Mick Goss
The TDN got its hands on a gem when they found Chris McGrath; somehow he ferrets up an angle few ever latch onto, this time on a man who’s spent his life on the “bench”. This story is not only about a stoic professional, it’s about life, about dependability and it’s especially about the value of relationships and shared values. Most importantly, it’s a good read.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO

For once, he could not avoid drawing attention to himself.

For the past 20 years, Seamie Heffernan has been the ultimate team player at Ballydoyle: self-effacing, patient, uncomplaining, a shoulder to the wheel. But his maiden Breeders' Cup success, unmistakably, was the result of an inspired and vivid exhibition of individual flair. By suddenly opening up on Highland Reel (Galileo) in the Turf, Heffernan threw down a challenge to his pursuers that was as dramatic as it ultimately proved decisive. Had the manoeuvre been authored by Frankie Dettori, say, it would have been hailed as the kind of flourish you could expect only from so theatrical a talent. As it was, the moment he broke clear in the backstretch served to reiterate the fact that Heffernan, a cog in the machine from Aidan O'Brien's earliest days at Ballydoyle, is nowadays a piston right at the heart of the engine. It was his 25th Group 1 success for the stable, and a fitting measure of the reciprocal benefits derived from his service there. Heffernan has ridden its outstanding horses not just at home, but often on the track as well - from Galileo himself, in his Derby trial, to such current luminaries as Minding (Galileo and Found (Galileo), Churchill (Galileo) and Caravaggio (Scat Daddy).

In exchange he has been a constant, stabilising presence through the tenure of successive number one jockeys: Michael Kinane, Jamie Spencer, Kieren Fallon, Johnny Murtagh, Ryan Moore, and of course the trainer's own son, Joseph. In that instance, perhaps, Heffernan could not just learn - as he says he has, from each of the other incumbents - but could also act as something of a mentor? His response to this suggestion is to laugh and insist, with trademark humility, that young Joseph is still a useful source of advice even now that he has quit riding. Sure enough, Heffernan does his utmost to deflect the credit for his success at Santa Anita to Highland Reel himself. “He's a very, very good horse in his own right,” he stresses. “So tough, so game, and traveling doesn't take anything out of him. He does have that trait of getting warm, getting himself worked up, but that's just him getting ready to go to work. Everything's down to opinion. In the opinion of some people, I gave him a good ride. But in fairness, the way it panned out, I think the rider of the second horse [Javier Castellano on Flintshire (Dansili)] just steadied a bit because he felt his horse had a better kick than Found. And I think that if he had chased me a bit earlier, Found would have beaten him. As it was, I was very confident making the running on a horse I know stays the trip well, a horse whose strengths I knew so well.”  

As such, horse and rider complement each other splendidly, each so dependable in harnessing attitude to ability. Yet this most solid of careers initially had the flimsiest foundations, the 12-year-old Heffernan wandering with a couple of pals into the yard of National Hunt trainer Arthur Moore looking for summer work. “And I'd say that if he'd turned us away from the gate, that would have been that, so far as racing was concerned,” Heffernan says. “As it was, being the gentleman he is, he took us in. Nowadays it couldn't happen, you'd never be able to have lads as young as we were, creosoting fences and picking stones off the gallops. But we absolutely loved every minute and that was the beginning for me. None of us knew how to put a bridle or a saddle on a horse. But I never looked back.” Bitten by the racing bug, Heffernan proceeded to the apprentice school at The Curragh and was then placed with a local trainer, P.J. Finn. He was still only 15, but already fate was sketching out the path that would lead him to Santa Anita. For there was another young horseman learning the ropes with Finn in 1987, an intense and diligent character who would not forget Heffernan once leaving to join Jim Bolger. “One day Aidan rang me and said Jim was looking for an apprentice, and that he'd told him maybe I might fit the bill,” Heffernan recalls. “So he was looking after me even before I ever worked for him. Jim taught me plenty and I'd have nothing but respect for the man. I like to say that he turned a lot of men into boys, made a lot of boys into men. And when I say he taught me plenty, I mean all round - not just as a horseman. He taught you the values of life.” From the same generation, Bolger's famous academy also produced the record-breaking jump jockey Tony McCoy.

But it was also a notoriously demanding environment and it says everything about both Heffernan's talent and his temperament that he lasted 7 1/2 years with Bolger, in the process becoming joint-champion apprentice. But when O'Brien was hired by John Magnier and his partners at Coolmore - having meanwhile made his name training jumpers - Heffernan followed the doyen of his profession at the time, Christy Roche, to Ballydoyle. “There were loads of very talented people at Jim Bolger's,” he recalls. “But some of them got a bit heavy, and with others it was more a mental thing. If you want to work with horses there are certain things you're going to have to do without. If you think about it, of all the people I would have learned from, Aidan doesn't drink or smoke, Christy Roche doesn't drink or smoke, Jim Bolger doesn't drink or smoke. I'd say a guy who never has a hangover tends to be a good guy to learn from. Anyway, when Aidan went training and offered me a job, it was an offer I couldn't refuse. That was June 1996 and I've been there ever since.” In the meantime Heffernan has become saturated with the Ballydoyle ethic, and fascinated by the quest for genetically repeatable excellence. “Take Highland Reel,” he says. “Of all the brilliant racehorses that go to stud, how many have shown themselves so sound, so tough, so straightforward? He doesn't know when to give up, and if you know a stallion can put those traits into good mares then you've something that's going to come through. It's all about breeding in Coolmore - and that's why they like to see their horses tested on the track. We're lucky that they love to see their horses run, but it also helps them to find out. So if your horse is sound and happy, well then, let's find out what he can do. Because sometimes the best at home can be a bit shy, when they go racing, or it might just not work out on the track for some reason. It's no good having even an awful lot of ability if they're not prepared to stand up on raceday and use it, if they're not prepared to dig deep and get you out of a hole. Because those are the traits you want to bring through to the next generation.” And it is Highland Reel's own sire, of course, who has taken that whole quest into uncharted territory. At the time, it felt a privilege for Heffernan simply to put the stable's Derby colt right for Epsom in the Derrinstown Trial at Leopardstown - just as he did, 12 months later, on High Chaparral (Sadler's Wells). But the honour has grown retrospectively with each echo he has perceived, year by year, of Galileo's personality. “He has put the will into them like nobody else,” Heffernan says. “If they're broken properly, and educated properly, all they want to do is satisfy you - to take the commands of the rider on their back.

With particular stallions, you get to know their stock to the point that you're waiting for it to happen. It won't always be positive, of course. With some of them, you know they're going to make you work harder, that you might have to change things or try things to persuade them. But with Galileo, once you squeeze them, they want to go to the end of the earth for you. They will never give up.” But mark that caveat: if they are broken properly, if they are educated properly. He marvels at the way O'Brien can get on a wavelength with horses, the way he can get inside their minds. And that is a skill all the Ballydoyle riders need to share. “You break a horse, train a horse and prepare a horse to be good,” Heffernan remarks. “But you can also train a horse to be bad. If you're not good at what you're doing, you can lessen even a true champion. If their ability isn't matched by the people around them, then there's less of a chance of it happening. But if you can get a horse to relax and enjoy what he's doing, so that he's confident his rider will put him into the right space, then he'll become confident that he can do what you ask of him. Galileo has put the will into them like nobody else. If they're broken properly, and educated properly, all they want to do is satisfy you.

Continued Heffernan, "So if you need him to fight or grind, then he'll do it so long as you've put him in the right frame of mind. Sometimes you don't need the best horse to win, but the horse that wants to do it more.” The affinity between O'Brien and Galileo's stock, in particular, has become such that Heffernan, at 44, has probably never had it so good. For one thing, with Moore's visits to Ireland generally restricted to bigger days, Heffernan will often be entrusted with the stable's premier domestic assignments. But there will also be countless occasions when the Ballydoyle hegemony is reflected by multiple challengers for the same top prizes. Highland Reel himself was a case in point, of course, O'Brien having allotted Found to Moore. The previous day, moreover, Lancaster Bomber (War Front) had outperformed Moore's mount when second in the Juvenile Turf. “He didn't handle the first bend that well and that caused him to get a bit further back than I wanted,” Heffernan reflects. “So he's run a massive race to make up as much ground as he did. In my opinion, he was as good as the winner but just didn't handle the track quite as well.

Certainly he has a massive engine and there's plenty to look forward to. Listen, 90% of the time we have a fair idea of what's going to happen, but for the other 10% you might find one has just needed a bit more time to come to hand, or the ground might go against the first string, or whatever. They're all prepped the same, they're all bred to be good, and there's always a chance one will turn out to be more of a home worker. Every horse will be fitted to a slot and you hope that sometimes they'll be a bit better than the slot they've been given. It's just great to be getting good rides in good races. ”Yes, there have been times when I've had to bite my tongue, when you're wondering why you aren't riding horses," he added. But things happen in this life for a reason and I've always been so happy to be part of that team - and it's still that way today. Like everything else in life, if you're reliable and honest then, when it doesn't work out, you can call it the way it is. With people standing behind you, you can have the confidence not to be afraid of getting beat - to sit longer to reserve a bit of energy, say, or go to the front and set your own fractions. And if it does go wrong you know you can come in and talk to professional people who understand that the best horse can get beaten.“

After all these years, indeed, Heffernan has developed something akin to a telepathy with the trainer. Win, lose or draw, there is seldom any need for any kind of inquisition. They have developed a shorthand, in look and gesture, that reflects total faith in each other - and total harmony, in the way they try to bring horses forward together. ”It's a pleasure to me that he's stood by me all this time and that he still wants me to be doing the job,“ Heffernan says. ”I'd say he was the exact same man today as the day I met him. But the years pass quick. At the age I am now, you appreciate each big race more. You think to yourself: 'Well, I might only have five or six more chances of winning the Irish Derby, say.' But none of us ever takes anything for granted. Nobody ever wants a pat on the back. You want to get out there and prove yourself again, and again, and again.“