PJ McDonald Exclusive Interview

May 17, 2019 News
LAURENS returns to the racecourse for the first time this season on Saturday as she bids to add to her already impressive Group 1 haul by landing the Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes.
The four-year-old is one of the most popular horses in training and the man aboard her for the bulk of her big-race successes has been jockey PJ McDonald, who is again in the saddle at Newbury.
We spoke to McDonald about Laurens, his transformation from jump jockey to leading Flat rider and got a dark horse to follow for the season ahead.
Star filly Laurens returns on Saturday in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes. How is she?
She’s in great form. I’ve ridden her plenty in the last few weeks in preparation for this race and touch wood everything’s gone to plan so far with her. It’s all systems go for the weekend and we can’t wait to get her back and competing in this big races this season.
Laurens has earned herself a significant fan club – why do you think that is?
For one I think it’s because she’s a good horse in the north of England, so perhaps she’s a bit of an underdog almost taking on the big yards from the south and Ireland. Plus, she keeps following up and repeating her impressive performances time after time. The way she wins races too in that she wears her heart on her sleeve grabs at the hearts of the public. She’s probably the nicest-looking horse you’d see in your life too, so there’s a few reasons!
Another reason people are drawn to Laurens is how much her wins seem to mean to everyone involved. Have her wins felt particularly special for you all?
I’ve been in this game long enough to know how hard it is to find horses like Laurens, so if you don’t enjoy them when you’ve got them and you don’t really enjoy the days then they’re gone before you know it. She won’t be around forever and who’s to say her last Group 1 wasn’t her last win, if you see what I mean, so you have to make the most of it and it’s why we’re in the game.
Laurens raced over further than a mile at times last season. Do you think she might go back up in trip at some point this year?
I don’t see any reason why she should have to. She’s won over a mile and a quarter but unless she gets beaten and she shows us the reason she’s getting beaten is because the trip is wrong then I think there are loads of option for her at a mile. I think it’s best to stick at this trip for now.
You have a couple of rides for Mark Johnston at Newbury (Sky Defender 3.00 & Masham Star 5.25). What is it like to be part of the team at Kingsley House Stables?
It’s great to be on the team sheet at Mark’s as it’s a massive operation with a lot of runners and a lot of good horses. I’ve been lucky enough to get in and keep myself in there and hopefully the relationship can last for a good few years, please God. I have a couple of good rides for him at Newbury on Saturday and I think they both have each-way chances in competitive races.
You started your career as a jump jockey. Do you ever reflect on how things have changed?
Sometimes I look back and see how things have changed. The other day I was going to Wetherby to ride a favourite for Michael Bell who was owned by the Queen. My wife said to me the night before ‘did you ever think when you were going around Sedgefield or Hexham that you’d be going off to ride a favourite for the Queen one day?!” Little things like that make you think.
And has it come as any sort of surprise quite how well it has gone for you since the switch to the Flat in 2007?
You always hope you can progress and keep getting better and I’ve been very fortunate that things have gone very well for me. But you can never rest on your laurels in this game, it’s one day at a time and in many ways what happened yesterday is irrelevant as you have to keep going and keep focusing on the future.
John Dance, owner of Laurens, is particularly open with his horses, including filming you in post-race debriefs which he posts online. What is that like to be involved with?
It’s different for me. A lot of people like to keep things in house and under wraps in terms of how their horses are going. But John is very open and wants to bring in as many people who, as he says himself, are not as fortunate as us to enjoy the intimate side of the game. These people are huge racing fans but aren’t able to get that hands on experience we have as riders or owners or trainers. They may see racing in the bookies or on the TV and as such they don’t get the in depth side of things.
So do you think the open approach John Dance has adopted is helping to educate people?
There are so many people who follow racing but don’t actually properly understand the racing side of things. They don’t perhaps appreciate what getting ‘boxed in’ means or not having the pace to get into a handy position early, perhaps. Things happen in races and what John does is let the public see and when I’m getting off a horse they can get the insight I’m able to offer on a horse or on a race to explain what happened and why.
And, finally, you are retained by John Dance. Which of his other horses are you looking forward to for the season ahead?
I do like Mighty Spirit. She’s a filly with a lot of talent and I think she’s the type to run well in good races this season. Make sure you keep on the right side of her.