navan, he was actually a spare ride on the day; no one around to do the weight, I think he had just 9-11, I was living in Navan, just pure luck; close to the track and dad knew Martin (Brassil) so he rang him to see if I was around and available to take the ride and that was it.”
Spare rides of course are very much part and parcel of every jockey's life.
“Absolutely, of course, but not just spare rides even second choice rides; it happens and really an awful lot of it is simply right place right time but it was great to throw the leg up on him, he won that day and I won another chase on him and then The Thyestes.
“Ruby (Walsh) rode him in the Irish Grand National (2005) beating his dad Ted's Jack High by three-parts of a length.”
The Thyestes is a great pointer for the Grand National, both Irish and Aintree?
Yes a lot of horses have won in Gowran and then went on to win in Aintree. Hedgehunter another that springs to mind but even if a horse did not win in Gowran, nevertheless it is a great pointer, three miles, good test of jumping, big fences but very fair fences, adds Slippers.
So with Ruby having ridden him to success in the Irish National how did the ride in Aintree come about.
“I rode him in Leopards-
town in the Paddy Power Chase at Christmas, was brought down when still going ok, half way down the back a horse fell in front of me and I had nowhere to go; no word about Grand National, if he was going for it; if I was to ride it; no word at that stage at all.
“Then he (Numbersixvalverde) ran in a hurdle race in Naas, I rode him in that; finished fifth or sixth and when we came back into the parade ring Martin (Brassil) and the owner, Bernard (Carroll) asked would I like to ride him in Aintree.
“As a young fella I was just over the moon; if he had asked me to ride a donkey the same day I would have and I don't mean that in a bad way but every jump jockey wants to ride (and win) the Grand National.”
Niall had rode at Aintree on three previous occasions as an amateur, but never got over the first fence.
But winning the National was such a marvellous feeling said Slippers, adding, when you consider that AP (McCoy) had not won a National at that stage; definitely a day I will never forget for the rest of my life.
“It was Timmy Murphy who said to me after the race 'you won't realise what you have done for a couple of years' and I really did not know what he meant at that time but after a few of years I knew what he meant; but I would have loved to have ridden in it a few times before I actually won it.
“Don't get me wrong I'm delighted to have won it and even more privileged to have won it on my first ride but it would have been even sweeter to have rode in it a couple of times, just to really realise how difficult it is to win it.”
That weekend was a memorable weekend for Slippers, apart from the obvious. It began for him riding a winner on Friday in Ireland; won the Grand National on the Saturday; had a winner in Tramore on the Sunday and another one in Tramore on the Monday.
Celebrations in Bill McCormack's (Naas) on the Sunday (I just happened to be there) was a mighty occasion.
Great night, said Niall, “that's the local where myself, dad and mam and my sister (Sarah Ann) would have gone to down the years; go into McCormack's have a few drinks, I felt that was the place to go to celebrate.”
Niall stayed with Noel (Meade) for another year or so. “No falling out or any-
thing but other opportunities arrived and I took them on; I rode a couple of years for Mouse Morris, more or less went free-
lancing; rode a good few for JP (McManus) and still do.”
Slippers is presently based with his dad in the mornings and then on to the Curragh for Frank (Berry) for JP McManus for a couple of days.
Niall's fiancée, Áine O'Connor, is an amateur jockey and works in RACE in Kildare town.
So everything is busy, little rest?
“It's a job but it's a hobby, it's sport, it's all the one, it's a dream and I am just delight-
ed to be living my dream as a job.”
Any time for other sport.
“Golf, the odd bit” quickly adding “ but not as much as I would like (none of course at the minute) but I really enjoy golf, I would love to be good at it but it is one of those games you have to be playing three or four times a week to be really good.”
You want to be playing a fair few times a week I remind him, especially if you are playing with the likes of Mick Spencer (good friend).
“You certainly would” laughs Slippers.
As for the coronavirus that has stopped all racing now, Niall Madden pulls no punches.
“It's a massive blow but this coronavirus is bigger than racing; this is a world wide problem, racing is just a small cog on what's going on here; racing is second to everything that is going on now; we need to get this sorted before we get back racing.”
Fairyhouse gone, Punchestown on the horizon.
“Every day is going to tell a story, we won't know until we are closer to that day (Punchestown) everything could be cooling down a week before Punchestown then all of a sudden it could take off again; one of those things; we simply don't know but we will come through it, eventually, regardless of how long it all takes.”